When Charles Burnett came here in 1804 to marry Maria Vredenburgh, he chose a spot at the head of the lake for their home. It was on the edge of the forest, and a stream ran through the property, crossing a dirt road that would become Genesee Street and flowing down to the lake’s wild shoreline. When it rained, the road was so muddy that one had to lay down boards to cross on foot.
In 1901, when Charles G. Weeks bought the Burnett property, the village was a more civilized place. The forest had been pushed back to Austin Street, and Joel Thayer had tamed half of the shoreline between St. James’ and Legg Hall to create a personal park.
Born in Skaneateles in 1860, Charles Weeks began work at the paper mills founded by his father, Forrest G. Weeks, when he was 18 years old. In 1895, he bought two of his father’s mills, the Skaneateles Paper Mills and the Lakeside Paper Mills. He was also a commissioner of the Skaneateles Municipal Light and Water Plant, and a member of the New York Athletic Club, the Auburn Country Club, the Skaneateles Yacht Club and the Skaneateles Golf Club, and served as a warden of St. James Episcopal Church.
To design a home befitting a man of his station and achievements, Charles Weeks hired Syracuse architects Merrick & Randall. But first, in February of 1902, work was begun behind the site of the house on “fine stables and a large hennery.” George Barber supervised the work. Construction of the house proper took place in the summer of 1902. Inside, C.E. Emerick of Auburn did the tile work, as he had done for Roosevelt Hall.
In September of 1902, the Syracuse Sunday Herald noted of the finished house:
“It is reported to have cost about $30,000. The feature of the exterior is the wall of big cobblestones supporting the pillars of the porch which extends across the front. The cornices are of galvanized iron. The basement is that of a complete modern house, including a laundry. On the first floor a hall twelve feet wide extends from the front porch to the rear porch, at the end of which is the porte-cochere. In the rear end of the hall is a toilet room with the staircase ascending over it.
“At the right is the library with a great fireplace finished in white quartered oak. To the left of the hall is the reception room with a big bay window looking upon the broad front porch. In the rear is the dining-room with seats and fireplace. The reception room also has a fireplace. To the rear of the dining-room are the kitchen and pantries.
“Across the front on the second floor are three bedrooms, one with a seat, alcove and fireplace. There are three other bedrooms, one with a fireplace and seat, bathroom, linen closets and balcony. On the third floor is bedroom, bath room and store room.”
In 1910, at the age of 50, Charles Weeks died, leaving the home to his widow, Nellie, and their children, Wallace and Helen.
In the 1920s, the home passed to its second family, the Hawkins: Professor Delmar E. Hawkins, his wife Helen, and their sons John and Allen. Prof. Hawkins had received his bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees at Syracuse University, and taught there for a time.
The Hawkins’ elder son, John Howland Hawkins, was born in 1903 on the Syracuse University campus, in what eventually became the Sigma Phi Epsilon house. While his family lived there, he had access to the university’s swimming pool, and he began swimming at the age of four.
John attended preparatory school at the Lawrenceville School (Class of ‘22), in New Jersey, and there he began swimming competitively. John next attended Princeton (Class of ’26), where in 1924 the swim team won the Ivy League championship, defeating Yale. The meet was won in the final event, the 200-yard relay, with John Hawkins as anchorman. In 1924, he barely missed qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team at 1500 meters, but the next year he won the national collegiate championship in the 440-yard freestyle, and in 1926, he was the Princeton team captain.
John Hawkins at the Eastern Olympic trials, Washington Pool, Coney Island, N.Y., May 30, 1924
In 1930, Hawkins graduated from the University of Michigan Law School, and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1931. His last competitive swimming event came in 1933, and it was his most ambitious: the 15-mile Canadian National Exposition Marathon in Toronto, swum in the open water of Lake Ontario. He did not win, but I give him high marks for going out in style.
John Hawkins’ next competitor was the German Air Force. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, John Hawkins left the practice of law and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a private. He was 39 years old. He was assigned to the 451st AAA Battalion of the Coast Artillery and shipped to North Africa. He landed at Casablanca in 1943, and, as a Sergeant, supervised a battery of antiaircraft guns. From Africa, his unit went to Italy. In 1944, John Hawkins wrote home to Skaneateles from the Anzio beachhead:
“In times like these one can’t remember many things. The business of living is a bit complicated, and I assure you, we are quite busy… The Germans think they are going to kick us off this beachhead—at least that is what they want the world to believe and they are trying – but they will never make it. Nevertheless, it is rather torrid here. Therefore my personal correspondence is bound to suffer considerably…
“For the past three weeks we have had constant rain, some snow and plenty of mud. We try to live underground when we aren’t washed out and also to keep as dry as possible. We seldom take off our clothes but sleep in them. The sun and its radiating heat is a luxury… As for the political issues at home, I guess the majority of us don’t give a snap, we are so interested in the law of self-preservation…
“When the German raiders come over at night, and the sky lights up bright as day with flares, and ack-ack guns set up a turmoil and pretty soon you hear and feel that terrible power of exploding bombs – well, your elbows get flabby and you breathe in little short jerks, and your chest feels empty, and you’re too excited to do anything but hope.”
Famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle was also at Anzio, and his writing tells us a little more about what Hawkins was experiencing:
“The job of protecting the beaches at night was given over to the antiaircraft artillery, or ack-ack. I heard that we had there on the beachhead the greatest concentration of antiaircraft guns ever assembled in an equivalent space. After three solid weeks of being kept awake all night long by the guns, and having to snatch a little sleep at odd moments during the daytime, that was not hard for me to believe. The falling flak became a real menace…
“It was a spectacle to watch the antiaircraft fire when the Germans actually got over the beach area. All the machine guns on the ships lying off the beaches cut loose with their red tracer bullets, and those on shore did too. Their bullets arched in all directions and fused into a skyfilling pattern. The lines of tracers bent and waved and seemed like streams of red water from hoses. The whole thing became a gigantic, animated fountain of red in the black sky. And above all this were the split-second golden flashes of big-gun shells as they exploded high up toward the stars. The noise was terrific. Sometimes low clouds caught the crack of those many guns and scrambled them all into one gigantic roar which rolled and thundered like the blood-curdling approach of a hurricane.”
But falling flak, incoming artillery, bombs or strafing did not end Sgt. Hawkins’ military career. From an Army hospital, John Hawkins wrote home:
“Well, it happened at last, but in a most exasperating and unsatisfactory manner. But something was bound to occur sooner or later after seven months’ combat. On the night of April 16 (1944), the Jerries came in after dark, about 9:30 p.m., to drop their loads and strafe. And as usual I was with my boys in the gun pit to encourage them and see that things go well… On this occasion, Jerry dropped flares over the lines to the north of us, then departed as the ack-ack became devastating. The flares burned out and the barrage ceased, although enemy planes were hovering in the neighborhood, I thought I would try to get a few minutes sleep before they resumed their attacks, so made my way in the dark to my foxhole only to inadvertently step down a 50 foot well.”
Fifty feet, for those who have a hard time visualizing, is the height of a five-story building. Hawkins’ fall was broken at the bottom by cardboard boxes that had been thrown into the well, but he seriously injured his arms and his left leg. He was not discovered until dawn; what a long night that must have been.
Sgt. John Hawkins was transported home on the hospital ship Thistle, and sent to the Rhoades General Hospital in Utica, N.Y. Given a furlough, he paid his parents a surprise visit. The Skaneateles Press reported:
“Sgt. Hawkins is a former inter-collegiate swimming champion and while home lost no time in getting into the water he likes so well even though he was handicapped considerably by his injury.”
Following an Honorable Medical Discharge in February of 1945, Hawkins resumed the practice of law in an office in the Eckett Building, at the corner of Genesee and Jordan Streets. In the years to come, he served as commander of the local American Legion for a year, as director of the Skaneateles Library Association for 25 years, as Justice of the Peace for eight years, and as the Skaneateles Village Attorney.
But John Hawkins is usually remembered for something else. Every morning, from early spring to late fall, he would emerge from his home on Genesee Street wearing a bathrobe and walk across the street, and go for a swim, out into the open water of Skaneateles Lake. He swam as early as March, and as late as December, and when the whim took him, he might swim two or three times in one day.
John Hawkins died in 1985, but his widow, Rita, lived in their home for almost 20 more years. And when people came to visit, she would point to John’s swimming medals, hung in a place of pride
The Weeks House was purchased in 2005 by its third family, and has been beautifully restored, inside and out.
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Sources: “Charles G. Weeks’ New Home,” Syracuse Sunday Herald, quoted in the Skaneateles Free Press, September 23, 1902; “Charles G. Weeks” in New York State Men: Biographic Studies and Character Portraits (1910) by Frederick S. Hills, ed.; John Hawkins letters reprinted in the Skaneateles Free Press; “American Ack-Ack” and “Anzio Beachhead in Italy” by Ernie Pyle; “Hawkins, Cited, Given Award by College Swimming Coaches for His Interest in Swimming” by Bill Clark, Syracuse Herald-Journal, March, 1961; “89 East Genesee Street Is 100 Years Old” (2002) by Pat Blackler