Joel Thayer was the picture of industry. He arrived in the Village in 1835 to clerk for John Legg in his carriage works, and within months married his employer’s daughter, Juliette.
To Legg’s business interests Thayer married his business acumen, and made both of them wealthy. At various times, they owned a distillery, a farm, a saw mill, a paper mill and the flouring mill in the Village. Thayer served as Postmaster, President of the Board of Trustees of the Village, founder and President of the Bank of Skaneateles, and founder and President of the Skaneateles Railroad Company. In Syracuse, he was president of the Trust and Deposit Company, vice-president of Syracuse Chilled Plow and the Central City Railroad Companies, and a director of the American Steamboat Company that ran boats on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.
A civic-spirited man, Thayer was also a founder of the Skaneateles Library Association and president of the Lake View Cemetery Association, to which he provided a great service. In 1878, after the suicide of Charles Pardee, a villain straight out of Dickens, Thayer bought the Evergreen Cemetery lands that Pardee had hoarded, accepted the adjacent Lake View lands gratis from the cemetery trustees, and donated the combined properties to the Village the following day.
Thayer’s monuments in the Village are many. His home on Genesee Street was and is a showplace. Thayer acquired the house in 1862, adding a mansard roof and iron work, as well as an apiary, solarium and formal gardens. In the carriage house to the rear, iron grillwork separated the horses’ stalls and hand-carved oak arches crowned them, each bearing the name of its equine resident.
In 1866-68, across the street, Thayer built Legg Hall to honor his father-in-law. In 1873, when the wood-framed St. James’ church was being torn down to make way for construction of a new stone church, Legg Hall welcomed the parish and served as its house of worship until the new building was completed.
In 1874, Joel Thayer turned his attention to the shoreline next to Legg Hall, building a breakwall and turning the land into a park, which he opened to the public.
To top it all, Joel Thayer had a sense of humor. Even the Village fussbudget, E.N. Leslie, was moved to write, “his nature was genial and sunshiny.” A neighbor, Elizabeth Barrow, recalled that on the half-landing of his stairs, Thayer had a pipe organ which he played in the morning to wake his household. Noted Barrow, “Many a time have I opened my eyes as the refrain of ‘Old Black Joe’ floated through my window.”
(It was years before I got the joke. “Old Black Joe” includes the line, “I’m a comin’, I’m a comin’, but my head is hanging low” — an apt lyric for slow risers.)
Joel and Juliette had three daughters, Narcissa Augusta and Emma Augusta, who died in early childhood, and Mary Ann, born in 1836, who grew up in Skaneateles and married Henry Tiffany Webb (1829-1909) of Mexico, New York, in 1855. Henry Webb worked as his father-in-law’s bookkeeper at the Stone Mill and as cashier at the Bank of Skaneateles; he developed business interests of his own in Skaneateles, Syracuse and New York City. Henry and Mary Webb wintered in New York City and summered in Skaneateles at the Thayer home where Mary had been born. They had two daughters, May Webb, born in 1864, and Eva Webb, born in 1867.
On June 21, 1876, May Webb was chosen to christen the newly built steamboat The Glen Haven, doing her part for the history of boating and commerce on Skaneateles Lake.
Juliette Thayer died in 1880 and Joel Thayer in 1881. Juliette was remembered as “a noble woman, a devoted wife and mother and kind and generous friend. Her acts of charity and benevolence were many and her active cooperation was always given to movements for the public good.” Joel Thayer was remembered as a man with a sunny disposition, one who managed to make money and friends in the same lifetime.
Their monument in Lake View Cemetery was quite grand. The project started in November of 1882 with the removal of the monuments then on the Legg/Thayer plot by Elias Fibben and William Cottle. The ensuing work was done by Francis & Duffy of Syracuse, quarry agents for James Goodwin Batterson’s New England Granite Works at Hartford, Connecticut. The chief sculptor was Carl Conrads and the architect was George Keller.
In May of 1883, the new monument was in place. A low stone border surrounds the plot; the Legg Lions guard the steps. In the center of the plot, on a tall pedestal, a statue of a woman crowns the Thayers’ last resting place. A reporter for the Syracuse Evening Herald wrote, “Surmounting the whole is a beautiful granite statue of ‘Memory’ facing the east and overlooking the village and homestead as though loving to dwell upon the past with all its joys, triumphs and pleasures and lingering even upon its sorrows.”
Mary Thayer Webb was now the largest shareholder of the Bank of Skaneateles. She and her daughters continued to spend summers in Skaneateles and winters in New York City. Henry T. Webb also wintered in New York, but summered in Saratoga or at Newport, R. I. He died in New York in 1909. Mary Thayer Webb died in 1915 in New York; she was remembered, in the Skaneateles Free Press, as “a liberal giver in a quiet and unostentatious manner to many worthy deserving persons and charitable institutions.”
Her daughters, May and Eva Webb, were now single women in the possession of two fortunes. One of their first gifts was to formally deed Thayer Park to the Village of Skaneateles in 1922. The Village, however, saw less and less of the Webb sisters. Records of international arrivals give us a glimpse of their travels. In the summer of 1926, they vacationed in Hawaii. From 1928 to 1931, they spend a portion of each year in Europe, returning to New York in October.
Eva Webb died in New York City in 1940. May Webb lived to the age of 94, dying in New York in 1959. Today, the graves of Mary, May and Eva Webb are in Lake View Cemetery in Skaneateles, guarded by the Legg lions in the Thayer family plot.
Sources: The Skaneateles Free Press, November 4, 1882, and May 12, 1883. Historic Homes and Buildings of Skaneateles, Paul K. Williams, 1994. Industries Around the Old Mill Pond, Helen Ionta, 1993. Pioneers and Prominent Citizens of Skaneateles, Barbara Spain & Karen Anklin, 1988. Skaneateles: History of Its Earliest Settlement and Reminiscences of Later Times, Edmund Norman Leslie, 1902. “History of the Town of Skaneateles” from Onondaga’s Centennial, Dwight Bruce, 1896. Web site of the Connecticut Historical Society (content based on David Ransom’s “Civil War Monuments”) and the Web site of Cedar Hill Cemetery.