The Joel Thayer house on East Genesee Street is a thing of beauty today, but I do miss the original round windows on the mansard roof…
… and the entryway framed by potted palms and bronze Native American braves holding gas lamps. Those Thayers had style.
* * *
Photos from the collection of the Skaneateles Historical Society.
In August of 1915, the reality of airplanes had barely sunk into the village consciousness. The first flight in Central New York was just five years earlier, when Canadian pilot John McCurdy flew a Curtiss bi-plane over the Fairgrounds in Syracuse.
So you can imagine the excitement when, on August 24th, during “Old Home Week,” Charles Mills flew over the lake…
… and landed his Curtiss HydroAeroplane on the water.
Mills was a slender, sandy haired American barnstormer from Niagara Falls. His flights were scheduled daily for 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Because winds and weather might affect the schedule, three taps of the fire bell would alert the villagers before an “ascension.”
This was an easy day for Mills, who was known for flying under suspension bridges and racing speedboats, anything to wow small town residents and make a few bucks. Such appearances were not very lucrative, but the coming of Prohibition provided a new opportunity. In 1922, the soft-spoken pilot Charles P. Mills became “Gentleman Charlie,” the boater and bootlegger, and started to make truly big money on Lake Ontario.
Running beer and whiskey across from Canada, Mills carried 1000-case loads in his cruiser Adele. A bootlegger’s mark-up on a case of whiskey was typically $7. In one trip, Charlie could gross more than the annual salary of a local judge ($2000) or a high school principal ($2500). In the autumn, when the weather became stormy, he kept to “shore work,” moving loads from breweries and distilleries to distribution points along the Ontario shoreline.
Charlie kept a girlfriend and house in Belleville, Ontario; a wife and house in Sanborn, New York; plus three large boats, several “fancy” cars and an airplane. He impressed the fishermen with his roll of one hundred dollar bills and never wanted for crew. But Charlie’s luck would change.
In 1925, Charlie’s younger son, Chester, died of a ruptured appendix during a lake crossing. The same year, Charlie and his older son Bud were nabbed by the authorities on Lake Ontario, just west of Oswego. Charlie’s wife left him, and worse was on the way: Charlie stood trial and was sent to prison in Atlanta, Georgia, for a year and a day. When released, he returned to bootlegging, but he lost two boats in 1928, the last one beached under a hail of bullets as he fled into the woods. After that, he gave it up for farming.
And so one of the Village’s earliest aerial celebrities came down to earth.
* * *
Sources: The Skaneateles Free Press, August 24, 1915; Booze, Boats and Billions by C.W. Hunt (1988); photos courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society.
Note: This post replaces an earlier one of 2009, for which I did not have photographs.
Adapted from a talk given to the Skaneateles Rotary Club on January 23, 2014.
There are a number of properties in Skaneateles, in the village and on the lake, which have been attributed to architect Stanford White, although other architects designed them. And it’s a bit like Whac-A-Mole; no sooner is one claim squashed than another one pops up. So in the spirit of getting closer to the actual facts:
Myth #1: Stanford White designed The Annex, known in later years as Mingo Lodge. An early source for this one was a Garden Club brochure in the 1930s. In fact, in July of 1878, the original owner, Daniel Robbins, began paying the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, for plans and construction of an annex to his main house on West Lake Street, to hold his growing family.
The architect was Charles Follin McKim. Not until September of 1879, 14 months after the project began, did Stanford White came to McKim, Mead and the firm become McKim, Mead & White. In 1883, the Annex was complete, as noted in The Life and Times of Charles Follen McKim (1929).
Myth #2: Stanford White designed Stella Maris. He didn’t, but this claim is within shouting distance of the facts. In January of 1879, Frederick and Mary Roosevelt bought land in Skaneateles from Henry Latrobe Roosevelt.
In March, they had a summer home designed by architect William Rutherford Mead of McKim, Mead. The house was built in pieces in New York City, shipped to Skaneateles and assembled here in 1880 and 1881.
However, the interiors of Roseleigh were indeed designed by Stanford White, who joined Mead’s firm in September of 1879. Roseleigh was the only building in Skaneateles with a proven claim to touches by White.
In 1952, its third owner sold the house to the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse; they renamed it Stella Maris, and have made considerable changes to the building since then.
Myth #3: Stanford White designed “The Boulders” for Joseph Willetts. The mail boat and the Syracuse newspapers, among others, tell us, again and again, that this is a Stanford White house. No.
