Wirth’s Brook

Not since the glaciers retreated has Skaneateles been blessed with a new water feature. Please welcome Wirth’s Brook. Now, some might tell you that this is the result of a broken water main that has gone unrepaired for more than a year and a culvert that has filled in over 12 years, but I prefer to think of it as an Act of God.

Here we are just outside the Village’s eastern gates. Note the dry foreground and the sudden appearance of flowing water a bit farther on, water flowing east down the margin of Route 20.

The first stream is joined by a second, as the flow is pumped out of a nearby basement.

See how the brook is eroding Wirth’s driveway, cutting a scenic pathway…

…to a miniature marsh, complete with cattails. Twelve years ago, this was a clean culvert, but with a decade of neglect, it has gradually filled in and no longer drains. I’m told it’s state property, which explains a lot.

And then we get to the second stand of cattails. A family of frogs lives here; I stop and commune with them every morning on my walk to work. Brad Wirth predicts it will soon be a protected wetland. There used to be a drain here, but it has closed up. As you can see, the water rolls on across the driveway and into the lot beyond, turning it into a marsh as well.

It’s like this all day, every day. And did I mention the algae? It’s everywhere, growing lusher as you read.

And wait for the cold weather! Last winter, sheets of ice spread across the driveways of Wirth’s Automotive and 1333 East Genesee and out onto Route 20.  I anticipate skating, a footbridge in the spring, trout leaping, a place for every taxpayer to enjoy. After all, we’re paying for the water.

Henry Arnold’s Short Stay

Henry and Hannah Arnold lived in Skaneateles for just a few years, coming here from Canada in the early 1800s, most probably to be close to Hannah’s sister, Jacintha, wife of John Ten Eyck, our postmaster from 1813-1817. The Arnolds lived in a small frame house that Hannah bought from John Legg, just across the street from the Ten Eyck house (which was on the site of today’s St. James’ Episcopal Church).

Henry Arnold was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1772. His mother died when he was a young boy, and his step-mother felt that he and his two brothers were annoying, so the boys were raised by a maiden aunt, their father’s sister. Henry, who went by “Harry” in the family circle, married Hannah Ten Eyck of New York City in 1796. He made his way as a merchant, and also saw to land holdings in Canada, granted to his family by the British government.

Some attribute the Arnolds’ short stay in Skaneateles to the fact that Henry’s father was General Benedict Arnold, who fell out with the Second Continental Congress and attempted to deliver West Point into British hands in 1780, during the American Revolution. Henry was seven years old at the time, and could hardly have been in on the plot, but it has been hinted that the people of Skaneateles treated him as a co-conspirator.

A lake view not being sufficient for happiness, Henry and Hannah Arnold removed themselves first to Canada and then to New York City, where Henry died in 1826. Hannah died two years later. The Arnolds left one daughter, Sophia, the only survivor of their eleven children.

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“Kin of Traitor Once Lived Here” Skaneateles Press, October 24, 1939; “Not Benedict Arnold’s Brother, but His Son Who Lived Here” Skaneateles Press, November 8, 1957; Wikipedia

Mr. McGowan’s Hat

In July of 1910, attorney George McGowan rented a cottage for the month on Skaneateles Lake. He was a founding partner of M’Gowan & Stolz, served as Deputy District Attorney for the City of Syracuse and taught law at Syracuse University. Mr. McGowan had been suffering from attacks of dizziness, and just the week before had fallen down at the corner of South Salina and West Onondaga in Syracuse. Perhaps it was felt that a month of rest would do him good. Mr. McGowan, his wife Julia, and their two children moved into the Patten cottage on the Fulton farm, about three miles from the village, on the east side of the lake.

But on July 5th, readers of the local papers were shocked with this news:

“George McGowan, 51 years old, one of the best known lawyers of Syracuse, was drowned in Skaneateles Lake, Tuesday morning. He had rowed from his cottage to get a pail of water in the deep part of the lake. Neighbors discovered the boat capsized and Mr. McGowan’s hat floating on the water. His body has not been recovered.”

The McGowan’s maid saw McGowan take three pails and go out in the boat to get drinking water (far from the shoreline privies, I assume). Here the accounts diverge. One newspaper reported that neighbors saw the boat capsized; another said the maid saw the boat empty, but with two full pails of water on board. But everyone saw the hat.

The newspapers reported, “Mrs. McGowan was prostrated by the news. The undertakers were at once sent for.”

The recovery of a body at this time was apparently an indelicate process. More than one boat was at work, dragging with grappling hooks, and arrangements had been made for dynamite and a diver. Mercifully, before explosives could be used (to free the body from weeds), the men from M. Ryan and Sons (undertakers from Syracuse) found the body at 4 p.m., and brought it to the surface with ropes.

