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.
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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.