The Boulders was designed by Edward Brodhead Green of Green & Wicks of Auburn, and then of Buffalo, N.Y. On October 9th, 1886, the Skaneateles Press confirmed the identity of the architect in an article about the new library:
“Its construction will probably be in the hands of Mr. Green of Buffalo, whose work is familiar to Syracusans in the Frazer block on Billings Park, and in several unusually pretty dwellings, among them the Willetts residence in Skaneateles, and the Case cottage on Owasco lake.”
Green was not an architect to be ashamed of. He designed the Albright Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, the Buffalo Savings Bank, buildings for the 1901 Pan American Exposition and many beautiful mansions in Buffalo.
Myth #4: Stanford White designed Fall Brook, also known as Holden’s cottage. In fact, the cottage was designed in 1889 for its original owner, George Hey of Syracuse, by the Syracuse architect Asa Merrick of Merrick & Kirby.
So why do some people cling to Stanford White? I’ll give you three possible reasons.
One: He was a great talent with a great client list. As an architect of opulent houses – in Newport, along the Hudson River, on Long Island’s Gold Coast – he had few peers. Along with homes for the Vanderbilts, Astors, Pulitzers, Paynes and Whitneys, White did the second Madison Square Garden (1890-1925), the American Academy in Rome, the Boston Public Library, the clubhouse of the Atlantic Yacht Club and the Washington Square Arch in New York City.
Two: His personal life took him from famous to legendary.
When White was 47, he took up with Evelyn Nesbit, a 16-year-old model and truly one of the most beautiful women of the age, whose image appeared in countless photographs.
Unfortunately for White, Nesbit was eventually wooed and won by Harry K. Thaw, a possessive Pittsburgh millionaire who became outraged when he learned White had taken his bride’s virtue before he could. Thaw hired detectives to stalk White, and one evening in 1906 he followed White to the rooftop theater of Madison Square Garden. During the show’s finale, as the chorus sang “I Could Love a Million Girls,” Thaw shot and killed White.
Illustration from Madison Square Tragedy: The Murder of Stanford White by Rick Geary
It was described as the crime of the century, and then the trial of the century, in spite of the fact that the century still had 94 years to run. Testimony in the trial included descriptions of Evelyn Nesbit riding a red velvet swing while White watched lovingly from the floor below.
A film followed quickly in 1907…
… and in 1955 there was another movie, with Ray Milland as Stanford White…
… and in 1975 E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, and in 1981 a movie based on Ragtime with Norman Mailer as White…
… plus a 1995 documentary and many non-fiction books.
Today, although dead for more than 100 years, Stanford White is still one of the most famous architects in the United States.
Three: White’s talent and fame command a premium in real estate.
In the New York City area, White’s hand is seen everywhere, even if it wasn’t. Here’s a modest house in Scarsdale with the note, “The previous owners claimed that the house was designed by Stanford White.” The asking price was $2.7 million.
I love this one: A home in Lloyd Harbor, New York, built in 1917 and “believed to have been done by Stanford White himself.” Eleven years after he died. And below, two actual Stanford White houses:
The perks of owning a Stanford White house are obvious. And over the years, thousands of homeowners have engaged in wishful thinking. But in Skaneateles, the facts remain: Stella Maris – William Rutherford Mead, interiors by Stanford White; Mingo Lodge – Charles Follin McKim; The Boulders – E.B. Green; Fall Brook – Asa Merrick.
I have one more claim down the lake to prove or disprove. I’m working on it.
Note: This piece incorporates previous posts on Charles Loring Elliott, Hendrick Holden, David Bissell and Frank Godwin into one history, with new material on the Hey family and others.
In 1836, American artist Charles Loring Elliott (1812-1868) camped at Fall Brook Point and painted “A View of Fall-Brook Falls near Skaneateles,” shown above. Elliott lived in Skaneateles from 1834 to 1838. His friend John Barrow later wrote that although Elliott did 90 portraits while here, he made time to camp, fish, and explore up and down the lake.
Afterwards, Elliott went to New York City and became one of the nation’s most respected and popular portrait painters, completing more than 700 commissions.
In 1897, Barrow read a paper on Elliott, and noted, “Though portraits were his specialty and success, he was never blind to the charm of landscape, and he showed in the few attempts he made in that branch that he had both an eye and a hand for it… There is his picture, evidently from nature, of Fall Brook Cascade, owned by Mr. Cook of Auburn, of still more merit and beauty. It is masterly in execution, and as telling in light, shade and color as any of his portraits.” In 1911, William Beauchamp wrote that the picture was still in Auburn.
