An Exchange of Views

I have written before about S. Montgomery Roosevelt, the man who purchased Roosevelt Hall in 1899 and gave it the name that we know it by today. He was a wealthy artist and something of a hound dog whose last will and testament disclosed a mistress and cut his wife out of his fortune, leaving his money to nieces and nephews. But long before S. Montgomery Roosevelt’s death in 1920, Roosevelt Hall played a role in an exchange of views that was a preview of things to come.

It began in June of 1908, with a rumor in Paris and an explanation in the New York newspapers:

“Mrs. Horatio Rubens Denies That She and Her Husband Have Separated.”

Because Mrs. Horatio H. Rubens sublet her apartment in the Rue Hamelin, Paris, and took up temporary quarters in the Hotel d’Iena an absurd rumor spread in Paris that she was arranging for a separation from her husband, the famous American lawyer who is now president of the Matanzas railway in Cuba, where he has been living for the last few years.

Mrs. Rubens did not know whether to be indignant or amused when she heard the story this morning in her private drawing room of the hotel. “It’s too ridiculous to talk about,” she said. “I really couldn’t stand the climate in Cuba. I had, indeed, a touch of yellow fever a year ago, so I sailed direct for France, landing at Saint Nazaire. My husband could not come, both on account of business and because he is such an awfully bad sailor that the mere look of the sea makes him green. Why, when we went yachting with Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery Roosevelt, Mrs. Schuyler and others, Harry, that’s my husband, followed us from port to port by train. He has never been abroad, and I love it so much here in Paris. Some day I’ll persuade him to come over.

“I took a flat in the Rue Hamelin, and until January Mrs. Frankie Smith of San Francisco lived with me. When she had to go home Mrs. Stone of New York stayed with me till I gave up the flat three weeks ago owing to a piano player overhead. So that’s all there is to that absurd story.

“It is foolish as the story which was printed in New York that I had put my maid in an insane asylum because she refused to brush my dog’s teeth every morning.”

Mrs. Rubens is an extremely beautiful woman, slim and young. She wore one of the new indoor directoire gowns of pale yellow. Her only jewelry was a necklace of huge pearls. She has been very popular in French society and is an especial favorite in country houses, because she rides to hounds and shoots capitally. She is greatly sought after by artists anxious to paint her winsome, expressive face.

[Antonio] De la Gandara hopes to persuade her to pose this season, but she is now posing for S. Montgomery Roosevelt at his studio at No. 35 Avenue d’Eylau. Mr. Roosevelt has already painted Mrs. Rubens many times, the sittings being given when she was a guest of his wife at the Roosevelt manor, near Skaneateles, eighteen months ago.

“Winter” by S. Montgomery Roosevelt

One portrait which has been exhibited in Paris with great success was painted in the park near the manor gates. It represents Mrs. Rubens standing against a wintery background, wrapped in sables. “Every time I think of that lovely manor house,” said Mrs. Rubens, “I am anxious to go back. I had a letter yesterday from Mrs. Roosevelt, in which she called me her ‘dear little lady’ and asked me to come and visit her again.”

Mrs. Rubens was a Miss Lamar of a well-known Southern family. Her cousin, Lucius Quintus Lamar, is now in Cuba with Mr. Rubens. She is going to write to them both by next mail. Montgomery Roosevelt is one of the few American painters who has a high social standing in Paris. He comes over every spring and opens his studio to his social and artistic friends. He arrived three weeks ago and will remain the greater part of the summer, with occasional painting excursions into Auvergne.”

Well, that explained everything. That is, until Mrs. Roosevelt read the article, and launched this salvo from Roosevelt Hall:

“Did Not Invite Woman to Her Home – Mrs. S. Montgomery Roosevelt of Skaneateles Repudiates Statements Given Out by Mrs. Rubens in Paris”

A Skaneateles dispatch to a New York newspaper says: “It is not true that I wrote to Mrs. Horatio S. Rubens and invited her to my home, nor that I called her my ‘dear little lady.’ It is not true that I have either written to her or received a letter from her. I have not seen her in more than a year,  nor do I wish to see her.”

