The Escott House

Escott 1

The son of Thomas and Elizabeth Kibby Escott, Edward Escott was born in 1863 on his family’s farm on East Street. He went to school in the village, and in 1890 he married Harriet “Hattie” Hembury, who had come here from Somerset, England, two years before. He ran a meat market for 40 years. And once, in his youth, he drove a herd of cattle from here to Kentucky.

But what caught my attention was that he moved a house.

Helen Ionta (1909-2000) noted that the “Escott House” originally stood just south of 8 Onondaga Street, dated from about 1803, and was the first home of Daniel and Laura Kellogg.

In 1914, Edward Escott purchased the house for his family farm on East Street.

Eva Loyster (1892-1987), a longtime fount of Skaneateles history, recalled the house being moved up Onondaga Street to the corner of East Street and then north to its present position across from the school.

Skaneateles is home to many buildings that were moved from one place to another, in an era before “tear downs” became common. “The house that crossed the ice” on Leitch Avenue, the Austin House on East Street, and the First Baptist Church on State Street are prominent examples. To which we can add the Escott House, where it stands today.

***

“The Escott House” (1984) by Helen Ionta

“Edward Escott, 80, Prominent Native, Dies at Home Here,” Skaneateles Press, February 26, 1943

The Church Came Down the Hill

First Baptist

While I am on the subject of homes and buildings that were moved within the village, I will post this brief chronology of the First Baptist Church, with special attention to the building it calls home.

***

1801 – The Schaneateles Religious Society was formed. Services were held in members’ homes and in Schoolhouse No. 11 at the northeast corner of Onondaga and East Streets.

1806 – The Society hired an architect from Utica to design a meeting house. A site was chosen just north of the schoolhouse, on a hill, the spot in the village closest to Heaven.

1808 – Sufficient funds were raised for construction; “massive timbers” were used; the building was raised in six days by six groups of local men.

1809 – The Society’s meeting house was dedicated.

1818 – The majority of the congregation of the Religious Society voted to become a part of the Presbyterian church, and the remaining Baptists alternated with “their brethren in Elbridge” in holding services.

1830 – The Presbyterians felt the meeting house was too far from the center of the Village so they purchased a lot on Genesee Street, at the site of the present First Presbyterian Church, and began construction of a new building.

1831 – The First Baptist Society was formally organized in “the old Presbyterian Meeting-House” and the Baptists bought the building from the Presbyterians.

1841 – Wanting to move closer to the center of the village, the Baptists purchased land on State Street where the church now stands. They received permission to dismantle the old meeting house, to “convert the materials as far as possible toward erecting a new edifice,” and to sell the land where it had been and apply the proceeds of the sale toward building their new church.

Writing in the Skaneateles Press, a reporter noted:

“I don’t find any record of just when the church was moved, but it was some time between October 1841 and the following July. Perhaps they began in October to take it apart and worked right through the fall and winter, for it must have been a gigantic task. I understand the front and back were never taken apart, but were moved in their entirety to the new location and set up again. This accounts for the architecture of the front which does not correspond to the sides of the building.

“On July 16, 1842, after weeks of work preparing the large timbers (although these timbers had been used before), according to Mr. [William] Beauchamp, the Baptists began raising the frame of the church. He says of it, according to his knowledge, ‘This was the last large frame building raised in the village.’”

1843 – On February 23rd, the First Baptist Church on State Street was formally opened.

1846 – Adoniram Judson, who spent decades as a missionary in Burma and translated the Bible into Burmese, summered in the village and spoke in the church.

1912 – The Baptists hosted uplifting entertainments by stars of the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits.

1958 – In the early hours of Sunday morning, November 9th, a fire started in the boiler room of the church. “Only the efficient work of the Fire Department under Chief George Spearing prevented the fire from enveloping and possibly consuming the entire church structure.”

The Church survived and stands today.

***

“First Baptist Church Early Morn Blaze Perils Edifice, Homes,” Skaneateles Press, November 14, 1958

“First Attempts to Start Baptist Church Failed; Faith Reborn” Skaneateles Press, June 25, 1964

The Austin House

Clarence-Austin-WEB

Clarence Mason Austin at the back door, with his dog.

The Austin House was built in 1810 by Aaron Austin, who had come to the area from Vermont in 1796. He had opened the first “cloth dressing and fulling mill” in Onondaga County. His house was then located on the corner of Jordan and Austin Streets, on the Austin family farm.

