Not Frightened

“That’s only another way of saying you’re frightened. Oh, it was just the same in America! We were there for a fortnight, and twenty-three men tried to make love to me when they were too drunk to have any real interest in it, but only one had the guts to make a pass at me sober. He was a truck-driver, and asked me to go to Skaneateles. Well, I didn’t want to go to Skaneateles, but I was grateful to him for not being frightened.”

— Lucy Pettigrew speaking in Laxdale Hall by Eric Linklater (1899-1974). A British novelist, poet and travel writer, Linklater studied at Cornell during the winter of 1928-29.

Skaneateles, 1917

Marian Agnes Stuart was the valedictorian and vice-president of the Class of 1916 at Skaneateles High School, and went on to Wellesley. On 27 March 1917, she wrote this essay about the village for her English Composition class:

“Only yesterday a friend said to me, ‘I adore Skaneateles.’ As she is not a superlative person who adores everything, she made me wonder about my little home village. Excitingly pleasurable things could never be associated with the place, so it must have been the spirit of it which she loved.

“Skaneateles is one of those conservative, aristocratic little towns, plentiful in the East. Altho it never openly boasts and would not think of advertising, it has the smug consciousness that in worthwhile matters it has the best of everything. It seems to me like one of its own middle-aged ladies of comfortable fortune and culture, who is superior to those around her. She gradually, with no conscious conceit but entire satisfaction, comes to feel that she is second to no one in the land.

“Young people never seem to belong. They are just visitors between college terms. The real inhabitants are those who have lived there long enough for their eccentricities to develop and crystallize.

“The hills, the long tree-lined streets, the mansions of the ‘summer people,’ the comfortable farm houses with grain fields stretching to the lake, the long narrow ribbon of intense blue, itself, each has a place in the consciousness of the village that it has an assured position.

“The townspeople have certain stories which they tell each newcomer — with no showing off but a desire to show the best side of the village. The librarian is one person who takes personal pride in the village. She is a round, slow moving person who provokes the younger generation to anger because she knows so little about the books. When a stranger comes, however, she is in her element. With a superior smile, she explains, ‘Yes, Ex-president Roosevelt has called this one of the most beautiful lakes in the United States. You know his cousin lives in that colonial mansion on the west shore. The lake has the purest water in the world, fed by perpetual streams, and a mile up the lake, they can’t find the bottom. You know, of course, that this is the only place except Seattle where teasels can be grown. It’s only a stupid little…’ The deprecatory remark subsides into a contradictory smile.

“The block of commonplace stores has crates and boxes dumped behind them. From the lake, however, the matter-of-fact places of business are glorified. The sun spreads a golden haze over the warm red and buff brick and the fire walls rise up to give a touch of the old world. From experience I know that this mellow splash of color at the end of the water sends a little thrill thru you. The village recounts with pride that these stores look like the little German villages on the Rhine. The village is perfectly neutral. If it delights to be compared to the old German Städtchen, it is equally glad to boast of a typical English church. The  little Gothic church of gray stone is back only a trifle from the broad maple-bordered street. Its lawn slopes back to the lake where the shore line is softened by feathery willows. The slender spire reaches up from the trees to call men to worship.

“Such are the charms of our village. Perhaps not the inner ones, for it would take years to appreciate the traits of the people. Yet while thinking of the little town of lake and hills, I have grown almost sentimental. I believe I ‘adore’ it myself.”

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Miss Stuart eventually married the president of the Class of 1916, Kenneth Holben. Although they spent most of their married life in Baltimore, Maryland, they returned here to live year-round in the 1960s. My thanks go to their daughter, Sally Holben, who shared this essay and the photograph of her mother, circa 1916, and who notes that Städtchen means “little village,” adding that the Skaneateles High School had a strong German department.


Harmony on the Steamer

“My impression was that a picnic party on a Skaneateles steamer shouts no more, keeps better time, breaks into truer harmony and sustains the parts better than any group of singers we heard in Germany.”

— Henry L. Taylor, “Helpful Suggestions from European Schools,” State of New York, Department of Public Instruction, Forty-Ninth Annual Report of the State Superintendent, 1903.

Mr. Taylor’s comment appears to have been prompted by a Sunday evening supper in Munich, when his table was surrounded by beer-drinking, smoking singers.

Riddler’s

The story of Riddler’s is really many stories, including one about a small brick building at 4 Jordan Street and another about a small business that has touched lives for generations in Skaneateles.

The building that houses today’s Riddler’s had its beginnings in 1895. In September, the Syracuse Evening Herald reported, “Lemuel D. Hall has purchased the lot adjoining the north of the Shear block and will erect a building thereon at once, thus doing away with what has been a dumpground for all sorts of rubbish.”

Lemuel Hall was a dealer in lumber and real estate; he began construction on the building in April of 1896, after getting permission from the Village to place building materials on the sidewalk. Ground was broken on the morning of April 17th, and the Skaneateles Free Press announced that Hall already had a tenant, “a well-known local attorney.” The lawyer turned out to be Charles R. Milford, Hall’s attorney for his real estate deals and mortgage foreclosures. When the building was completed in September, Milford purchased it outright from Hall for $2,000.

