Just behind a white picket fence on West Lake Street one can glimpse a tree-shaded stream which ducks beneath the street and then passes through a stone-walled channel into the lake. It is a small brook with a long history.
Before it was anything else, it was one of many streams that fed Skaneateles Lake. Native Americans followed its flow, and a path alongside the brook became a Cayuga-Onondaga foot trail, leading from Owasco Lake to Skaneateles Lake. Emerging from the woods, the trail continued across the lake’s original shoreline and went uphill, passing by the spot where St. James’ church stands today. (When a dam was built in 1797, the level of the lake rose and the shoreline portion of the path disappeared.)
In 1876, writing for the Skaneateles Democrat, the Rev. William M. Beauchamp recalled the native’s path as it was in his boyhood and noted:
“The trail came from the west along what was called Aspinwall’s brook… The brook was a resort for minnows for bait, and I caught many there.”
The brook was named for John Myer Aspinwall (1792-1844), who came to the village from New York City, where he had investments in shipping, banking and insurance. He lived in a house near the brook with his wife Charlotte and daughter Francis, two servants and a former slave (who had been freed by New York State law in 1827.)
John Aspinwall was elected to the Vestry of St. James’ in 1830 and was a supporter of the Skaneateles Mechanics Literary Association, a library for working men. William Beauchamp’s sister, Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp, recalled:
“The Aspinwalls were as refined a family as ever settled in Skaneateles, and not only refined in manners, but remarkably so in tastes, having that keen appreciation of natural beauties which is an inexhaustible source of enjoyment to its fortunate possessors.”
The Aspinwalls sold their house and land in 1835, preparing to return to New York City, advertising in the Skaneateles Columbian:
VALUABLE PROPERTY In the Village of Skaneateles
The subscriber will sell at AUCTION, at the house of I. W. Perry*, in the village of Skaneateles, on Thursday, the 30th of April, at ten o’clock A.M., the following Real Estate, containing thirteen and a half acres of land, beautifully situated on the Western bank of Skaneateles Lake, and within the bounds of the Village incorporation.
No. 1 — The DWELLING HOUSE, out-houses and Grounds now occupied by the subscriber and lying on the western side of the highway. The garden is well supplied with strawberries, gooseberries, raspberries, currants, and asparagus beds. The orchard contains every variety of grafted fruit trees in full bearing. The well of water is of the best quality. The back fields have streams of water running through them.
No. 2, Also so much of the PIECE OF LAND situate on the opposite side of the highway, as is parallel to the dwelling house lot, being the Bank of the Lake and covered with a grove of locust trees. The piece of land may be annexed to the purchase of the first described at No. 1 at the price of $500, if so required by the purchaser.
No. 3 — Also A FURTHER PIECE OF LAND being the bank of the lake, north of and adjoining the last described land, and running about 200 feet along the lake, subject to an agreement restricting the erection of buildings, etc., thereon for 15 years. Also the benefit of the same restriction upon the piece of land adjoining to and extending along the lake about 200 feet north of this. These 200 feet may be annexed, at the option of the purchaser of the two first described pieces of land, to his purchase at $300.
Two-thirds of the purchase money may remain upon bond and mortgage for a term of years, at the option of the purchaser.
J.M. Aspinwall, Skaneateles, April 9, 1835
* Isaac W. Perry’s “house” was the Indian Queen hotel, at the corner of Genesee and Jordan Streets.
The grove of locust trees, a haven of dappled sunlight, became known as Furman’s Grove and was an ideal site for picnics. (A few locust trees remain on the site, but given the life span of a locust tree, they are, at best, offspring of the originals.)
I do not know what became of the “dwelling house” described in Aspinwall’s auction advertisement, but Leslie’s history of 1902 notes that Caleb Wells Allis built a house next to the brook. Allis was a Quaker and a prosperous merchant.
In 1852, the house was occupied by his sister, Mary Louisa Hall, her husband, David Hall II, and their two sons, Tom and John. David was the eldest son of Captain James Hall, and a bookkeeper in the employ of C. W. Allis & Co., and might have remained there had it not been for a discovery on the other side of the world.
