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Checking out New York's Finger Lake Region

There is nothing that makes life sweeter, nothing that gives more encouragement in the middle of hard work, than to spend a few days in Skaneateles.
—H. B. Dodge, editor, Skaneateles Democrat, May 15, 1879

You could write off H. B. Dodge as just another small-town booster, except that he may have been onto something. As was much noticed last September, the president of the United States, no stranger to hard work, ended his summer vacation by spending "a few days in Skaneateles"—in the left auricle of the heart-shaped Finger Lakes region of central New York State. Bill Clinton brought Hillary and Chelsea and Buddy, all but upending this lakeside village of 2,700 and festooning it with patriotic bunting and banners.

Skaneateles—pronounced "skan-ee-at-luss"—had never been graced by a sitting president, and, even in this bastion of conservative Republicanism, Bill Clinton was the real thing. Scandalously real for Doug Clark, the grizzled owner of a Skaneateles fish-fry restaurant, who blew up a storm with his nationally publicized vow not to serve a president who had "lied" to him about Monica Lewinsky. Clinton ate elsewhere. But awesomely real for 17-year-old shop clerk Monica Marsden, who served Bill and Hillary tea freezes and a concoction of French vanilla decaf, cream, and maple syrup. "Not every day the president comes to your town," said this Monica. Even the Secret Service wowed the villagers. "It's the stuff of legend," gushed Sarah Wiles, former president of the chamber of commerce and a great-granddaughter of Gustav Stickley, a seminal figure of the American Arts and Crafts movement who lived in Syracuse at the height of his career.

Clinton-wise, it's not over. For months, senatorial candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has made the Finger Lakes and other parts of upstate New York a prime target in her quest for votes. In a mantra recited on farms, in factories, and at town meetings, Hillary aligns herself with the people who haven't been lifted up by the good times of her husband's administration. She is the "candidate for working folk," she says; the champion of these "forgotten New Yorkers."

The consensus is that the Clintons' presence has finally put the Finger Lakes region—little known but within a day's drive of tens of millions of people in the eastern United States and Canada—"on the map." Not everyone is happy about that. It's as though a secret had been slipped to an indiscriminate audience. And if some here welcome prospects for a surge in tourism, others perceive yet another threat to their treasured tranquillity. Retirees from Kodak and Xerox and Corning Glass like it the way it is, explains Bob Sundell, a partner in Friends of the Finger Lakes: "They don't want all those strange people around here cluttering up the lakes and making it harder to get to the grocery store."

WELL BEFORE IMPROVED ROADS, IN FACT well before cars, determined visitors found their way to the Finger Lakes by trains that connected with lake steamboats. Often, they were families in search of fishing and sailing, fall foliage and hunting, or skiing and skating. The crowd that rented summer cottages on the lakes still comes, and it's still family-oriented. But today it has been joined by a new set of home-buyers, many from congested suburbs, seeking a bygone rusticity, the Rockwellian chic history-rich small-town America. "People are looking for a quieter, simpler time, a place where you can just sit on the lawn on Friday night," said Linda Roche, a Skaneateles real estate broker whose last three clients to buy on the lake previously owned places in the Hamptons.

"We used to laugh about how only old people go to the lakes," remarked Regina Hannon, a former Long Islander whose Skaneateles home was once part of the Underground Railroad. "But I love it here—for everything."

TO SOME, THE PRECISE BOUNDARIES of the Finger Lakes are a fighting issue. As defined by the Finger Lakes Association (founded in 1919), the region embraces nearly 9,000 square miles and 11 slender lakes spanning 14 counties, from Lake Ontario in the north to the Pennsylvania line in the south, from Syracuse in the east to Rochester in the west. But usually it's considered to comprise the swath of waters and woods, pastures and vineyards and towns, around the six major lakes that gave the region its name and bucolic character.

My wife, Sabine, and I stayed at the decidedly cozy Sherwood Inn, originally a tavern. Some of the rooms have canopy beds and polished wood floors. Ours also had a view over Skaneateles Lake—the highest, bluest, and clearest of the major Finger Lakes and among the cleanest in the country. The village itself, with its Greek Revival and Victorian houses, had an air of contentment but had managed to escape the sterility that often cloaks recently gentrified towns.

The family farms that remain are for growing corn and soybeans and cabbage, no longer for the prickly teasels once used to raise the nap on woolen cloth. Fast-food outlets and malls aren't welcome (you can find them elsewhere in the Finger Lakes). The only drive-through is at a bank, and neon signs have been banned. Yet the Main Street- style markets have, predictably, been replaced by antiques shops and boutiques, and restaurants serving grilled salmon with mustard beurre blanc.

Naturally, we dropped by Doug's Fish Fry for some clams and frogs' legs and what turned out to be the best onion rings I've ever had. On the wall was a photo of Alec Baldwin, whose mother lives nearby, and whose occasional strolls through town with his wife, Kim Basinger, are a hit. We, however, were here to see the man whose vow not to serve Bill Clinton had prompted so much ink. We found him at the cash register, wearing his trademark blue cap and blue polo shirt. His eyes were blue, too. He wasn't sorry, he told us, for what he'd said. He had lost a few customers, but people had stopped by from all over to shake his hand. Would he do it again?He wasn't sure. Maybe if Clinton walked in, he'd "just walk out the back door and have a beer."

WE CROSSED SKANEATELES LAKE ABOARD the mailboat, a 48-foot mahogany craft operated by Mid-Lakes Navigation under contract to the U.S. postal system. This is one of the last water routes for mail delivery in the country, and tourists can go along for the ride. Tooting a horn, Captain Rick Kelly nestled the boat close to the docks, where residents exchanged greetings as the mail was handed off to them.

Some of the lakeside houses, usually those that close for the winter, are called camps or cottages. That's not quite a fit description for the stone building attributed to Stanford White, with 13 working fireplaces, or the towering, pillared white mansion that belonged to a Roosevelt. I had heard of the former owner of one place, Charles Revson, founder of the Revlon cosmetics empire, but not of a current resident, Tim Green, lately of the Atlanta Falcons. I could identify Millard Fillmore, whose boyhood home was near the southern end of the lake and who became president on the death of Zachary Taylor in 1850, but had never heard of Dr. W. C. Thomas, who ran a lakeshore hotel and water-cure spa in the 19th century and lived to be 107. Maybe, like editor Dodge, he was onto something.


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