The judge who puts out fires
Charlie Major Jr. (1934- ) had big shoes to fill — and he has filled them nicely. His father was a tough act to follow — having earned the honorary title of "Mr. Skaneateles — but Charlie Jr., while similar to his father in several regards, created his own legend, peppering it with a sense of humor that occasionally exasperates people.

Charlie graduated from LeMoyne College and Syracuse University Law School. He worked for 35 years as a trial lawyer. In 1963, he became a justice of the peace for Skaneateles Village. He began serving as town justice in 1965. Two years later the town and village consolidated these positions and he remained town justice until 1977 when he became town supervisor, a position he kept for 14 years.

Until a few years ago, Major served as a justice on the state Supreme Court for the fifth district. His retirement from this position led Major back to the town justice position.

“I was retired for about nine hours and 22 minutes,” Major told the Syracuse Post-Standard. “And I became the town justice again. I just love it, I love this town, I love the people and I enjoy the work and working with all the people and trying to help them.”

Even though retired, Charlie still serves with the state Supreme Court as a hearing officer in areas of mediation, as well as serving on Fridays for family court in Syracuse, hearing matters of custody.

Oh, yes, he's also an active member of the Skaneateles Fire Department, with 50 years of service. (Story, right.)

However, if you Google Charlie Major you'll find most of the websites listed deal with the Charlie Major Nature Trail which was named in his honor. The nature trail is located off Crow Hill Road near Skaneateles Creek in Mottville, a tiny community a few miles north of the village of Skaneateles.

Charlie and his wife, the former Margaret Anita Palmer, have eight children: Michael, Mary, Margaret, Mark, Matthew, Martha, Martin and Mitchell, and several grandchildren. [Photos]

The photo at the top of the page was sent to me in 2012. It seems a hawk visited Charlie's Skaneateles Lake camp where Charlie had placed some live bait he used for fishing. The hawk sampled the bait, obviously liked it, and decided Charlie's was his new favorite restaurant. The hawk and Charlie became friends, though, of course, it was a friendship that couldn't last. Charlie finally drove the hawk to Cornell University, delivering the bird to people who had experience at returning animals to the wild.

Charlie had earlier experience with fowl who fouled up the water at Skaneateles Lake. See "Sorry, ducks," at the bottom of the page.


Skaneateles Journal, February 8, 2012
Major selected to lead parade
After 25 years of being involved with the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, Charlie Major is finally going to take the lead in the procession this March.

The Skaneateles town judge has worked in the parade’s marshal division for decades, making sure people know where to go, and keeping things organized. Now he and Ed Ryan will be grand marshals in the parade that starts on noon, Saturday, March 17, in Syracuse. Ryan, an old friend of Major’s, served for years as an announcer during the St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

“I think they didn’t have anyone else,” Major joked about getting the role. “They ran out of people.”

Janet Higgins, president of the parade committee, tells a different tale. She called him a grand man, and said the leprechauns selected him because they recognize that he has spent his life giving to others and has a great personality.

“Judge Major is the consummate gentleman, a man of distinction, and I have never met a person who didn’t like him,” Higgins said. "He has conducted his life with dignity and honor.”

The father of eight and grandfather of 26 is Irish through and through, with all eight great-grandparents coming from Ireland during the Great Famine in the late 1840s and settling in Skaneateles.

When he was a lawyer for Bond Schoeneck & King, the parade route passed the Syracuse law firm. Seeing it go by every year, he decided to lend his talents to assisting the annual event, which led to a 25-year stint as a parade volunteer.

“It was easier to go and work on a parade than go into work,” Major said.

As a volunteer, he always walked in the parade, but also worked beforehand keeping the groups straight and generally trying to keep order in the “total disaster” that happens when everyone arrives at once. Because he volunteered in the marshal division, he already walked in the parade near the front. For this year, anyway, he is moving to the head of the class.

“I think they moved me up to get me out of the way,” Major said, displaying his signature humor.

