Skaneateles, 1839

Skaneateles, at the outlet of the lake, is the second of those attractive lake cities (Cazenovia being the first) that we encounter in traveling this great western thoroughfare. It contains four churches, an academy, and five grist-mills that can make forty thousand barrels of flour annually, also four saw, four carding and cloth-dressing mills, two woollen factories, two furnaces and foundaries, two machine-shops, four tanneries, two carriage factories, two taverns, eight stores, three hundred houses, and two thousand one hundred and fifty inhabitants.

“The site of the village is unsurpassed in its complete command of the lake, that is as transparent as air; its banks romantic, picturesque, and rising into eminences of several hundred feet at its southern termination; it abounds with trout in its deep cool waters, that reflect, like a mirror, the hills and slopes, woods, meadows, and pure white farm houses.

“Petrifactions also abound here; on the east, and on a level with the water, are organic remains of the cornu ammonis, imbedded in slate. Three miles north of the outlet, the creek sinks into the rocks below the falls of seventy feet, and is lost for some distance, but this is often the case in Florida, and in limestone countries. The Indian name of this lake, as preserved, means LONG; it is fed by springs, and is fifteen miles long by one half to one and a half wide.”

The North American Tourist (1839) by A.T. Goodrich

The Livingstons of Skaneateles

I want to tell you about John W. Livingston of Skaneateles, and the famous writer he once hosted at his estate on East Lake Road, but first I feel the need to illuminate the Livingston pedigree.

You no doubt recall John Livingston (1714-1786), “The Loyalist,” a wealthy merchant from New York who remained loyal to England during the American Revolution. His son, John William Livingston (1754-1830), also a Loyalist, served as a Captain in the King’s American Rifles. Capt. John W. Livingston was blessed with a son of his own in 1778 and named him John W. Livingston.

The loyalist Captain Livingston also had a daughter, named Eliza; in 1801, Eliza married a U.S. Navy surgeon named Dr. William Turk; they had a son who they named John William Turk. In 1842, John William Turk married a cousin, Mary Augusta Livingston, one of three daughters of his mother Eliza’s brother, our own John W. Livingston (1778-1860). The following year, the young Turk legally changed his name to John W. Livingston, thus becoming his uncle’s namesake as well as his nephew and son-in-law. I have no idea how they tagged their Christmas presents.

With that made clear, I can go back 50 years to pick up the thread of the narrative:

Our John W. Livingston (1778-1860) was for a time an officer, like his father, but in the new American military rather than the British-American military; he served as a Captain of Artillery and Engineers from 1798 to 1804; as an engineer, he selected sites for fortifications on the frontier of the new republic. After resigning his military commission, John married Julia Adel Broome (1780-1844), daughter of John Broome, a New York City importer of tea, china and silk. Julia Broome Livingston’s sister, Sarah Broome, married James Boggs. In 1808, John W. Livingston and James Boggs, brothers-in-law, went into business together, forming an auction house, Boggs & Livingston, in New York City. They were, by all accounts, wildly successful.

At the beginning of the War of 1812, John W. Livingston returned to the military and rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel; for a time he served as adjutant to the Governor of New York, Daniel Tompkins, whose Lt. Governor was John Broome, Lt. Col. John W. Livingston’s father-in-law. It was a small world.

:: Skaneateles ::

At the war’s end in 1815, Lt. Col. John W. Livingston was appointed U.S. Marshal of the Northern District of New York and took up residence in Skaneateles, living in a large house with beautiful grounds on the eastern shore of the lake, just a mile south of the village.

The land and house already had a history of their own. Military Lot No. 44 was given to one John Shultz in payment for his military service during the American Revolution. The land was uncleared and there were no roads leading to it, so Shultz, like many other soldiers, sold his land to a speculator, in this case Judge Jedediah Sanger, our first developer. In 1801, Col. Sebra Brainerd and Ebenezer Pardee bought the land from Sanger for $500, and built two log cabins and a barn.

In 1807, they sold the newly cleared farm to Gershom Hall for $1250. Two years later, Gershom and his wife Keziah entered into an agreement with their son Loammi Hall and his wife to work the land together and raise “a good and sufficient house” in which both their families could live. (Students of Biblical names will of course recognize Gershom as the firstborn son of Moses and Zipporah, Lo-ammi as the eldest son of the prophet Hosea, and Keziah as the second daughter of Job to be born after his restoration from affliction.)

