George Barrow

“Mr. Barrow was an able lawyer, a voracious reader, a graceful and forceful writer. He was intensely loyal to the interests of the village he loved, and he was beloved of its people.”

— From the obituary of George Barrow, Syracuse Post-Standard, November 11, 1919

George Barrow was indeed intensely loyal to the interests of Skaneateles, which he placed second only to the interests of George Barrow. As for being beloved of its people, there were probably one or two exceptions. And outside the village, there was Mark Twain, but I am getting ahead of myself.

George Barrow was born in New York City in March of 1839, and brought to Skaneateles as an infant. He attended school here, and then studied law with Benoni Lee, a local attorney, and at the offices of Sedgwick, Andrews & Kennedy in Syracuse. Admitted to the bar in 1860, at the age of 21, he opened a law office here with Edward T. Bartlett, a partnership that prospered.

During the Civil War, a later biography noted, young Barrow was “an active home-worker, his office for about two years being practically a recruiting office.” An office, however, which did not think to recruit George Barrow. And then in August of 1863, a draft lottery was held at the Onondaga County Court House in Syracuse. George Barrow of Skaneateles was one of the officials present to run the lottery, and during the drawing his own number was chosen. However, draftees had the option of paying $300 “commutation money” or of hiring a substitute to enter the Union army for them, and henceforth being exempt from military service. George Barrow exercised his option; he had other priorities.

In politics, Barrow was an ardent Republican, and twice served as a New York State Assemblyman, one “more inclined to partisanship than liberality,” his official State Assembly biography noted.

As a lawyer, Barrow “loved the law for its own sake, its knots and its cross grains, as its finer and straighter fibre,” noted the Syracuse Herald (November 10, 1919).

Barrow was often remembered for his ardent defense of Skaneateles water rights against their usurpation by the state of New York and the city of Syracuse. To New York State, owner of the Erie Canal, Skaneateles Lake was “a State reservoir for canal purposes.” To the City of Syracuse, it was a source of pure drinking water. To the Village of Skaneateles, it was a source of water power until its flow was diminished by the state and the city. From 1888 to 1892, Barrow vigorously defended mill owners along the outlet against the loss of their water power and became something of a local hero for his efforts.

Less often, however, do we hear about George Barrow’s opposition to the village’s desire to own and operate its own water works.

The Skaneateles Water Works Company started out nobly enough. In 1887, a group of our leading citizens sought to supply the village with water, for fire hydrants to protect homes and indoor plumbing to make life more civilized. In a short time, however, after a few meetings, a few proxies, a few stock sales, the Skaneateles Water Works Company found itself wholly owned by a company in Philadelphia. The “introductory” water rates were $20 per hydrant, and were guaranteed never to rise above $40 per hydrant. Until the company presented the village with a bill for $50 per hydrant.

The village, not wanting to be held hostage, stated its intent to build its own municipal water works. In 1896, the Skaneateles Water Works Company (of Philadelphia) sued to prevent this from happening. The company’s attorney was George Barrow, whose legal services and “general friendship” had been secured by $30,000 worth of the company’s stock. True to form, Barrow took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 1902, after six years of being dragged through the knotholes and over the cross-grains of the law by George Barrow, the village regained control of its own water.

The cross-examination of Barrow makes for delightful reading. Although he was President and Manager of the Skaneateles Water Works Company, he professed near total ignorance of its parent company:

“I couldn’t tell where those subscriptions are. I couldn’t tell you whether they were preserved… I could not tell you whether stock books were opened… I don’t know whether there is a stub book with stubs of the certificates. I never kept it. I don’t know whether there was or not. I don’t know when the capital stock was issued…

“Whether the checks were paid I don’t know. The next thing that was done in relation to the stock was after there was a contract made for the construction of the plant. I don’t know whether that was the next step… I don’t know of any stock being issued after this first lot that I have mentioned before the contract was made. The first contract was made with the Skaneateles Construction Company… I couldn’t tell you who composed it. I was one of the members of that company…

“It never had an office in Skaneateles. I could not tell you whether any resident of Skaneateles was ever connected with it. I don’t know that it was a corporation. I presume it was an association got up for the purpose of constructing these water works. I don’t know whether it ever had any other business before or since, none that I know of. I think it was organized in New York but I don’t know.”