In 2010, “A View of Fall-Brook Falls near Skaneateles” reappeared in the estate of Lee B. Anderson, a prominent collector of American paintings and Gothic Revival furniture.
Elliott’s painting had been at home in Mr. Anderson’s historic New York townhouse, a densely decorated setting that hosted wide-eyed visitors such as Barbra Streisand, Cher, Halston and Lee Radziwill.
Elliott’s “Fall Brook” was sold by the Doyle New York auction house for $5,000 in 2012.
In July of 1846, writer and historian William Beauchamp first visited Fall Brook Point. A pretty spot, with a waterfall and lots of level ground, the point was a popular place for campers. And being a bit more than halfway down the lake, it was a good stopping place for sailors headed to Glen Haven.
In June of 1858, the newspaper noted, “Capt. John B. Furman, commander of the yacht Tempest, with a select company started on a pleasure excursion to Fall Brook Point, Wednesday morning. A pleasant trip to them.” And in August of that year, “A Cruise to the Head Waters of the Skaneateles” appeared in the Skaneateles Free Press and described a stop at Fall Brook:
“At sun down we made a landing at Fall Brook point, having made nine miles since starting. We very leisurely set about preparing our supper, which consisted of a cup of splendid coffee, got up by our Skipper, and a few ears of corn roasted. While thus engaged a fine sailing breeze came out of the south, and we hurriedly finished our culinary duties, and hastened on board our craft and went bowling along [to Glen Haven] at a rate of about four miles an hour, engaged in stowing away about the best supper that ever found stowage room in any person’s organization.”
In July of 1863, “A party of ladies and gentlemen sailed to Fall Brook Point in the Emma to camp out.” Four years later, the Skaneateles Press noted, “One of the most pleasant picnics of the season occurred on Friday last at Fall Brook Point. The arrangements were made and carried out under the direction of Mr. F.G. Jewett.” Music was provided by “Herr Krebs” [probably Charles Krebs] of Skaneateles.
Capturing the Point of this era, John Barrow painted “Fall Brook Point in Other Days” (shown above) and “Old Beech Tree at Fall Brook Point” (awaiting restoration), both today in the Barrow Gallery in Skaneateles. In later years, John Barrow wrote about Fall Brook Point as it was:
“When we first knew it, it had a noble growth of large and thrifty beech trees, perhaps a dozen in all, with two or three immense maples, some ironwoods, sycamores and tulip trees, besides a most wonderful grown of wild grapevines. One or two of the beeches were killed many years ago by girding them, one was set on fire at a picnic and burnt down and, I believe, they had all disappeared before the present owner [Hendrick Holden] of the place bought it. And I may here be allowed to tell of one memorable day, the 18th of October, not the earliest days, but perhaps of thirty years ago [circa 1872].
“The morning was of October’s best, not of the clearest but of the softest. The autumn colors were at their highest and mellowed by a warm Indian summer haze. A mile or two distant the village stores and other buildings seemed like the marble glories of Venice backed by an American autumn, casting their softened reflections in the soft blue water. Every field, wood or tree partook of the autumn color, and even the rocks on both sides of the lake seemed of another hue and all the leaves over and through them seemed to have a softer if not richer color than they had ever shown before.
“I rowed as far as Staghorn Point and rested there for a while taking in all the views in all their variety and beauty, up the valley beyond the head and on both sides downward almost to the village. The lake was hardly ever ruffled by a breeze and took on the soft blue of the sky. The leaves were falling fast and silently covered the grounds with a colored carpet. The glens were very silent and I met no human life on the shore during he whole day.
“Then I rowed across the three Mile Point and thence under the wooded rocks to Fall Brook Point, landing some time on the way. At Fall Brook came the sunset, and I saw the full and lilac tinted moon rise over the eastern hill. At dark I took boat again and rowed directly through middle of the lake nine miles to the village. The night was perfectly still and clear, the stars thick but dimmed by the moonlight. It was a strange feeling then, no surface of the water showed, with the moon and stars reflected below me. It seemed as if I were afloat in space and earth had disappeared.”
In 1875, a long piece on an excursion to Fall Brook Point appeared in the Skaneateles Press:
“Tuesday morning, August 17, 1875, the yacht ‘Wild Wave,’ with her colors and a wreath of flowers flying from her masthead and peak, set sail from Mr. Poor’s landing, having on board a camping party, composed of the following persons: Mr. and Mrs. C.F. and C.S. Hall, Mr. and Mrs. J. Shallish, Miss E.L. Brown, Miss E. DeLand, Miss S. Day, and Prof. A.S. Lewis, bound for Fall Brook Point. After a very pleasant sail the Point was made, a landing effected… Early next morning all were up and prepared for the day’s campaign when the party was dampened by a sudden shower which lasted a good part of the morning… but before noon the sun shone forth in all its splendor causing leaves and grass to sparkle as though set with myriads of diamonds; then all was cheerfulness, and joy showed itself on every countenance.