Mrs. S. Montgomery Roosevelt, wife of the noted American artist, who is second cousin of the President, thus denied to-day statements made in the cabled interview concerning her, given out in Paris last Saturday by Mrs. Rubens. Mrs. Roosevelt, whose New York city home has been closed for a long time, was seen at the Roosevelt manor house overlooking Skaneateles lake, where she is spending the summer quietly… Mrs. Roosevelt’s reference to Mrs. Rubens to-day, however, was the very antithesis of the attitude assumed by the latter in her Paris interview.

“My husband left this country last April and I have not seen him since,” said Mrs. Roosevelt. “I have not received a letter from him in more than a month. I cannot discuss any difference that may exist between my husband and myself. It would not be proper for me to do so, but you can deny the statement of that woman that she received any letter from me. I would not think of writing to her, and I have no wish to see her here or elsewhere.”

So there, Mrs. Horatio Rubens. But was Mr. Roosevelt chastened in any way but his wife’s displeasure? Not the Montgomery Roosevelt we’ve come to know and love. Four years later, the New York Times carried this piece:

“On the ground that she was ill, Mrs. Harold S. Rubens, entered on the passenger list as Mrs. C. de Lamar of New York who arrived yesterday on the American liner Philadelphia, refused to identify her signature on her baggage declaration. The Acting Deputy Surveyor thereupon sent her ten trunks to the Appraiser’s Stores. Mrs. Rubens drove from the pier in the auto of S. Montgomery Roosevelt, an artist, of 57 West 58th Street.”

There was no note of Mrs. Roosevelt’s reaction.

* * *

 Sources: “Mrs. Horatio Rubens Denies That She and Her Husband Have Separated,” Syracuse Herald, June 15, 1908; “Did Not Invite Woman to Her Home,” Syracuse Journal, June 15, 1908; “Held Woman’s Trunks,” New York Times, October 21, 1912.

Postcard Views of the Krebs

krebbs flowers 1Early Krebs postcard, mailed in 1911. Note the double ‘b’ on Krebb’s.

krebbs flowers 2Same view, different flowers.

krebs-1911Also in 1911, with two women on the porch. Still a “residence.”

krebs-staff-webWith waitresses on the porch.

Krebs Staff TintedAnd a later, tinted version of the photo above.

krebs-girls-webThe waitresses in all their glory. You will find their names and a bit of history here.

krebs-crisp-webWith “KREBS” typed on the border

krebs-hornsOn the dining room wall, horns said to have been imported from Italy in 1875 by Charles Krebs for his Lake View House, and then passed down to his son, Fred Krebs. My thanks to Gard Lorey for the loan of Pictorial History of Skaneateles (1980) from which this was taken.

krebs-larrabee-1The Krebs dining room; the horns were still on the wall, but fresh flowers and wallpaper had warmed up the room. This card was contributed to the Skaneateles Historical Society by Ethel Larrabee.

Krebs Dining Room

The dining room from the other end. On the right you can see a bit of the horns, and the candelabra. The telephone number was 14. From the collection of Tyde Richards.

krebs-wrinkled-webThe Krebs had expanded, but there were still two individual windows above the porch. On the back of the card, it notes that the telephone number is 14.

Krebs Souvenir

Same photo as above, but in crisper black & white

krebs-with-flagAbove and below, views of the Krebs on Memorial Day


Krebs Tinted Two on PorchStill two windows over the porch,  but a streetlight had been installed. There are two people seated on the porch; they could be Cora and Fred Krebs.

krebs-kan-ya-toThe Krebs and the Kan-Ya-To (today’s Sherwood Inn)

krebs-kitchenThe kitchen.

krebs-gardenThe garden; love the hats on the ladies.

Krebs Pale Blue

“C.T. American Art Blue-Sky” postcard published by Wm Jubb of Syracuse. The car is a Studebaker with a California top, probably the “Big Six” model of 1926.

krebs-1927 1Dining room, 1927.

