Spencer Lionel Adams

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.


1Club house plaque

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.

Elizabeth N. Barrow

Skaneateles has never been known as a writers’ colony, but we do sprout the odd novelist now and then, and certainly Elizabeth N. Barrow is one of the most interesting. The niece of artist John D. Barrow, of Barrow Art Gallery fame, she was the daughter of his brother George, a Skaneateles attorney who had his fingers in many pies. Born in 1869, Elizabeth grew up in Skaneateles, went to school, enjoyed rowing, fishing and tennis.

At some point, however, she turned to writing and in 1898 blossomed into the public consciousness with The King’s Rivals: An Historical Novel of the Time of Charles II. Writing as E.N. Barrow, she treated readers to sentences like this one:

“It was in the spring of the year 1660 that I, John Hadder by name, being then in the four and thirtieth year of my age, and having a fair amount of prosperity, as the colony understood the word, sailed out of our good Cape harbour, as captain of the fishing sloop ‘Steadfast,’ with a figurehead of my own carving at the bow, thirteen men to command (myself took away the curse of numbers), and a goodly supply of spirling and porgies to make things attractive for the cod.”

She had a way with words, lots of them in every sentence, and the critics were kind. The Trinity University Review noted:

“This tale of adventure, sweet and wholesome as sea air amid which the story opens, carries us from shores of New England to the Court of Charles II and back again. Mr. Barrow writes in a simple but charming way. The chief attraction of the story lies in contrast between the artless frankness of the New Englanders and the very different spirit of the Restoration Court.”

Two years later, Miss Barrow produced another historical romance, and set a distance record with the title page, which read:

The Fortune of War, Being Portions of Many Letters and Journals Written to and for her Cousin, Mistress Dorothea Engel of Carthmoor Hall, Northumberland, England (whose descendants have preserved them until the present day) By Katherine, daughter of Major General James Patison, during the year which she spent in America at the time of the Struggle for the Independence of the Colonies. These writings have been condensed and arranged, in order to form a connected account of the Romantic Adventures of the writer during said period, and are thus for the first time offered to the public by Elizabeth N. Barrow. “

In this one, the somewhat sassy daughter of a British general comes to the colonies, sniffs at the rabble in New York, but experiences a change of heart when she is captured by the rebels and given shelter by Martha Washington, who is motherly and understanding.

Again the critics were kind. The New York Times Saturday Review wrote:

“The story is a good one, the historical data accurate, and the ways and manners of the period are cleverly presented… It is quite safe to say that this book vies in excellence with some of the historical romances which have caused more general comment.”

This was the last of Barrow’s novels. She did write at least one more piece of fiction, “The Broken Wedding Ring,” which appeared in The Railroad Man’s Magazine in 1906, but after that, silence.

Until, in 1916, one comes upon her having translated, from the Swedish,  Dr. Poul Carl Bjerre’s The History and Practice of Psychanalysis. One pauses to blink. Could this truly be our Elizabeth N. Barrow? Dr. Bjerre was a man who knew Freud and Jung. Practicing in Stockholm, he introduced psychiatry to Sweden. What could possibly link him to Elizabeth N. Barrow of Skaneateles, and when did she learn Swedish?

The answer is on the back of the book’s title page: “The translator desires to express keen appreciation of the valuable assistance given in this work by Ebba Tisell.”

This, we can be sure, is the Ebba Tisell who later appears in census records residing with Elizabeth N. Barrow in Skaneateles and New York. Born in Sweden, Ebba Tissel came to the United States in 1906 with her sister; they were trained as nurses, and lived in New York City. Elizabeth Barrow maintained a residence in New York as well, and perhaps first encountered Miss Tisell as a nurse. Certainly they knew one another well by 1915.

Ebba Tisell had a brother named Gunnar; a man named Gunnar Tisell was a publisher in Stockholm, where Dr. Bjerre was practicing and writing. Bjerre’s book on psychoanalysis came out in 1914; perhaps he was casting about for a translator; perhaps he spoke to Gunnar who said, “My sister could do it.” “But can she write?” “No, but she knows an American author; they could do it together.”

I’m guessing at this chain of events, but it’s the best guess I have. In 1916, the English edition came out, with translator Elizabeth N. Barrow gratefully acknowledging the assistance of Ebba Tisell.

In 1922, Elizabeth and Ebba sailed to Sweden together, and listed their residence as Skaneateles. In 1925, the New York State census finds them at home in Skaneateles; in 1930, they are living in New York, at 10 Fifth Avenue in Greenwich Village. Ebba is listed as a servant, along with six more women, the latter being Irish. The records of sailings show them traveling to and from Europe frequently, although they sign in on separate forms, since Ebba is an “alien.”

In October of 1933, Elizabeth sold the Barrow family home in Skaneateles and had its furnishings and other contents auctioned off by A.L. Bentley. She and Ebba Tisell moved to New York City, and at some point in time, they returned to Sweden together, for good.

Elizabeth N. Barrow in 1946, at the age of 77

In 1966, at the age of 97, Elizabeth N. Barrow died in Trelleborg, the southernmost city in Sweden, at the home she shared with Ebba Tisell. On the form required by the American embassy, Miss Tisell claimed Miss Barrow’s personal effects. There we find Tisell listed not as a servant, not as a nurse, but as a friend.

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Elizabeth N. Barrow’s body was cremated in Sweden, and her ashes were returned to Skaneateles for burial in Lake View Cemetery.

My thanks to the John D. Barrow Art Gallery for Elizabeth’s signature and photograph, and to the Skaneateles Historical Society.

