Souvenirs

Imagine someone putting “Skaneateles” on something and selling it as an authentic souvenir of our fair village. Well, you don’t have to use your imagination, because eBay recently had three items for souvenir hunters, including two postcards that picture Skaneateles and Skaneateles Falls as ocean resorts, and a sailboat ashtray that had me pondering a bid.

The Seedman of Rose Hill

In 1887, at Rose Hill, in the southern part of the Town of Marcellus, Frank B. Mills began selling seeds, turning a boyhood fascination into a business. For his first catalog, he bought a hand press, set the type, and did the printing himself. He mailed out 3,000 copies and garnered 118 customers.

By 1890, he was taking so many orders that Rose Hill needed its own post office. Frank B. Mills, conveniently, was named postmaster. In 1892, he was succeeded by his brother, William E. Mills.

PO Rose Hill NY 2

By 1895, the F.B. Mills Company had 400,000 customers, and by 1903, 800,000. Catalogs and seeds were mailed all over the world from the little post office at the front of the warehouse.

Mills lived nearby at his Fairview Farm, married to the former Grace Ackles of Spafford. His company employed more than 200 people, and peaked in size in 1908, when F.B. Mills Co. printed and mailed more than 1.5 million catalogs. World War I, the Depression and World War II all took their toll on the business, and in 1953 it closed forever.

There’s a fuller history at saveseeds.org.

 

Livingston, Williams & Hunt

From Lakeside Studio

The firm of Livingston, Williams & Hunt sold “dry goods” in Skaneateles from 1899 to 1934. The principals were Herbert A. Livingston, H.B. Williams and Charles W. Hunt; they offered everything from wallpaper to ladies’ dresses, but I am drawn to them by their trade in cameras, film, photo albums, postcards, stationery and fountain pens. Also, they received daily weather reports via telegraph and posted each day’s forecast in their window, a service that ended, lamentably, in 1919.

They had their postcards printed in Germany, from photos they took and developed in Skaneateles at their “Lakeside Studio.” World War I brought an end to the trade in German-printed postcards, but several beautiful examples of the firm’s work from approximately 1905 to 1915 survive in private collections and at the Skaneateles Historical Society’s Creamery Museum.

Spafford Landing

Pier Panorama

Three Mile Point

The First Mail Girl

(August 2, 2000)  I almost didn’t go out on the Mail Boat last weekend. I’d just been out earlier this month with our friends Roland and Theo (Roland’s first question was, “Can the captain marry people?”) on a fabulous, cool, blue-sky day with my wife’s chocolate chip raspberry bars for dessert, and while she was planning on packing her new chocolate chip/dried cherry bars, which are more assertive than the previous week’s delicious but perhaps too subtle chocolate chip/macadamia nut bars (rehearsing for the State Fair baking competition is arduous), the weather did not look as promising. But I did go, and looking back I tremble at the thought of what I would have missed.

The guest of honor this time was my wife’s mother and it was she who persuaded me to come along. The boat held two other parties, one a largely invisible trio up front, and the other a family, more a tribe really, with three sisters, two husbands and several children in orbit including a 4 1/2 month old child with eyes of startling blue and a round toothless smile she would occasionally pop at her mother that persuaded you that good might triumph in the world after all. The family arrived with ten bags, most filled with food. I leaned across the table and said, “Nobody is going to starve on this voyage.”

Nor perish from a lack of color. There was bright blue Fierce Grape Gatorade, a jumbo pack of Big Red gum, pink Double Bubble, rich brown NesQuik, all out and in circulation before the boat left the dock. Then white paper was taped on the tables and crayons were brandished, rainbows were drawn.

The family was a contingent from The Pines, a family-owned camp established in 1901 and the recipient of Mail Boat service since that date, now the oldest stop on the boat’s rounds. I felt as though I was traveling with royalty. And when we approached The Pines, another happy gathering of roughly equal size (supplemented by a dog), appeared on the dock and, reunited, they all began waving and shouting greetings to each other, the children’s high-pitched voices singing out to their cousins and second cousins as the mail bags were exchanged. (The Pines has its own mail bags; I cannot imagine what that must feel like.)

