Porter Cuddeback did not attend charm school. Neighbors with long memories recalled a time in his youth when he was a congenial fellow, but life’s difficulties roughened his outlook, and when people came to visit his farm on West Lake Road, he would set a pack of dogs on them.
Born in 1843, Porter was the son of Peter Cuddeback and Maria Smith Cuddeback. He grew up on their farm, and developed a great love of horses, especially those that could race rather than pull a plow. But as Porter approached middle age, we can assume he felt the need for something in the way of human companionship. His first wife was Bessie (or Betsey) Gay. She was 12 years younger than Porter, and died young, leaving him a widower.
In January of 1882, Porter tried again, marrying Leona Rowse in Syracuse. The next year, Leona took poison. Neighbors found her dying in an orchard. The news account cited “family troubles.”
In 1887, Porter married for a third time, this time selecting a “remarkably pretty young woman” named Jessie who was 19 years his junior. She said later that she married with the understanding that Porter would support her mother; however, he committed her mother to a poorhouse, where she died. Jessie Cuddeback also complained that her husband beat her, tore her hair out by the roots, and loved his horses more than he loved her.
In 1891, Jessie’s rival was Mazeppa, a black mare. Porter made a bundle when Mazeppa beat Prairie Hen in a series of half-mile heats in Auburn, but the victory prompted charges that Mazeppa was a ringer, actually a horse named Wild West. In a rematch in Skaneateles two weeks later, Prairie Hen beat Mazeppa, prompting charges that Prairie Hen was now actually Miss Clay, from Ithaca. Reversals and conflicts such as this certainly couldn’t have improved Porter’s disposition.
Porter and Jessie separated in 1892; Porter was to provide $2.50 a week in support. Jessie later complained she rarely saw any money. In 1896, Jessie filed for divorce, citing Porter’s cruelty and abuse, but on the day judgment was to be passed, Porter produced two witnesses who claimed Jessie had “engaged in acts with certain Auburn men which were not proper.” Jessie, who was working as a seamstress in a dry goods house in Syracuse, was not present to defend her honor. Judge Frank Hiscock granted Porter the divorce, thus Jessie had to bear the shame of being a divorced woman, as well as court costs ($142.82).
Porter Cuddeback was already a litigation enthusiast. Three years earlier, he had attempted to have his aunt, Margaret Bisdee of Baldwinsville, declared insane so he could take control of her estate, said to be worth $25,000. Mrs. Bisdee’s niece, Maggie Rogers, had committed suicide with laudanum just 10 days earlier. Since she was the daughter of Porter’s Aunt Esther Cuddeback Rogers, Porter petitioned for control of her estate, too, worth $5,000. To his frustration, he failed in both cases: Mrs. Bisdee was not a lunatic and Miss Rogers had two half-sisters who were closer relations.
Porter’s last romantic prospect was a Spanish woman with “dark flashing eyes” who served as his housekeeper. It was said that at the opening of the Spanish-American War, in 1898, she displayed a Spanish flag but was forced to take it down by irate villagers. She left Skaneateles before she could become Porter’s fourth bride.
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Porter’s reputation as a curmudgeon and a hermit blossomed. His house took on a tumbledown appearance. One account noted, “Mr. Cuddeback rarely appeared in the village unless it was to buy groceries for himself, or to take back to the farm a basket of bones for his canine retainers.”
In April of 1910, however, C.D. Beebe of the neighboring Lone Oak estate (today the Ruston estate) managed to buy 60 acres of Porter’s farm to add to his own land. I don’t know how C.D. Beebe got past the dogs with his offer and a check. Perhaps he mailed them and let the postman run the gauntlet.
In 1916, the new Skaneateles Country Club purchased more of Porter’s land for its golf course. Between the money raised by these sales and his remaining land on West Lake Road, Porter was thought to be worth about $20,000. In October of 1917, as Death cast a shadow on his doorstep, Porter drew up a will with the help of attorney F. Eugene Stone of Skaneateles.
Porter died on November 6, 1917. He was buried in Lake View Cemetery, and then the fun began.
The will noted that Porter’s nearest relatives were cousins and second cousins, “whom I hardly know and have no interest in, or they in me. They should not expect and I do not desire to give them anything.” Porter, who had attempted to hijack two estates himself, was not about to have the same thing happen to his money.
Rather, he bequeathed all to “Stephen E. Cooper, 2416 Flournoy St., Chicago, Ill., who from boyhood to manhood lived with me many years and then and since proved himself worthy of all I could do for him.” As a boy, Cooper had been taken in by Porter’s parents, and the two had grown up together. He was Porter’s only friend in the world.
Contacted in Chicago, Mr. Cooper expressed surprise and indicated that he was in no need of money, having a good position, but that he would honor his friend’s wishes.
As Porter had anticipated, the cousins put the spurs to legal action to get the money for themselves. Leading the charge were Ida Woodward, Philo Cuddeback, and Cortland attorney Clayton R. Lusk acting as a guardian for two minors. They said Porter was not of sound mind, he lived with dogs, his will was not valid, and his money should go to his closest relations. But in June of 1918, the court ruled for Mr. Cooper, and sent the grasping cousins away empty-handed.
However, Skaneateles had not heard the last of Porter Cuddeback. In 1951, during excavation for a barn foundation on Porter’s old farm, Ruth Jillson discovered a cache of buried silverware, bearing an R monogram. It was a mystery left to us by a man who kept to himself.