Krebs White BorderThere is now a larger central window over the porch, awnings have been added and the hitching post is gone. This card, published by Santway Photo-Craft Co. of Watertown, N.Y., was mailed in 1928.

Krebs-1930-WEBThis card, also by Santway Photo-Craft, is from 1930.

Krebs-Side-Garden-WEBPatio and tables on the side of The Krebs.

krebs-missing-linkThis may be one of the first 4-views, as it includes two scenes from the village in addition to two from the Krebs.

krebs-4-way-webAn early 4-view card before the crest was added at the center.

krebs-gardens-newAn early 4-view with the gardens only.

krebs-parlorA card with the full view of the lobby.

krebs-with-car-again“The Krebs” sign appears, as does a 1935 Chevrolet.

krebs-19371937, from Santway Photo-Craft. With a fire hydrant, and someone’s front fender at the far right; two versions: one with the title at the bottom, and at the top…

Krebs Fender

krebs-linen11The first Linen Era postcard, hand-tinted. It appears the person who did the tinting also moved the tree to the other side of the sidewalk and removed the hydrant.

krebs-4-way-gardensThe telephone number is still 14 in this early 4-view postcard, which includes three views of the gardens.

Krebs Crisp BW photoThe awnings have changed, and “Cocktails” has been added to the sign, circa 1949.

krebs-x-4bThe telephone number is now 685-5714, and we see the upstairs bar.

krebs-chrome with chryslerMy thanks to Dave Miller who helps us date this postcard: “We have a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker parked behind a ’57 Cadillac.” And a woman about to open the front door.

krebs-by-rob-howardPhoto by Rob Howard, published in Syracuse and printed by Plastichrome, Boston, with a deckle edge.

krebs-color-newerAnother color postcard, photographer unknown.

krebs-100th-webThe 1999 4-view celebrating the 100th anniversary.

John Ericsson and Skaneateles Lake

I’m not going to tell you that the historic sea battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia took place on Skaneateles Lake. You’d never believe me. But there was an interesting link between the Union’s first ironclad and a boat that graced our waters during the summer of 1859. That year, a wealthy summer resident, Dr. George S. Case of St. Louis, Missouri, commissioned a launch to be built by Charles F. Hall, the go-to boat builder in Skaneateles at that time.

The Julia Allis was to be a launch 35 feet in length, powered by a caloric engine, an engine that used heated air instead of steam to drive its pistons. Thought to be safer that steam engines, caloric engines were the invention of John Ericsson, a Swedish immigrant who was working as an inventor and engineer in New York City. Hall’s finished boat and an Ericsson Caloric Engine got together in July of 1859, and made a trial run to Mandana at six miles per hour. After some tinkering, the Julia Allis settled into a regular schedule, traveling to Glen Haven twice a week.

This seems to have been sort of a busman’s holiday for Case, who in addition to being a physician had established the first street railway in St. Louis. But the career of his Julia Allis was a short one; she was shipped to St. Louis in November, after just a few months on the water.

Less than three years later, John Ericsson was called upon to respond to the building of the first Confederate ironclad, the CSS Virginia. Built over the frame of the captured USS Merrimac, the rebel ship was handily destroying the wooden ships of the Union blockade force and threatening to shift the balance of the war.

Ericsson’s Monitor, with its revolutionary design and rotating turret, fought the Virginia to a standstill and changed the face of naval warfare. But I am sure the Julia Allis provided a more restful ride to Glen Haven.

Grace Moore in Skaneateles, 1936

Grace Moore, the “Tennessee Nightingale,” was an opera star, a recording star and a radio star, and in the 1930s a film star as well. Raised in Tennessee, she began her singing career at the Black Cat Café in New York’s Greenwich Village, moved on to Broadway musicals (introducing Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do”), debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1928, played opera houses in Paris and London, and appeared as Jenny Lind in the 1930 film A Lady’s Morals, the first of her eight films.

