Libraries in Skaneateles

The present-day Skaneateles Library had its beginnings in 1877, but there were many forerunners.

Twelve years after the village was first settled, on March 2, 1806, the Skaneateles Library Company was incorporated by “proprietors” Elnathan Andrews, Thaddeus Edwards (chairman), Warren Hecox, Samuel Porter and Daniel Kellogg (treasurer and librarian). Kellogg held office until 1816, when he was succeeded by Alexander W. Beebe, who served until 1824. Beebe was followed by Phares Gould from 1824 to 1834, by James G. Porter in 1834 to 1835, and by E. H. Porter from 1835 to 1841.

More than 100 subscribers joined the organization, which held close to 400 volumes. The books generally resided in the office of the proprietor who was serving as librarian. The proprietors met after office hours on the first Tuesday of each month to return and borrow books. If two men wanted the same book, the privilege of withdrawing the volume first was auctioned off to the highest bidder. Any members discovered loaning a library book to a neighbor were fined 25 cents.

Beginning in 1834, William M. Beauchamp ran a circulating library from his book shop. The Great Fire of September, 1835, destroyed his shop, but he was soon back in business. He thanked those who had helped him, and requested that books taken out prior to the fire be returned.

Library After Fire 11 04 1835

This enterprise continued until 1850. His collection of several hundred volumes included biographies, histories, poetry and fiction “by the most distinguished authors.” The charge to join was $3.00 a year, and Beauchamp published a catalog so prospective users could browse before joining.

In December of 1834, the Skaneateles Mechanics’ Library & Literary Association was formed, and continued until 1842. There was an anti-slavery library, perhaps connected with the Skaneateles Anti-Slavery Society (founded in 1837) and/or the Skaneateles Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. The original Skaneateles Library Company was dissolved in 1841.

The Skaneateles Union School had a library, and hired a librarian in 1862. In 1875, an ad appeared in the Skaneateles Weekly Democrat for C.N. Hatch’s Circulating Library, housed in the Legg block. Two years later, B. F. Petheram & Son purchased the contents of the Hatch library and added the collection as a sideline to their store, with the lending of books “being conducted as formerly.”

:: The Skaneateles Library Association ::

Village leaders, however, were not satisfied with this patchwork assortment of libraries. The present Skaneateles Library Association was officially incorporated on October 20, 1877. The Association was set up as a subscription library; the annual cost was $2.00, ­ set lower than the norm so that anyone could join. The Reading Room was open days and evenings, to both men and women. The library was free of any denominational influence, open to all classes, and to workers in all industries. There was nothing exclusive about the library; the trustees truly wanted everyone to join.

The trustees were drawn from the directors of three village organizations: the Lyceum, the Lecture Association and the Debating Society, and included many prominent men:

William Marvin served as president of the Association from its founding until his death in 1902. He originally made his mark in Florida, as the Federal District Judge at Key West. At the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, President Andrew Johnson appointed Marvin as provisional Governor of Florida. In 1866, Marvin married Eliza Jewett, widowed daughter-in-law of Freeborn Jewett, and moved to Skaneateles. Marvin enjoyed an active retirement here, serving as Village President, as warden of St. James’ Episcopal Church, and as a trustee of the Lake View Cemetery Association.

Joseph C. Willetts served as vice president. He was a business man in Skaneateles and in New York City, active with the American Museum of Natural History, the Historical Society of New York City, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Edmund Norman Leslie, who served as the Association’s treasurer, came to Skaneateles in 1851 after a successful career in shipping. He was a vestryman and treasurer of St. James’ Episcopal church, Village president (1895-1896), and involved in every aspect of Village life, bidden or unbidden. In 1902, he published Skaneateles: History of its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times. He made many donations of books, newspapers and artifacts to the library.

Caleb W. Allis was a grocer, president of the Village (1860), Town Supervisor (1861-64), a trustee of the Skaneateles Savings Bank (1866), and president of the Bank of Skaneateles (1881).

Dr. George T. Campbell was a physician and pharmacist, and served as Town Supervisor (1871), president of the Onondaga Medical Society, and president of the Skaneateles Board of Education.