The body was taken to the McGowan home in Syracuse and the funeral was held there. Our coroner, George R. Kinne, ruled the death accidental. Mr. McGowan could not swim.

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Auburn Journal, July 5, 1910 ; New York Times, July 6, 1910; “The Body of Attorney George M’Gowan Found in Skaneateles Lake” Syracuse Post-Standard, July 6, 1910 ; “Coroner Says M’Gowan Drowning Accidental” Syracuse Daily Journal, July 6, 1910; photo from Notable Men of Central New York (1903) by Dwight Stoddard, ed.

The Sea Serpent

I have read and written about a deer, a pig and a cow seen swimming in the lake, and have actually watched a beaver swim north towards the outlet, but the following creature was a first for me:

On Sunday, July 25, 1937, Mr. & Mrs. Thomas M. Walker were fishing in Skaneateles Lake, about 500 feet offshore, near Mandana, when they saw, approaching their boat, something strange. At first, they thought it might be a sea serpent… or a large snake. But as it drew closer, they realized it was an exhausted woodchuck, headed straight for their boat in obvious hope of rescue.

Mr. Walker reached out with his fish net and hauled the creature onboard; it made no objection, and reclined quietly in the bottom of the boat, catching its breath, recuperating. But then, in the words of the reporter for the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser, “it suddenly manifested a disposition, still in the meshes of the landing net, for liberty pronto.”

While Mrs. Walker held the net over the stern of the boat, and the frantic woodchuck clawed and bit in an effort to escape, Mr. Walker manned the oars and pulled mightily for the shore, where witnesses had gathered, drawn by the sounds of the struggle. Upon landfall, the woodchuck fought his way clear of the net and bolted into the woods, leaving the Walkers to explain the ruckus to the bystanders, and then resume their quiet afternoon’s fishing.

Banished to Argentina

I think back to 1885 and to Apex, Duroc, Director, Nutwood, Gloster, Phallas, Sultan, and Sir Archie, sold by J. Horatio Earll for export to the Argentine Republic, noble American Merino sheep, sons of Skaneateles, shipped off to South America.

One cannot help but wonder what became of Duroc, named for the thoroughbred son of Epsom Derby winner Diomed, and the sire of American Eclipse. Or Nutwood, named for the only trotter to have a record under 2:20 and sire five more with records under 2:20.

And how could Horatio Earll part with his Phallas, doubly named, once for the stallion of Heraclius, emperor of Byzantium, the steed who carried his master to victory at the Battle of Ninevah (625 A.D.), and then for the trotter who beat Maxey Cobb in 1885? Or Sir Archie, named for another son of Diomed and one of the greatest American thoroughbreds of his day? Or Sultan, named for the leading sire in England and Ireland from 1832-1837?

We may never know if these were exceptionally fast sheep, or if Horatio Earll just had a thing for the ponies. The answer grazes somewhere in the grasslands of Patagonia.

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With thanks to the Register of the New York State American Merino Sheep Breeders’ Association, Volume II (1889), donated to Cornell University in 1904 by Horatio Earll, Secretary of the Association.

Race Suicide in Skaneateles

In July of 1908, a baby show was hosted at Roosevelt Hall by Mrs. Samuel Montgomery Roosevelt and her daughter, Mrs. Augusta Campbell. Babies received prizes for being the prettiest, fattest, best behaved, and merriest. The week before the baby show, “The Rambler” at the Skaneateles Press noted:

“The exhibit is to be commended and will indicate that ‘race suicide’ has not a foothold in Skaneateles, even if it is charged that this village has an unusual number of old maids and old bachelors.”

Not being alive in 1908, I missed the flap about race suicide. But it was mentioned repeatedly in the local papers in connection with the baby show. This was oddly appropriate because race suicide’s chief drum-beater was Theodore Roosevelt, a cousin of Roosevelt Hall’s owner. In a nutshell, our President felt that the world’s superior race was in grave danger of being overwhelmed by its inferiors if it failed to keep up the birth rate.

In a speech before the American Congress of Mothers in Washington, D.C., Roosevelt said:

“A race that practiced race suicide would thereby conclusively show that it was unfit to exist, and that it had better give place to people who had not forgotten the primary laws of their being.”

And speaking in Paris before the French Academy, Roosevelt added:

“The chief of blessings for any nation is that it shall leave its seed to inherit the land. It was the crown of blessings in Biblical times, and it is the crown of blessings now. The greatest of all curses is sterility, and the severest of all condemnations should be that visited upon willful sterility.”