This brush with a century of history would have made the trip worthwhile, but there was more. The alpha sister, as it turns out, was the Mail Boat’s first mail girl, in 1970. When I heard that piece of intelligence being shouted forward to the captain for his edification, I knew I had to beg an audience. And the First Mail Girl was very kind.

She got the job the summer between high school and college (Boston University), at the age of 18 1/2. (This calculating one’s age by halves must be a family tradition.) She started by refinishing the interior of the boat, the Miss Pat, then learned how to pilot it, then learned how to deliver the mail with a long fish net (still the method employed), and then how to wait tables for the evening’s dinner cruise. And after the drinks had been flowing, it even fell to her to master the art of intercepting and informing determined male passengers that they would not be allowed to relieve themselves off the stern.

Less difficult was tying the boat up during a thunderstorm, or painting the engine room purple under cover of darkness.

As we came to Lourdes Camp, where food packages from parents cross paths with postcards begging for rescue, she remembered a young camp counselor, a “real hot dog,” who one morning paddled out to the Mail Boat to swap mail bags with her and casually stood up in his canoe. You cannot stand up in a canoe; the counselor was reminded of this immediately. The mail bags have a lead bar in the bottom and they went directly to the bottom, passing the counselor on his humiliating way back up to the surface. You may ask, “How could one forget that you cannot stand up in a canoe?” I have the answer, because 30 summers later, the First Mail Girl is still a woman who could make a man forget the basic laws of boating. (Not that I, a happily married man, would usually notice such a thing, but as a writer I force myself to be observant.)

The Pines, the First Mail Girl… you would think that was enough to fill the day, but then I wandered out to the open air of the bow and fell into a conversation with the First Mail Girl’s husband. “I married into The Pines,” he said. “I’m an outlaw.” And he told me how much he loved the place, and how good it was for the kids, how when a toilet was recently retired from one of the cottages it was sent to the Onondaga Historical Association. Our conversation wandered through history, nature, the civil service reforms of Chester A. Arthur’s administration, the Winship family in Massachusetts, our favorite search engine (Google), the sudden demise of the Rose Hill seed company because of its failure to follow Burpee’s lead in using color photography in its catalog, the importance of adapting, and the interconnectivity of things. A glorious voyage, and as the Village grew larger, I hated to see it come to an end.

William J. Vredenburgh

wm_j_v

Much has been said about the wealth and prominence of Skaneateles residents and visitors, but none of today’s luminaries can hold a candle to William J. Vredenburgh. To begin, Vredenburgh was a man who liked to get his mail. In 1804, he became the Village’s first Postmaster, using his considerable influence to have the position created and bestowed upon himself because he disliked waiting for his letters to come from the post office in Marcellus.

In spite of his impatience, he was said to be a perfect gentleman, about six feet in height, with a “handsome and commanding” face. At one time, he owned most of the land on which the Village of Skaneateles now stands. He built the first mansion overlooking the lake. He was connected all the way to the U.S. capital. He even raised the dead.

:: The Merchant ::

William J. Vredenburgh was born to Marytje Van Vredenburgh (1734-1773) in what is now New York City on April 18, 1760, and baptized two days later at the Reformed Dutch Church. His father, John William Van Vredenburgh (1730-1794), was a maker, seller and cleaner of beaver hats. William was the third of six children. Three brothers died in infancy; two sisters survived. When William was 13, his mother died and soon after his father went off to war, taking up arms against the British, serving with the New York State Militia and Continental Army. At the age of 17, William himself enlisted in Captain Peter Van Renssalaer’s Company, serving as a private.

After their enlistments were completed, William and his father returned to the city of New York and went into business together on Stone Street, near the lower end of Broadway, supplying provisions to the shipping trade.

On July 26, 1784, Vredenburgh married Elizabeth Townsend at the Reformed Dutch Church. In the years to come, Elizabeth bore him four daughters who thrived and two sons who died in infancy.

In 1785, William went into partnership with John Currie, selling consignments of goods on commission to ship’s captains, everything from flour and butter to planks, nails and buckskin breeches. By 1788, William was in business for himself, selling and buying goods along the Atlantic coast, from New York south to the Carolinas.