Joel Thayer served as the Village’s Postmaster, president of the Skaneateles Railroad Company, president of the Village Board of Trustees, president of the Lake View Cemetery Association and was the builder of Legg Hall, named in honor of his father-in-law.

Professor A. M. Wright was the principal of the Skaneateles school from 1875 to 1882.

Edward B. Coe was the wild-card trustee. He served as Town Supervisor (1869-1870) but this was not the source of his fame. In 1846, young Coe left the village for a three-year Pacific Ocean whaling voyage. He came ashore just in time to take part in the California Gold Rush. In 1850, he set sail again, bound for China, and vanished for 12 years. Given up for dead by most people, he reappeared at his mother’s door in 1862; he was so tanned and weathered that she did not recognize him. He had survived shipwreck, fever, and a journey to South Africa where he fought in the Caffre (Kaffir) War of 1852-53, hunted elephant and zebra, traded with the natives, and eventually thought to return home via England. Our own Magellan, he lived in Skaneateles for the next 20 years, a popular man with, most probably, the Village’s broadest repertoire of good stories.

Other trustees included Shuler D. Conover, Charles S. Hall, John Humphryes, Edwin L. Parker, John H. Smith, John C. Stephenson and Henry T. Webb.

In 1881, Lydia Cobane was appointed librarian, a position she held for the next 42 years.

The library’s first home was an office in the east end of the Legg Block, and its first book order was an offer of $155 for the contents of the Petheram lending library. Within a year, the reading room held 2,162 books with another 800 out on loan. There were 11 daily papers, 22 weekly papers and 11 monthly magazines. The librarian reported that an average of 40 “men” visited the room daily, but it was two women who kept the library solvent. Juliet Thayer (wife of the builder of Legg Hall and daughter of the man for whom it was named) offered the library a free lease for five years, and Amie Lapham pledged $200 annually for the same term.

:: The Building ::

In 1885, a parcel of land across Genesee street from Legg Hall became available for the sum of $2,000, and the directors raised the necessary money within 24 hours. The following year, local attorney Benoni Lee died and willed the association his tiny lot and brick office building, which bordered on the association’s recently purchased land and nicely rounded out the plot necessary to build. The firm of Green & Wicks of Buffalo, New York, was hired to design the new building. Edward Brodhead Green and William Sydney Wicks were Buffalo’s premier architects and many of their works (e.g., the old wing of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, the Buffalo Savings Bank) still grace that city.


For the Skaneateles Library, they first made a careful study of rural library architecture and designed a structure that embraced all the advanced ideas of the time, with attention to heating, lighting, ventilation, fire-proofing and the permanence and usefulness of the building. On April 12, 1888, work began on a building of a substantial nature, Onondaga limestone from the foundation to the chimney tops, crowned with a roof of Bangor slate and copper. Construction of the $18,000 building was quickly paid for by gifts from Skaneateles residents, but the library was not built without controversy.

:: The Big Snit ::

The library association’s board of directors was divided on what to do with Benoni Lee’s law office, also known as “The Sphinx.” Some favored its removal, but others felt it should be retained intact as a memorial to the donor, and the new library built around it. The latter camp carried the day, and Green & Wicks was presented with a terrific problem, i.e., how to incorporate this odd brick building into their design. The pro-Sphinx directors went so far as to find an attorney as a tenant, so the office would be “a living memorial,” and the newly installed attorney said he did not want a library entrance through his office. And so the library was built around The Sphinx, an object of wonder even today. (In 1987, the inner wall was breached for a doorway and The Sphinx became a part of the library, after a separation of 99 years.)


Chief among the anti-Sphinx dissenters was board member E. N. Leslie, who used his history of Skaneateles, published in 1902, to project his objections well into the next century. His ten-page screed includes no fewer than six unflattering photographs of the Sphinx, which he describes in withering tones as a degrading and disgraceful appendage. Letting go of The Sphinx for a moment, Leslie proclaimed that the new library’s stone chimneys were an unnecessary extravagance, and as proof offered, “Information from an authentic source indicates that there are no chimneys of the like character in Syracuse.”