As grand marshal he will be able to attend the Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception before the parade, as well as a breakfast as part of CNY Food Pantry’s Hunger Project campaign. Major and Ryan also will be honored at the grand marshals’ dinner Friday night before the parade.

While Major has made it to the dinner before, this will be the first year he will be able to attend the Mass because he usually was rounding up the participants and “keeping it all straight” during the morning.

The parade typically lasts three hours, and attendance depends on the weather. In all his years, Major only saw the parade canceled one time because of a downpour that seemingly didn’t have an end in sight.

“I’m afraid that is going to be the first day of winter,” Major said, referring to a potential major change in weather.

One to stay active, the 77-year-old serves as town justice as well as an active member of the Skaneateles Volunteer Fire Department.

He said he has enjoyed working on the parade and said when it started in 1983, Syracuse was one of the few places to have a St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Over the past 30 years parades honoring the patron saint of Ireland have popped up all over the place.

“Now it’s the thing to do,” he said. “It’s another excuse for a party.”


Syracuse Post-Standard, March 13, 2008
Charlie was last, first, last
first again
Charlie Major owns a Skaneateles Fire Department record that will never be broken.

Major, 73, is believed to be the only firefighter who responded to the last call at the department's "old, old" station at the intersection of Fennell and Jordan streets, the first and last calls at the old station at 26 Fennell St., and the first call at the new station at West Genesee Street and Kane Avenue.

Major is a former town judge, councilor and supervisor, and he'll celebrate his 50th anniversary as a volunteer firefighter this summer.

"It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time," Major said. "I could have easily been at work, or someplace else, and missed those calls."

On March 1, Major responded to the last call at the old station around 8:15 a.m. (a car accident), and the first call at the new station around 11:45 a.m. (a snowmobile accident). That morning, the department moved most of its big equipment into the new station.

Firefighter Dave Sheppard could have tied Major's record, but on March 1 he was in Florida. Sheppard will be back for the new station's open house Saturday, but ironically, Major will miss it because he's a marshal in Syracuse's St. Patrick's Day parade.


Skaneateles Press, August 8, 1958
Miss Margaret Anita Palmer, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John Stuart Palmer of 58 East Elizabeth Street, became the bride of Charles Thomas Major Jr., son of Judge Charles T. Major of the New York State Court of Claims and Mrs. Major of Austin Street last Saturday in St. Mary’s of the Lake Church. The Rev. Robert L. Kitchin of Indianapolis, Indiana, a cousin of the bride, performed the ceremony and celebrated the nuptial Mass.

Edward M. McDonough of Endwell, formerly of Skaneateles, was soloist during the Mass.

Mrs. James J. McMahon was matron of honor and Miss Judith A. Stearns was bridesmaid.

Peter Major was best man for his brother. Ushers were John Palmer, brother of the bride, James O’Shea, the bridegroom’s cousin, and James Spaulding.

A reception at the Chicken House followed the ceremony.

The bride is a graduate of Eastman Dental Dispensary in Rochester and employed by Dr. John R. McMahon. Her husband was graduated with a B. S. degree from LeMoyne College and attends Syracuse University College of Law.

Gen. Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright IV, taken prisoner by the Japanese on Corregidor in 1942, visited Skaneateles in September, 1945, shortly after he was liberated. His wife, Adele, had moved there in 1942 to be with her mother, Elizabeth Holley, a Skaneateles native. Anyway, this photo is here because the boy behind Gen. Wainwright is none other than our own Charlie Major. In the background is St. James Episcopal Church.

As Skaneateles town supervisor, Charlie Major faced several interesting challenges, the most publicized of which was The Case of the House That Wouldn’t Stop Growing, when he finally had to order a home razed when the owners refused to comply with town regulations and the remodeling plan that had been approved.

That bit of trouble reflected a bit on the reputation of the town, but there was another problem that threatened the reputation of the lake, which to many is a far more serious matter. You see, when I was growing up in the1940s and ‘50s, Skaneateles Lake was considered so clean that some folks believed you could drink its water untreated. Well, that soon changed . . . thanks to ducks.