So when she arrived in Skaneateles, stayed at the Kan-Ya-To Inn (today’s Sherwood Inn) and breakfasted at the Krebs, it was news:

“Grace Moore, Metropolitan opera and film star, today toured the Finger Lakes Region. Last night she was a guest at Kan-Ya-To Inn, Skaneateles. She left shortly before noon for a motor trip to other of the Finger Lakes. Tomorrow she plans to return to the inn at Skaneateles to spend the week-end… So delighted was the singer with the Finger Lakes country today that she left word in Skaneateles to prepare to receive a party of friends whom she would invite to join her for the weekend of relaxation there. This morning she dined at Krebs, autographing a card for Fred R. Krebs.”

— “Grace Moore Pays Visit to Finger Lakes,” Auburn Citizen-Advertiser, April 24, 1936


The next year she would star in When You’re in Love with Cary Grant and for years would remain the most popular selling classical artist on record. Grace Moore died in a plane crash in Denmark, after a sold-out concert appearance, in 1948. A movie based on her life, So This Is Love, was made in 1953.

* * *

Photo above from One Night of Love (1934); there’s lots of Grace Moore on YouTube; here’s a link to a tune from One Night of Love.

The Screamer of Glen Haven

I love a good ghost story as much as the next guy, but there is too much wrong with “The Screamer of Glen Haven” for me to embrace the tale. The story, widespread on the Web, begins, “A sanitarium was burned down in 1912 to clear a spot for a watershed for the city of Syracuse. The Sanitarium’s caretaker was said to have perished in the fire. His screams could be heard across the lake.”

This is a reference to the Glen Haven and its water cure sanitarium. But when the city of Syracuse bought the Glen Haven property in 1911 to remove possible sources of contamination from the city’s water supply, it chose to tear the buildings down, not burn them down. The wood from the hotel was sold and carried away in 1913. So no caretaker could have perished in a fire that did not happen.

Could the story have stemmed from an earlier fire? The main building at Glen Haven did burn down in 1854, but no one was hurt.

The story of The Screamer continues, “He can be seen and heard at night pacing the wooded cliffs above the camp brandishing his sharpened scythe and wailing.” If we accept this part of the story, who might The Screamer be?

Perhaps it is Lewis Thomas, who had charge of the baths at Glen Haven. In May of 1904, he attempted suicide with a dull knife, failed at the attempt and was sent to the New York State Asylum for the Insane. So it could be his ghost, brandishing a dull knife, and screaming in frustration.

But if there’s going to be a haunt at Glen Haven, why not the spirit of Lillian Dumont of Brooklyn, who, oddly enough, was born at Glen Haven. She came from a good family and had lived a life of ease. She was 22 years old, pretty and popular. But in August of 1889, without leaving a word or a note, she went to her room in “Liberty Hall,” a Glen Haven cottage, and using the laces from her corset hung herself in a closet doorway.

She was discovered by her mother, who at first saw only her empty bed. “Just then she noticed a hand protruding from the closet,” the newspaper reported, “and she at once gave the alarm. Some ladies who happened to be near rushed in and the door being opened, Lillian was found hanging to the same. The cord was cut and the body laid upon the bed. She gasped a few times, but all efforts to resuscitate her were unavailing.”

Her family had no explanation for her suicide, saying only that Lillian had been suffering from “occasional fits of melancholy.’”

The same day’s newspaper reported a second Glen Haven suicide that week. James C. Terry, a resident of Cortland who had been in poor health, hired a boat, rowed to the middle of the lake and jumped in. He was 58; he left no family.

I do have one more candidate, one with a reason to scream. The month before Miss Dumont and Mr. Terry took their lives at Glen Haven, Darius Green of the town of Scott was working at a saw mill at Fair Haven, just across the lake. The newspaper noted:

“He was standing on a plank at the side of the large circular saw, greasing the same while it was running at full speed. The plank tipped up and flung him headlong in front of the saw, which cut the top of his head completely off, spilling the brains on the floor. His left hand was also severed and fell into the lake and has not been recovered at our latest advices. He leaves a wife and nine children in poor circumstances.”