“Thursday the sun rose in all its glory, coming slowly up from behind the eastern hills, wreathing the trees on the western hills with scarlet and gold; the blue dome above us was without spot or blemish. The morning was spent in perfecting camp arrangements. After dinner the ground was levelled and smoothed over for croquet, when a champion game was played.
“The Hon. B. Porter made a landing at the Point, and left Mr. Frank Foote, who joined the party for the rest of the time. The steamboat had hardly passed from view when threatening clouds flew swiftly across the heavens, hanging very low, seeming at times to almost touch the trees on the brow of the surrounding cliffs. It grew darker and darker, lightning flashed vividly through the sky, and mutterings of thunder vibrated from cliff to cliff. The sun had gone down and night came in with seemingly unusual rapidity, drop by drop the rain began to fall, increasing rapidly into torrents and sheets – a genuine waterspout – until the falls and brook, before nearly dry, were swollen to a depth of three or four feet in about ten minutes.
“At 9 p.m., the rain ceased, the dark clouds began to scatter, the moon appeared above the eastern horizon, and ere long not a cloud was seen to mar the silent beauty of the night. Upon investigation, the damage done in camp was found to be slight, nothing worse than the wetting of a portion of the bedding by the rain coming through one of the tents. The back of the brook was washed out about three feet deep, and coming within four feet of the tent walls. The torrent carried immense logs from the base of the falls to the mouth of the brook, and entirely changed the flow.
“A large camp fire was built and the remainder of the evening spent in sitting around the fire, telling stories, relating camp experiences, singing and dancing. It was the unanimous verdict of the party that they would not have failed to see the grandeur of the falls as the water came seething, boiling and rushing down like mad, carrying everything before it, for any amount of pleasure and comfort.”
T. North Chamberlain
Beginning in 1876, the town of Niles’ summer picnic, also known as the Farmers’ Festival, was held at Fall Brook Point with music, speeches and refreshments. In August of 1886, the picnic drew more than 1,000 people and thanks were given to North Chamberlain, “the owner of the premises.” A farmer, he lived on the shore of Owasco Lake. He died in July of 1887; the next year, his widow, Cordelia, and son, John, sold Fall Brook Point to Avis Stearns Van Wagenen of Syracuse.
Mrs. Van Wagenen was in business in Syracuse with her brother, Edward C. Stearns; their sister was Elga Stearns Hey, the wife of Syracuse attorney George W. Hey.
George W. Hey
In November of 1889, the Marcellus Observer noted that, “Laborers are at work upon a cottage upon Fall Brook point; when done it will surpass any one on the lake, the first story to be granite.” The cottage was completed in 1890.
The new owner was patent attorney George W. Hey (1849-1906) of Hey & Parsons in Syracuse and the architect was Asa Merrick, of Kirby & Merrick in Syracuse.
Asa Lanfear Merrick (1848-1922), a native of Syracuse, opened his architectural office in Syracuse in 1879. His partners were James H. Kirby (1888-90) and James A. Randall (1893-1922). Of the private residences he designed, the cottage at Fall Brook is the only one to survive.
George Hey, who had the cottage built, prospered as a patent attorney, and had his name on patents for a door hanger, electric signaling device, artillery shell, trunk hinge and a cheese hoop. In particular, a stamp cancelling and postmarking machine used by the United States Post Office, patented in 1889 for the International Postal Supply Company, in which Hey had shares, may have provided the money to build the cottage.
Although George Hey had the cottage built, there is very little reported about the family being in residence. We know that in August of 1894, George’s daughter Avis (named for her aunt) was staying at the cottage with her niece, Lillian Northrup.
The cottage was sold by George Hey to Hendrick S. Holden in October of 1894, and missed much of the colorful family drama that followed, which I include because I cannot resist the temptation to do so:
George Hey died in February of 1906, stricken by apoplexy while pleading a case at the Circuit court in Utica. Although an attorney, he left no will.
His wife, Elga Stearns Hey, was in failing health in Paris, and died in April, at the Ritz, with Avis at her side. Daughter Enid, 14 years old, was a student at the Academy of Holy Names in Rome, N.Y.; son George Jr. was in Great Falls, Montana. Rodney was at the Hey home on Walnut Park in Syracuse.
