The Things You Find in Photos

At first glance, a sailing canoe, circa 1890, but on the forested shore…

… you can see the white pillars of what is today Roosevelt Hall. When this photo was taken, the home was probably owned by William Willetts or Edward Padelford. But the photo holds one more treasure…

… floating in the water, just above this caption, a whiskey bottle. And that’s what the sailor is looking down at as he glides by.

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Only a Violet

De Cost Smith was born in Skaneateles, at home in Cobweb Cottage on West Lake Street. As a young man, he made his way west, and found himself, one evening in 1884, in a bunkhouse on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota. It was a simple accommodation: a log house with partitions “as required,” and bedsteads of rough boards topped with grass-stuffed mattresses and buffalo robes for warmth.

He later wrote, “We were kept awake a good part of the night by a young fellow with a very fair voice, who entertained his hearers with endless repetitions of ‘The Violet I Plucked from Mother’s Grave,’  though some of them, probably, didn’t know whether their mothers were dead or alive, and most of them had never seen a violet.”

What fascinates me about this is the ubiquity of the popular song.

Will H. Fox published the sheet music for “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” in Philadelphia in 1881. Without benefit of recordings or radio, the song made its way across the Great Plains to serenade De Cost Smith in 1884.

Just four years after that, one night in Whitechapel, London, a prostitute named Mary Jane Kelly, who had spent the evening drinking, was heard singing “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” in her room.  When morning came, she was found horribly murdered, the fifth and last victim of Jack the Ripper.

One song, making its way around the world, keeping all sorts of company.

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A few notes:

De Cost Smith’s memories of the American west can be found in his wonderful book, Indian Experiences (1943).

Will Fox’s “A Violet from Mother’s Grave” was essentially a rehash of “A Flower from My Angel Mother’s Grave” by Harry Kennedy, who published his song three years before, in 1878. Kennedy knew about Fox’s light fingers, but was more annoyed than angry, as his original version had already earned him a large sum of money.

Cobweb Cottage is today known as The Cove. In 1852, its builder, Reuel Smith, referred to his entire 22-acre estate as The Cove, because it fronted on a small cove on Skaneateles Lake; he referred to the house, a Gothic Revival fantasy by Alexander Jackson Davis, as Cobweb Cottage. The house’s original name fell into disuse some time in the early 1920s, and as the estate shrank to the size of a single building lot, its name came to stand for the house alone.

The Krebs, with Thanks to Ethel Larrabee

Ethel Larrabee, a Skaneateles native who now lives in California, recently visited and brought four postcards to the Skaneateles Historical Society, including this card of the Krebs that no one there had ever seen before. The Charles Krebs horns are still hanging over the sideboard, but wallpaper and fresh flowers have warmed up the dining room.

On the back of the card below, please note the cost for boarders. And thank you, Ethel.

Track One at 10:02

The Skaneateles Railroad Station as envisioned by T.C. Timber, with thanks to the incomparable Ellen Leahy.

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A footnote: Marshal H. Larrabee II founded Skaneateles Handicrafters in 1936, making wooden toy trains and tracks. Larrabee sold his company to German-based Habermaas in 1980; the company was renamed T.C. Timber. The Skaneateles production line was closed in 2002.

Harriette Cady at Roosevelt Hall

In August of 1912, Mrs. Montgomery (Augusta) Roosevelt hosted a musicale at Roosevelt Hall, with pianist Harriette Cady performing. A few days later, Miss Cady performed again in Skaneateles, to benefit the Skaneateles Library Association at its summer bazaar, treating the audience to an evening program of Chopin and Wagner at Library Hall.

Cady was well known in musical and society circles in New York, and a frequent performer in concert halls, hotel ballrooms, and especially the spacious parlors of the wealthy. Augusta Roosevelt was one of her New York patrons as early in 1897. Another Roosevelt with Skaneateles connections was also a patroness of Miss Cady: Mrs. Frederick (Mary Loney) Roosevelt, whose summer home, Roseleigh, is today’s Stella Maris. She hosted Miss Cady in New York many times between 1899 and 1904.

Miss Cady was the daughter of Chicago music publisher Chauncey Cady, of Root & Cady. He was also a composer and a music teacher, and his daughter grew up surrounded by music and musicians; when Chauncey sang at home, Harriette would accompany him on the piano. In 1869, she played piano for a singer at a church concert and the Chicago Tribune noted, “a mere child, she is astonishingly proficient on the piano, and played the intricate and close accompaniment with a precision and expression that called out long-continued applause.”

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire destroyed most of Root & Cady’s inventory, and led to the failure of the company. For a time, Chauncey Cady worked as a regional manager for the W.W. Kimball piano company, based in Atlanta, Georgia. In 1889, he died suddenly in Asheville, N.C., where he had gone for his health.

Harriette’s mother, Harriet Havens Cady, was the daughter of a whaling master who shipped out of Sag Harbor and Shelter Island, N.Y., and it was to Sag Harbor that Harriet Cady returned after her husband’s death. (The Havens family was socially prominent, and Harriet had some interesting siblings. Her brother Frank made a fortune in the west, and owned thousands of acres in Oakland and Berkeley, California; he still summered at Sag Harbor. Her sister Mary’s son, George Sterling, also in California, was a student of Ambrose Bierce, a friend of Jack London, and a famous poet.)

In 1889, Harriette was in New York City, furthering her musical education. One November afternoon she called on William Steinway; she played Steinway pianos and appeared at Steinway Hall, so the conversation could have been about either, or both.

In 1893, Cady went to Vienna to study piano with Theodor Leschetizky, one of the two best known piano teachers in Europe (the other being Franz Liszt). She also studied with Danish composer Ludvig Schytte (whose “A la Valse” Op. 91, No. 7, was dedicated to her) , William Mason (Liszt’s first American student) and Max Pinner (another American who studied with Liszt). And she learned two pieces from Ignacy Jan Paderewski (including his “Cracovienne Fantastique”).