:: The Land Baron ::

Vredenburgh added to his merchant’s income by speculating in land owed to veterans of the Revolution. The young republic, strapped for cash, had promised its officers and soldiers tracts of property in return for their services. But the promised land was not surveyed, no roads or rivers led to it, and much of it was occupied by native Americans, who, having lived on the land for centuries, were a little hazy on the notion of land ownership if not overtly hostile to new arrivals in funny hats who claimed to “own” the land.

Not surprisingly, former soldiers often preferred ready cash to a distant tract of land, enabling speculators like Vredenburgh to buy their land at a substantial discount. Vredenburgh made a great deal of money, often re-selling lots for twice what he’d paid for them within six months. A student of U.S. history, Tom Henry, notes, “It was a cutthroat business that created strange partnerships and bitter enemies, as well as producing incredible fortunes.” One such fortune was William Vredenburgh’s.

In the autumn of 1789, Vredenburgh pulled strings and obtained from the U.S. Treasury lists of names of officers and soldiers from Virginia and North Carolina, with the amounts of pay due them. Several speculators were probably involved in this venture, and it is said that the sums due the soldiers were misrepresented, with claims being purchased at a fraction of their value. Vredenburgh employed a man named James Reynolds as his agent; Reynolds’ activities in Virginia caused such an outcry that they prompted protective legislation against such predatory practices. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who was allied with Vredenburgh in principle if not in person, urged George Washington to veto any legislation that would protect veterans and limit speculators. Those today who use their wealth to influence legislation and generate more wealth would certainly recognize Vredenburgh as a kindred spirit.

By 1792, Vredenburgh owned 45,600 acres in New York alone, in addition to land in other states and territories, and he decided to spent two months exploring his New York holdings. After sailing up the Hudson River to Albany, he followed a wagon road west to Whitestown (near what is now Utica). From there, trails led west and south into the wilderness; they were too narrow for wagon or sled, and just barely wide enough for a man on a horse. It would not have been an easy journey, but Vredenburgh’s life had not been easy up to this point, and if anything, he was persistent.

It was probably on this trip that Vredenburgh first saw Skaneateles Lake. It was also during this time that he began his relationship with the native American members of the Six Nations, to whom he became known as Gan-ha Gan-ge Gu-ahna: “The Great Clear Sky.”

:: The Colonel ::

Vredenburgh had remained active in the New York Militia. In 1786, he rose to the rank of lieutenant, followed by promotions to 2nd Major in 1796, 1st Major in 1797, and Lt. Colonel of the 5th regiment in 1802. He retained the title of Colonel for the rest of his life. Family tradition holds that, on April 30, 1789, in New York City, he led the parade that brought George Washington to his inauguration, a procession that his three-year-old daughter Maria witnessed from the balcony of the family home on Broad Street.

Outside of family lore, William L. Stone’s History of New York City lists the leaders of both Washington’s arrival and inaugural processions, making no mention of William Vredenburgh in either. But the inaugural procession did consist of “detachments of the State troops” and it did pass down Broad Street, so one can believe that Vredenburgh, if not leading the way, was at least present and resplendent on the latter of the two great days.

:: The Importer ::

By 1793, Vredenburgh’s merchant business had prospered. He was building, buying and chartering ships for foreign trade, importing wine, raisins and figs aboard “The Goddess of Liberty” from Malaga, Spain; mahogany, turtles and plantains from Honduras and Guadaloupe; tea, silk, ginseng and porcelain from China. Records show he was partial to port and sherry by the cask, gin by the case, barrels of beer and bottles of porter, Souchong tea, olives, and cheese — including at least one “Double Gloster” that weighed 23 pounds. And we know that a “long delayed East Indiaman” returned with carved ivory, fans, silken jackets, sandalwood and fine china with Vredenburgh’s W.J.V. monogram set in a wreath of roses.

It was in the course of this foreign trade that Vredenburgh met a young Englishman named Charles J. Burnett, who was in trade in Portugal and Spain. They became friends, and eventually relations.

Vredenburgh also spent his money on a “gentleman’s farm” outside of New York City in Newtown, Long Island. He was growing more and more “disinclined” to stay in New York City, which was often beset by epidemics of cholera and yellow fever.