The Seedman of Rose Hill

In 1887, at Rose Hill, in the southern part of the Town of Marcellus, Frank B. Mills began selling seeds, turning a boyhood fascination into a business. For his first catalog, he bought a hand press, set the type, and did the printing himself. He mailed out 3,000 copies and garnered 118 customers.

By 1890, he was taking so many orders that Rose Hill needed its own post office. Frank B. Mills, conveniently, was named postmaster. In 1892, he was succeeded by his brother, William E. Mills.

PO Rose Hill NY 2

By 1895, the F.B. Mills Company had 400,000 customers, and by 1903, 800,000. Catalogs and seeds were mailed all over the world from the little post office at the front of the warehouse.

Mills lived nearby at his Fairview Farm, married to the former Grace Ackles of Spafford. His company employed more than 200 people, and peaked in size in 1908, when F.B. Mills Co. printed and mailed more than 1.5 million catalogs. World War I, the Depression and World War II all took their toll on the business, and in 1953 it closed forever.

There’s a fuller history at saveseeds.org.


The Restoration of the Old

“Let us especially remember the beauty of our lake and its shores, and resolve, that henceforth that present beauty, and in some measure at least, the restoration of the old shall ever be in our thoughts and among the constant and zealous efforts of our lives. May we all do something to this end, so that after another hundred years, our successors shall meet together and rejoice, and thank us for what we may have done for the pleasure and honest pride of their lives; when Skaneateles Lake shall be, as nature intended it, the loveliest and the most alluring of all our inland waters.”

– John D. Barrow, Centennial Address, Skaneateles, N.Y., July 4, 1876


“You have all heard and read that Winston Day was the first merchant. He was also our first distiller, employing Jeduthan Newton, and has the honor of having introduced the manufacture of whiskey here. It was very fiery stuff, it was said; but from local patriotism and pride some of the townsmen, it is also said, confessed that they felt it their duty to learn to love it.”

— John D. Barrow, Centennial Address, Skaneateles, N.Y., July 4, 1876

Atom Bombs and Oreos

Just outside the Village gates on Onondaga Street sits the L.A.B. building, built in 1953 for a testing laboratory and manufacturer of testing equipment. The firm has moved on, but its building remains, along with the mystery of how the company came to be called the L.A.B. Corporation.

In 1968, Bruno Wittkuhns, the firm’s president, offered this explanation:

“We were asked to submit six names for our new corporation to the state secretary. These names were not to resemble the name of any other corporation. We had chosen five names that were satisfactory, but we could not come up with a sixth.

“So, almost as an afterthought, we submitted the first three letters of the word ‘laboratory’. We all treated the sixth name as a kind of joke, so we were naturally shocked and disturbed when the name was approved and the other five rejected. However, the name has proven to be very valuable to us, because it is so easy for people to remember and so easy to spell. It is a very practical name.”

However, in a 1979 interview, L.A.B. product manager Joe Hubbard, the son-in-law of the founder, suggested that the initials actually stood for “Leave After the Boss.” And in 1991, L.A.B. general manager Jack Dority said that L.A.B. stood for “Leo And Bruno, the names of the founders of the company.”

I’m not sure about Leo, but Bruno was clearly Bruno August Wittkuhns, an engineer and inventor who came to the U.S. from Germany in 1924, and worked for the Sperry Gyroscope Co. on Long Island, New York. In 1933, he founded L.A.B. in Summit, New Jersey, with one P. L. S. Lum; Wittkuhns devoted his evenings and weekends to the new company, but continued to work for Sperry until 1939, when he resigned to devote his full energies to L.A.B.

About 1940, Wittkuhns, with his wife and children, began summering in Skaneateles. In 1953, with a married daughter already living here, Wittkuhns decided to move his entire company; he built the L.A.B. facility on Onondaga Street and brought L.A.B., and 23 families, to the village.

LAB employee Tex Smith demonstrates a testing device

L.A.B. specialized in testing products for their reactions to vibration, impact and pressure — and building the machines to perform those tests. During World War II, L.A.B. designed and built a vibration machine used to test the first atom bomb.

A more whimsical test subject was the Oreo cookie. The Nabisco company came to L.A.B. because Oreos were arriving at the store with too many crumbs in the packages; L.A.B. found this wasn’t due to jostling or improper handling, but to vibrations in the delivery trucks that caused the cookies to rotate in their package trays, spin against each other and rub off the embossed design.

Hail to thee, L.A.B., for saving the Oreo.

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In 1968, Bruno Wittkuhns sold the L.A.B. Corporation to Mechanical Technology Inc. (MTI) of Latham, N.Y.; Mr. Wittkuhns died the following year. In 1997, MTI sold L.A.B. to the Noonan Machine Co. of Franklin Park, Illinois, and the business is now headquartered there.

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Sources: “L.A.B. Corporation to Construct Plant Near Skaneateles” (Auburn) Citizen Advertiser, March 7, 1953; “L.A.B. Employees Honor Wittkuhns on Anniversary” Skaneateles Press, May 9, 1958; “L.A.B. Corporation to Remain Despite Sale to Albany Interests,” Skaneateles Press, July 18, 1968; “Bruno Wittkuhns, L.A.B. Founder, Dies Tuesday,” Marcellus Observer, May 1969; “L.A.B. Produces Test Equipment,” Skaneateles Press, 1979; “Four Firms Focus of Chamber Lunch,” Skaneateles Press, February 20, 1991. My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society and to David Furth, son of Robert Furth, Chief Draughtsman for L.A.B.

LAB Construction 1

Photos of the construction of the LAB building, from the collection of David Furth.

LAB Construction 2

And below, an LAB company dinner, possibly in the 1940s. In the center, seated between the two ladies, is Bruno Wittkuhns. Seated on the end to Wittkuhns’ right (our left), is Robert Furth.

LAB Dinner