In her will, Elga Hey left nothing to Rodney, because he had secretly married the French maid, “a person of whom I disapprove,” who Avis had brought from Paris and left in Syracuse to keep house for George and Rodney. Indeed, Rodney took a broader view of “keeping house” and had been married to Madeline Goetleman for more than two years before he told his mother, dropping the bombshell shortly after his father’s death. It was said that the two events together hastened Elga’s demise.
In July, when Mrs. Hey’s will – “decked in the long flowing ribbons of Paris” – was presented in a Syracuse courtroom, it was accompanied by the newlywed Baroness Avis Hey Hilbig, with her husband, Baron Oscar von Hilbig. “She was in black with a flowing veil, but it was not ordinary black. It was lacy and pretty and attracted much attention from usually preoccupied lawyers.”
The final settlement of the will took place in Chicago, because George Hey Jr. said that even $1,000,000 would not bring him back to Syracuse.
Avis and her Baron returned to France and lived in a country place on the Marne River, but the First World War took the life of Baron Hilbig; he died in combat in December of 1915, in Serbia, while serving as an officer with the French Foreign Legion. Avis returned to the U.S., and eventually moved to Montana to live with her brother, George.
Rodney was granted a share of the estate, but ran through it. By 1909 he was separated from his wife and infant; she was looking for work, considering a return to France, and Rodney’s whereabouts were unknown. In 1916, Rodney was jailed in Los Angeles for impersonating an Army officer and running up an $800 hotel bill. In 1921, he was arrested in San Francisco for paying his hotel bill with a worthless $200 check. In 1933, he took his own life in Hollywood, drinking “a death cocktail” of four poisons and expiring as he signed a farewell note. The newspaper noted, “Captain Hey, who had a strange hobby of collecting queer, deadly knives from far places of the world, died at the feet of his wife – a striking brunette formerly known as Carmen Velasquez, pianist of the European concert stage.”
Enid Hey went to law school at Syracuse University for a year, married an Army lieutenant, enlisted in the Navy during WWI, serving as one of the “yeomanettes” doing clerical work to free men for active service. She later divorced her husband, lived with an aunt in Brooklyn, inherited the bulk of the aunt’s estate and lived comfortably on her shares in the International Postal Supply Company.
And now, back to Fall Brook Point.
Hendrick S. Holden
The cottage’s next owner, Hendrick S. Holden (1849-1918), was active in industry and public affairs. As a young man, he entered his family’s coal business, eventually handling all the coal shipped into Syracuse, Utica and Oswego. He was a founder of the Syracuse Post, president of one bank and a director of two more and had investments as far away as Seattle. He served in the N.Y. State Legislature, representing Onondaga County, and led in the establishment of the State College of Forestry at Syracuse University.
After purchasing Fall Brook in 1894, Holden immediately set about making improvements, including a new dock that would make it easier for steamboats to stop and passengers to alight. He graded and “civilized” the grounds, adding lawns and flowerbeds. In March of 1895, “a large force of workmen” led by carpenter Andrew Leiber were at work at Fall Brook Point. This may have been when the second cottage, Fern Ledge, was built.
In April of 1895, Holden came down from Syracuse to see how his cottage had weathered the winter and ice on the lake, and found a neat row of piles where his dock used to be.
In June of 1895, while Holden was away, game protector Spencer Hawn caught Charles Denis and Calvin Jones in the act of netting fish at Fall Brook Point. Their net was 240 feet long, six feet wide, and filled with trout and bass. Not very sporting.
In July of 1895, Mr. Holden invited 300 guests for a Fourth of July party, and chartered the Ossahinta to pick everyone up from their cottage. Guests passed over a rustic bridge to be greeted by Mrs. (Belle) Holden and her sisters; Chinese and Japanese lanterns lit the way. After dark, the fireworks display began, and lasted almost an hour and a half. Refreshments were served and then the Ossahinta made two trips, one to drop off nearby cottagers and a second for those who lived farther away. A full moon made the trips home perfect.
In March of 1896, Holden had another new dock put in, a ritual he repeated in 1898. In 1900, as the city of Syracuse was growing concerned about the quality of drinking water it was drawing from Skaneateles Lake, Hendrick Holden was quoted:
“The spirit displayed by the owners of summer homes on this lake in observing the regulations set down by the health authorities is very commendable. I, as one of them, know that they are in full sympathy with the desire of Syracusans to maintain the purity of the water supply in which our citizens take such great pride. Some have gone to great expense in the construction of settling tanks from which foul liquid manner is turned into soil where nature can take care of it, and in this way the shores are allowed to remain in a perfectly sanitary condition.
