• Bonnie Hawk Barney

Part 5: The golden age

A recurring problem plagued the Keuka Yacht Club at the turn of the century: how to revive interest in competitive sailing as the former generation of racers waned. It’s no wonder that their plan did the trick...several prominent businessmen from Penn Yan, whose hearts were with sailing, staked a competition off Branchport for $1000 a heat! The old club became again a very active organization, purchasing the former Keuka Sanitorium (a Keely Cure sight). The Holmeses, who later ran Holmes Inn, were installed as stewards, serving up meals of fine reputation and obliging members who took any of the 19 rooms by the season, $35 to $50 the summer.

Additional cars were put on the Penn Yan-Keuka Park-Branchport Electric Railway for the run out to the club to accommodate the dinner business, and to allow the Holmeses to make quick runs to the butcher as dinner orders were placed. There wasn’t adequate refrigeration to keep meat stocked, so the delay of an hour to shop for your dinner was necessary. Membership mounted to a high of 675, including almost every cottager on the lake. This was the club’s Golden Age.

At first a rather miscellaneous congregation of sailing craft participated in the racing, ranging from Allie Wagener’s "39" Lawley-built defender Recruit, the largest hull and largest sail area ever on the lake, down to fragile little batwinged canoes. A landmark in future direction of yacht racing at the club occurred in 1905 when the first Class A Scow appeared on the lake. Purchased by a syndicate of Penn Yan businessmen, and raced by H. Allen Wagener, the Tecumseh aroused great interest due to its speed and ease in handling. Additional A’s were brought on until nine were racing in the teens. W. J. Tylee, Penn Yan trolley company manager, had Clahosa, which he sold to the Shoemaker brothers of Elmira in 1913. He replaced it with No-No, which likewise went to the Shoemakers a few years later. Dr. Cox of Penn Yan had Heledia, the Short brothers of the Penn Yan Ice Company had Mercia, Allie Wagener bought Skidoo, and the Tecumseh was sailed by Potter and Decker of Penn Yan.

The Tecumseh caused a few misgivings as it was unloaded from its flatcar, brought from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. How frail, with half inch cedar planking, deck scarcely three-eighths thick, and with hollow spars! The centerboard was substantial, of 3/8 inch boiler plate, and the single rudder was a steel plate instead of the thick iron-bound wood construction of the fleet. But Tecumseh proved to be very fast, and was favored in the handicapping system over Juno.

Excitement ran high in the village when a challenge for a match race was received from Cayuga Lake. They had a sloop of 2 tons burden, yet very fast by virtue of a tall mast, named Old Glory. This craft being patently too bulky to bring to Keuka Lake, the yachting buffs at KYC called upon Owen Hoban, Jr. to determine if a portage by long wagon was practical for Tecumseh. Enthusiasm was worked up, and an acceptance of the challenge was written.

While details were worked out, Skipper Whitfield made and installed a universal joint to hold the spinnaker boom forward of the mast. With the swiveling motion, the pole had complete swing through 180 degrees, and could be lowered quickly by a crewman who also carried the sail out on a separate out-haul, while the man on the halyard ran the canvas up.

A cradle was improvised for the wagon with a long reach, and the half ton boat was safely trundled to Dresden, with rooters and handlers following along by carriage and Walter Towner’s new Maxwell. Launching into Seneca was done mostly by manpower, the mast stepped and rigged. The sail to Geneva was uneventful and the next day the craft was stripped down and worked through the locks of the canal. Sway lines at bow and stern on both sides were manned by four men as the craft slid through without a scratch. Then it was tow-path and sculling oar until they reached Cayuga Lake.

Once on Cayuga, Tecumseh was sailed south to Kidders Ferry in Seneca County were the course was laid out. Here the yachtsmen assembled on the weekend to compete in the best two out of three series: H. Allen Wagener, Roger Chapman, Fred Snow, N. Winton Palmer, and Ollie Nelson. Alternates included Wm. J. Tylee, Morris Tracey, Sid and Henry Short; Skipper Whitfield was judge and timekeeper.

In the first race a moderate wind prevailed, and the Tecumseh outpointed the huge Old Glory, yet the larger craft closed the gap on the broad reaches due to her spread of canvas. After the first lap the outcome was not in doubt, and the happy tars from Penn Yan celebrated that Saturday night at a local pub.

Overnight the wind freshened into one of those Finger Lakes blows which come from the south and get a long sweep to kick up quite a sea. This was a test for the big canoe which the natives called the "Cumps". With mainsail reefed and a storm jib, the frail craft set out. The spray soaked the boat and crew, and there was no windward bilge board to hold crewmen for ballast. The acrobatic crew kept the boat on her feet, and pumped out the spray which washed over. As they Rounded the windward mark on the last lap the wind had stiffened to a half gale and the backstay was taut as a fiddle string with the mast straining. With a lead of a half mile, the skippers (sailing by committee to let everyone join in the fun) swung into the wind, lowered mainsail, and stationed Ollie Nelson ahead of the mast while the rest of the crew sat away aft. Ollie held up a small triangle of the jib to aid steering, while Tecumseh roared down to the finish line.

And so the first inter-lake regatta ended with rejoicing in Penn Yan. Entire families turned out at the new club house to cheer the sailors. Although Yates County had not yet voted for temperance, liquor was banned at the club, but the large private dining room was reserved for a party.

In 1906 the Keuka Yacht Club was incorporated, and H. Allen Wagener began his long stint as commodore. This perennial winner of racing silver can be credited with keeping the yacht club together during the ensuing troubled war years.

Officers and gentlemen of the Keuka Yacht Club posed on the clubhouse steps in 1910. They list two hundred thirteen (male) members.

Compare the size of Juno to an A-Scow, Mercia, here in 1906. Juno scarcely tips while Mercia lists a bit. Bob Whitfield wrote of this day, "Skipper rounded us up for crew but couldn't race. We boys were too small to set the spinnaker with its 35' boom. But I seem to recall we beat the A to the North buoy, keeping weel."

33 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All