Spencer Lionel Adams was a son of Skaneateles, descended from true pioneers, raised on the family farm, who went out, made his fortune, sailed around the world, and became the Godfather of lawn bowling in Santa Barbara — all without forgetting where he came from.
Born June 12, 1870, the son of Emerson and Annette (Austin) Adams of Fairview Farm on Jordan Road, he grew up here, went off to Cornell University, joined the Glee, Banjo & Mandolin Club, and in his sophomore year was elected president of the class of ’93, earning the nickname “Prexy.” As a senior, he was tapped for Sphinx Head, Cornell’s oldest secret honor society.
Next, he went off to Yale to earn a law degree, serving as an editor of the Yale Law Journal in 1895. From New Haven, he went to Chicago to make his worldly fortune as an attorney. In the Windy City, he maintained his college ties, serving as president of the Cornell Alumni Club, and in 1906 as toastmaster at a Big Red alumni dinner.
In 1924, after a trip that included stops in Skaneateles, Ithaca, Washington D.C. and Asheville, N.C., he self-published a collection of his photos and impressions called Old Scenes in Autumn Colors. The Cornell Alumni News reported:
“He has developed his hobby, photography, to a point where he makes lantern slides from his own negatives, and uses them to illustrate lectures. These, given gratuitously to assemblies of Cornell men, historical and library associations, cover a wide range of geographical and historical subjects.”
In 1935, Adams retired from the practice of law, and began to divide his time between Skaneateles and “Little Bluff” at Content Harbor on Cape Cod. But he was not content to sit. In January of 1936, he and his wife set out an around-the-world cruise on the Empress of Britain, covering 33,000 miles — New York to Madeira and the Canary Islands, down the coast of Africa to Cape Town and Johannesburg, with an excursion to the Kimberly diamond mines, then on to Singapore, Siam (Thailand), Java, Manila in the Philippines, Hong Kong, Canton and Peking, thence to Honolulu, San Francisco, through the Panama Canal and back to New York.
Back in Skaneateles in October of 1936, Spencer gave “an illustrated lecture” on his trip at the Skaneateles Library, showing photographs to an audience of 10 men, women and school children. In publicity for an encore at the Kouple Klub at the Presbyterian church, the Skaneateles Press promised, “Mr. Adams’ pictures are interesting in content and artistic in detail. His comments are spicy and enlightening.”
After his around-the-world trip, he took “a pleasure trip” to South America. In Skaneateles, he took pictures of the countryside, and many pictures of the log cabin he had built on the hill behind the home.
The log cabin was a refuge, obviously a little place of his own he had long wanted. On the highest spot of the farm, one had a “fair view” of the lake from its southern window.
Adams put an image of the cabin’s fireplace on his personal bookplate, and a picture of the cabin on the cover of a book he wrote and published in 1944, The Long House of the Iroquois: Why the Five Nations Possessing a Rectangular Type of Lodge Like the Shape of Their Ancient Realm in Up-state New York, Called Themselves “Ho-De-No-Sau-Nee” (People of the Long House). Adams, who did things in style, had the venerable Lakeside Press of Chicago print 500 copies of this book, 285 copies offered for sale, and rest sent out as presentation copies to friends and libraries. The book was illustrated with 125 black & white photographs taken by Adams in his travels.
Adams was a champion of the idea that “Skaneateles” did not mean “long lake” but rather “beautiful squaw” and he devoted an entire chapter of this book to this argument, as well as repeatedly referring to Skaneateles Lake as “beautiful squaw” whenever the opportunity arose in other chapters.
In 1948, perhaps tiring of Central New York winters, Spencer moved again, this time to Santa Barbara, California. He bought a house on Santa Barbara’s “Riviera,” took up lawn bowling and basked in the sun. But he did not forget Skaneateles. In 1953, he endowed the Skaneateles Library Association with $25,000, a gift remembered today with a plaque on the western wall of the main room.
That same year, he gave Cornell $60,000, and he was not done being generous. By 1956, the Santa Barbara Lawn Bowls Club was in need of a new clubhouse. Spencer Adams offered to finance the construction with the condition imposed on the City of Santa Barbara that the land upon which the clubhouse sat be “officially dedicated to park and recreational purposes” and “shall be designated and known as Spencer Adams Park.” And so it was. The new clubhouse was built at a cost of $16,000, donated entirely by Adams; in 1956, that amount of money could buy a small home in Santa Barbara. As the Club’s membership approached and passed 100 in the late 1950s, there was a need for a second bowling green—and for the $10,000 needed to build one. Spencer Adams offered to donate $5,000 toward the cost of a new green if the City would match that amount. The second green was completed in 1960.
And so today one can visit Spencer Adams Park, see the plaque on the Spencer Adams Clubhouse, and if your timing is right, watch the playing of the Spencer Adams Triples (blind draw, two 12-end games) in the annual tournament.
Spencer Adams died in Santa Barbara in 1963; his body was shipped east and buried in Lake View Cemetery in Skaneateles, as he wished.
The Adams farm was eventually parceled out, but the family home is still there, largely as Spencer Adams knew it, with the original fireplace, banister, and large letter A’s frosted into the windows of the front door. And Spencer’s log cabin still stands, although a small forest has grown up around it. The present owners, who care deeply about the home and its history, have put a new roof on the cabin in hopes of saving it, but it needs extensive restoration to return to its original glory. One wonders if Spencer’s ghost ever walks back up the hill, and sits for a spell.
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The black and white photos shown here were take by Spencer Adams, and developed by Rob Howard from the original glass plates found in the Adams house and preserved by a succession of owners. I am truly grateful to the present owners for sharing these images, and for allowing me to visit and photograph the cabin as it stands today. I am also indebted to A History of Santa Barbara Lawn Bowls Club (2007) by Dudley Miller, to the many editors of the Cornell Alumni News, to the Skaneateles Library Association and the Skaneateles Historical Society.
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The Adams home at dusk, with Spencer Adams’ roadster parked on the side of Jordan Road, the rising moon showing through the windshield.