:: Widowed & Remarried ::

On July 14, 1798, Elizabeth Vredenburgh died, leaving her husband with four young daughters: Maria, who was 13; Eliza, 8; Cornelia, 5; and Evelina, 3. But Vredenburgh was not a single parent for long. In Newtown, Vredenburgh met Mary Rozier Gilzean, an English woman of culture and refinement whose husband, William Gilzean, had been stricken by a fever he had contracted in Jamaica. Gilzean was able to return to New York, but the fever proved fatal in September of 1798, and in April of 1799, the widow and the neighboring widower were married.

One of the first things Vredenburgh did for his new wife was to help recover her share of the estate in Jamaica when her late husband’s brother, John Gilzean, died in Montego Bay. Mary’s share included a slave named Rose, who was brought to New York and served as a nanny to Vredenburgh’s children. In the years to come, Mary would add three sons to the Vredenburgh family: William T., John Varick, and Edward Rozier (who was born in Skaneateles).

:: The Move to Skaneateles ::

In 1798, when the village hosted just a few log huts and one frame house, land speculator Judge Jedediah Sanger was selling lots for $8 apiece. Vredenburgh began buying. By 1801, lots were going for $60, and Vredenburgh bought more. The next year he purchased Jesse Kellogg’s farm, 110 acres at the outlet of Skaneateles Lake, along with Kellogg’s share of the saw and grist mills for $5,000. Eventually, Vredenburgh bought the remaining 120 acres of Skaneateles — between the outlet on the west and what is now Onondaga Street on the east — from Judge Sanger for $4,000.

Vredenburgh was ready to move to Skaneateles, but he needed a house for his family. A man named Ebenezer Hawley was in charge of the task, and in April of 1802, he wrote to Vredenburgh complaining of difficulties. All the available “labouring people” were employed building a turnpike. (This was probably the Old Seneca Turnpike, built between 1800 and 1802, which passed just north of the village.) But Hawley suggested that Vredenburgh buy a small house already begun on Levi Sartwell’s property as a temporary shelter. Sartwell was a carpenter; he was building a house “under a large elm tree near the corner of Jordan and Academy streets.”

In the spring of 1803, Vredenburgh pulled up stakes in New York City, selling his “Greenwich (Village) place” — 21 city lots near what is now 14th St. & 6th Avenue — to John Jacob Astor for $1,650. In May, the Vredenburgh family set out for Skaneateles, beginning the journey by boat up the Hudson River.

In a book published in 1917, six years after the author’s death, E. Reuel Smith, a descendant of Vredenburgh, described the family’s departure:

“There was the Colonel, as he had come to be called, alert and active, dreaming of the vast possibilities of the future; of forests and streams to be subdued, of mills and foundries to be built, of triumphs in the halls of legislature, of shrewd wisdom and doubtful law upon the bench. And his wife, elegant and still beautiful, lost in thought of all she was leaving behind, of the dear distant home in old England, of her young married life in the tropics, of the beauties of her ‘Paradise’ among the blue hills of Jamaica whose blissful monotony was broken alternately by wild tornadoes or still more dreaded insurrections, of the dissolution of the Gilzean firm, the removal to New York, her widowhood, her remarriage, her social position in the metropolis — which even then considered itself great — her associations with all that was proudest, wealthiest and most refined, with the Varicks, the Van Dykes, the Hoffmans, the Ten Eycks, the Clintons, the Roosevelts and the Hamiltons.

“And there were two (sons) to be thought of, watched over by the tall, stately Rose, picturesque with her bright ear-rings, her dark skin, her eyes flashing with a mingling of pride and almost tigerish affection for her little white charges and for her own not over dark boy who like his mother had been handed over to Mrs. Gilzean, as one of the assets of the dissolved firm, to be taken to New York, but not to be sold.”

On May 6th, the entourage arrived in Albany for a stay of 11 days. On the 17th, they made a day’s journey to Schenectady. Two of Vredenburgh’s daughters were sick: Eliza with scarlet fever and Maria with a toothache. To help out, Vredenburgh purchased a “Negro girl named Susan” for the sum of £65. They reached Utica on the 18th and stayed there until the 22nd; it was the last outpost of civilization.

The remainder of the journey could not have been easy. On the plus side, it had been ten years since Vredenburgh’s first visit to Skaneateles and since that time a turnpike of sorts had been cleared through the forest.