In 1815, Col. Livingston paid the Hall families $4,750 for the house and farm, and moved in with his wife and two daughters — Julia and Adele. (A third daughter, Mary Augusta, was born after the move to Skaneateles.) Among their personal effects were a pianoforte which Julia’s father, John Broome, had imported from London, and a silver pitcher made by Paul Revere.


As an officer of the government and a wealthy man, John Livingston was an important person in the community. In 1816, when St. James’ Episcopal Church was organized, he was named as one of the vestrymen; also that year, when money was raised to build a new dam at the outlet of the lake, John W. Livingston was one of signers of the deed.

:: The Visiting Writer ::

In 1827, young Adele Livingston had a visitor, Nathaniel Parker Willis, a student from Yale who was on his “grand tour” prior to graduation. Willis was already recognized as a poet, and was on his way to building a great reputation as a man of letters and, also, as a guest.

A jaunty and aristocratic lad, Willis found the Livingston home to be a “little palace of cultivation and refinement” in the wilderness that was then upstate New York. In a later work entitled Edith Linsey, Willis cast the home as Fleming Farm. In the chapter called “Love in the Library,” he described the Livingston sisters as “quite too pretty to have been left out of my story so long,” and noted that they “were more indulgent, I thought, to the indigenous beaux of Skaneateles than those aboriginal specimens had a right to expect.”


A sketch of young Nathaniel Parker Willis

Together, Adele and Nathaniel went horseback riding around the lake, and Willis later gave us this glimpse of the home’s interior:

“There was a long room in the southern wing of the house fitted up as a library. It was a heavily curtained, dim old place, with deep-embayed windows, and so many nooks, and so much furniture, that there was a hushed air, that absence of echo within it, which is the great charm of a haunt for study or thought.”

It was, however, a family connection who would ultimately win Adele Livingston’s heart. A young clerk at Boggs & Livingston, named Joseph Sampson, had worked his way up through the company, which in 1830 became Boggs, Sampson & Thompson. In 1831, Adele settled her affections upon Mr. Sampson and they were married in Skaneateles, at home, by The Rev. Samuel W. Brace, a Presbyterian.

:: Back to New York City ::

Joseph and Adele Livingston Sampson settled in New York City where their fortunes flourished. In 1837, Adele’s parents returned to New York City as well, leaving Skaneateles after John retired from his duties as U.S. Marshal.

In 1840, Joseph Sampson bought the New York mansion of banker Samuel Ward for $70,000. No less an authority than John Jacob Astor remarked at the time that he hadn’t known there was any one in New York who could afford to pay such a price for a residence. Joseph Sampson could. It was said of him, “His clearness of vision in business matters made his advice most valuable to those associated with him, while his even temperament prevented his losing his head in times of panic and financial trouble.”

On August 23, 1841, Joseph and Adele were blessed with the birth of a daughter. Eight days later, on September 1st, Adele Livingston Sampson died. Joseph Sampson named his daughter Adele Livingston Sampson.

:: The Second Adele ::

The second Adele Livingston Sampson had no connection with Skaneateles, but her story bears telling. The New York Times once observed of her, she “was not very pretty, but she was very chic, and, moreover, had a large fortune.” The fortune came from Joseph Sampson, her father, whose fortunes continued to thrive; he was a founder of The Chemical Bank of New York, and a successful investor. He sent Adele to the Priory School for Girls in Pelham Manor, N.Y., and then abroad for “finishing.”

In 1862, Adele married Frederick W. Stevens; they had four children, and Mrs. Stevens became a notable society hostesses; she summered at Newport and rode to the hounds with the Westbury hunting set. In 1872, her father died and she inherited almost his entire fortune, becoming one of the richest women in America. She had fond memories of her school, the Priory, and in 1883, when it closed, she bought the building and grounds; nine years later, when her daughter became Mrs. Frederick H. Allen, she presented the estate to her as a wedding gift.


The Priory in Pelham Manor

And then, delicious scandal. The New York Times breathlessly recounted:

“… early in the season, it was whispered, then rumored, and finally boldly stated that Mrs. Stevens’ name had been stricken from off the society list, and that she had gone to Europe to join no less a person than the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord, leaving husband and children behind. It was then remembered that the Marquis, who himself was a married man, having married Miss Bessie Curtis, of the old Boston family of that name, and who had visited New-York and Newport in 1876 and again about 1881, had evinced so decided a preference for Mrs. Stevens’s society that some gossip was provoked at the time.

“The fact that Mrs. Stevens, however, should have gone so far as to leave home and family for a Frenchman of no particular personal attractions, the Marquis being short and rather stout and decidedly ordinary-looking, and being moreover supposed to be deeply in debt, and a man having wife and family, occasioned the utmost sensation and surprise.”