“Nowhere, I believe, can be found a more beautiful stretch of water with such ideal surroundings. With the exception of but one short stretch about a quarter of a mile in length at the head of the lake, the lake is surrounded by steep shores, mostly of solid rock. The lake is supplied by countless springs and its depth at most places varies from 200 to 300 feet. Syracuse need have little fear about our water supply suffering from pollution. It is protected by natural conditions for ages to come.”
In 1901, Belle Stewart Holden died, leaving Holden a widower with one daughter, Beatrice.
In 1902, artist John Barrow wrote and published Skaneateles Lake, in which he noted, “Fall Brook Point is entirely changed but not spoiled, unless a fine cottage and pleasant lawns with flowers and summer houses may make us lament the loss of what nature planted there.”
Note: Barrow also referenced Fall Brook Point in a poem he published in 1907.
“On Fall Brook Point, their last low tune
The waves have ceased to play.
And in the east now comes the moon
To warm and gild the gray.
“And now that moon, more clear than gold.
Goes up the star dim night.
And rock, and wave, and hill-top bold
Are lit with all her light.”
— Excerpt from “In After Years” in Lays of the Mountain, Forest and Lake: Woods, Waters and Seasons about Skaneateles Lake (1907) by John Dodgson Barrow
In July of 1902, “A Delightful Day’s Outing” was had for newspaper men and their friends on board the steamer City of Syracuse. The press junket included music by the Citizen’s Band, photographers Hummel and Livingston of Skaneateles creating mementos of the occasion, an elaborate luncheon at Glen Haven, and a stop at Fall Brook Point. The Skaneateles Press noted:
“Mr. Holden has a magnificent summer home and the grounds are of great beauty. The landscape embraces fine lawns and woodland views and the cascade on the premises is the finest on the lake. The party was hospitably entertained by Mr. Holden and household.”
In the summer of 1904, Luella Stewart, Belle Holden’s sister, was residing at the cottage. In August of that year, the steamboat service failed one of Mr. Holden’s guests:
“Syracuse, N.Y. – Aug. 7 – The Rev. A. W. Clark of the May Memorial Unitarian Church of this city, rowed nine miles last night in order to conduct services here this morning. He had been the guest at the cottage of Hendrick S. Holden of this city on Skaneateles Lake, twenty-nine miles from the city and nine miles from the car line at Skaneateles. He had made arrangements with the Captain of a boat running on the lake to call for him at the Holden dock on the last trip to the village. He displayed the regular signal on the dock when the boat hove in sight, and in addition got a large megaphone and called to the Captain. The boat passed on. It was then 8 o’clock. In a few minutes the clergyman had obtained a rowboat and was heading toward the village. For three hours and a half he tugged at the oars through the pitch-black night, and reached Skaneateles too late to catch a car for Syracuse. He came the rest of the way this morning.”
— “Rowed Nine Miles to Preach: Syracuse Pastor Not Daunted When Steamboat Ignored His Signals,” New York Times, August 8, 1904
(Also in 1904, the Hey family made an appearance on Skaneateles Lake; Avis and Enid Hey rented “the Tenterden Cottage.”)
In May of 1905, Holden married Luella Stewart. In July and August of 1906, Hendrick, Luella and Beatrice Holden occupied the cottage. In 1907, Holden first advertised the cottage for sale, in the Syracuse newspapers and in Country Life magazine.
In 1909, Holden again advertised the cottage for sale, without results. In July of 1912, Mr. and Mrs. John B. Pierce were staying at Holden’s Cottage, entertaining guests. Pierce was the Chief Engineer and General Manager of the Onondaga Independent Telephone Company in Syracuse; both he and Holden served on its Board of Directors. Mrs. Pierce was the former Mary Stewart, Mrs. (Luella) Holden’s sister.
In October of 1912, Holden finally found a buyer: David Bissell of Pittsburgh. The news report described Fall Brook Point as it was then:
“There are two houses, both built of stone, and of an attractive architectural design. One of these contains sixteen rooms and the other, eight. Large bay windows give an unobstructed view for miles up and down the lake. A small but dense forest occupies one part of the land, while nearby a stream tumbles down a rocky embankment, forming a falls from which the villa obtains its name.
“In each of the cottages there are large living rooms with great stone fireplaces. The grounds have also been attractively arranged, but none of the natural beauty has been sacrificed. Small rustic summer houses, a large tennis court and ice house are also part of the property.”