It remained in the Austin family until Clarence Mason Austin died in 1927. In his will, the home was given to the village for a community center, a place where clubs and organizations could meet. The Red Cross met there during World War II, as did the Boy Scouts and other organizations. Austin’s will also gave the farm and woods to the Village as a park, today’s Austin Park.

Austin House Moving

The home was put up for sale by the Village in 1946, and purchased for $3,000 by George Dudman of New York City. He had the 165-ton house moved to a new foundation on East Street, its current location. Nicholas Brothers of Yonkers, N.Y., used three sets of dollies, a cable and a winch to coax the house over fields and through yards. When it crossed a street, telephone and power lines had to be taken down. When it passed by the school, at least one classroom erupted in screams. The move took most of September and a newspaper article at the time called it “one of the largest projects of its kind ever attempted in the village.” One of the Nicholas brothers said, “Don’t ask me why people move buildings and things. I don’t know. I only move them.”

After the move, Dudman added pillars to the front of the home. Waller Thorne purchased the home in 1959, and it has had many owners since, who have preserved and enhanced the original homestead.

24 East St 1

The Austin House today

Angry Birds

In the early 1970s, a young man sought refreshment at the West Lake Inn, a hoppy oasis south of the village on West Lake Road. The Inn’s parking lot was full of cars and trucks, but when the man entered the barroom, it was empty, except for the bartender. “Where is everyone?” he asked. The reply: “In the basement. There’s a cockfight.”

A cockfight? In Skaneateles? Until now, I thought the most exotic Village activity was mah jongg at the Country Club. But no. There is a history of cockfighting in and around the Village that goes back more than 100 years.

Given the refined nature of our readership, a few preliminary words about the pastime might be helpful:

Roosters are naturally antagonistic toward one another. Without any human intervention at all, two roosters will fight. Millennia ago, men saw roosters fighting and thought, “Hey, we could bet on this.” Cockfighting became a spectator sport – a blood sport between two cocks, or gamecocks, held in a small ring called a cockpit. (Yes, that’s the origin of the word.)

Pedro Infante

The Romans brought the sport to England. The Spanish brought the sport to the Americas and the Philippines. Cockfights take place in every state and territory of the U.S.A.

For golf, you need a golf course and bag of clubs. For polo, you need a polo field and polo ponies. For cockfighting, all you need is a grumpy chicken. Hence the sport is open to every strata of society, from the poor all the way up to kings and presidents.

England’s King Henry VIII had a royal cockpit built at the Palace of Whitehall. The seventh President of the United States, Andrew Johnson, was an ardent “cocker” all his life and kept his gamecocks in the White House stables. (Note: Adherents of the blood sport, and lazy scholars, also identify George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln as cockfight enthusiasts. They were not.)

A single match between roosters is a cockfight. A series of cockfights is known as a “cocking main.” An organized cocking main involves a pool of cash to go to the side winning the most matches. The “sides” are usually birds from one place versus birds of another, e.g., Seneca Falls vs. Auburn. There is also a cash prize for the owner of the winning bird in each match, and side bets among the spectators can run into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Today, cockfighting is against the law in every state and is a federal offense as well. Hence, cocking mains are not advertised and take place in remote and/or enclosed venues during the dark hours, usually from midnight until dawn. Sentinels watch for the police. Spectators look for nearby windows and doors upon arrival. Fleeing from the authorities is a part of the experience.

Enough of a tutorial

*   *   *

“It is reported that a cocking main in which Oswego and Skaneateles birds were pitted against each other was witnessed in the latter village, Saturday night, by a big crowd of sports from Auburn, Syracuse, Seneca Falls, Oswego, etc. Skaneateles won and Auburn men brought home a considerable ‘bundle’ of cash.”

Auburn News-Bulletin, April 1883

Accounts differ on the location for cockfights in the Village of Skaneateles. A letter from 1961 said the fights took place in a two-story brick building just off Jordan Street, one that was torn down circa 1960. However, another man’s memory places the cocking mains on the second floor of the brick building still standing behind Doug’s Fish Fry, known as 1 Studio Place.

building-1

However, there are no plaques or historical markers. Given that cockfighting had been illegal in New York State since 1867, the sites have not been memorialized. However, one nearby site is still standing, and very well documented. Skaneateles Junction, also known as Hart Lot, was the home of the Central Hotel (shown below, on the left).

