Slumbering Souls: Lester Pratt Bennett and Alice Ruth Watson

Slumbering Souls:  The Lives That Built Homer

Lester Pratt Bennett and Alice Ruth Watson

By Tabitha Scoville, Cortland County Historical Society Director

This column seeks to honor the lives of those residents who came before us and built the Homer we know today.

Revolutionary War soldier Asa Bennett had two sons travel to Homer from Connecticut to settle, Deacon Asa Bennett and Reverend Alfred Bennett. Over the last two columns, we’ve learned more about some of Deacon Asa Bennett’s descendants in Homer, including Augustus H. Bennett, the father of Lester Pratt Bennett.

Lester P. Bennett was born in 1870 to Augustus H. Bennett and Emma Gertrude Pratt. Lester was the second of five children born to Augustus and Emma, and he was their first son. Lester was named after his mother’s father, Lester Marcus Pratt. Lester Bennett received his education at the public schools in Homer and at the Cortland Academy. According to the 1898 “Book of Biographies,” he was involved in his father’s mercantile business and lived in Brooklyn for a time. It could be that he was testing the waters for opportunities and staying with his mother’s sister and her family, but it’s not clear from the information we have in our files. We know Lester returned to Cortland County by 1892, because he was involved in the formation of the Champion Milk Cooler Company that year. He and his brother-in-law, Herbert L. Smith, bought out all other interests in the company shortly after its formation, and Lester became the manager in 1900. Eventually the company would become Champion Sheet Metal Company.

Alice Ruth Watson was born in Allegany County in 1874. Alice was educated at Alfred University and, in 1900, she came to Homer to teach at the Homer Academy. This path would lead her to meeting her future husband. Lester and Alice were married in 1905 in Angelica, NY at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in “one of the most brilliant June weddings.” As a newly married woman, her focus became her family, and she gave up teaching to raise two sons, Porter Kingsbury and Malcolm Watson.  She was devoted to her family but remained active in the community as well. She and Lester belonged to the Congregational Church in Homer, and she filled a few roles there. Additionally, she was a member of the Leisure Hour Club and the Industrial Alliance Club. Social news from the time reveals that she and Lester belonged to the I-Deal Whist Club and socialized with friends at the Raymond House at Little York. She had successfully transplanted herself into Homer, and the community was in shock and disbelief when a short illness resulted in her premature death at just 38 years of age. News of her death spread quickly, and the newspaper account had this to say of her, “The entire community in which such an intelligent, highly educated, and refined woman has lived cannot help but feel the loss of one who has made the world better for having lived in it.” Her sons were just three and six when they lost their mother, eerily like their grandmother Emma Pratt’s loss of her mother at such a tender age. And just as his grandfather Lester M. Pratt never remarried, Lester P. Bennett remained a widower as well.

Lester continued on without Alice, presumably with help from his parents and siblings to raise his boys. He continued to be a force in the business world in Cortland County and was behind not only Champion Milk Cooler Company but also the Ekenberg Milk Products Company. Ekenberg was a very successful venture that rose like a meteor but ultimately went bankrupt. The company’s focus was dried (powdered) milk, and it was wildly successful. There were plenty of benefits to powdered milk in a time when refrigeration was not as ubiquitous as today. Powdered milk was easier to ship, less expensive, shelf stable, and resulted in less waste because you only mixed up what you needed. The company also produced an egg substitute and a flour called Teco. Teco was used very much like Bisquick is used today, and at one time, Teco outsold Aunt Jemima and Pillsbury. By 1914, Ekenberg had plants in New York and Michigan but ultimately was out of business by 1921.

At the time of his death in 1930, Lester P. Bennett was the president of the Bennett-Barrow Agency, Inc. which he formed in 1928. Bennett, like his father, was active in the community. He spent time as the Vice President of the Cortland Savings Bank and was a trustee and secretary at the Phillips Free Library. Lester was a member of the Cortland County Sportsman’s Association, the Cortland Rotary, and the Elks Lodge 748. Lester was only 60 years old at the time of his unexpected death from at heart attack and subsequent stroke, and the community was shocked. Papers recounted that he was “quiet and retiring and always retained friendships he made.” Bennett was highly respected, and his death left a void in his family and the community. Lester and Alice are at rest together, and in the company of family, at Glenwood Cemetery.

Resources include the Bennett family file, business files, archival materials, Fulton History, and the Cortland County Book of Biographies

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