Adele was ostracized from New York society, and went her own way. In 1887, she divorced her husband and married the Marquis de Talleyrand-Perigord; his elderly uncle, the Duc de Dino, abdicated his title making the Marquis the new duke and Adele a duchess. Henry Adams, in a letter of 1907, spoke of meeting the banished Adele while visiting a friend’s chateau in France:

“I went down with the Jones’s and tumbled headlong into the arms of the Duchess Sampson. The last time I was in the same room was with Mr. and Mrs. Fred Stevens and Mr. & Mrs. Fred Jones, somewhere about the year 1880. Since then, I doubt whether any relations have existed. The moment was more than hazardous, but passed off without a shock. Never have I seen so melodramatic a situation, and not a sign of it betrayed.”

In 1912, Adele Livingston Sampson Stevens, the Duchess de Dino, died in Paris; she left more than $1,000,000 to her four children, in equal shares, as well as shares in the trust fund established for her by her father.

:: Julia Livingston Tappan ::


Julia Livingston Tappan, circa 1852

Circling back in time: The eldest of the three lovely Livingston sisers, Julia, in 1828 married Henry P. Tappan, a graduate of the nearby Auburn Theological Seminary, which was then training young men to be clergy on the frontier. Tappan was a clergyman for a time, then taught philosophy at various colleges before becoming the first president of the University of Michigan in 1852. Although the University thrived under Professor Tappan, he was fired by the Board of Regents in 1863. The ten regents, of whom only two were college-educated, thought Tappan put on “lofty airs” and one in particular objected to his drinking wine with dinner. After his firing, an “act of savage, unmitigated barbarism” according to The American Journal of Education, the Tappan family moved to Europe, and never returned.

:: Nathaniel Parker Willis ::

Having survived his visit to the wilds of Skaneateles, N.P. Willis went on to a glowing literary life. In the elegant circles of Boston, he would be “much admired and caressed.” As a publisher and editor, he was a friend to every major American writer, including Emerson, Lowell and Hawthorne, as well as England’s Dickens and Thackery. Willis was the first to publish Edgar Allen Poe’s poem “The Raven.” (Poe once noted charitably, “Willis… he’s not quite an ass.”) As a writer, Willis was one of America’s most popular and best-paid.

In 1832, he went to Europe; his travel writings were collected as Pencillings by the Way. One biographer noted, “He wrote in the tone and style of a young prince.” His titles say it all: Inklings of Adventure, Loiterings of Travel, Dashes at Life with a Free Pencil, People I Have Met, Fun Jottings. Sadly, Willis’ frothy light writing did not wear well, nor did his image. As he aged, the soft, straying forelock of his younger days evolved into glued curls, and he was said to be, in Walt Whitman’s words, “the horror of photographers,” who could but fail to capture his fleeting youth.

Willis Brady

Nathaniel Parker Willis, photographed by Mathew Brady

But he was not forgotten by his peers. When he died at the age of 60, the bookstores of Boston closed for his funeral service, and his pallbearers included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and Thomas Bailey Aldrich.

:: The House ::


Alone among our players, the home still stands. After the Livingston family, the house was occupied by a retired New York merchant, Dyer Brainerd. Of the house and its new tenant, William Beauchamp, in his Notes on Other Days in Skaneateles, wrote, “His old home, with its fine thorn hedge, was long one of the most noticeable near Skaneateles, and many were the pleasant entertainments that occurred there.”

A succession of private owners lived in, altered, and restored the house, and sold off large pieces of the estate. Briefly in the early 1950’s, the house was used as a restaurant named Gnarlehedge House, open during the summer for luncheon and dinner, with a House Museum for its guests. Since 1956, the home has again been a private residence.

:: Sources ::

Nathaniel Parker Willis (1885) by Henry A. Beers; “Nathaniel Parker Willis” in Some Noted Princes, Authors & Statesmen of Our Time (1885) by James Parton; Prose Writings of N.P. Willis (1885); “Married To Her Marquis” NewYork Times, Jan. 27, 1887; “Duke and Duchess Part” New York Times, April 4, 1903; “Mrs. Sampson’s Will” New York Times, July 26, 1912; Crowding Memories (1920) by Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich; “The Story of Gnarlehedge House,” circa 1950, from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society; Historic Pelham website; Henry Adams in a letter to Elizabeth Cameron, June 1907; Gnarlehedge House advertisement from the Finger Lakes Lyric Circus theater program, June 24, 1952. And my thanks to Barbara Semans for corrections to an earlier draft.