In fact, there appears to be no lack of troubled spirits who might be pacing the wooded cliffs above the lake. Or perhaps there is nothing to the story of The Screamer, and all these troubled souls have found peace. Would that it be so.

The Krebs and E. Alexander Powell

In the April 1926 issue of The American Magazine, an article on The Krebs appeared, by E. Alexander Powell, a famous war correspondent and writer of travel books. Powell hailed from Syracuse, N.Y., but had already seen much of the world, and his stock of stories for dinner conversation was said to be as inexhaustible as The Krebs’ dinner offerings. By the time this article appeared, he had already had 22 books published, had written news dispatches from Belgium when the German army marched through, and traveled through Mexico, Syria, Egypt, Java, Siam, Bali, Persia, China, Japan, Abyssinia, Kenya, Zanzibar and Madagascar.

Powell, hat in hand, with the invaders of Belgium

He had wanderlust for sure, and was fairly fearless. In Mexico, he interviewed Pancho Villa at his bedside, where the bandit who became a General was recovering from surgery. Out the window Powell could see the garden and in it the fresh grave of the Mayor of Juarez, whose bed Villa had made his own.

Powell was in Antwerp when it became the first city in the world to be bombed from the air, by a German Zeppelin. Of the first bomb, which he watched fall, he wrote in Fighting in Flanders (1914), “An instant later came a rending, shattering crash that shook the hotel to its foundations, the walls of my room rocked and reeled about me, and for a breathless moment I thought that the building was going to collapse.” As a neutral, he was able to chat with the German General Staff; he reported on the war from Belgium, France and Italy, and when America entered, he became a captain in military intelligence.

The war aside, in 1916 he managed to sandwich in some film work, writing the scenario for a 15-chapter silent film serial, A Lass of the Lumberlands, starring Helen Holmes as Helen Holmes. (Movie-goers loved Helen Holmes, the Queen of the Railroad Serials, and the producer wanted to be sure they knew she was in the picture.)

After the war, in the Philippines, Powell met P.W. Rogers, whose wife told him this tale: “A year or so prior to her marriage she was sitting with her parents at tiffin when a Moro, with whom her father had had a trifling business disagreement, knocked at the door and asked for a moment’s conversation. Telling the native that he would talk with him after he had finished his meal, the trader returned to the table. Scarcely had he seated himself when the Moro, who had slipped unobserved into the dining room, sprang like a panther, his broad-bladed barong describing a glistening arc, and the trader’s head rolled among the dishes. Another sweep of the terrible weapon and the mother’s hand was severed at the wrist, while the future Mrs. Rogers owes her life to the fact that she fainted and slipped under the table.”

Can you imagine Mrs. Powell’s face when her husband began to tell that story over dinner, perhaps at The Krebs as the prime rib was being served? He wrote that one down in Where the Strange Trails Go Down (1921), and what boy could resist a book whose cover carried the image of a Dyak headhunter wielding a blowgun in the jungles of Borneo? Certainly not me.

Newspaper accounts tell us that Mrs. Powell and her children stayed in Skaneateles in August of 1918, but this was not a first visit; the Powells had chaperoned a party of young people at Glen Haven in August of 1901, and may have been here other times as well. The couple’s last recorded visit was in September and October of 1924, when they leased “the upper flat of the Wolcott home” and Mr. Powell worked on his first book on Africa, Beyond the Utmost Purple Rim (1925). Interviewed for the Skaneateles Press, Powell said, “In all my travels I have never seen a more beautiful spot than the region of Skaneateles lake. It is a wonderful place in which to live. In the two weeks I have been here I have done as much work as would ordinarily take me six weeks to do.”