David S. Bissell
The new owner, David Shields Bissell, was a millionaire metallurgist who made a bundle when his Pittsburgh steel and chemical companies were acquired by U.S. Steel and Allied Chemical. Buying Fall Brook Point in October of 1912, Bissell planned to spend summers there with his wife, Annie Morris Ter Bush Bissell, and children, beginning the following year.
[Note: There is a lovely story – one I have been guilty of repeating – that the Anna Bissell of Fall Brook was Anna Sutherland Bissell of Grand Rapids, President of the Bissell Carpet Sweeper Company. Alas, no. This was another family of Bissells entirely.]
Bissell made improvements to the property; in the winter of 1915, he had J.E. Hoose of Carpenter’s Point build a boathouse and garage, while also acting as caretaker.
In 1918, the Pittsburgh Summer Social Register listed “Fall Brook Point, Skaneateles N Y” as the summer address of David and Anna Bissell, Lt. John Ten Bush Bissell, Lt. Leet W Bissell, and children Philip T.B. Bissell and Catherine C. Bissell.
In 1920, the Bissells bought another lakeside property, in Geneva, N.Y., a beautiful home overlooking Seneca Lake. (Known today as the Bradford-Bissell House, it serves as the Admissions Office for Hobart & William Smith Colleges.) From what I can gather, the Bissell family spent more and more time in Geneva and less at Fall Brook.
And then, in 1928, after a long absence, Mr. Bissell came to the camp and discovered the front door ajar, the cottage empty of furniture, and the interior vandalized. Neighbors reported that men in a truck and come and removed the furniture, and it had been assumed the “movers” were there on Mr. Bissell’s orders. The State Police, however, had other ideas.
The Bissells sold the camp to Frank Godwin in the 1928. Included in the sale were all the contents of the cottage, household goods, furniture and furnishings.
The word “genius” is thrown around a great deal, but when it’s thrown at an artist like Godwin, it sticks. He was a self-taught sketch artist, painter, engraver, sculptor. His artwork graced magazine pages and covers, advertisements, posters, illustrated books, and newspaper comic strips.
Born in 1889, he began to draw at the age of 3. By 1915, he was an established sketch artist for Judge magazine, and by 1920, his pen and brush work could be found in other magazines and in ads as well. By 1925, he was doing art for Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Colliers and Liberty.
In 1921, he was commissioned to illustrate The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang (cover art shown above). He also illustrated editions of The Black Arrow and Robin Hood (1923), Treasure Island (1924), Kidnapped and Robinson Crusoe (1925), King Arthur and His Knights (1927), Swiss Family Robinson (1929) and The Book of Courage (1930), cover art shown below.
Not surprisingly, Frank Godwin enjoyed the company of other artists, writers and musicians. When he and his wife, Sylvia, bought the cottages at Fall Brook Point, the property became an artists’ colony.
The Godwins’ guests in the summer of 1931 included James Thurber, his wife Althea and their new daughter, Rosie, who came with Richard and Louise Connell, friends from New York. Richard Connell wrote more than 300 short stories and screenplays; he is best remembered for “The Most Dangerous Game,” said to be one of the best short stories ever written.
One of Thurber’s biographers noted:
“They were invited with the Connells to a week-long house party at the old Victorian manse of illustrator Frank Godwin and his wife, Sylvia, in Skaneateles, New York. Louise Connell remembered the Skaneateles house party as days and nights of rare wit, good liquor (smuggled over the Canadian border), and estival [summer] fun. ‘How I wish I had a recording of that table talk,’ she said. ‘Sometimes we sat at breakfast until lunchtime. I don’t know how Sylvia managed to pacify the servants, but she never made us rise from a meal while we were engrossed in conversation. Nobody got really drunk–except the butler, who, once when he was supposed to be serving dinner, was found under a pine tree out cold–although we did drink a lot.
“When we were not at meals, there was swimming, walking in the woods, boating, and fishing. Jim discovered another sport that he enjoyed more. It was goosing earthworms. The Godwins provided us with an electric gadget for catching bait. You stuck its metal spike into the loamy soil, wet the ground well, and turned on the battery. Very soon at least one lively earthworm would scurry to the surface. This pastime so delighted Jim that he caught all the bait the rest of us needed for fishing. He just loved to goose earthworms.”
