DRESDEN — He has been called the most remarkable American most people have never heard of.
His name is Robert Green Ingersoll, and his birthplace in this tiny Yates County village has reached a milestone anniversary.
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum opened for its 25th consecutive season. Officials said for a quarter century, the museum has restored the incomparable orator and champion of reason to his rightful place in American history and serves as the anchor of the historic Freethought Trail.
“There has never been a better time for Americans to rediscover the words and ideas of Robert Ingersoll,” said Tom Flynn, museum director and editor of Free Inquiry magazine. “As science and reason are under assault, and as the country is awakening to entrenched inequality, Ingersoll’s wit, eloquence and sense of justice are more relevant than ever.”
Opened to the public on Memorial Day in 1993, the museum was purchased in 1987 and restored by the Council for Secular Humanism, a program of the Center for Inquiry. The museum takes visitors on a journey through one of America’s most transformative eras through the eyes and voice of Ingersoll, known as “The Great Agnostic.”
The museum’s docent for the last six years has been Waterloo resident Fran Emerson, a longtime substitute teacher in the area. She also works part-time at Finger Lakes Community College’s Geneva campus.
“I basically meet and greet people and let them browse through the museum,” she said. “I’ve always loved history, and I knew a little bit about Ingersoll and knew about Dresden because my father worked in this area for NYSEG.”
Ingersoll was born in Dresden in 1833, although his family moved to Illinois only months after his birth. His father, John Ingersoll, was a preacher whose radical opinions caused him and his family to relocate frequently.
“The father was too fire and brimstone for the church here, so they started moving west and ended up in Peoria,” Emerson said. “That is where Ingersoll grew up and became a lawyer.”
At the beginning of the Civil War, Ingersoll raised the 11th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Cavalry and assumed command. He was captured by the Confederates in Tennessee in December 1862, then released on his promise that he would not fight again — a common practice early in the war.
“He was a colonel. They called him ‘Colonel Bob’ and the name stuck with him,” Emerson said. “Some of the swords he used in the war are here.”
After the war, Ingersoll — a nationally prominent lawyer — served as Illinois attorney general and became the Republican Party’s foremost speechmaker when the GOP was the party of Lincoln. From Grant to McKinley, no Republican candidate for whom Ingersoll did not campaign reached the White House.
Over time, Ingersoll became America’s best known speaker during the nation’s Golden Age of public oratory. He lectured across the country to packed houses on topics including politics, the arts, science and — most controversially — religion.
Ingersoll defied the religious conservatives of his day and championed causes like women’s rights, racial equality and birth control decades before their time. Largely because of those stances and his challenging the religious establishment of his time, he became an outcast and is now almost forgotten.
“I think because his father was such a fire and brimstone preacher, that kind of knocked the religion out of him. He did a lot of questioning about the existence of God,” Emerson said. “He was really a famous person in his day ... but he got wiped right out of the history books. He got into trouble with the magazines, newspapers. They were against him in many ways. They thought he was partly the devil. Sometimes I wonder what he would say if he was alive today.”
Ingersoll the man comes to life through the museum’s historical artifacts, informational displays, and a video presentation on his life and times, as well as actual audio recordings of Ingersoll in his own voice, produced at the laboratories of his friend Thomas Edison.
Refurbished in 2014, the museum also features the actual room in which Ingersoll was born, restored with authentic period furniture, as well as a room dedicated to the local history of Dresden.
Ingersoll died from congestive heart failure, at the age of 65, in Dobbs Ferry, Westchester County. His ashes are interred in Arlington National Cemetery.
Ingersoll’s birthplace was restored twice before, first in 1921 and again in 1954. Each time, it operated for about a decade before interest — and money — ran out.
Flynn said the silver anniversary is the third “incarnation” of the museum, and has operated longer than the previous two times combined. He added that a museum endowment campaign will keep it open for years to come.
“The flourishing wine industry of the Finger Lakes region has been a real boon for the museum,” Flynn said. “The Ingersoll family could not have intended to make their home on what would one day become a favorite Seneca Lake wine trail, but the result is that more people will appreciate the life and wisdom of Robert Ingersoll today and into the future. We think Robert Ingersoll himself would have most certainly appreciated it.”