He also spoke glowingly of Mr. & Mrs. Krebs and their restaurant, saying he had found “no better place in all the world than theirs.” It would seem his article in The American Magazine was a labor of love, and here it is:

The Krebs Have Made a Fortune Out of a Country Dining-Room

“In the heart of up-state New York, in the rugged and picturesque hill country which stretches westward to the valley of the Genesee, there is a lovely little lake called Skaneateles. And at the foot of this lake nestles the quaint village of the same name. It is a two-trains-a-day town of barely two thousand inhabitants. Indeed, until the coming of the motor car, Skaneateles, locked away in its quiet back-water, dwelt contentedly in the memories of its past.

“But nowadays, should you chance to pass through the village on any fine day between the end of May and the first of November, you would get the impression that something unusual is going on, for both sides of the main thoroughfare will be fringed for a quarter of a mile or so with closely packed cars. And if you are of an inquisitive turn of mind, you will probably find that the hundred or more cars belong to the ‘folks that’s eating at Krebs’.’

“Now, Krebs’ is not a hotel, a restaurant, a cafe, a tea room, or a road house. It is simply a place to eat – a rambling country cottage in which delicious meals are provided by two people who have spent half a lifetime in learning what, where, and how folks like to eat.

“That they have found out explains why motorists have been known to go three hundred miles out of their way to eat under the Krebs’ rooftree. Indeed, the cars which you would find on almost any day of the season lined up around the little white house behind the trees will very likely carry the license plates of thirty or forty states. In short, Krebs’ has become one of the most widely known places of its kind in the United States; and this without a penny being spent in advertising, simply because Fred Krebs and his wife discovered early in their career that old-fashioned food, well cooked and bountifully served in homelike surroundings, still makes a strong appeal to the average American.

“Krebs’ had its beginnings a quarter of a century ago, when Mr. and Mrs. Fred R. Krebs opened their small frame cottage to a dozen boarders — some of whom are still with them. He was a small-town caterer of Alsatian descent whose ancestors had been innkeepers in Europe for two centuries; she was a country school-teacher. The fame of their cooking soon spread far and wide, and many wings had to be added to the little white house.

“To-day, more people can be seated in Krebs’ than in the dining-rooms of many of the large city hotels. Eight hundred meals a day is the average, with from twelve hundred to fifteen hundred on Saturdays and Sundays. The total for last season exceeded one hundred and fifty thousand. There is nothing about the exterior of the house, with its deep verandas and beautifully kept lawns, to suggest that it is open to the public. Indeed, there isn’t even a sign over the door. And, inside, there is no cigar counter, not even a stand for the sale of candies and souvenirs. The sunny, rambling rooms with their big, open fireplaces are papered in soft shades of gray, and the woodwork is painted ivory. In any of the dining-rooms you are seated at a table covered with snowy linen, gay with fresh-cut flowers, and gleaming with glass and silver. Then follows such a meal as you never before saw, smelled, or tasted!

“The Krebs have long since found out that quality, courtesy, and bountifulness make a combination that is irresistible to the average person in search of food. And they see to it that their guests have the best of everything: the fattest chickens, the finest fruits, vegetables, and dairy products procurable. The only criticism I have ever heard of their place is that they give you too much. They actually take it as an affront to their cooking if you don’t pass your plate and ask for a second helping.

“‘Most folks are pretty generous and hospitable themselves,’ explains Mr. Krebs, ‘and they appreciate the same qualities in others. Certainly, they respond to hospitality and friendly interest in a way that shows plainly enough that they like both.’

“The system which makes it possible to feed as many as fifteen hundred hungry and impatient people in a comparatively small house in a single day is in itself remarkable. Needless to say, every labor-saving time-saving device is employed. There are fifteen electric motors in the kitchen. Potatoes are pared, salad dressing mixed, cream is whipped, ice cream frozen, coffee ground, dishes washed, and silver polished by machinery. The quantities of raw food stuffs required would stagger the steward of a metropolitan hotel. Last season, for example – and, remember, the season is barely six months long – the Krebs’ used 5,000 pounds of coffee, 30,000 quarts of milk and cream, and 90,000 pounds of chicken.