Isaac Sherwood, 1769-1840

From the Auburn, N.Y., Cayuga Patriot of April 29, 1840:

Died, In this village, on Friday 24th instant, Isaac Sherwood, Esq., aged 70 years, 6  months, 11 days.

“The life of the deceased presents a remarkable instance of the successful application of a vigorous and practical mind to the pursuits of business, and it is due to his character, and to the extensive circle of his friends and acquaintances, to pay a passing tribute to his memory.

“Mr. Sherwood was born in Williamstown, Mass. 13th Oct. 1769. He came into this country in the year 1798, and settled on a farm within the limits of the present town of Sennett; in 1804 he removed to the village of Skaneateles where for a number of years he was engaged in mercantile business. In 1811, he joined the late Jason Parker, of Utica, in establishing a line of stages to run twice in a week between Utica and Geneva. It was in this last business in which he retained an interest to the time of his death, that he became more extensively identified with the interests of the community and so generally known. This business which had so lately so small a beginning was gradually extended under his supervision — as the population and business of the country increased until of late years five and six daily lines of Post Coaches have been insufficient to accommodate the traveling public.

“Decision and energy were perhaps the most prominent features in the character of the deceased and to these he added promptness and perseverance in action which stopped at no obstacles. These qualities imparted a marked character to all his business operations.

“Nor was it as a man of business alone that he excelled. His general intelligence and social qualities were no less conspicuous. Though his pursuits in life were not favorable to an extensive acquaintance with books, yet he read much and always to profit. His business pursuits enabled him to become acquainted with the leading men of the nation, and he had much of that best kind of knowledge — the knowledge of men and things.

“With a fund of information and of anecdote thus acquired and with a happy tact of communication — and a mind ever active and elastic his conversation possessed unusual point and interest.

“Of the kindlier qualities of his heart, the best evidences exist in the unwavering affections of the members of his family — and in the warm regard of those whose fortune it was to be his more familiar acquaintances.

“For the last five or six years he has resided in this village, and has had but little active participation in business. He however preserved his habits of exercise by travel and riding, down to the time of his confinement last fall; and though his great obesity of person rendered this necessary for the preservation of his health, however inconvenient it might be, yet he was equally impelled to it by his great activity and energy of mind — which made him impatient under inaction.

“He retained his reason to the last moment of his existence and died in the hope of an interest in the Redeemer.”

* * *

My thanks to the Cayuga County Historical Society and the Skaneateles Historical Society for this obituary of Isaac Sherwood, who founded “Sherwood’s Inn” in 1807.

Skaneateles, 1805

“July 20. Rose at half past two o’clock, and proceeded to Andrew’s, at Skaneateles, to breakfast, sixteen miles; a good tavern. The country is still hilly, but very fertile. The soil is deep, — a mixture of loam and clay. The roads here must be very bad in wet weather. It rained last night for the first time since we commenced our journey; and the horses’ feet, in consequence thereof, slipped as if they were travelling on snow or ice…

“Skaneateles is a pleasant village, situated on the northern extremity, and at the outlet of, the lake of the same name. The lake is from one to two miles wide, and sixteen miles long from north to south. There is a view of the village of about six miles up the lake. The country which encompasses this lake is delightful. There are no marshes or swamps to be seen; but the land sloops gently towards the water, so that wheat is seen growing to its very edge. The soil is remarkably fertile, free from rocks, and agreeably diversified with gentle swells.

“The lake, moreover, abounds with fish of all kinds usually found in fresh water, and the outlet affords a most excellent seat for mills and other water-works. Here are already a grist and saw mill, a carding-machine, and to distil-houses, which are supplied with water from the lake, though many rods distant, by means of pumps wrought by water. The pumps discharge their water into perpendicular logs or pipes, from which it descends, and then runs along in an aqueduct till it reaches the distil-house, and then rises again.

“The dam which is thrown across the outlet raises the water over the whole surface of the lake. This is the reason there is no beach now to be seen on its borders, but the verdure meets the water. It is remarkable that this flowing should not overflow any lands adjacent to the lake, except a small tract at the southern or upper extremity of the lake; and the proprietor of the dam has purchased the right to flow that.”

— Timothy Bigelow in Journal of a Trip to Niagara Falls in the Year 1805 (1876)

Note: The tavern Bigelow mentions was the first ever in the village, kept first by James Porter, then by Nathan Barnes, then by Elnathan Andrews. Should you wish to commune with the tavern’s spirit, its site lies on Genesee Street approximately where the red brick bank is today, between the Masonic Hall to the west and State Street to the east. Andrews also kept a “travelers barn” across the street on the lake shore; in 1807, the barn was the only building on the south side of the road and was itself famous, in its day, for briefly sheltering the first elephant ever seen in the village of Skaneateles.

