The recording of history relies, to a great extent, on volunteers – individuals who make an effort to preserve memories, documents, letters, photographs and artifacts. Without those who save and share, there would be no history, whether of families, villages or even nations. Skaneateles has been blessed with many such people who felt the village’s history was valuable and worth saving. Certainly the Skaneateles Historical Society and its Creamery Museum provide a center for this, but not all of the village’s benefactors live within its limits.
One long-distance scholar of Skaneateles is Norm Shepard, who has lived in Florida since 1966. For more than 30 years he collected artifacts of Skaneateles postal history, most of which now reside at the Skaneateles Historical Society. And he has collected many Skaneateles postcards. Thanks to Norm, we have a better idea of how the village has appeared and evolved over the past century.
I had to know how someone so far away could have such an affinity for Skaneateles, so I asked.
Norman Shepard was the son of Edward E. “Ted” Shepard and Frieda (Porten) Shepard, who owned Shepard’s Nursery, west of the village on Route 20. The elder Shepard started out by raising shrubs and perennials on his father’s farm in Shepard Settlement, and in 1934 founded his nursery on 13 acres near County Line Road. The nursery eventually grew to 160 acres. Ted Shepard built the first “shade house” used in this area, and introduced new varieties of plants, including Hetz blue juniper and Oregon grape holly shrubs, and Crimson King maple shade trees. He successfully grew flowering dogwoods and pin oaks, and at one time had 1,000 evergreens at the nursery.
Norm, and his sisters Barbara and Kay, grew up in Skaneateles in the family home just west of the Sherwood Inn. On the front lawn, Norm (above left) and his cousin, Bill Kuhl (right), sold vegetables grown at the nursery. In the autumn, with the aid of a pumpkin-headed scarecrow stuffed with corn shucks, Norm sold pumpkins at the nursery. People would leave their money in a basket and Norm would pick it up when he got off the school bus.
Norm’s collecting got its start at the nursery, when the soil yielded Native American artifacts. He started a stamp collection, then branched into postal history. His history lessons were unusually extensive, due to the family’s annual migration to Florida.
Norm’s great-great-grandfather had built a cottage at New Smyrna Beach in Florida, and Norm’s mother had purchased the cottage in the 1930s. Every year, when the ground froze in New York, the Shepard family drove south to their winter home. The Shepard children would begin school in New York state (learning New York history) then transfer to Florida schools (learning Florida history) for the winter, and then back to New York schools in the spring. In the gap, their Skaneateles teachers would mail their homework to Florida so the students could pass their exams when they returned. And on the rides south and north, the Shepards stopped at Civil War battlefields and other historical sites, soaking up more history.
Norm’s Skaneateles childhood also included the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, including a trip to the Boy Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs in 1960, where he saw President Eisenhower and reported on the experience for the Skaneateles Press. And as a boy he made frequent trips to the old Skaneateles Post Office on Genesee Street, a narrow office with wood floors, post office boxes and the clerk’s office at the back, a place he remembers “like it was yesterday.”
Norm graduated from Skaneateles High School in 1962 and went on to Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia. After graduation, he returned to the family cottage on New Smyrna Beach and accepted a job working as a youth counselor for the state of Florida. “Been down here ever since,” he notes, but still with a place in his heart (and his collecting) for Skaneateles, for which we are all very fortunate.
After working for 42 years as a college counselor at Daytona State College in Daytona Beach, Norm is enjoying a well-deserved retirement.