Barrow’s amnesia goes on for pages. Fortunately for him, the water works was only one of his many interests.

Another was Charles L. Webster & Co., a publishing company in New York started by Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.

In 1885, George Barrow invested a substantial sum in the firm and placed his son, Charles Barrow, a recent Harvard graduate, on the staff. The company did well at first, publishing Ulysses S. Grant’s Personal Memoirs and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the publication list took a turn toward odd titles that did not appeal to the public, with the inevitable result of business failure in 1894.

Charles Barrow, however, was gone long before that happened. In 1887, he wrote to the Harvard alumni journal:

“I spent two years in the publishing business with Charles L. Webster & Co., New York; am unmarried; member of the Harvard and University Clubs of New York; have taken no part in politics, written no books, taken no journeys. In reply to your circular letter, I have only to say that nothing of interest to the class has happened to me since the last report. I am still living in New York City and am not engaged in any regular business because of an illness several years ago from which I have never entirely recovered.”

According to the New York Times, however, Charles Barrow did recover sufficiently to take up golf and go yachting.

But back to the company in which George Barrow had invested: In 1894, Samuel Clemens, a great writer and an appalling businessman, was persuaded to declare bankruptcy and place all his finances in the hands of a friend, Henry Huttleston Rogers, a principal of Standard Oil. Clemens then embarked on a lecture tour in order to pay his more than 200 creditors in full, in spite of the fact that he was not legally obligated to do so.

George Barrow was owed $15,420, but Samuel Clemens did not lecture fast enough for him; alone among those owed money, Barrow sued, beginning a snit that lasted from 1895 to 1898.

In March of 1898, Clemens wrote to Rogers:

“Mrs. Clemens has always been particularly anxious to have the Barrow claim paid in full; and indeed so have I — for although he was not very agreeable about it it was a perfectly straight indebtedness.”

In April 1898 Clemens wrote again to Rogers:

“The first page of Barrow’s letter is exasperating. I find I cannot answer it and keep my temper. … Is he an ass? Is he an idiot? Is he a child? What is he?”

Clemens wrote two letters in reply to Barrow, but his wife would not allow him to send either one. This is an excerpt from the first, which George Barrow never had the pleasure of reading:

“It presently turned out that you wanted greater favor extended to you than to any other creditor — for some reason not divinable by me, unless you imagined that an uncourteous attitude from the beginning had entitled you to peculiar consideration.

“Meanwhile you have said (to the gentleman who reported it to me), that it is not my wife and I who are paying my debts, but that Mr. Rogers is paying them out of his own pocket.

“Since it is you that have said it, it must be true. Your word is better than mine; you have better means of knowing my private affairs than I have; and so I withdraw my assertion that my wife and I were paying the debts. You will now go to the real debt-payer. I declined to pay you interest on your claim; I declined to favor you above all the other creditors. Perhaps he will do better by you. In any case you and your claim are henceforth matters of indifference to me.”

In August of 1898, Barrow was paid in full, as Clemens had promised. Clemens wrote to Rogers:

“We are in a state of great thankfulness to you for finishing up the Barrows business for us. It is a relief — more of a relief than I can put into words. I was so cussed tired of the name of Barrow! Now he can go hang himself as soon as he wants to; I have no further use for him.”

George Barrow did not hang himself. He lived for another 20 years, and died on November 9, 1919. His obituaries did not quote Samuel Clemens, mention a draft exemption, or raise the issue of how George spent six years trying to screw the village on behalf of a company in Philadelphia. Rather, he was graciously remembered as the senior warden of St. James’ Episcopal Church, a Mason, and a man who loved the law.

* * *

Sources: “Matters About the Draft” New York Times, August 23, 1863; Life Sketches of Government Officers and Members of the Legislature of the State of New York for 1874 by William H. McElroy and Alexander McBride; “Business Troubles” New York Times, September 19, 1894; 184 US 354 Skaneateles Waterworks Company v. Village of Skaneateles, et al; argued January 24, 27, 1902; decided March 3, 1902; “George Barrow” The Skaneateles Press, November 11, 1919; Mark Twain’s Correspondence with Henry Huttleston Rogers, 1893-1909 (1969)


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