West Lake in Sepia

West Lake Sepia

West Lake Street seen from Genesee Street, with what is today The Lady of the Lake B&B on the right. Love the hitching posts and stepping stones along the edge of the street.

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Hunt’s Garage

1942 Ford Police Car at B & T Garage

Hunt’s Garage at 7 Hannum Street is not an architectural jewel, nor the former home of a famous summer resident, but it is nonetheless a repository of Village history.

Let us begin with Fred. One can go farther back to the first internal combustion engine, but for Skaneateles, Fred J. Humphryes is a good start. Fred was a mechanic, and had a shop in the village. He added an electric motor to his shop in November of 1904, when the local power plant began providing “all-day service.”

Gosper Engine Ad

In 1905, Fred was producing gasoline engines designed by Harry C. Gosper of Elmira, N.Y. The Motor Boat magazine noted that he was placing Gosper engines in boats built by the Skaneateles Boat & Canoe Company, and Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal reported:

“F.J. Humphryes, Skaneateles, N.Y., is making the Gosper gasoline automobile and marine engines in the following sizes: 1 1/2, 2 and 4 H.P. single cylinder; 6 and 10 H.P double cylinder; 15 and 20 H.P. four cylinder; and also the Gosper stationary engines in 1 1/2, 2 and 4 H.P. single cylinder sizes.”

The auto industry in 1905 was far different than today’s. There were thousands of auto makers in the U.S.A. The city of Syracuse alone hosted the Franklin Automobile Co., Brennan Motor Manufacturing Co., Century Motor Vehicle Co. (makers of a steam-powered model), H. A. Moyer Automobile Co., Chase Motor Truck Co., Palmer-Moore Co. and Sanford-Herbert Motor Truck Co.

In 1908, the Ford Motor Co. introduced the Model T, and five years later sped up production with the first assembly line, lowering costs and bringing automobiles within reach of middle-income buyers.

In October of 1912, Skaneateles got its first auto dealership, selling Ford cars. People’s Motor Sales was formed by Fred Humphryes, John L. Schultz and Albert J. Allen, based in Humphryes’ shop on Hannum Street.

Pumping Air 1913 copy1913

In 1913, People’s Motor Sales was listed as the exclusive Ford agency for Skaneateles, Marcellus and Spafford, selling a five-passenger Touring Car for $600 and a two-passenger Roadster for $525, with windshield, speedometer and five lamps standard. In 1914, the Ford Town Car was added, priced at $800. During this time, the dealership also sold Willys-Overland Cars, made in Toledo, Ohio.

In October of 1914, Fred Humphryes retired from People’s Motor Sales, selling his interest to Charles Wadsworth. The following spring, Howard B. Smith, known locally as “Bish,” graduated from high school and joined the firm as a mechanic. In December of 1915, Smith and Thomas R. Kelley of Auburn leased the People’s Motor Sales’ garage and ran it as the Ideal Garage, conditioning and storing automobiles over the winter. Shortly after that, Smith became the sole owner of People’s Motor Sales. His tenure would be short, and end in tragedy.

In the winter of 1916-17, Smith and Hans Pries, a mechanic from Auburn, were fine-tuning a “motor sleigh” owned by George Hiscock, son of Frank Hiscock, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The vehicle had one wheel in the back and runners up front, and was propelled by a two-cylinder motorcycle engine. On Tuesday, January 16, 1917, after testing the sled on the snow-covered streets of the village, Smith and Pries decided to take it out onto the lake ice, with Pries driving and Smith behind him, sitting backwards to shield his face from the wind.

The sled could reach 50 miles per hour, but was not built to turn. As good ice turned to bad, Pries tried to steer but only skidded, farther and farther out, until the sled plunged through the ice into 20 feet of water, just east of Roosevelt Hall. Both men drowned.

Smith’s funeral closed every business in the village. Among the honorary pall bearers were Fred Humphryes, John Schultz and Albert Allen, the original founders of People’s Motor Sales.

In March of 1917, Mary Smith, Howard’s mother, sold People’s Motor Sales to George Mason Perry of the Perry Motor Co. of Syracuse. In April, the existing garage building was moved to a lot on Griffin Street and construction began on the concrete block building we know today.

Bowen Garage

In July, People’s Motor Sales changed hands again when George Bowen of Marcellus acquired the firm. Bowen ran the business from there until 1922, when he started work on a new garage on West Genesee Street, on a lot east of Lake View cemetery.

The new owners of the building on Hannum Street were George S. Bentley and Lemuel P. Thomas, who opened for business in October of 1925 selling Chrysler cars as “Bentley & Thomas.”

Chrysler 60

1927

The Stock Market Crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, and for the next several years it must have been difficult to sell anything, much less a new automobile. But Bentley & Thomas soldiered on and went out of their way to attract buyers.

In April of 1931, they sponsored an appearance by Jack Randall, “the man of mystery,” who drove a Chrysler through the streets of Skaneateles while blindfolded. An account of Randall’s drive in Kingsport, Tennessee, gives us an idea of how the event may have played out here:

“Mr. Randall will start his drive in front of the Mills Motor Company… He will be blindfolded before a large crowd so they may see that his eyes are securely sealed shut and that yards and yards of bandage are wrapped about his head so there is no possible chance for him to see with his eyes. In the drive, Randall places himself in a semi-trance during which time his mind is open to all psychic impressions. He will drive either a Chrysler or Plymouth… The car will be of standard make and will be without any hidden controls or any other mechanism… The drive will demonstrate that the cars sold by the Mills Motor Co. are fool-proof and, although blindfolded, a person would have a fair chance to drive because the cars are as near perfect as can be made by modern engineers.”

That October, Bentley & Thomas hosted a “monster tire.” The tire, one of three made by Goodyear, was 12 feet high, 4 feet wide and weighed half a ton. Its inner tube alone weighed 125 pounds.

Goodyear Airwheel

George Bentley noted, “This tire isn’t just a stunt; it is rather an engineering and experimental development looking into the future. Some day, huge airplanes may land on tires patterned after this one.”

The company weathered the Depression and the years of World War II, selling cars, tires, gas, oil and outboard motors, inspecting tires during the war, and as a towing service for wrecked autos.

Safer

1949

Lemuel Thomas resigned in July of 1953, and the business continued until 1965, with George Bentley died. In August, Don Clark, a local Mobile oil distributor, bought the garage from Dorothy Bentley, George’s widow, and following year sold it to Lester R. Hunt of Marcellus. Les Hunt was a native of Marietta, went to Marcellus High School, and grew up “tinkering with cars.” He served in the U.S. Army in WWII.

Les Hunt Army Photo

Returning home, he first worked for Firestone in Syracuse, and later for a number of service stations and dealerships. Along the way, he attended a series of automotive schools.

Les Hunt died in 2000 and his son Norman took over the business. He runs it today in its 101-year-old building, keeping cars finely tuned and on the road for happy motoring.

* * *

“Blindfold Drive by the Man of Mystery,” Kingsport Times, Kingsport, Tenn., February 26, 1932

Photo of State Police car parked outside Bentley & Thomas, 1942, courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society.

Army photo of Les Hunt from the Marcellus Observer, October 6, 1944

 

Aspinwall’s Brook

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.

Mary Louisa and David Hall

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.

36 West Lake Vintage copy.jpg

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.

Furman Map 1874

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.

. . .

Sources:

“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