The closest account of travel at that time comes from a Dr. Coventry who in August of 1806, traveled from Utica to Cazenovia, and wrote:

“The road we traveled is thirty-eight miles from Utica, eight miles from Petersburgh. The last twenty miles very hilly, most through wood, turnpike badly made and in bad repair, narrow and rutted. No pains taken to level the knolls, although the toll is double twenty-five cents for horse and shay.”

We know that the Vredenburghs’ trip took three weeks or less, because on June 19th a member of the family (probably Maria) wrote to Charles Burnett in New York City telling of the family’s safe arrival. Ebenezer Hawley was supposed to meet the family in Skaneateles, but he had gone a week earlier, leaving a letter reassuring the family that all was in hand. Wagons were to be sent for their belongings; Levi Sartwell’s house was almost ready.

Meanwhile, back in New York City, on July 5th, Charles Burnett received the letter of June 19th, telling him of the family’s safe arrival. A man in love, Burnett became a U.S. citizen on July 22nd, left for Skaneateles in August, and on September 29th was married to Vredenburgh’s eldest daughter, Maria, in the front parlor of the Sartwell house.

The Sartwell house, of course, would not do long for a family of this size or station.

:: The Mansion ::

For his mansion and grounds, Vredenburgh had chosen 20 acres on a hill overlooking the lake. However, the site was already occupied by a cemetery holding the earthly remains of 16 deceased residents of Skaneateles. But when money talks, even the dead walk. On a day marked by silence in the village, the remains were carefully moved to a private burying ground on the John Briggs farm, out near “The Red House.”

Detail man that he was, Vredenburgh had done a great deal of work on the house before moving to Skaneateles. He obtained architectural plans in New York City. In October 1802, he contracted with Araunah Phelps to dig and lay the foundation with 250 tuns of stone to be brought “in the course of sledding next winter.” The foundation was to be laid out so the house faced the four points of the compass.

In the spring of 1803, Vredenburgh ordered seeds for vegetables and herbs, and fruit trees from Albany and Schenectady, for the house’s gardens. In March of 1804, a professional gardener who went by the unpromising name of Mr. Dullard arrived from New York City with his wife, his gardening tools, cuttings, roots and more seeds. Dullard laid out the orchards and gardens, and grew spectacular vegetables; he took such overwhelming pride in his gardens that he was referred to locally as “The Governor.”

Vredenburgh contracted with Daniel McMillan and Joseph Pierce to build the house, for the sum of $1,650, “to be done equal in goodness to any work now in Utica.” The frame to be 50 feet long and 40 feet wide and the posts 25 feet long with a pediment roof. The foundation and cellars being ready — thanks to Phelps and his 250 tuns of stone — the frame was raised in September of 1803.

The raising of the frame occasioned a celebration, and because Vredenburgh was famed for his liberality, it was well attended. A table was built under a grove of trees and spread with “all the delicacies and substantials attainable at the time, including all kinds of liquors and the choicest wines.” Among the guests was the chief of the Onondagas and a band of Indians, who camped on the grounds for several weeks.

But once the party was over, the party was over. As lumber was harvested from his forests, Vredenburgh set up dry-kilns to cure the wood; the first two kilns burnt to the ground. Mr. McMillan, the contractor, went missing, and in the summer of 1804 the house was still not closed in, in spite of Vredenburgh’s employing 30 carpenters. Charles Burnett took over the management of the project, with the incentive that once it was complete, he would have the Sartwell house to himself and his bride.

The bills hinted at progress: in December of 1804, a bill for “conductor pipes;” in April 1805, for glass, white lead and brushes, and marble facings. James Trowbridge was paid $50 for removing tree stumps. Jonathan Watson carted thirteen loads of furniture from Albany. Barnabas Hall and his yoke of oxen earned $1 a day plowing, scraping and hauling timber from Earll’s mill.

In 1805, the Col. and Mrs. Vredenburgh spent time in Manhattan, perhaps to enjoy some refined society and get away from the house.