Architecture was not the only bone Leslie had to pick with the library. In the 1880’s, one of the library association’s directors, Ezra B. Knapp, started a natural history collection of geological specimens and Native American artifacts. Knapp envisioned a collection modeled on that of the Smithsonian Institution, and corresponded with the Smithsonian’s director as he gathered specimens and artifacts. He also provided cases for the collection and its display. Leslie, in kind, donated maps, photographs of Skaneateles residents, framed sheets of “fractional currency” from both the United States and the Confederate States of America (first issued during the Civil War due to a severe shortage of metal for coins), other relics of the Civil War (although the library refused a rifle), giant clam shells from the Samoan Islands, and a gold nugget from the original California diggings. A man who did not shy from recognition for his generosity, Leslie wrote of this last prize that he “brought it home purposely to present it to the Library, and did present it, and it is the only natural nugget now in the Library collection, and without the name of the donor attached to it.” The library’s eclectic collection also sported a muskrat head, a Chinese slipper and “a tarantula with nest.”

:: The Dedication ::

The new building was dedicated on February 27, 1890. Association president William Marvin presided, spoke, and then introduced a guest speaker, the Director of the New York State Library, Melvil Dewey, creator of the Dewey Decimal System.


Dewey spoke off the cuff for one and one half hours, and charmed the audience. Surely Skaneateles was a village of good listeners.

The upstairs hall in the new library hosted numerous lecturers, including a talk on “Stanley in Africa” with stereoscopic glass slides, and educational programs such as a gramophone recital, a chess tournament and first aid classes. One of the most historic visits was by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a group of students from a small African-American college in Tennessee, founded in 1866, who began touring in 1871 to raise money to ensure the survival of their school. By the time they sang in Skaneateles, they had already performed in the White House for President Chester Arthur, and in England for Queen Victoria.

:: Historical Highlights ::

1890: The Skaneateles Lawn Tennis Association is offered the use of the grounds adjoining the library. A man writes to complain about the “over educated dudes who despise the working man,” while a woman writes to express her pleasure in watching them play from the window of the reading room.

1891: The librarian receives daily weather forecasts from Ithaca and flies flags to indicate the coming weather: white flag for fair, blue for rain or snow, and a triangular black flag flown above or below to indicate temperature change.

1895: The Fisk Jubilee Singers perform in “Library Hall” (upstairs); the proceeds are shared by Fisk University of Nashville, Tennessee, and the library, which nets $22.

1900: Literature for young people begins to appear in the library collection.

1900: The John D. Barrow Art Gallery, attached to the library, is opened, the space and paintings donated by the artist. Barrow (1824-1906), is a second generation Hudson River School style painter who will also serve as the library association’s president in 1905.

1902: William Marvin, the library’s first president, dies after 25 years of service, and the association’s presidency becomes something of a hot seat. Marvin is replaced by Joseph Willitts, who dies in 1904. He is followed by George Hannah, a professional librarian, who dies in 1905. John D. Barrow follows, and dies in 1906. He is replaced by his brother, local attorney George Barrow.


Library postcard by the C.C.E. & E. Co., of Syracuse, N.Y., early 1900s

1903: The library catalog lists 11,000 volumes. The librarian reports that 75% of the circulated books are fiction, but the trustees continue, overwhelmingly, to purchase non-fiction titles for the collection. Among the popular authors of fiction are Flaubert, Charlotte Bronte, Kipling, Dickens, James Fennimore Cooper, Bret Harte, Jack London, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Arthur Conan Doyle.

1905: The library starts a “Sunshine Alcove” where a group of “cheery books” are kept for devotees of light reading.






1914-1919: The Great War rages in Europe and the library becomes a center of war relief efforts. Clothing for Belgian children is gathered; the Red Cross meets; Christmas boxes are packed for children in France; more than 1,000 books are donated for U.S. soldiers.

Pano Library

1915: The November issue of New York Libraries notes, “To the long list of generous gifts made to the Skaneateles Library is now added one which crowns them all and gives the institution the means of taking a new and leading place as an educational force in the community. This is a bequest of $20,000 left by the late Mrs. Mary Bartlett Kellogg, sister of the late Judge Bartlett of the State Court of Appeals.” The article also notes that the library “has a stock of books which would do credit to a village or city ten times the size of Skaneateles.”

