Hunt’s Garage

1942 Ford Police Car at B & T Garage

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.”

Gosper Engine Ad

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.

Pumping Air 1913 copy1913

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.

Bowen Garage

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.”

Chrysler 60

1927

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.

Goodyear Airwheel

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.

Safer

1949

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.

Les Hunt Army Photo

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.

* * *

“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

 

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A Queen Among Us

Queen Mona

In January of 1944, Mona Ruwaldt was destined to graduate from high school as the valedictorian of her class and go on to college, but first there was a coronation. The young people of Hammond, Indiana, had collected 50,000 pounds of paper in a drive for the war effort. Mona and her classmate Doug Radicky were chosen to reign as the royal couple, the Salvage Paper King and Queen. Their photo appeared in newspapers across the nation.

Mona went on to graduate from Northwestern University with honors, followed by med school, a career as Mona Ruwaldt, M.D., and a life as wife and mother. Today, unaffected by her titled origins, she lives quietly on Lake View Circle, showing the grace of true royalty.

Mona CU

Photo: ACME Newspictures, Chicago Bureau, Tribune Tower, Chicago

Tape

Dog Tags

About 10 years ago, I was helping friends downsize; they were moving out of a house filled with decades of memories and my job was to fill my car with stuff to be donated and cart it over to the St. James’ Thrift Shop. In the course of emptying closets and sorting, the man of the house came over to me and held up his dog-tags. I knew he had served in World War II, as a Marine, and had seen combat on Guadalcanal in the South Pacific.

“Do you know why these are taped together?” he said.

“So they wouldn’t make noise,” I replied.

“That’s right,” he said. And he told me he’d been a Forward Artillery Observer. From my reading (but certainly not from my own experience), I knew this was a formal title for someone who crawled as close to enemy lines as possible, watched when the artillery opened up, and then radioed back directions and yardage to the artillery men to help them zero in on the target.

“You had to get pretty close to their lines,” I said.

“Oh, I could hear them talking.”

“That must have been pretty scary.”

“Yes, it was.” He paused, and then his eyes kind of lit up, and he added, “but when those rounds came in, it was pretty darned exciting.”

Always in a Rage

One of the more colorful visitors to Roosevelt Hall was Ernest J. King who in July of 1935 spent a weekend as the guest of Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. King was the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, and already known as one of the more outspoken officers in the U.S. Navy.

Just three years earlier he had attended the Naval War College, and in his thesis noted that America’s weakness was representative democracy:

“It is traditional and habitual for us to be inadequately prepared. This is the combined result of a number factors, the character of which is only indicated: democracy, which tends to make everyone believe that he knows it all; the preponderance (inherent in democracy) of people whose real interest is in their own welfare as individuals; the glorification of our own victories in war and the corresponding ignorance of our defeats (and disgraces) and of their basic causes; the inability of the average individual (the man in the street) to understand the cause and effect not only in foreign but domestic affairs, as well as his lack of interest in such matters. Added to these elements is the manner in which our representative (republican) form of government has developed as to put a premium on mediocrity and to emphasize the defects of the electorate already mentioned.”

In 1938, he underscored his opinion by staging a successful simulated naval air raid on Pearl Harbor, showing that the base was dangerously vulnerable to aerial attack. He wasn’t taken seriously.

As WWII approached, King was appointed as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet, and promoted to admiral in February 1941. On December 30, 1941, three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he became Commander-in-Chief, United States Fleet.

Following Japan’s defeat at the Battle of Midway, King advocated the invasion of Guadalcanal. The campaign was ultimately successful, and for the first time the Japanese lost ground. Throughout the war, King was widely respected for his ability, and heartily disliked. Historian John Ray Skates wrote, “Only British Field Marshal Montgomery may have had more enemies. King also loved parties and often drank to excess. Apparently, he reserved his charm for the wives of fellow naval officers.”

Franklin Roosevelt described him as a man who “shaves every morning with a blow torch.”

King’s view of press relations was simple. He said, “Don’t tell them anything. When it’s over, tell them who won.”

One of his daughters said, “He is the most even-tempered person in the United States Navy. He is always in a rage.”

One hopes that the beautiful vistas and calming influence of the lake made him an enjoyable guest during his 1935 visit to Skaneateles.

USA-P-Marianas-p36

Above, U.S. Naval Commanders in the Marianas Campaign, South Pacific. L. to R.: Vice Admiral Raymond Spruance, commander, U.S. Fifth Fleet; Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Navy; Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Leading the Way on D-Day

lillyman-hq3-502nd-elst-holland-2

Fifteen minutes past midnight on D-Day, June 6, 1944, Capt. Frank Lillyman of the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, became the first soldier of the Allied invasion force to land on French soil. Leading a 15-man Pathfinder group, he jumped out of a C47 that had slowed to 120 m.p.h. Because the emphasis was on speed and stealth, the drop was from a low altitude. This conferred two benefits: Bulky reserve chutes could be left on the plane; if the main chute didn’t deploy, the jumper would hit the ground before he had time to deploy another. And jumping from a low altitude gave the men less time to think about how vulnerable they were.

The men had one other thing going for them: Capt. Lillyman was jumping with a lit cigar clenched in his teeth, as he had on his previous 47 jumps; the good luck provided by the cigar was appreciated by every man on the team, and by Lillyman’s wife, Jane, as well; she frequently sent him cigars from Skaneateles to supplement his Army ration.

Jane was born in Skaneateles, and it was here that she waited for news of her husband, and read his many letters. But at 0015 on D-Day, Capt. Lillyman’s thoughts were not of our village, but rather the village of St. Germaine de Varreville where he had just landed, about a mile from Drop Zone A. There was not enough time to trek a mile to the original target, so Lillyman found a wide, treeless pasture behind a church and the group began to deploy battery-powered lights to mark the field for the incoming paratroopers.

Somewhere in the dark, a lone German with a machine gun was firing short bursts, probing for the intruders. “Damned annoying it was,” Lillyman later recalled. “Finally I sent two men to convince him of the error of his ways. Pretty soon I heard a grenade go off, and then everything was lovely and quiet.”

Now, all the men had to do was wait for the paratroopers to arrive. “That was the longest 47 minutes in my life,” Lillyman said. “Those lights never looked bright in training, but that night they looked like searchlights.”

A German bicycle patrol saw the men, but quickly rode away, discretion being the better part of valor. After the paratroopers landed, Lillyman and his men hiked seven miles cross-country to another site to prepare a landing field for gliders. German soldiers were hiding in the hedges along the way, covering the roads carefully. But the Pathfinders were not on the roads. At the end of the hike, the score was USA 18, Germany 0.

However, while helping out an isolated glider that was under enemy fire, Lillyman was shot in the arm and caught a mortar splinter in his face. He was sent back across the Channel to recover, but talked his way onto a military transport and was back at the front eight days later. At the end of the war, he had spent 10 months in combat, had been wounded three times and decorated eight times.

Lillyman returned home to Skaneateles, and garnered one more measure of fame. To keep himself going in Europe, he had jotted down ideas for a dream week in New York City, at the best hotel. He saved $500 for the vacation, and wrote to the hotel he had in mind, asking them if they could fulfill all his wishes for that sum. They replied that they could, but it would be “on the house.”

Lillyman Life

The December 3, 1945, issue of Life magazine ran a feature on the family’s dream vacation. Soon afterwards, the Captain returned to duty and was posted elsewhere. In all, he served in the U.S. Army for 25 years. He died in 1971, a hero with a sense of humor.