It was said that Clarence Austin didn’t like children playing in his fields, and he used to chase them away. So when his will was read in 1927, and he had donated his land to the Village of Skaneateles for a park, where children could play all day, many people were surprised.
The Austin family had owned the land since 1810, when Aaron Austin bought 150 acres from William Vredenburg. On his land, considered then to be “out in the country,” Aaron built a house near what is today the corner of Jordan and Austin Streets. When Aaron died in 1831, his nephew, Ebenezer, took over the Austin farm. Ebenezer and his wife, Sarah, lived there for more than 50 years. Ebenezer and Sarah’s son, Franklin, brought his wife, Louisa, to the farm in 1860. And Franklin and Louisa’s son, Clarence Mason Austin, was born there on November 17, 1861.
In addition to hosting four generations of Austins, the farm had other visitors. Writing of his childhood, the Rev. William Beauchamp noted, “In our school days we sometimes went to Austin’s woods to declaim, ‘and the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang’ with the speeches of the free schoolboys.” *
Clarence Austin decided he was not cut out for farming. After attending Skaneateles Academy, he went away to Amherst College, where he was a member of Delta Upsilon fraternity and a graduate in the class of 1885. From college, he went into the coal business in Chicago. In 1889, he moved to Seattle, where for the next 30 years he dealt in bonds and investment securities.
In 1917, Franklin Austin died, and Clarence, his only child, returned home from Seattle to live in the homestead. Clarence was described as refined, cultured and well-read; he lived in the home for the last ten years of his life, and a newspaper article about the auction of his belongings in 1927 sheds some light on the style in which he lived:
“The Executors of the estate of the late Clarence M. Austin will sell at auction at the old Austin Homestead on Jordan Street… the antique furniture and furnishings handed down by the family of the deceased and his later valuable additions thereto. A list of the articles is not attempted but it would include a mahogany sofa, two mahogany seats, large mahogany desk, mahogany dining table and serving table, several sets of old andirons, fire screens, large mahogany grandfather hall clock, new and good Radiola, Indian baskets and blankets, carpets, rugs, curtains, china, glass, etc., etc.”
Before the auction came two bequests of interest:
“I give and bequeath to Katherine Hurd Cummings, daughter of my friend George Hurd, the sum of one thousand dollars and my six oriental rugs and silk Spanish shawl.
“… to the Skaneateles Library Association the sum of five hundred dollars and also all my books, etchings, paintings and pictures and bronze and porcelain statuary.”
Most importantly, Clarence Austin bequeathed a portion of his land to the Village for use as a park and another portion to provide additional land for the school. The family home was given to the Village for use as a community center. The text of the will (filed on July 10, 1922), regarding the Austin Park bequest, reads as follows:
“SEVENTH: I grant and devise to the Village of Skaneateles all that part of my real estate on Block 4 in the Village of Skaneateles, according to Griffin’s map, bounded and described as follows: Bounded on the west by Jordan Street, on the north by the north line of said village, on the east by Syracuse (State) Street, and on the south by the center line of the gulch or stream running from said Syracuse Street southwest to Austin Street and from the point where said stream crosses Austin Street, on the south by Austin Street, together with my house and barns thereon, in trust however that said parcel of land shall be held and kept perpetually as a public park for the use and good of the people and the same to be known as ‘Austin Park’ to commemorate the Austin family, a name associated with this section from the early days.”
Within six months of Clarence Austin’s death, his clear intent was already being clouded by those with other plans. On February 17, 1928, an item in the Skaneateles Press announced that the land was “destined to become the Skaneateles Airport,” and added, “Austin left it to the village with the provision that it might be converted into a park or used for any purpose the town should see fit.” That last phrase was quite a leap.
One of the prime movers in this effort was Eugene Horle, a pilot and would-be airplane salesman. In the Village, this is the first recorded instance of a pilot attempting to hijack a park. The rationale given was that Clarence Austin had known pioneer aircraft builder William Boeing. While Austin may have known Boeing – both were in Seattle from 1908 to 1917 – the stretch was too great; Horle and his supporters at the Skaneateles Press did not prevail.
But neither did a park appear. The land lay fallow for 10 years after the bequest. In 1938, the Boy Scouts began to plant pine seedlings, and over the next 10 years, hundreds of pine trees and berried shrubs were planted, attracting woodpeckers, scarlet tanagers, flickers, red-winged blackbirds, black and white warblers, wood thrush, tufted titmice and chickadees, as well as pheasants, turkeys and geese. The woods were also home to white-tailed deer, raccoons, gray squirrels, woodchucks, skunks, muskrats, rabbits and weasels.
The fields and woods were used by villagers, young and old, for play, walking and relaxation. Sarah Brice Milford, a member of the Skaneateles Garden Club, would walk into the pine woods in warm weather and nap under the trees. Milford taught others not to pick wildflowers, so they would be there for the next person who passed.
Austin Brook, a favorite play area of village children, flowed across the land and emptied into Skaneateles Creek after passing under Austin, Elizabeth, Jordan and Fennell Streets.
The Austin house was used during World War II by the Red Cross, the Boy Scouts and others, but in May of 1946, it was offered for sale. Some were unhappy about this move by Village officials, but the home was sold, picked up and moved three blocks east in September of 1946. On its new site on East Street, at the east end of Elizabeth Street, the house was renovated and pillars were added to the front. It stands there today, almost totally screened by a high hedge from the Skaneateles High School.
The land available for a park, meanwhile, was shrinking. In 1950, the Village gave the American Legion part of Austin’s land in exchange for land on Genesee Street, a plot known as Sundial Park, and $1500 in cash. The land swap had one immediate result. When the Garden Club learned that some of the Austin land was passing into the possession of the American Legion, they abandoned any further plantings.
(Bordering the lake’s outlet on Genesee Street, Sundial Park became the site of the Village’s post office for 50 years. In 1999, the land was sold again and is today the site of the Packwood House hotel.)
In 1958, Austin Park began to take shape; volunteers donated plans, material and labor for baseball diamonds, basketball and tennis courts. For a time, the park hosted a “microd” track for small plywood cars powered by lawn mower engines. Also planned but never realized were hillside gardens and a municipal nine-hole “chip & putt” golf course designed in 1961.
Hockey players had been skating on the land for decades, when autumn’s standing water and winter’s freezing temperatures allowed, but in 1969, William G. Allyn—captain of the 1925 Skaneateles High School hockey team—offered to pay half the cost of a rink, with New York State paying the other half. Allyn Arena was completed in 1971, and has since served Skaneateles as a skating rink, as well as hosting summer concerts, musicals, antique shows and the Rotary Club Fathers’ Day Pancake Breakfast.
The long list of other benefactors includes the Austin Park Board, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, Skaneateles Garden Club, Jaycees, Rotary Club, Lions Club, Skaneateles Volunteer Fire Department, Youth Hockey, Figure Skating, Town and Village government, Skaneateles Schools, and many area businesses and individuals. Our thanks to them all, and especially to Clarence.
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* The account of boys practicing their speeches in the Austin woods is from the Rev. William M. Beauchamp’s “Notes of Other Days in Skaneateles” in The Skaneateles Democrat, 1876. The quote within his quote is from a poem, “The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers in New England” by Felicia Dorothea Hemans (1793-1835):
“Amidst the storm they sang,
And the stars heard, and the sea;
And the sounding aisles of the dim woods rang
To the anthem of the free!”
The picture of Clarence, and his unnamed but handsome dog, is from the collection of the Skaneateles Library Association.