Between St. James’ Episcopal Church and Legg Hall are two parks, both gifts to the Village of Skaneateles.
In the 1860s, both plots of land were in a wild state, sloping from an unpaved Genesee Street down to the water. The St. James’ seawall ended at the church’s western boundary. In 1873, the people of St. James’ built a new church, but the land to the west remained in its natural state.
Joel Thayer owned the parcel of land next to Legg Hall, across Genesee Street from his home (today The Thayer House condominiums). In 1874, he built a seawall, filled in the slope and created a park.
When his park was complete, he opened it to the public. In 1922, his granddaughters, May and Eva Webb, formally deeded Joel Thayer’s park to the Village.
That same year, Frederick Carleton Austin, a native of Skaneateles and a graduate of the Skaneateles Academy who had gone on to business success in Chicago, visited Skaneateles and saw the overgrown land between St. James’ and Thayer Park. He promised that if the land came up for sale, he would buy and donate the land to the Village. When he did make the purchase, he offered an endowment of $25,000 to maintain the land, provided the Village would build a seawall to link the walls already raised by St. James’ and Joel Thayer.
Frederick C. Austin knew construction. He was the founder and president of Municipal Engineering and Contracting Company of Chicago, and of the F.C. Austin Drainage Excavator Company. When the United States was building the Panama Canal (1904-1914), Austin’s firms provided excavation equipment and concrete mixing machinery. His companies also made earth movers, road graders and paving machines. (In the Village of Skaneateles, an F.C. Austin sprinkler helped to keep down the street dust in the summer.)
Austin was as generous as he was successful. In Chicago, he planned a major gift to Northwestern University. In January of 1929, he donated the F.C. Austin Building, an 11-story “skyscraper” valued at $3,000,000, and also promised to leave the remainder of his estate to fund scholarships to the business school. In return, Northwestern agreed to assume responsibility for any bequests made by Austin in his will.
One of those obligations was the $25,000 gift to the Village of Skaneateles, which was so far unclaimed. In the six years since Austin’s offer, the Village had made no progress on the seawall. In 1929, Austin stipulated that the Village had just five years to build, or there would be no $25,000.
In 1931, when F.C. Austin died, the Village still had not begun construction. Work finally started in December of 1933; thirty men on the relief roles were employed by street commissioner William Hennessey and paid by the Civilian Works Administration. The lake was low, so it was an ideal time to work on the wall. But it was not until 1935 that the trustees of Northwestern University were informed of the wall’s completion, a full 14 months after Austin’s five-year deadline had passed.
Fortunately for Skaneateles, the Northwestern University trustees were good sports, and in 1936 they wrote the check to honor F.C. Austin’s wishes. In 1939, after another three years had passed, the Village placed a small marker in F.C. Austin Park to honor its creator.
Today, the land between Legg Hall and St. James’ is one expanse of green, thanks to the generosity of the Thayer-Webb family and F.C. Austin. Austin’s contribution, however, has been overshadowed by that of his distant cousin, Clarence Mason Austin, who in 1927 died and left his land for Austin Park, thought by many to be the only Austin Park in the Village. But at Northwestern University, more than 770 students have benefited from F.C. Austin Scholarships and the benefactor’s name lives on.
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The Book of Chicagoans: a biographical dictionary of leading living men of the city of Chicago (1911) by Albert Nelson Marquis; History of the Panama Canal, Its Construction and Builders (1915) by Ira Elbert Bennett; Letter to the editor of the Skaneateles Press, June 5, 1943, by Spencer L. Adams; hand-written notes of Helen Ionta, Village Historian, from the files of the Skaneateles Historical Society; website of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.