Sylvia Godwin was a lovely woman. But she was also a wife and mother, and charged with the day-to-day necessities of cottage living, and serving as hostess. In September of 1931, she advertised for help in the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser:
“Girl for general housework. Go with family to Greenwich, Connecticut, in winter, Lake Skaneateles in summer. Opportunity for clean, ambitious girl. Willing to teach one with some knowledge of cooking. Write Mrs. Frank Godwin, Skaneateles, New York.”
In June of 1935, she advertised again:
“Educated girl as nurse for two children, age 5 and 10, in lovely home on Lake Skaneateles for summer, $20 monthly. Write Mrs. Frank Godwin, Skaneateles, N.Y.”
Thurber himself paid tribute to Sylvia’s manifest capabilities in a story called “Suli Suli”:
“I went fishing on Lake Skaneateles with a group of people, including a lovely young woman named Sylvia. On that occasion I actually did hook a fish, even before anybody else had a bite, and I brought it into the rowboat with a great plop. Then, not having had any experience with a caught fish, I didn’t know what to do with it. I had some vague idea that a fish died quietly and with dignity as soon as it was flopped into a boat, but that, of course, was an erroneous idea. It leaped about strenuously. I got pretty far away from it and stared at it. The young lady named Sylvia finally grabbed it expertly and slapped it into insensibility against the sides and bottom of the boat… A man never completely gets over the chagrin and shock of having a woman handle for him the fish he has caught.”
In the years Frank Godwin summered in Skaneateles, his main endeavor was a comic strip called “Connie,” which first appeared in 1927. Connie flew to Mexico in search of treasure; she discovered lost civilizations in the Andes and Himalayas. In May of 1936, Connie even visited Skaneateles and Owasco lakes, delighting readers of the Sunday Syracuse Herald.
In the winter of 1938, while the Godwins were in Havana, their Skaneateles cottage was robbed by a 13-year-old local boy, who was apprehended. But that was the least of their worries. Soon afterwards, Sylvia left Frank. Local legend has it that he was so upset he simply walked out of the cottage, leaving everything behind, including half-finished art on his easels, and never returned.
In August of 1939, Julian Brown of Syracuse leased the Godwin cottage, bringing yet another touch of local color. Mr. Brown inherited $3.5 million from the estates of his father and mother, and entered into a series of ventures that turned out to be misadventures, and spent most of his adult life embroiled in lawsuits, and five divorces, four of which were his own and one of which he prompted with his attentions to a newlywed on her honeymoon. Between 1908 and 1964 the Syracuse Herald published 360 articles about him, 350 of which dealt with his legal problems.
The Gutchess Family
The houses at Fall Brook Point remained empty for a time. Folklore tells us that in the summer the Point was a kind of clubhouse for Syracuse University students; they boated down the lake to enjoy the main house, already stocked as it was with furniture, linens, silverware and dishes.
Around 1942, Clair B. Gutchess (1900-1978) and his wife, Irene (1902-1986), were living at Carpenter’s Point. They had a large family and needed a bigger camp. They inquired about Fall Brook, but realtors told them it was not for sale. So they drove to Frank Godwin’s home in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The artist was painting at his easel in his studio and attempted to ignore them. But when he learned they would not develop the land, rather the camp would be for the use of their six children, he said, “That place should have children ’round it. You can have it.” So he sold the Point to them in 1945.
When Clair Gutchess died, his family found it hard to maintain the property. His daughter, Elsie advertised the house for sale in the New York Times and received replies from around the world. In 1983, Homer and Keith Gutchess and Carolyn Carver, executors of the estate of Clair Gutchess, sold Fall Brook Point to Alfred and Josephine Muscari of Springfield, Pennsylvania.
Alfred and Josephine Muscari
Alfred Muscari, originally from Brooklyn, was a civil engineer, specializing in bridges and subways; he was involved with the construction of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the Toronto subway system, the Metrorail system in Washington, and upgrades to the Broad Street subway in Philadelphia. Retired when he acquired Fall Brook, Alfred devoted himself to the property and its restoration, including evicting bats and bees who had taken up residence in the attics.
Being an engineer, Alfred added roads and a bridge. Josephine, an avid horticulturalist, set about beautifying the grounds. Proud of Fall Brook, they sought always to preserve the natural beauty of the property as they made improvements. After Josephine’s death in 1995, her son John and daughter Michele entered into a limited partnership, owning the property with their father, who died in 2007.
The family notes that the love that Alfred and Josephine shared is everywhere you look, and Fall Brook Point continues to be a very special place for their children and grandchildren.
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My thanks to Peg Whitehouse, John Sutton, Elsie Gutchess, the Muscari family and the historians who have previously chronicled Fall Brook Point.