“Almost every one of the two-score employees is a member of the Krebs family. The trim waitresses are all nieces or cousins. The members of the kitchen staff are related to the proprietors by blood or marriage. In short, it is distinctly a family affair, and, as a consequence, everyone connected with the establishment takes a family pride in it.

“How much the Krebs clear annually is known only to themselves and to the officials of the income tax bureau. In any event, they have made enough so that they can afford to close the place for half of every year and go to their cottage near Miami, Florida. Here they entertain their pretty waitresses in relays, so that they return to their duties in the spring fresh, happy, and brown.

“I have said earlier in this article that quality, courtesy, and bountifulness have been the keys with which the Krebs have unlocked the doors of success. But, after all, good cooking, good service, and ‘second helpings’ have not been the only factors. Once in a  while almost everybody likes to eat away from home or hotels. We all have an occasional hankering to get out in the country and sit down to one of those simple, wholesome, delicious meals which some us, at least, associate with our childhood. We are urged by sentiment rather than by appetite. And there perhaps you have the true explanation of the popularity of Krebs’!”

E. Alexander Powell

* * *

The Krebs in 1927

The American Magazine article was reprinted on the front page of the Skaneateles Press on March 26, 1926, with this note: “The above article by E. Alexander Powell in the April number of ‘The American’ magazine is of interest to all Skaneatelesans and many outsiders, being about ‘our’ Mr. and Mrs. F.R. Krebs. There accompanied the article a picture of Mr. and Mrs. Krebs and their famous ‘home.’”

My thanks to the Skaneateles Historical Society whose possession of a photocopy of the first page of this article, with no identifying marks, set me off on this quest.

For more about E. Alexander Powell, I recommend his Wikipedia piece and this article as well.

Thanks also to “African Traveler in Skaneateles,” Skaneateles Press, September 26, 1924.

The Chaste Entertainments of Ossian Euclid Dodge

“June 12th, [1851] there was a great excursion to Glen Haven on the steamer Homer. Ossian E. Dodge, the comic singer, Mrs. [Elizabeth Cady] Stanton and other ladies in the new bloomer costume, were there, together with many so-called reformers. They had a happy time, but Captain [Rishworth] Mason did not like it when he lost his chain cable overboard.”

 — William Beauchamp in Notes of Other Days (1876)

Ossian Euclid Dodge, singer and composer, made at least two appearances in Skaneateles. Once on the voyage of the Homer noted above, and once in the village, probably at Legg Hall, with his touring quartet, Ossian’s Bards, on May 11, 1853.

Born in Cayuga, N.Y., in 1820, Ossian Dodge showed musical leanings at the age of five and went on to become a performer and composer of songs that, while amusing, were said to be elevated in tone. “I will write my own songs,” he once said, “and the public shall learn that a comic song is not necessarily a vulgar one; and that wit which has no fellowship with profanity or coarseness will be keenly relished by the best and most refined portions of society.”

After a concert in New York City in 1851, a critic noted that Dodge had given “one of his chaste, unique and fashionable entertainments.” But what he lacked in coarseness he made up for in vanity. His practice was to make a standing offer to refund twice the cost of admission to any audience member who did not laugh “heartily, happily, and with honest relish.”

One writer, whose assessment surely pleased its subject, said of him, “You are decidedly romantic in your feelings and pleasures, and extravagant in your imagination; and this quality of mind, joined to your wit, brilliancy, originality and clearness of mind, gives you great control over an audience, and enables you to magnetize the people and produce a spell on their minds which brings them under your influence for the time being.”

Dodge even went so far as to publish a collection of his music with a picture of a mesmerized subject on the cover. Some of his better known songs were “Level and the Square,” “My Darling Boy,” “Barnyard Serenade” and “Temperance Shout of Liberty.” Here is a taste of his verse, from “Ossian’s Serenade”:

Oh, come with me in my little canoe
Where the sea is calm And the sky is blue;
Oh, come with me, for I long to go
To those isles where the mango apples grow;
Oh, come with me and be my love,
For thee the jungle depth I’ll rove,
I’ll gather the honeycomb bright as gold,
And chase the elk to its secret hole.