With the departure of Mr. and Mrs. Dullard, Vredenburgh brought in Samuel Litherland, who came to Skaneateles with his wife, he to tend the garden and she to keep house. Vredenburgh quickly discovered that Litherland was also a cabinetmaker, and put him to work on the house and its furnishings. One of Vredenburgh’s proudest possessions was a sideboard that Litherland crafted from all of the different woods native to upstate New York. Litherland also made all of the doors, including those of mahogany, which were hung on silver hinge plates. The floors were made of clear pine “without a knot or a blemish.”

The Summer of 1806 was trying in many ways. Drought and grasshoppers withered the gardens. The house was still not complete. On June16th, while Litherland and another carpenter, Isaac Selover, were laying the pine floors, the sun was eclipsed. It was the famous Dark Day of 1806. Animals returned to their barns. Men, women and children stood outside and gaped at the sky. But not William Vredenburgh; he lit candles so Litherland and Selover could keep working. He wasn’t stopping for anything.

(Mary Vredenburgh, a bit less businesslike, wrote in a letter, “What did you think my friends of the Great Eclipse? With us it was total Darkness, the stars were out, the fowls went to roost & the Dumb Creation appeared struck with awe at the great reverse of Nature, it was the most awefully grand sight that can be imagined.”)

In August of 1806, a storm with hail as large as walnuts “carried away the plastering in the new House.” But finally, the house was completed, and it was an extraordinary house, about fifty feet square, two stories high with a gable on each side.

wm_j_v_mansion

The rooms on the first floor were 15′ in height; on the second floor, 12′ in height. The dining room overlooked the gardens on one side and the lake on the other. Every room had a large fireplace. Large, wide hallways ran the length of both floors. A winding mahogany staircase connected the floors.

On the back of the house was a porch with stately pillars. It was all surrounded with one thousand feet of picket fence, with padlocked gates. In addition to Mr. Dullard’s gardens and orchards, first-growth trees graced the grounds, including an elm tree 20′ in circumference. A barn was built with hand-scored timbers and shutters held in place by hand-forged hinges.

The kitchen, servants quarters and storerooms were in the cellar, all built of red brick.

(Shortly before Helen Ionta, the Town of Skaneateles Historian, died, I had a conversation with her about Vredenburgh’s house. She recalled chatting, many years previously, with an elderly woman who as a little girl had played in the cellars. Smiling, Helen told me, “She said they went on forever.”)

Outside, a network of ditches fed four cisterns, at least one of which was 10′ square and deep, to supply water for household needs and the gardens and “to allay the menace of fire.” These were supplemented by three deep wells. A large brook, which originated in a swamp to the north of the village, flowed by the rear of the house. A rustic bridge spanned the brook, and the water then disappeared into an 80′ stone tunnel — built with a keystone and high enough for a tall man to stand in — that carried the water to the lake, passing by the site of the present St. James Episcopal Church.

(The tunnel is believed to be long gone, but the brook returns during torrential rainfalls. Three times in 11 years I have seen it flowing in waves from behind the garage and down the drive of 105 E. Genesee Street, the house to the west of the original mansion’s site, built in the path of the old brook in 1885. The torrent was as wide as the drive and easily four inches deep, flowing out into Genesee Street and turning right, downhill towards St. James, disappearing into the first and second storm drains it encountered.)

The name Vredenburgh means “Castle of Peace” and in Skaneateles, William Vredenburgh finally had his castle, the finest house west of Albany.

:: The First Postmaster ::

On another front, Vredenburgh made swifter progress. Since his arrival in Skaneateles, he had been forced to send someone to the nearest post office, in Marcellus, to pick up his mail. He was unhappy with the effort and the wait, and wanted his mail to be delivered. His solution was to call for a post office in Skaneateles and propose himself as the ideal postmaster.

In November of 1803, Charles Burnett wrote from New York to his wife Maria, “have shown your Papa’s letter about the Post Office to Mr. Ten Eyck who will attend to it as soon as he has an opportunity to see DeWitt Clinton.”

