A Tale of Two Roosevelts

In October of 1910, Skaneateles enjoyed one of its many Presidential visits, this one of a transitory nature, as Theodore Roosevelt, campaigning in the Republican presidential primary, passed through on the interurban trolley. He had spoken in Auburn during the afternoon, and was headed to Syracuse for an evening speech, accompanied by Senator Francis Hendricks. There is no mention of his stopping here to chat.

However, in her book The Roosevelts of Skaneateles, Helen Ionta claims that Roosevelt came through in 1911, by trolley, and “spoke to a group of citizens from the rear of the trolley as it made its station stop at Jordan and Genesee Streets.” So we can be certain he came once on the trolley, maybe even twice.

Theodore Roosevelt’s next visit to Skaneateles was framed in more interesting circumstances. In 1914, while speaking on behalf of a Progressive candidate for the Governorship of New York, the former President declared that William Barnes, the boss of the Republican political machine, was cutting deals with the Democratic machine in the interest of crooked politics and crooked business.

Mr. Barnes, prompted by old hatreds and a new opportunity for revenge, sued Roosevelt for libel. In the interest of fairness, the trial was moved from Albany, Barnes’ center of power, to Syracuse in the spring of 1915.

From April 19th to May 22nd, the attorneys and witnesses slugged it out. Barnes was asking for $50,000 in damages; Roosevelt said six cents was a more appropriate sum. In the end, Roosevelt won, although it cost $52,000 in legal expenses to defend his name and prove that Barnes was indeed crooked.

During the libel trial, Roosevelt stayed with supporters in Syracuse and went home to Oyster Bay on the weekends for much-needed rest. However, during the first week in May, probably on Sunday, May 2nd, he came to Skaneateles on something of a family errand.

A storm packing heavy rain, hail and lightning had passed over Skaneateles on Thursday, April 29th, and around noon a bolt of lightning nailed Roosevelt Hall, starting a fire in the attic. Flames shot to the heavens, the servants called for the fire department, and after 40 minutes of roof chopping and watery dousing, the fire was out. A happy result, but not before an estimated $1,000 in damage was done.

On May 8th, the newspaper reported, “Former President Roosevelt was in town the first part of the week inspecting the damage caused by the fire at Roosevelt Hall.”

Perhaps his cousin, Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt, was detained elsewhere and asked Teddy to take a look and get back to him. Or perhaps Teddy just wanted to “get out of Dodge” for a day and put the trial out of his mind.

* * *

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s visits to Skaneateles do not make for riveting reading.

His first was brief. On September 23, 1920, Franklin Roosevelt was campaigning for the office of vice-president on the Democratic ticket. En route between Syracuse and Auburn, he stopped in Skaneateles to make a short speech. He spoke from the back of a truck at the corner of Genesee and Jordan Streets. According to the local paper, he was enthusiastically received by a small crowd that would have been larger if anyone had been told of his plan to speak. It was said he had “a fine presence and made a good impression.” FDR was in the company of Thomas Mott Osborne, a former mayor of Auburn and noted advocate of prison reform; they traveled in Osborne’s then-famous automobile, “The Green Dragon,” thought to be a 1907 Stevens-Duryea, in which Osborne had toured Europe, afterwards writing Adventures of a Green Dragon (1908).

In April and September of 1932, Franklin Roosevelt visited again. He was serving as the Governor of New York and in September running for the Presidency of the United States. He took a New York Central Railroad car to Syracuse from Poughkeepsie and was driven directly to Roosevelt Hall, the summer home of his cousin, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt. There he met a number of local Republicans who politely wished him well while inwardly hoping for his defeat. Those of you present in Skaneateles for the visit of President Clinton in 1999 may recall similar moments.

As time passes, it becomes more difficult to remember just how strongly members of the upper classes disliked Franklin Roosevelt. In 1936, Marquis Childs wrote a piece for Harper’s magazine entitled “They Hate the Roosevelts” in which he detailed and analyzed the phenomenon. The village even earned a mention:

“It may well have its origin in a primitive source. It would seem that we can forgive, or at least understand, an act of hostility from our enemy, but not from one of our own kind. Certainly if there is an aristocracy in the United States, the Roosevelts are of it. They have owned landed estates in the neighborhood of Skaneateles and Poughkeepsie since early in the seventeenth century. They have always had sufficient money to enable them to lead cultivated, pleasant lives. And so there is no forgiveness for their seeming disloyalty.”

And so Franklin Roosevelt was sent off from Skaneateles to the New York State Fair, politely but with no new friends. He won the election anyway. He was our fourth Presidential visitor – after Millard Fillmore, Martin Van Buren and Theodore Roosevelt – and would be followed by a fifth, President Clinton, in 1999.

* * *

My thanks to “Skaneateles Notes” Syracuse Post-Standard, May 8, 1915; Theodore Roosevelt: An Intimate Biography (1919) by William Roscoe Thayer; They Hate the Roosevelts! (1936) Marquis W. Childs; The Roosevelts of Skaneateles (1999) Helen Ionta


One thought on “A Tale of Two Roosevelts

  1. Pingback: Roosevelt Hall « Skaneateles

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