Not riveting by today’s standards, but it worked then.

That Dodge found himself on the Homer going to Glen Haven, where cold water was the beverage of choice, was no surprise. He had pledged to his mother that he would never touch alcohol, and kept that pledge for a lifetime. On one occasion, he refused to drink to the health of Henry Clay at a dinner honoring the statesman and senator. Clay said, “Mr. Dodge, I honor your courage and respect your principles, but I can’t say that I admire your taste.”

Dodge enjoyed politics and mingled with people like Clay, Millard Fillmore and William Seward. In addition, Dodge also pursued business. In 1858, he retired from singing and moved to Cleveland to devote himself to the sale of music-related publications, including collections of his own work. Next, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota “to take advantage of real estate investment opportunities.” He served as secretary of the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce from 1869 to 1873.

One might remember him as a smiling, comic fellow, were it not for the other side of his personality, painfully well described by historian Philip D. Jordan:

“Ossian Euclid Dodge arrived in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the early 1860s when he was of middle age and had reached a time when life held little more for him than financial distress, personal humiliation, and self-imposed exile… No doubt he greeted the city of St. Paul with his customary jaunty brashness, a disguise that lent him a gay and carefree aspect but hid a skein of frustrations and twisted feelings of inferiority… All in all, Dodge looked like a seedy artist struggling to convey an air of affluent respectability; and that, indeed, is what he was. He was also jealous, quick-tempered, unstable, quarrelsome, and inordinately ambitious.”

Dodge’s “exile” took him to London, where his final days involved him in one of literary history’s most alluring puzzles. In 1848, Edgar Allan Poe was recovering from a suicide attempt (by laudanum, an alcoholic tincture of opium) in Providence, Rhode Island, when he was hustled to the Masury & Hartshorn photo studio for a daguerreotype portrait.

The result is one of the most famous, and vividly telling, portraits ever of a literary artist. The picture was framed and hung for a time in the photographers’ studio, then moved to Boston (Dodge’s hometown) with Mr. Masury. The picture then went missing. When Ossian Dodge moved to Cleveland, a daguerreotype of Poe appeared in his store. In 1875, in London, Dodge showed the picture to a Poe biographer, and said it had been a gift of the author. That was impossible. But was Dodge’s copy the missing original? Dodge died in London in 1876. No one knows what became of his copy of the Poe portrait.

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You may think the musical legacy of Ossian Dodge has gone the way of the passenger pigeon and the dodo, but in fact, it clings doggedly to life in one unlikely song. During their heyday, Ossian’s Bards performed a musical setting of an Edwin Chapin poem, “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” and the song became an enduring parlor piano favorite. The first musical setting was attributed to George H. Allen, but today bears the name of Ossian Dodge, and you’ll find recorded versions by Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Tex Ritter, Michael Martin Murphy, the Norman Luboff Choir, even played, music alone, by guitarist Alex de Grassi, and Arthur Fiedler & the Boston Pops. You’ve probably heard it, without realizing the role Ossian’s Bards played in bringing it to your ears.

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Thanks to Philip Jordan’s “Ossian Euclid Dodge: Eccentric Troubadour” in The Historian, February 1969 and this link for the Poe photo.

Skaneateles, 1826

“October 7.  Cloudy and prospects of rain, but we set out early in hopes of reaching Genoa the same evening; rode to Nine Mile Hollow. This is a singular village situated between two steep hills; rode to Skaneateles. This is an elegant village. It lies at the head of a lake of the same name. The houses are generally built of wood and painted white. They appear to have more taste about their houses, yards and gardens, than is generally seen in this country.”

— From “An account of a journey by stage taken in 1826, written by Amelia, daughter of Zophar Mead, of Field Point, who married Isaac Lyon in 1828, preserved by his descendants” in Ye Historie of Ye Town of Greenwich (1911) by Spencer P. Mead