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.

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2 thoughts on “The Krebs and E. Alexander Powell

  1. Ate at Kerb’s once in the 60’s as a kid with mother and grandmother then many times throughout the 2000’s. Always looked just like the photo from 1927. One of a kind experience. Miss it very much.

  2. Pingback: Harold MacGrath at Glen Haven | Skaneateles

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