Why DeWitt Clinton? After just a year as a U.S. Senator, DeWitt Clinton had resigned in the summer of 1803 to become the Mayor of New York, a more influential post at the time. This office did not allow him to appoint postmasters, but Clinton was tied to everyone who had influence. His uncle, New York Governor George Clinton, for whom he acted as personal secretary from 1789 to 1795, was just months away from assuming the office of Vice President of the United States under Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s Postmaster General was Gideon Granger, a grand piece of work, a land speculator on an epic scale. While in Washington, Granger served as absentee landlord for half of Ohio, where he was buying and selling land at profits that are breath-taking even by today’s standards. Granger was also buying land in Canandaigua, New York, and probably felt a kinship with Vredenburgh, a fellow upstate New York land speculator.

And so, in 1804, at the behest of a friend of a friend of a friend, Granger appointed Vredenburgh as Deputy Postmaster at Skaneateles. The certificate was signed by Granger and bore upon its seal a figure of Mercury, with the motto, “Sigill. Mag. Gen. Nunciorum.” (Sigillum Magnum Generalis Nunciorum, i.e., The Great Seal of the General of the Messengers). The results of the appointment were felt immediately. Letters now traveled from New York City to Skaneateles in eight days, “two less than before.”

Up to this time, many letters were conveyed by hand, passed from traveler to traveler. When sent by U.S. mail, a letter cost 17 cents from New York to Albany, and 20 to 40 cents from New York to Skaneateles. The office of postmaster remained in the hands of Vredenburgh (1803-1813), then a close friend, John Ten Eyck (1813-1817), and then Charles Burnett (1817-1843), his son-in-law, for 40 years, through the administrations of Presidents Jefferson, Monroe, Adams, Jackson, Van Buren and Harrison.

:: A Man of Religion ::

When residing in New York, Vredenburgh held a pew at the Trinity (Episcopal) Church, in lower Manhattan at the corner of Broadway and Wall Street. The first Trinity Church having been destroyed by fire in 1776, and the second building not consecrated until 1790, it is likely that Vredenburgh also attended services at the parish’s St. Paul’s Chapel. His rector would have been the Rev. Dr. Samuel Provoost, and for a time George Washington was a fellow parishioner. His first daughter, Maria, was baptized in Trinity Parish on November 4, 1785.

When Vredenburgh moved to Skaneateles in 1803, he was “saddened by state of religion in the Village.” Vredenburgh held services in his home (the Sartwell house that eventually became the home of Charles and Maria Burnett). Samuel Litherland, Vredenburgh’s gardener and carpenter, also played a role in the religious life of the village. He was described as a blameless, religious and amiable man who read the lessons at church services and was especially sought after for burial services.

When his own home was completed, Vredenburgh held Sunday services in the upper hallway, open to the people of the village and presided over by visiting clergy. In 1807, St. Peter’s Church was organized in nearby Auburn, and Vredenburgh served as a Warden. Although Vredenburgh was never a member of St. James Episcopal (founded three years after his death), he donated the land on which it now stands, and services were held on the spot, prior to the organization of the church, in a small, yellow, wood structure that functioned as a church, a store and the post office. Vredenburgh, Burnett, Litherland and John S. Furman served as lay readers when there was no visiting clergyman to officiate.

:: The Politician ::

Vredenburgh had been a supporter of New York Governor George Clinton, and spent his own money to print and circulate campaign literature and host rallies where music, cannon salvos and free beer appealed to voters. After coming to Skaneateles, he served as a Judge of the Court of Common Pleas in 1804-5 and again in 1808. It is said that his “First Motion fees” of $4.50 were occasionally paid in barrels of whiskey or a tub of hog’s lard. Vredenburgh was a member of the New York State Assembly for Onondaga County, in 1805 and 1806, and lived in Albany in the winters while the legislature was in session.

:: Life in the Village ::

Mary Vredenburgh wished she had more visitors and looked forward to friends who were stopping on their way to Niagara Falls. She could not find a housekeeper. Sukey, the slave maid, ran away, probably returning to Schenectady. In Skaneateles, servants of the time lived in and were treated like family. The Vredenburgh family, “being more aristocratic,” wanted servants who were not treated as equals, and hence had to import them from the city of New York, and had some difficulty finding girls who were willing to go to “the Far West.”

We do know that the Vredenburghs found a cook. E.N. Leslie wrote, “Mr. Vredenburgh brought from New York a black wench as cook. The children were all afraid of her and ran as soon as she made her appearance in the streets.” (I wonder if the object of fear was actually the tall and tigerish Rose, described by Reuel Smith, who came to Skaneateles from Jamaica, via New York, rather than the cook.)