Cady’s European sojourn was well timed: In 1894, she was one of only four Americans to attend a golden jubilee reception for Johann Strauss, the Younger, where Harriette could mingle with the cream of Europe’s musical talent, including Johannes Brahms.

In January 1896, Cady returned from Vienna and gave a recital at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Mrs. Frederick Roosevelt was one her patrons. Also in 1896, Cady was part of a group accompanying two vocalists at a recital sponsored by Mrs. Andrew Carnegie.

Cady was to spend the largest part of her career in New York City, but she summered in Sag Harbor at the home of her mother, and was annually persuaded to give a recital for the locals. Also, she gave benefit concerts for the Parish House fund of Christ Church in Sag Harbor.

In 1896, she set a pattern she would follow for years to come – performing at the retreats of the wealthy: in Richfield Springs (1896), Lakewood, N.J. (1896 & 1897), Bar Harbor, Maine (1900), Saratoga Springs (1903), Harbour Grace, Newfoundland (1905), and many appearances in East Hampton.

When her uncle, Frank Havens, opened the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, she traveled to California to do two recitals for him, lending the proper tone to his latest enterprise.

As a pianist, it was not her fate to pack the largest halls and perform with symphony orchestras. The critics were as kind as they could be; one writer for the New York Times noted, “Miss Cady, as we have had occasion to say ere now, is a conscientious and painstaking pianist, who has no special call to spread the gospel of beauty in the highways.” Another wrote, “Miss Cady brings seriousness and intelligence to her work, but she lacks the vigor and warmth necessary to making her playing thoroughly interesting.” And then there was this one: “Miss Cady has a good rhythmical sense. Her tone qualities are most of two kinds and lacking in the nuances which shading in good playing demands.”

But “good society” adored her, and it is significant that her concerts were cited more often on the Society pages than on the Music pages. Newspapers described Cady as “widely known in society” and her audiences as “fashionable.” One writer noted, “The piano recital given in the East Room of the Waldorf-Astoria by Miss Harriette Cady yesterday was so largely attended that many were compelled to sit in the adjoining room.”

She played little jewel box theaters, venues like the East Room and the Myrtle Room at the Waldorf Astoria, and the music rooms of the wealthy where a Steinway piano, Miss Cady, and some chairs created instant culture. And because she was society, she was a perfectly acceptable guest after the music gave way to tea and cakes.

Her 1912 visit to Skaneateles, with a musicale at Roosevelt Hall and a benefit for the library, was perfectly in keeping with her style.

She did at least one wedding: the at-home union of William Bridgham and Honorine Vail, where she played Wagner selections including the “Treulich geführt” (“Bridal Chorus”) and, at the request of the groom, the “Lied an den Abendstern” (“Song to the Evening Star”).

Cady was big on Wagner transcriptions, by Franz Liszt or Louis Brassin, but her repertoire was not made up of trusty war horses alone. She played many works by lesser known composers, young composers, even American composers. Say what you will about her technique; you can not deny her courage.

After a New York concert, a critic wrote that Cady “made a record probably in playing not one hackneyed piece in sixteen numbers.” Among the composers that evening were Amy Beach, Sir Hubert Parry, Frank Bridge, Cyril Scott, Isidor Philipp, Zygmunt Stojowski and Anton Arensky.

She deftly balanced the old and new. At a piano recital at the Princeton Inn (student tickets 50 cents), she played the music of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Schubert, Tchaikovsky and Carl Maria von Weber, along with pieces by Emil Sjögren, Anton Arensky and Moritz Moszkowski.

Other composers she favored included Brahms, Handel, Jean Sibelius, Josef Hofmann, Felix Mendelssohn, Jean-Philippe Rameau, Mikhail Glinka, Alexander Borodin, Ede Poldini, Christian Sinding, Louis-Claude Daquin, Edward MacDowell, Florence Parr Gere, Frank Howard Warner, Charles-Valentin Alkan, and her teacher, Theodor Leschetizky. She had a repertoire of challenging pieces – more than 40 of which are still being performed and recorded today – and was a serious musician, if not a star.

She was a generous performer, sharing the stage over the years with vocalists, cellists, violinists, dancers, and even a lecturer on Edvard Grieg, for whom she performed musical examples. (On one occasion she shared the bill with Anna Vernon Dorsey, a young Washington writer who did stories and songs in Southern Negro dialects; Cady might have had a chat with her agent after that one.)

Cady also composed for the piano, and adapted orchestral pieces. In 1911, after the visiting Imperial Russian Balalaika Orchestra made the “Song of the Boatman of the Volga” a hit in the states, Cady scored it for piano and her sheet music sold like hotcakes. Also in the Russian vein, she published “Fair Minka,” a transcription of a Cossack folk song. She was also known for her “Chinese music” which included her own composition, “Danse Orientale a La Chinoise,” and transcriptions of Chinese folk music.

A few of her actual performances survive on piano rolls for player or “reproducing” pianos. Catalogs list her own “Sian Chok (Spring Song),” “Old Chinese Lullaby,” “Song of the Volga Boatmen,” “Ay-Ay-Ay (A Creole Song of Spain),” and “Dance Orientale,” as well as her performances of Arensky’s “Etude Op.25, No. 3,” Tchaikovsky’s “Meditation,” Alexander Scriabin’s “Nocturne in F sharp minor” and Anatoly Lyadov’s “Dance of the Mosquito.”

In the 1920s, Cady performed on the new medium, radio, and she continued to give concerts into the 1930s. She died at Sag Harbor in 1944.

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The photos of Miss Cady are from the New York Times.