In May of 1851, gold was found in Australia and the rush brought a huge influx of people from overseas, including 18,000 from the United States. David Hall, living in his brother-in-law’s house and working for his brother-in-law’s company, was inspired to seek his own fortune. He left Mary and the boys on Christmas day, 1852. He promised to strike it rich in the gold fields and then return home to share the wealth. He was in the company of several men, including Massilon Fay, the landlord of the Lake House; A. D. Bodine, a woodworker for John Legg; J. V. Tilton, a miller and speculator in patent rights; and Eliphalet Hall.
On October 14, 1853, the Skaneateles Democrat reported “Letters were received in town last week, bearing date Melbourne, June 21, 1853, from several of our Australian boys, the purport of which is that they had just arrived at that place, in just four months and four days from Staten Island, N. Y. They were to start on foot the next day for the mines, with their packs on their backs, which were distant about one hundred and twenty miles. The prospect for gold gathering was excellent, and considered very favorable.”
Over the next three years, Mary Louisa had 12 letters from her husband. After his letter of Feb. 10, 1855, she never heard from him again. He had not found riches, nor even enough to afford return passage.
According to Allis family records “Mrs. Hall bravely took in sewing,” but was unable to provide for her sons. She sent John to live with Caleb, her brother, at his house at 62 W. Genesee St., known as The Pines. Thomas went to live with his aunt and uncle, Electra and George Bentley, on their farm about three miles south of the village. (The farm’s current owner is Tim Green.) And Mary Louisa was taken in by William and Eliza Marvin, living in the Jewett Mansion (today’s Masonic Temple).
(It wasn’t until recently that descendants of David Hall II learned what had become of him. Too broke to return and perhaps too ashamed to write, he lived 34 more years, working as a laborer, dying in Heathcote, Australia. He was buried in a pauper’s grave, unmarked by any stone. But a church record, an obituary and a death certificate were found by his great-grandchildren, and they placed a plaque on his grave in 1992.)
But back to the house by the brook.
Sweet’s map of 1874 showed the home’s owner as John M. Nye; he was once “the prince of landlords” at the Mottville Hotel and later a principal of the Hart Lot Paper Company. On the same map, Julia Furman was shown as the owner of “Furman’s Grove,” although she built no house there.
In July of 1885, Benjamin Franklin Stiles, a farmer, land owner and banker, purchased the John Nye place on West Lake, with its 7 acres, and in August had made “extensive and thorough improvements in the interior” prior to moving in. But Stiles was a mercurial figure. He was born in Skaneateles, but lived in Troy, N.Y., where he was the keeper of the Troy House hotel, and then in Orange Park, Florida, his winter home, where he was the third “settler,” the owner of an orange grove, the Mayor, and perhaps the village of Skaneateles’ first “snowbird.” He went bankrupt in 1899, and ended up as a poultry farmer in Sand Lake, N.Y., outside of Saratoga Springs. He died in 1913 at his home in Sand Lake and was buried in Lake View Cemetery.
The Native Americans, the Aspinwalls, the Furmans and many others have come and gone, but the brook, it streams on.
. . .
“Our Australian Friends,” Skaneateles Democrat, October 14, 1853
Atlas of Onondaga County, New York (1874) by Homer D. L. Sweet
“Notes of Other Days” by the Rev. William M. Beauchamp, printed in the Skaneateles Democrat in 1876.
“Recollections of the Parish of St. James, Skaneateles” by Mary Elizabeth Beauchamp, written in 1897, reprinted by her nephew, Frederick Humphryes in the Skaneateles Press in 1938, and included in its entirety in Skaneateles and St. James’ by Kihm Winship in 2014.
“An Expedition to Australia in 1852 in Search of Gold” in Skaneateles, History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902) by Edmund Norman Leslie, pp. 216-217
“Notes from My Scrapbook” by Fred J. Humphryes, Skaneateles Press, October 2, 1938, quoting Skaneateles, History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times (1902) by Edmund Norman Leslie, p. 11
“History of Transportation in the Skaneateles Area” by Sedgwick Smith in the Skaneateles Press, October 6, 1966
“David Hall II’s Mysterious Disappearance Resolved” by Philip W. Hall Jr., Skaneateles Press/Marcellus Observer, February 12, 1997