It was only a matter of time before “penny in the slot machines” made their way to Skaneateles. In 1888, on New York City train platforms, the Thomas Adams Gum Company introduced vending machines that dispensed chewing gum when you put a penny in the slot. Soon there were “penny in the slot” machines that told your weight, dispensed candy, peanuts or postage stamps.
In 1891, a company in Brooklyn developed a gambling machine based on poker. Players would put in a nickel and pull a lever, five drums would spin and the player would receive a poker hand. A good hand could pay off with a free beer or a cigar. Soon every saloon and cigar store had one or more of these lucrative “slot machines.”
By 1893, the hybrid vending/gambling machines had made their way here. The Skaneateles Free Press reported:
“’Penny-in-the-slot’ machines are in operation in this village as mentioned before and complaints [are made] that even 10 year old boys are permitted to risk their pennies in these gaming devices, in the hope of securing a cigar! One place on Genesee Street has often a crowd of boys out of school hours on week days and also on Sundays. Is this legitimate or beneficial to our youth?” (Dec. 29, 1893)
“The gambling slot machines are in operation in several places in this village. The village authorities should suppress them at once, as is being done in nearly every city in the state. The slot machines are a great inducement to gambling.” (Mar. 23, 1894)
In October of 1897, the U.S. Mint reported that the demand for pennies was at an all-time high; they were minting close to 4 million per month. A spokesman explained that the penny in the slot machine “has spread over the land like the locusts of Egypt within the past two or three years. A single automatic machine company takes in half a million pennies a day. As there isn’t a cross-roads village in the country that hasn’t a chewing gum, kinetoscope, music or weighing machine operated in this way, the number of coins required to keep them all going is enormous.”
In 1906, the Skaneateles Free Press again made its case:
“How about the slot machines in Skaneateles? The attention of the Village Fathers is called to them. Men, youth and even school boys are seen playing slot machines in this village, fostering their gambling spirit and demoralizing those who play them. Why should not the slot machines in Skaneateles cigar stores or other places go?” (Jan. 9, 1906)
“A local merchant, speaking the other day about penny in the slot machines, said he purchased one in self defence, because he was continually short of coppers to make change, having to hunt up $3 or $4 worth every day. He therefore resolved to secure a slot machine and found it kept him well supplied with pennies.” (Oct. 3, 1906)
By this time, public opinion, or at least the public’s stated opinion, was trending against slot machines and they were declared illegal. However, reports of raids and confiscations in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s attest to their continuing popularity among those willing to risk jail in Syracuse, Auburn and Utica.
Skaneateles was rid of the scourge early on, with one notable exception.
Two histories of the Skaneateles Country Club note that slot machines were introduced to the Club in the early 1940s. Beverley Hastings Lapham (1903-1980), a stock broker and golfer, cited a slot machine from the Mills Bell Company of Chicago as “the bulwark of our financial income at the Club.” At first there were three: a nickel, a dime and a quarter slot machine. A second quarter slot machine was purchased in 1946. When the winter months came and golfers went to warmer climes, the slot machines were sent to the basement of the National Bank & Trust Co. on Genesee Street.
Sadly, in consideration of rising concerns about their legality, the machines were disposed of in 1953. And so ended a colorful era.
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Thanks to Gil Elvgren for his illustration, “Potluck,” showing a 1948 Mills High Top Jewel Bell.
It is probably a little early in the year to think about swimming the length of the lake, but not too early to discuss some of the earlier attempts.
On Saturday, July 24, 1934, Ellsworth “Chubby” Greenough, 28 years old and coated in grease, swam the 16-mile length of Skaneateles Lake; it was his fourth attempt and first success. He entered the water at Clift Park at 7:40 a.m. and climbed out at the south end of the lake at 6:45 p.m. He tried to repeat the feat three times in 1950 and 1951, but cramps caused by the cold water defeated his later attempts.
In August of 1952, Carleton Dunn, 19, said he swam the length of the lake but he did it without the benefit of witnesses. Cramps ended an early morning attempt after three miles, but after some time in the hospital, Dunn returned to Glen Haven, dove into the water and began the swim again, over the protests of his friends, without a boat to accompany him. He was feared drowned until he appeared at his home on Griffin Street at 4:30 a.m., and told his parents he had swum the lake, mostly in the dark. He later told a reporter, “I’ll do it again anytime anyone challenges me and I’ll do it with witnesses,” however, there is no further evidence of an encore.
In August of 1966, Walter “Wally” Duncan, 69, swam the lake in 10 hours, 46 minutes. He was quoted afterwards as saying, “Damn. It was cold.” He also swam the length of Owasco Lake, and swam Cayuga Lake four times.
On July 14, 1984, Cornell co-ed Claire de Boer, 24, swam Skaneateles Lake in 8 hours, 20 minutes, north to south, as part of a tune-up for a swim of the length of Cayuga Lake, a 38-mile, 20-hour, 30-minute swim she completed in August.
In July of 1987, while training for an English Channel swim, Jerry Ferris, 47, swam from the village to the south end of Skaneateles Lake, and turned around to swim back; just two miles from the village he was forced out of the water by a thunderstorm. He did the 30 miles in 12 hours.
Jerry Ferris in 2013
Earlier, Ferris swam the length of Lake George in 1983, and said it was his hardest swim. He swam around the island of Manhattan in 1984. His 1987 try for a round-trip English Channel swim was foiled by strong currents and tides, so he only made the crossing one way, from Dover to the French coast.
On August 16, 2003, the Skaneateles Girls Varsity Swim Team swam the lake in relays of 15 minutes each, and, although stopped by repeated thunderstorms, they made it to Glen Haven. My thanks to swimmer Maddie Halstead for this correction to the earlier account.
If anyone has other accounts, I’d be delighted to hear them.
I have written before about Virginia Loney, a young woman who survived the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania because she had learned to swim in Skaneateles Lake, but I hadn’t seen this photo of her, taken in 1924, shortly after her divorce from Robert Gamble.