Wheeler House Then

The hotel had a large ballroom on the second floor, used for concerts, dancing, prize-fights, and yes, cockfights. The hotel was right next to the New York Central railroad train tracks and a short walk from the train station. This proximity made it ideal for out-of-town fans from across upstate New York. A man could leave Auburn or Rochester after dinner, arrived at Skaneateles Junction in time for the first cockfight, and return home in time for breakfast or lunch the following day.

In February of 1886, more than 300 sporting men witnessed “one of the greatest cocking mains ever fought in central New York” at Skaneateles Junction. Nine battles were fought, of which Auburn won seven and Rochester two. The stakes were fifty dollars a battle and $500 on the main, and it was estimated that more than $3,000 changed hands on the side. Reports of the event appeared in Auburn, Lockport, Hudson, Oswego, Albany and New York City newspapers.

Cockfights went on at the hotel for the next 20 years. In 1889, Auburn and Gloversville birds fought nine bouts with 500 spectators present. In 1900, the Auburn vs. Ithaca main was stopped by the police during the second fight; two bird handlers were arrested, and between 400 and 500 fans went home disappointed.

As public opinion shifted, largely due to the efforts of the ASPCA, those attending cockfights were seen less as “local sports” and more as criminals.

“Cortland seems to be sadly afflicted with all sorts of immorality and lawlessness, such as shop-lifting, elopements and cock-fights.”

Tully Times, 1895

News reports began focusing on raids and arrests. Over the next several decades, the newspapers noted that authorities raided cockfights in Auburn, Brockport, Cato, Elbridge, Elmira, Litchfield, Locke, Niles, North Rose, Oswego, Sylvan Beach, Wampsville, and Waterloo.

And what of cockfighting in Skaneateles today? It is not for me to know. Given the persistence of the sport there are barns and basements aplenty, but none that seek publicity.

*    *    *

I am especially grateful for conversations with Bruce Keller and Charlie Major, and a published account by Maurice Baumgartner in the Skaneateles Press on August 11, 1961.

Mah jongg was played at the Skaneateles Country Club in the summer of 1924.

A few thoughts in parting:

“Cocking mains are fitted for a rude state of society and indicate an uncultured condition of the mind.”

The Book of the Games (1886) by H. H. Stoddard

“In every human being there is something, a part of his animal nature, that delights in a physical contest… The street fight, the horse race, the cocking main, the prize-fight and, in some lands, the bull fight serve to draw their crowds. In Spain and Mexico women look on brutality, danger, and death with wildest enthusiasm.”

Western Christian Advocate, November 12, 1902

“Devotees number more than 100,000, and they range from the poorest Alabama farmhand to the Wall Street broker who belongs to the super-exclusive, super-secret Claymore Club, restricted to only nine members. Nowhere are cocks as good as they are in this country. Each year professional breeders export 12,000 birds to the West Indies, Latin America and the Philippines.”

— “Gamecocks and Gentlemen Meet in Dixie” by Robert Boyle, Sports Illustrated, March 27, 1961

Cockfight Matches

Rob Howard Rarities

SCC Deckle Edge copy

Some time in the early 1980s, photographer Rob Howard received a call from Dick Schemeck, owner of the Hitching Post gift shop at the corner of Jordan & Genesee. Dick was placing an order for Skaneateles postcards in a day or two, but had no photos. This was not Rob’s usual subject matter, but Dick was a friend, and had a list of about a dozen subjects in the village that were postcard-worthy. The next day, Rob shot half of the sites on the list in the morning light, and then the other half in the late afternoon light. He recalls the oddest request was for a picture of the social hall at St. Mary’s of the Lake; Dick explained that visiting Catholics liked to send postcards to show where they’d gone to Mass while on the road. Little did Rob imagine that one day his cards would show up on eBay, and be sought after by collectors. Printing by Plastichrome, Boston; love the faux deckle-edge.

krebs-by-rob-howard1

Rob Howard Sherwood Inn

Sold

Glen Haven Tinted

In August of 1913, Clara Specht, who loved to send postcards, sent this one of the Glen Haven Hotel to a friend in Los Angeles with the note: “This hotel has been sold and moved away and it was a pretty spot for Syracusans in summer.” The card itself was a “Quatro-Chrome” postcard, printed in Germany for the Wallace-Hahn drugstore in Skaneateles.