First, Joseph Allen. He was born in 1820 in Laurens, Otsego county, and grew up working on the farm of his parents, Eastwood and Elizabeth Allen. In 1848, he married Harriet Amanda Bowdish, the sister of Nelson Samuel Bowdish who would gain fame as a landscape artist.
In 1852, Joseph and Harriet moved to Skaneateles and began farming with James T. Morse, south of the village on Briggs (today’s Rickard) Road. Their enterprise prospered. Around 1865, Joseph Allen had a house built in the village, on Railroad (today’s Fennell) Street.
The Allen home as it would have looked when it was built.
By 1874, Joseph Allen was in the lumber business with Wellington Hoag, and they advertised “a good assortment of Pine, Hemlock and Basswood lumber. Moldings, Sash, Blinds, Doors, Eave Spouts, Ladders, Fence Posts &c, all of which they propose to sell cheap for cash, or ready payment.” For Allen, it was a short walk to work, as the lumber yard was just down Railroad Street from his home.
But in March of 1878, Allen opted for a longer walk from a house on West Academy Street, selling the home he’d had built to Edmund (Edward) Eckett. I would suggest the move was prompted by Harriet Allen. As you can see from the map above, Railroad Street was aptly named. Directly across from the Allen home was the rail yard, with its engine houses and coal sheds. Next door, to the south, was the coal yard of H.C. Sherman.
And the trains ran down the middle of the street. Between the coal dust and smoke, the clatter on the rails, the clanking of the cars and the shrill train whistles, it was probably not an ideal place to hang laundry or listen to bird song.
The new owner, Edward Eckett, was born in Somerset, England, in 1842, and came to Skaneateles in 1871 to start a bakery. The local paper reported, “Mr. Eckett intends to conduct his business in a manner that will please the most fastidious, and therefore we recommend him to the liberal patronage of the public.” He was frequently noted as “a baker and a cracker manufacturer,” but the definition didn’t do him justice. By the time Eckett bought the Allen house in 1878, he had also purchased the Pardee block (today’s Sietz Building) and every week his bakery was using 15 barrels of flour and a “tierce” of lard to produce 10,000 pounds of crackers, plus bread and cakes.
The crackers were appreciated throughout Central New York. Eckett personally made a daily delivery to Auburn in a horse-drawn wagon, and by 1875 was sending 50 barrels of crackers every week to grocers in Syracuse.
In a letter to the Skaneateles Press in 1933, Ralph Martin said of Eckett:
“There was a man who could and did make a real honest-to-goodness cracker. He did not have to do up his product in a fancy four-colored package to make his crackers sell, but when one went to his bakery, as I often did for my aunt, Mrs. Fitch, one got them in a plain paper bag, warm, right out of the oven. Mr. Eckett, when he waited on you in person, folded over the top of the bag, took two corners between his thumb and finger, gave it a whirl or two and you got your bag of crackers with two neat little ears stuck out from the top.”
To the house on Railroad Street, Eckett made changes which have been detailed by a local historian (probably Ken Wooster, who spent his boyhood in the house).
“Eckett added a new kitchen on the rear and extended the second floor to the rear with two additional bedrooms, one over the former one-story kitchen and one over the new kitchen. The entry at the side was moved to the rear… to make an enclosed back porch. He added a fieldstone basement under the glassed-in front porch and extended the porch around the south side of the house.”
The Eckett house as it looked after the changes circa 1880
The further expansion of Eckett’s business was prompted by the burning of the Stone Mill, on May 6, 1882, leaving the village without a mill that had brought in considerable trade. Helen Ionta, for many years the Skaneateles Town Historian, wrote of Eckett’s response in her Industries Around the Old Mill Pond:
“Now he decided to open a flour and feed store in this building at the corner of Jordan and Genesee Street. In 1884, he built an addition to his brick block on the west and adjoining the [Fire] Engine House, intending to use it for his flour and feed store, but he soon turned the addition (site of Morris’ Grill) into a flouring mill.”
Eckett’s mill used steam power instead of water power and he was soon milling flour on a regular basis. In July of 1889, the Skaneateles Free Press reported:
“The Eckett Mill has increased power with three-horsepower boilers and a 25-horsepower engine for his steam bakery (for making crackers) and there is a new grist mill in the addition to the Eckett block on the west.”
By 1895, Eckett had withdrawn from the bakery to devote his time to his real estate holdings, both the Eckett block and several houses in the village. The real estate business was not without its difficulties. In 1911, Eckett had to publish a denial that he was renting store space in the Eckett block to Italian fruit merchants.
Edward Eckett died at home in 1919, “while sitting in a chair,” but his daughter, Frances, continued to live in the house for the next 23 years. However in 1924, the home’s address changed when the Village Trustees agreed to rename Railroad Street as Fennell Street, honoring Martin Fennell. The Skaneateles Railroad ended passenger service in the early 1930s, and the line was then used only to serve the last industries on the outlet. (It wasn’t until 1981, however, that the old railroad tracks were removed.)