1917: The Silence Room becomes an informal space in which young people “do their courting.” In a speech at the Library Institute in Syracuse, Eugene Stone notes, “It is as quiet as can be there. It is supposed to be a reading room, but they don’t read much.”



1923: Lydia Cobane dies, after serving as librarian for 42 years. She is replaced for one month by Ada E. Earll, and then by A. Grace Petheram who will serve until 1934.

SLA Stamp

1933: On November 11th, the Skaneateles Press notes:

“We are pleased to call to the attention of our people the changes and improvements that are being made in the Skaneateles Library. In the forty-five years since the library was built, little has been done to it, except to keep it in a moderate degree of repair. In the meantime, so great advancement has been made in library construction that the Skaneateles building seems both antiquated and inadequate. As the stacks have been arranged, they shut out most of the light from the windows. This, together with the dark ceiling and walls and the poor lighting, made it almost impossible to read without straining the eyes. The present arrangement of the stacks, the change in the walls and ceiling, and an up-to-date lighting system will add greatly to the comfort of all patrons of the library. A section, well lighted, for the use of the young people has been planned; and we feel sure they will appreciate it. Dr. G.H. Butler and Mr. H.E. Adams have worked untiringly, and it is to their efforts that the public is indebted for the work that has been done.”

1934: The library hires its first professional librarian, Margaret Janvier Hort, a recent graduate of the Syracuse University School of Library Science. In the summer, students from the Library School create the library’s first card catalog, creating a formal list of 7,000 books and typing 24,000 cards.

1935: The librarian introduces a Story Hour for children on Saturday mornings, meets with teachers at the schools to encourage students to use the library, and reports a 50% increase in the number of books in circulation.

On July 25th, the Library Column on the front page of the Skaneateles Press notes, “At this season of the year, one’s fancy turns to cold creepy murder mysteries, red hot Western sizzlers, and romances which portray such a world as we have dreamed in our happiest moments. The Library collection has many books to suit the moods of the moment.”

Library with Parked Cars

1941-1945: The Second World War creates a paper shortage which limits book publishing, and a coal shortage which forces the library to close evenings during the winter, and ultimately for all of January and February in 1945.

Library Circa 1949

The Library, circa 1949

1965: The library collection numbers 24,000 books with an annual circulation of about 47,000 per year.

1980: On August 16th, the Skaneateles Festival holds its first concert in Skaneateles Library Hall. Lindsay Groves is the music director. The first night includes Mozart’s Quartet for Flute and Strings, K. 285, with Eleanor Robinson, flute; Ravel’s Chansons Madecasses with soprano Donna Miller; and Brahms’ Piano Quartet in G minor with Mary Boyd, piano; Judy Clare, violin; Marilyn Smith, viola; and Lindsay Groves, cello. Also, pianist Brian Israel performs Harris Lindenfeld’s “From the Grotte des Cambarelles” and Beethoven’s Archduke Trio with Steven Stalker, cello, and Janet Brady, violin.

1987: The wall between the “Sphinx” and the library is opened to provide additional space and create a separate Children’s Room.

1996: The children’s room is redecorated with new shelving, and murals by illustrator and artist Patience Brewster.

2009: The Skaneateles Library Association joins the Onondaga County Public Library (OCPL) system.


* * *

The Skaneateles Library

The John D. Barrow Gallery

The Skaneateles Festival

Sources: “History of the Town of Skaneateles,” Onondaga’s Centennial, Dwight H. Bruce, ed., Boston History Co., 1896, Vol. II, pp. 977-1015; “History of the Town of Skaneateles,” Past and Present of Syracuse and Onondaga County, The Rev. William M. Beauchamp, N.Y., S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1908, pp. 421-431; Skaneateles: History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times, Edmund Norman Leslie; N.Y., Press of Andrew Kellogg, 1902; “History of the Skaneateles Library,” Mary H. Weber, typed manuscript of paper prepared for the Syracuse University School of Library Science, 1965. Photo of the library in winter, above, by Cleen Hoselton.


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