Skaneateles, 1804

“At five next morning we started (from the outlet of Owasco Lake); it had frozen, and the road was in many places deep and slippery. I insensibly got into a hard step of walking; Isaac kept groaning a rod or so behind, though I carried his gun… We set off again, and we stopped at the outlet of Skaneateles Lake, ate some pork-blubber and bread, and departed. At about two in the afternoon we passed Onondaga Hollow, and lodged in Manlius Square, a village of about thirty houses, that have risen like mushrooms in two or three years, having walked this day thirty-four miles.”

— Alexander Wilson in a letter to William Duncan, December 24, 1804, collected in The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, The American Ornithologist (1876), edited by the Rev. Alexander B. Grosart

Shore Dog, 1907


A dog surveys the scene from the shore along West Lake Street in a postcard mailed in 1907. One can see the Waller boat house, now the first home on the shore along West Lake, and the old band shell, the jetty, and the Village as it was. Postcard from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society.

Frederick Douglass in Skaneateles

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) an escaped slave who became an author, orator and tireless worker for the abolition of slavery, visited Skaneateles on at least four occasions, in 1845, 1849, 1855 and 1856. He had a close relationship with James Canning Fuller, an ardent Quaker abolitionist whose home on Genesee Street was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and with Miss Hannah Fuller, organizer of the Skaneateles Ladies Anti-Slavery Society.

In April of 1849, after speaking at the Methodist church, Douglass wrote of the different receptions he received on his first and second visits:

“Skaneateles has greatly improved in tone, on the subject of Slavery, since I visited that town, four years ago. It had the appearance of a real slave-holding town, in which the black man could not enter, without being assailed by thoughtless boys, and brutal young men, who seemed to take delight in manifesting disrespect and contempt, for what in sheer rudeness they called a nigger.

“We passed through the village this time without meeting any of the usual marks of semi-barbarism that formerly distinguished that town. Much of this change was wrought by that fast, faithful and noble friend of the slave, now gone to his rest, James Canning Fuller, who in early anti-slavery times was several times mobbed on account of his abolition principles and practice… It was sad to be there without his presence to cheer and encourage me in the good work to which he was devoted, yet I was grateful to perceive that what he achieved lived after him.”

Of Douglass’ 1856 visit, William Lawrence White (who sent letters to the Skaneateles Democrat in 1910 and 1911) wrote, “In the Fremont and Dayton campaign of 1856, Frederick Douglass, engaged in stumping the State in the interest of the newly formed Republican party, made this house his three day’s stay in Skaneateles. Mr. Fuller’s daughter, Miss Hannah, a very handsome and attractive woman, caused considerable comment by walking through the business portion of the town arm and arm with the burly black man.”

Livingston, Williams & Hunt

From Lakeside Studio

The firm of Livingston, Williams & Hunt sold “dry goods” in Skaneateles from 1899 to 1934. The principals were Herbert A. Livingston, H.B. Williams and Charles W. Hunt; they offered everything from wallpaper to ladies’ dresses, but I am drawn to them by their trade in cameras, film, photo albums, postcards, stationery and fountain pens. Also, they received daily weather reports via telegraph and posted each day’s forecast in their window, a service that ended, lamentably, in 1919.

They had their postcards printed in Germany, from photos they took and developed in Skaneateles at their “Lakeside Studio.” World War I brought an end to the trade in German-printed postcards, but several beautiful examples of the firm’s work from approximately 1905 to 1915 survive in private collections and at the Skaneateles Historical Society’s Creamery Museum.

Spafford Landing

Pier Panorama

Three Mile Point

Sailing with Susan B. Anthony

Livingston 2

“Before the sun was up this morning, Miss Anthony and two bright girls from Brooklyn manned a small sailing craft and went up the lake. They invited some merchant princes to take a seat on board, and remain quiet spectators of the scene. They performed some very difficult evolutions. In one rather dangerous maneuver, a gentleman, becoming a little nervous, was threatened with the fate of Jonah, which immediately brought him to order.”

– From “What Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton Thinks of Skaneateles,”  Skaneateles Democrat,  September 10, 1868; Miss Anthony was visiting with her cousin, Anson Lapham, at what is today Roosevelt Hall; postcard image from Livingston, Williams & Hunt, Skaneateles, N.Y.