Tucked away in the southwestern corner of Tompkins County, Newfield sits high in richly wooded hills overlooking the colleges, culture and considerable commerce of nearby Ithaca. The town’s 5,100-plus residents enjoy a much more rustic and pastoral existence than their urbane neighbors less than 10 miles away, and that’s just the way they like it.
Created in 1811 as the “Town of Cayuta,” Newfield took its present name in 1822. People have farmed the challenging terrain from the start, and many still do. At one time seven mills lined the west branch of Cayuga Inlet running through the town’s largest hamlet, also named Newfield, and enterprising businesses stretched the length of Main Street.
On that same Main Street in 1910, (former) President Teddy Roosevelt paid a visit and exuberantly spoke from the balcony of the old Newfield Hotel to a rapt citizenry below. That building stands today, but only remnants of the once-bustling mills remain. A severe fire in 1875 and two more in the 1920s changed forever the landscape of the community’s business block.
Still, significant reminders of the town’s history have been left behind, carefully preserved by the dedicated Newfield Historical Society. One sturdy 19th century brick building, formerly the local Grange, is home to the Newfield Public Library. Its second floor houses Archives Alive, an in-depth collaborative project between the library and the historical society. “Our library is an asset offering opportunities and services well beyond normal library functions,” said Director Tina Winstead. “We strive to furnish an open door to the world for our community.”
The crown jewel of Newfield’s enduring history is its pristine covered bridge, a rare treasure any town would be proud to claim. Of some 250 that were once scattered across New York, only 24 authenticated covered bridges still exist. Completed in 1853, Newfield’s is one of the finest examples, the oldest still in daily use in the state, and the only standing bridge of its type in the Finger Lakes Region.
Local residents Marie and Grant Musser earned the title “Keepers of the Covered Bridge” for their tireless efforts in overseeing preservation and reconstruction projects in 1972 and 1998. In its park-like setting, the arch still welcomes visitors to experience the past, to spend tranquil moments crossing a covered bridge where the daily rumble of wagons echoed over a century ago.
“Perhaps just as unique, but not as well known, is the King Bowstring Arch Bridge in Mill Park,” said sixth-generation town resident and Historian Alan Chaffee. “And it’s just a short walk from the covered bridge.” Erected in 1873, the prefabricated iron structure is one of only five remaining in the state.
Chaffee can explain in detail the legacy of Captain Joseph Gregg, a heroic Newfielder who led a critical bayonet charge on Culp’s Hill at the Battle of Gettysburg, and was mortally wounded in the process. In the next breath he will describe the Community Good Neighbor Fund, an active and caring local association that for three decades has provided reliable support for the needy of Newfield.
Newfield’s largest annual event is Old Home Days, a two-day September celebration with parades, concerts, carnival rides, fireworks, food, and even a fiddle fest. As one resident puts it, “Old Home Days is a spirited town tradition – a get-together that builds a sense of community like no other.” The festival took on special significance in 2011, Newfield’s bicentennial year, with added hoopla and the placement of a time capsule.
In the early 1930s, New York State converted a portion of Newfield, thousands of acres of abandoned hardscrabble farmland, into the Connecticut Hill Wildlife Management Area, a rural refuge of woods and water. Its lofty elevations (highest in Tompkins County) and wilderness thick with wildlife provide a four-season haven for outdoor activities from fishing and hunting to hiking, snowshoeing, and nature study. Proximity to Robert H. Treman State Park and easy access to the Finger Lakes Trail provide further recreational opportunities for locals and visitors.
Dual-credit courses, allowing high school students to obtain college credit, are just one feature of Newfield’s first-rate school system. One dual-credit American history class under teacher Gary Emerson created a comprehensive Newfield history website. Replete with maps, old photographs and carefully researched text, it provides a fascinating glimpse into the town’s past.
Have a camera handy when you pass through Newfield. The rolling fields, steep forested hills, rustic farms on winding roads and rocky brooks are all worth a photograph or two in any season … and, of course, there’s the classic covered bridge. Newfield is a town worth a visit – Teddy Roosevelt thought so!
by James P. Hughes