:: The Yachtsman ::

Vredenburgh wanted a boat to sail on the lake, a yacht on which he could entertain those of his friends who came through Skaneateles while traveling west. During the winter of 1811-12, he chose the wood he would need from the surrounding forest, and in the spring of 1812 he traveled to New York to find a ship’s carpenter who could come to Skaneateles to design and build the boat. The carpenter was found and hired, and together with local men began work on the boat.

But the trip to and from New York had taken too much out of Vredenburgh and he died on May 9, 1813, before the boat was completed.

VreGrave

He was just 53 years old. He was buried in what is now Lake View Cemetery. His monument, one of the first in the village, was brought up from New York; the slab of stone over his grave reads, “Sacred to the Memory, W.I. Vredenburgh, who departed this life May 9, 1813, Aged 53 Years. Life’s uncertain. Death is sure. Sin’s the wound. Christ the cure.”

The epitaph was a common one on tombstones of the time, in England and New England, but in this case it served an uncommon man. One wonders how much more he would have shaped the Village had he lived to a ripe old age.

* * *

Revolutionary Soldiers, Resident or Dying in Onondaga County, N.Y. by William M. Beauchamp; Syracuse, The McDonnell Co., 1913, pp. 226-227; The Papers of Thomas Jefferson edited by Julian P. Boyd; “History of the Town of Skaneateles” by Dwight H. Bruce from Onondaga’s Centennial; Boston History Co., 1896; pp. 977-1015; “Bygone Days in Skaneateles” by Mrs. Wells A. Hardwich, 1933; History of Skaneateles and Vicinity: 1781-1881 by E. Norman Leslie (Auburn, N.Y., Charles P. Cornell, n.d.); Skaneateles: History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times by Edmund Norman Leslie (New York, Press of Andrew Kellogg, 1902); Notes on the Vredenburgh and Burnett Families by E. Reuel Smith; New York, Knickerbocker Press, 1917; History of New York City by William Leete Stone (1872); Records of the Reformed Dutch Church in New Amsterdam and New York; notes of the Rev. William Beauchamp.

My thanks also to the indispensable Larry Mark Vredenburgh, Dr. Melissa Conway and Tom Henry.

* * *

:: Epilogue: The Boat ::

Vredenburgh’s yacht was purchased by others from Charles Burnett and finished in 1816. It was 42′ in length, 10′ beam, and rigged as a sloop with mainsail and jib. It was launched from where St. James’ Episcopal Church now stands. The boat was christened “The Four Sisters” in honor of Vredenburgh’s daughters.

:: Epilogue: The Mansion ::

After Vredenburgh’s death, Judge Daniel Kellogg bought the mansion and grounds in 1815 for $7,800. Kellogg kept faith with Vredenburgh’s vision for the house, bringing in floor-to-ceiling mirrors for the drawing room, at $1,000 each, as well as crystal chandeliers, carpets of French velvet, blue satin brocade curtains, silver tea sets from Paris — one for each of the Judge’s three daughters — sofas and bookcases in the hallways, and family portraits by Charles Loring Elliott. One servant did nothing but tend the fires in the various fireplaces all day. In 1825, Kellogg hosted Daniel Webster in May, and the Marquis de Lafayette in June.

There was a three-acre apple orchard and vegetables grown in a glass greenhouse. The first tomatoes in Skaneateles were grown here, and were thought to be strictly ornamental until one of Kellogg’s sons ate one and survived.

Upon Judge Kellogg’s death, the house was occupied by his daughter, Mrs. George F. Leitch. After her death, the house was allowed to run down. It was let to “a poor tenant” who apparently built a fire in a broken chimney and burnt the house to the ground on August 24, 1872. Three men — a grandson of Kellogg, a local carpenter and cabinet maker — managed to save some of the mahogany doors from the burning house.

In 1836, a writer in the Albany Journal had noted, “Whoever lives to see that house taken down will see timber enough to build at least three houses of equal size in modern style.” Sadly, it went up in smoke. A new home was built on the site, using some of the stone salvaged from the ruins of the mansion. It stands at the northwest corner of Onondaga and Genesee Streets today.