Hunt’s Garage at 7 Hannum Street is not an architectural jewel, nor the former home of a famous summer resident, but it is nonetheless a repository of Village history.
Let us begin with Fred. One can go farther back to the first internal combustion engine, but for Skaneateles, Fred J. Humphryes is a good start. Fred was a mechanic, and had a shop in the village. He added an electric motor to his shop in November of 1904, when the local power plant began providing “all-day service.”
In 1905, Fred was producing gasoline engines designed by Harry C. Gosper of Elmira, N.Y. The Motor Boat magazine noted that he was placing Gosper engines in boats built by the Skaneateles Boat & Canoe Company, and Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal reported:
“F.J. Humphryes, Skaneateles, N.Y., is making the Gosper gasoline automobile and marine engines in the following sizes: 1 1/2, 2 and 4 H.P. single cylinder; 6 and 10 H.P double cylinder; 15 and 20 H.P. four cylinder; and also the Gosper stationary engines in 1 1/2, 2 and 4 H.P. single cylinder sizes.”
The auto industry in 1905 was far different than today’s. There were thousands of auto makers in the U.S.A. The city of Syracuse alone hosted the Franklin Automobile Co., Brennan Motor Manufacturing Co., Century Motor Vehicle Co. (makers of a steam-powered model), H. A. Moyer Automobile Co., Chase Motor Truck Co., Palmer-Moore Co. and Sanford-Herbert Motor Truck Co.
In 1908, the Ford Motor Co. introduced the Model T, and five years later sped up production with the first assembly line, lowering costs and bringing automobiles within reach of middle-income buyers.
In October of 1912, Skaneateles got its first auto dealership, selling Ford cars. People’s Motor Sales was formed by Fred Humphryes, John L. Schultz and Albert J. Allen, based in Humphryes’ shop on Hannum Street.
In 1913, People’s Motor Sales was listed as the exclusive Ford agency for Skaneateles, Marcellus and Spafford, selling a five-passenger Touring Car for $600 and a two-passenger Roadster for $525, with windshield, speedometer and five lamps standard. In 1914, the Ford Town Car was added, priced at $800. During this time, the dealership also sold Willys-Overland Cars, made in Toledo, Ohio.
In October of 1914, Fred Humphryes retired from People’s Motor Sales, selling his interest to Charles Wadsworth. The following spring, Howard B. Smith, known locally as “Bish,” graduated from high school and joined the firm as a mechanic. In December of 1915, Smith and Thomas R. Kelley of Auburn leased the People’s Motor Sales’ garage and ran it as the Ideal Garage, conditioning and storing automobiles over the winter. Shortly after that, Smith became the sole owner of People’s Motor Sales. His tenure would be short, and end in tragedy.
In the winter of 1916-17, Smith and Hans Pries, a mechanic from Auburn, were fine-tuning a “motor sleigh” owned by George Hiscock, son of Frank Hiscock, Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals. The vehicle had one wheel in the back and runners up front, and was propelled by a two-cylinder motorcycle engine. On Tuesday, January 16, 1917, after testing the sled on the snow-covered streets of the village, Smith and Pries decided to take it out onto the lake ice, with Pries driving and Smith behind him, sitting backwards to shield his face from the wind.
The sled could reach 50 miles per hour, but was not built to turn. As good ice turned to bad, Pries tried to steer but only skidded, farther and farther out, until the sled plunged through the ice into 20 feet of water, just east of Roosevelt Hall. Both men drowned.
Smith’s funeral closed every business in the village. Among the honorary pall bearers were Fred Humphryes, John Schultz and Albert Allen, the original founders of People’s Motor Sales.
In March of 1917, Mary Smith, Howard’s mother, sold People’s Motor Sales to George Mason Perry of the Perry Motor Co. of Syracuse. In April, the existing garage building was moved to a lot on Griffin Street and construction began on the concrete block building we know today.
In July, People’s Motor Sales changed hands again when George Bowen of Marcellus acquired the firm. Bowen ran the business from there until 1922, when he started work on a new garage on West Genesee Street, on a lot east of Lake View cemetery.
The new owners of the building on Hannum Street were George S. Bentley and Lemuel P. Thomas, who opened for business in October of 1925 selling Chrysler cars as “Bentley & Thomas.”
The Stock Market Crash of 1929 ushered in the Great Depression, and for the next several years it must have been difficult to sell anything, much less a new automobile. But Bentley & Thomas soldiered on and went out of their way to attract buyers.
In April of 1931, they sponsored an appearance by Jack Randall, “the man of mystery,” who drove a Chrysler through the streets of Skaneateles while blindfolded. An account of Randall’s drive in Kingsport, Tennessee, gives us an idea of how the event may have played out here:
“Mr. Randall will start his drive in front of the Mills Motor Company… He will be blindfolded before a large crowd so they may see that his eyes are securely sealed shut and that yards and yards of bandage are wrapped about his head so there is no possible chance for him to see with his eyes. In the drive, Randall places himself in a semi-trance during which time his mind is open to all psychic impressions. He will drive either a Chrysler or Plymouth… The car will be of standard make and will be without any hidden controls or any other mechanism… The drive will demonstrate that the cars sold by the Mills Motor Co. are fool-proof and, although blindfolded, a person would have a fair chance to drive because the cars are as near perfect as can be made by modern engineers.”
That October, Bentley & Thomas hosted a “monster tire.” The tire, one of three made by Goodyear, was 12 feet high, 4 feet wide and weighed half a ton. Its inner tube alone weighed 125 pounds.
George Bentley noted, “This tire isn’t just a stunt; it is rather an engineering and experimental development looking into the future. Some day, huge airplanes may land on tires patterned after this one.”
The company weathered the Depression and the years of World War II, selling cars, tires, gas, oil and outboard motors, inspecting tires during the war, and as a towing service for wrecked autos.
Lemuel Thomas resigned in July of 1953, and the business continued until 1965, with George Bentley died. In August, Don Clark, a local Mobile oil distributor, bought the garage from Dorothy Bentley, George’s widow, and following year sold it to Lester R. Hunt of Marcellus. Les Hunt was a native of Marietta, went to Marcellus High School, and grew up “tinkering with cars.” He served in the U.S. Army in WWII.
Returning home, he first worked for Firestone in Syracuse, and later for a number of service stations and dealerships. Along the way, he attended a series of automotive schools.
Les Hunt died in 2000 and his son Norman took over the business. He runs it today in its 101-year-old building, keeping cars finely tuned and on the road for happy motoring.
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“Blindfold Drive by the Man of Mystery,” Kingsport Times, Kingsport, Tenn., February 26, 1932
Photo of State Police car parked outside Bentley & Thomas, 1942, courtesy of the Skaneateles Historical Society.
Army photo of Les Hunt from the Marcellus Observer, October 6, 1944