“Willful sterility” was, of course, birth control, a crime “of ease and self indulgence” as Roosevelt put it, committed by women who wished to be spared the toils of motherhood at the expense of the end of civilization.

But nobody was holding back in Skaneateles. There were 56 babies entered in the Roosevelt Hall baby show, and afterward the Auburn Citizen proclaimed:

“Mrs. S. M. Roosevelt, a relative of the President, headed a vigorous campaign against race suicide in this village yesterday in carrying out one of the well known ‘Roosevelt policies’ by conducting a Baby show, and the affair proved to be a notable success.”

The Skaneateles Press echoed the sentiment:

“The entire affair was a pronounced success and the show indicates that race suicide does not prevail in Skaneateles.”

It was indeed a banner day for fruitful white people, as the Auburn Citizen noted:

“The sloping terrace that runs down to the picturesque lake was dotted with white-dressed tots who had been prinked to the ears by the fond mothers. There were babies of every hue and color. Fair-skinned babies of New York’s society vied with the berry brown children of Skaneateles residents. Everyone was smiling and kissing and hugging the bundle of sweetness which was of particular interest.”

The “every hue and color” exaggeration aside, the kissing and hugging part brings me to teddy bears, and a revelation that cast a sudden shadow over the Roosevelt legacy. Teddy bears, as you doubtless recall, were inspired by a 1902 Clifford Berryman cartoon of Teddy Roosevelt and a small bear. A woman in Brooklyn, Rose Michtom, made toy bears for her husband Morris’s store, and Morris wrote to the President and asked if they could call them “Teddy’s bears.” The President gave his permission, others began making toy bears, and by 1906, teddy bears were a national craze.

And then, in 1907, this story hit the news wires like a bolt of lightning:

“The Rev. Michael G. Esper of St. Joseph, Mich., declared in St. Joseph’s Catholic church on Sunday that Teddy bears in the hands of little girls were destroying all instincts of motherhood and would become one of the most powerful factors in the race suicide danger. He urged parents to replace them with dolls.”

Having raised the specter of race suicide, Teddy Roosevelt was now implicated as an accomplice. One wonders how he took the news.

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“On American Motherhood,” speech by President Roosevelt, March 13, 1905, before the National Congress of Mothers; “The Rev. Michael G. Esper,” Auburn Citizen, July 9, 1907; “The Rambler,” Skaneateles Press, June 20, 1908; Skaneateles Press, July 10, 1908; “Successful Baby Show,” Auburn Citizen, July 10, 1908; “Duties of the Citizen: Address Delivered Before the French Academy April 23” reprinted in The Independent, January – June 1910; Theodore Roosevelt Collection of the Harvard University Library

The Excitement of the Danger Incurred

“The sad death of young Gale, who broke through the ice, March 19, 1863, deserves a passing notice. Scarcely a boy of the old skaters but has a tale of some escape from a like fate. The only wonder is that we survive. For when the ice was breaking up we were never content with the good skating we might have had, but went on the swaying, crashing cakes, as near the edge as possible.”

— “Notes of Other Days” (1914) by William M. Beauchamp

As winter was turning to spring in 1863, William Gale went skating and became a cautionary tale for the next generation. The Auburn Advertiser of Saturday, March 21st, reported:

“A young man named Gale, about twenty years of age, a son of the proprietor of the Skaneateles Hotel, was drowned in the Skaneateles Lake yesterday, (Friday) having skated into an air hole. After a long time spent in efforts to recover the body it was drawn out by the aid of a trout hook and line. The young man had met with a similar accident the day before, but managed to escape from the water. He was of a venturesome disposition, and had skated several miles up the lake, for the excitement of the danger incurred. The sad occurrence has awakened the sympathy and grief of the neighborhood, and is another of the many warnings against too rash and thoughtless adventure.

“Other reports give us to understand that the unfortunate young man was drowned on Thursday, having gone out to skate on the ice with a friend that morning. After amusing themselves some time, the latter returned to the Village, and left young Gale enjoying the sport that soon after led him to a watery grave. His absence from the noon and evening meal began to arouse painful suspicions regarding him, and it was not until his overcoat was brought in that the horrible reality of his fate flashed forcibly upon the minds of his agonized parents.

“Large parties were out upon the ice skating during the entire day, among whom were quite a number of ladies, but young Gale having gone towards the East shore, he was unobserved by any one. Nearly where his overcoat was found there was a large opening or air hole in the ice, and the brittle and treacherous material had been broken widely and irregularly by the young man’s efforts to get out. His body was found in thirty feet of water, and dragged up to the surface by grappling irons attached to ropes, as we are informed. His name was William Gale, a very worthy and highly esteemed young man, a son of the proprietor of  the ‘Lake House’ at Skaneateles.”