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.)
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
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“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.
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).
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.
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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