In May of 1942, the house passed to its third family when Frances Eckett sold the home to Marion and Alice Wooster. That August, Marion Wooster, 46 years old, joined the U.S. Navy Seabees.
Already a veteran of the Mexican border conflict of 1916 and World War I, he joined the only branch of the service that would take a man of his years. He worked building roads at naval installations guarding the Panama Canal, as well as in the Philippines and Hawaii. In Trinidad, he had a chance meeting with his son, Seaman Second Class Lester Wooster, whose ship had docked for an overnight stay. Another son, Robert, served in Australia in the U.S. Army Air Force. At home, Alice Wooster and the youngest son, Kenneth, occasionally did “a trick of duty at the American Legion’s observation post near the Country Club.”
Marion Wooster returned home just a few days before the end of the war in the Pacific theater and went to work as a custodian at the Skaneateles High School. He was known for the molasses and sugar cookies he made in the school kitchen. As for the house, Ken Wooster noted, “The changes made in the appearance between 1880 and 1999 were very slight: paint on the bricks, less ornate chimneys, minimal front steps, shutters removed, and the overhang of the eaves decreased following a storm that removed the roof in November, 1950.”
Marion Wooster died in 1976, but the house stayed in the family until 1998, when Tom and Nancy Shaver purchased the property. They opened The Arbor House as a Bed & Breakfast in June of 1999, marketing the experience as “life in the past lane.”
Still a part of Village history, the Arbor House Inn & Suites is today operated by Sherwood Inns & Appetites.
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Joseph Allen eventually sold his lumber business and went into real estate, at one point owning more homes in the village than any other resident. He served as the town assessor, and was the President of the village from 1882 to 1884. At the time of his death in 1906, he was a trustee of the Skaneateles Savings Bank. His obituary noted, “He was a man of prudence and good judgment, frugal, careful, honorable and generous with his fellow men, and during his long residence in Skaneateles he won a high reputation for integrity and fair dealing, winning the respect and esteem of the entire community.”
Harriet Allen had died in 1900. Among the couple’s three surviving children, the best known was Samuel “Sam” Allen, the skipper of the steam boat Ossahinta, who conveyed scores of travelers to and from Glen Haven.
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How Eckett Crackers Were Made
“The people of this town, and of many of the surrounding towns and cities, have often eaten Eckett’s crackers, for they are celebrated far and near. The other day we paid a visit to his steam bakery, and witnessed the operations of making crackers. The dough is sponged,* over night, and lays in the mixing trough. As the room is always kept at a warm temperature, the batch of dough ‘raises,’ and in the morning is ready for working.
“The first ‘breaking’ is done by laying the lump of dough on a platform and pressing a long lever on it. It is then taken to what is called a ‘breaking’ machine… and rolled into sheets of the required thickness. This is then ready to be passed through the cracker machine, which again rolls out the sheets of dough and cuts and marks the crackers. A man with a wide wooden shovel takes off the marked dough in sheets and places them into the oven, which is a revolving one, of the latest and most improved pattern.**
“The oven is built of brick, and there is a large sheet iron pan on which the dough is placed. This sheet is circular in shape, and is kept moving round by machinery, and the sheets of dough are placed on until the whole surface is covered. It takes about five minutes to bake one layer of crackers, and then they are taken out, and another layer is put in. As each layer will hold about eighteen pounds of crackers, and the putting in, baking and taking out occupies about seven minutes, it will be seen that 150 pounds of crackers are baked in an hour.
“The hands have not yet become accustomed to the new machinery, and Mr. Eckett thinks that with practice his bakers will be able to put through about 200 pounds of crackers per hour, or ten barrels of flour in a working day of ten hours. Mr. Eckett, even with his new oven, is not able to meet the demands made for his popular crackers. He now employs eight hands, and uses a large quantity of flour, lard, &c. His trade in bread and cakes is already quite extensive, and steadily increasing. In these times of general business depression, we are glad to see him so busy, and hope that he will long continue to meet with the success which his enterprise deserves.”
* A “sponge” ferment is a process that uses a part of the flour, water and yeast of the total dough formula for a preliminary ferment, which bubbles and looks like a sponge, hence the name. The mix is kneaded just until it begins to develop, then allowed to rest and ferment in a room of a desired temperature and humidity. At the end of the fermentation time, the remainder of the dough’s ingredients are added. The sponge method, while more time-consuming, improves the flavor, texture and structure of the finished product.
** Elsewhere we read that the oven was “a 16-foot rotary oven”
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“How Crackers Are Made,” Skaneateles Free Press, March 6, 1875
Letter to the Skaneateles Press from Ralph Fitch Martin, February 16, 1933
Industries Around the Old Mill Pond (1993) by Helen Ionta
The 41 Fennell Street house file at the Creamery Museum