Ducks and Canada geese have become an annoyance throughout the country, but there was something particularly unseemly about what ducks were doing to the lake that Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Seward, a native of Central New York, once called “the most beautiful body of water in the world.”

IN AUGUST 1991, Charlie Major decided to do something about those dirty ducks. He organized his forces and formulated a plan. He told the Syracuse Post-Standard, ``We knew who was going to trap them, who was going to pick them up -- we were all set to go.''

The object was to eliminate “duck itch,” a condition that for swimmers became an even bigger concern than the late’s notoriously cold water (caused by long, frigid winters, the depth of the skinny lake, and its location between rows of hills that minimize exposure to sunlight). To get rid of the itch, you have to get rid of the ducks.

Village Clerk Sally Sheehan explained to the newspaper that the scientific names for the problem caused by the ducks are cercarial dermatitis and schistosome dermatitis.

``It's an acute, non-communicable, cutaneous inflammatory response due to penetration of the skin by (certain) parasites,'' she read from a medical description.

THE PESKY PARASITE is produced when duck excrement interacts with snails that live in the lake.

``When it leaves the snails, it attaches to anything that's around, including humans,'' Sheehan explained to Post-Standard reporter Ellen Roberts. Sheehan claimed she had experienced the problem, but with her it was “just a mild rash.” She said others, particularly children, were left with itchy, ugly welts.

So Charlie Major set out to eliminate the ducks, and put a positive spin on his plan in this statement to the newspaper:

``We were going to take them to a resident in a neighboring town who has a farm, and he'd slaughter them, or have people come and slaughter them -- people who are homeless, people who need food. These ducks are the best eating duck you can find -- they only ingest bread and corn, so they're good and fat -- very good eating.''

HE ADMITTED he had staged similar, but smaller operations in the past, trapping ducks in the wee small hours and giving them away, sometimes to restaurants. And for a few years this was Charlie Major’s little secret.

But then the federal government found out about it and said a permit was necessary for anyone who intended to trap the ducks, considered a migratory bird. This contradicted — but superseded the state’s classification of the ducks as domestic birds.

The federal permit would allow Charlie’s group to trap the ducks, but not have them killed. They would be transferred to a wildlife refuge. Also, reports would have to be filed, which would require a duck count and some verification that the problem caused by these birds was severe enough to warrant the action.

And that’s why Charlie Major began taking boat rides along the lake shore, taking a head count of the ducks he saw.

INTERESTINGLY, there were few complaints from swimmers during the summer of 1991, but Charlie told the Post-Standard there were enough incidents to consider closing the town beach.

Town officials also asked people not to feed the ducks, which is easier said than done. Anyone who has ever been to any place frequented by ducks knows humans love to toss bread, crackers and peanuts at the animals. The more the ducks are fed, the more ducks will be attracted to the location. I once saw a television report on a waterside neighborhood in West Virginia where a resident began feeding a small group of ducks in her front yard. Within a few months there was a large flock of ducks on her front porch, almost demanding to be fed. It was like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

In the meantime, swimmers were advised to move out from shore into deeper water, swim and move around rather than stand still, and to wipe themselves dry, since it was possible to actually wipe the parasite off the skin. But just in case, keep some calamine lotion handy.

THE PROBLEM either has greatly diminished over the past 19 years or Central New Yorkers have developed tougher skin or have learned to live with the itch. I found few recent articles on the subject, and some of those were about Oneida Lake, a huge, but relatively shallow body of water north of Syracuse.

My guess is duck itch will always be with us ... because people love to feed ducks. And ducks just love to be fed, but after gobbling down all that food, they have to ... well, you get the picture.

Of course, you could simply blame the whole thing on those damn snails.


(This experience may have prepared Charlie for what to do when, several years later, a hawk landed at this lakeside camp and decided it was just the place he wanted to spend his summer vacation. As days passed, the hawk became perhaps too tame. Photo, top of page. Charlie took the hawk on a drive to Ithaca where Cornell University naturalists had a little heart-to-heart talk with the bird and released him back into the wild.)