Born in Skaneateles in 1859, the son of George F. and Louisa (Weeks) Milford, Charles Milford went to school at the Skaneateles Academy and read law with George Barrow. He began practicing law here in 1887, and he served as Town Clerk (1886-1898) and Village President (1888-89, 1910-11). He was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1911. His little red brick building was connected to the Milford family for decades: Charles’ grandson, Robert S. Milford, moved in to practice law in 1951.

Meanwhile, in September of 1957, an Army retiree named Ed Riddler passed through Skaneateles, liked what he saw, and stopped in at a real estate office. Earl Lynch’s news stand and soda fountain at 3 E. Genesee Street (shown above, in between E.T. Taylor (green sign) on its left and the Skaneateles Appliance Center (red sign) on its right) was available, and Riddler bought it. Lynch’s had served sandwiches, coffee and ice cream, and was a great place to wait for the bus. Ed renamed it “Riddler’s” and settled in.

Ed Riddler and Brett, 1974

Ed Riddler was, by all accounts, a curmudgeon, but a lovable curmudgeon. He came to know more than 5,000 people here by name. Barry Crimmins has written a lovely remembrance of Ed, in which he notes:

“Ed seemed to wear the same clothes for a few years at a time (often topped by an army issue jacket with his name RIDDLER embroidered across the left breast pocket). His round and creviced face never appeared to have been shaven within the previous 48 hours. He always had the remnant of a stogie in the corner of his mouth… his visage was scary until you realized he was actually a more than halfway decent fellow. If you were a kid who got past his initial attempts to spook you, and he decided you could be trusted, he’d find little tasks for you to do that were rewarded with the best kind of currency: baseball cards, comic books, candy or soda.”

George Rossi was kind enough to share this childhood memory:

“We used to go to Riddler’s after mass, if we relatively behaved during Father Casey’s Latin drone. Dad would give us each a quarter to spend. I’d get a box of Cracker Jack, Alf would get a comic book, and Becky would crawl up on the news rack, grab a Playboy, and run around the store waving the centerfold like a flag, surrendering ownership of her quarter for bad behavior. She was a good Catholic girl! Riddler would kind of half yell and half laugh. We liked to see him choke on his cheroot. The Sunday highlight…. Ed was a great guy. I can’t imagine my childhood without him.”

Nor was Ed Riddler the only personality at Riddler’s. Louise Oakley Kennedy worked at Riddler’s for many years, and was known for “unfailing courtesy, her kindness, and above all, her smiling patience with the little children who came in to buy penny candy.” Another staffer was James “Pierpont” Muldoon, who often served as a foil for Ed Riddler’s humor.

In February of 1965, Riddler’s received an unexpected delegation. The Skaneateles Press reported:

“Ed Riddler was just about as red as one of the Valentines he had been selling when on Sunday morning four of the loveliest girls in Skaneateles walked into his store, cornered him behind the counter and kissed him. The story is that the red was caused by all the lipstick, but some of the bystanders maintain he was blushing. The Press is assured that this only happens on Valentine’s Day.”

In December of 1965, the E.T. Taylor store at 1 E. Genesee decided to expand into the space occupied by Riddler’s; at the same time, the little brick building around the corner became available. Robert Milford was moving his law practice to a “new and striking” office on the site of the former Fire Hall at the corner of Jordan and Fennell.

And so, in January of 1966, Ed moved Riddler’s to its present location at 4 Jordan Street. The Skaneateles Press reported, “Partitions have been taken down, the whole place painted, a new floor laid, and a new ceiling installed… Just how great a change may be expected can be gathered from the fact that Norm and Dave, the two young men who help keep the place clean have been presented with brand new mops and brooms.”

The tables and chairs from the soda fountain were donated to the Skaneateles Rod & Gun Club for its summer auction. The club also took the marble countertop and a cigar case with double glassed doors. Asked how many people the new place would seat, Ed Riddler responded, “It depends on how friendly they are.”

The new mops, at least, got a workout in May of 1969 when a storm dumped more than three inches of rain on Skaneateles in two hours, and Riddler’s suddenly had seven feet of water in its basement.

On June 29, 1972, Ed experienced a bewildering run on copies of the New York Times, only later learning that it carried an account of local sailor Dave Birchenough finishing first in the Newport to Bermuda race, 685 miles across blue water, the only American aboard the victorious British yacht Noryema.

The bus schedule prompted many phone calls. One caller, upon hearing that the earliest bus came through at 8:15 a.m., demanded one at 7 a.m.

In 1974, after 18 years in business here, Ed Riddler sold his tobacco and news business to local accountant Don Herb, and it became Herb’s. In 2002, Bill Eberhardt purchased the business and renamed it Riddler’s, and as such it flourishes today.

After retiring, Ed Riddler moved away. He died on his 86th birthday, July 5, 1995, in Irvington, New Jersey.

If anyone else has a memory of Ed Riddler, or Riddler’s, I would love to hear from you.

* * *

Photo of Riddler’s in the late 1950s by Irene Arthur; new print provided by Pete Sheehan; from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society

Photo of Ed Riddler and Brett by William Ford, Skaneateles Press, August 24, 1974

Barry Crimmins on Ed Riddler in “Yesterday’s Papers”