- Historic Sites
They went to the woods with rod and gun—and gloves, servants, caviar, and champagne
October/November 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 6
As the sportsmen and their families became acclimated to Adirondack summers in such hostels as Martin’s and Bartlett’s on the Saranacs and Paul Smith’s at St. Regis Lake, some began to think of settling into places of their very own. Soon there were private camps and clubs and preserves in the mountains, where the wealthy could be assured of compatible company, unencumbered by the likes of Murray’s Fools.
There have been endless unresolved arguments over the years as to whether the first “camps” were established in the Adirondacks or the Maine woods. It matters little. In all likelihood the camp phenomenon developed simultaneously in both regions with the same results—the presence, deep in the woods but invariably with a view of blue water, of structures designed for roughing it with most of the comforts of home.
In Maine, wealthy sportsmen from Boston’s Beacon Hill and Brookline staked their claims on the island of Penobscot Bay, at Mt. Desert, at Moosehead, Sebago, Kennebago, and the Rangeley Lakes. The inland camps tended to be more rustic than the ones along the coast, where ease of access by steamer encouraged the transformation of early modest camps into elegant estates. But none of the gentry referred to his place in such lofty terms. Be it ever so elegant, there was no place like “camp.” And no other word for it, either.
The authentic Maine or Adirondack camp was the height of luxury transplanted to the wilderness. Generally there was a main lodge with four or five outbuildings. The windows and doors were trimmed in green paint. Meats and produce were kept fresh in the icehouse. For lunch the guest had a choice of squab or filet mignon . Often, lunch was taken far afield from the camp; a guide was required to carry provisions for every two family members or guests. Tablecloths were spread on the spruce needles. Wine was chilled in the brook. Some camp owners imported tutors and nannies for their children. While the men of the camp were off hunting or fishing, womenfolk sat in the shade by the shore. They played at cards and read the latest novels. They inhaled the salubrious air. They were grateful to be far from the malodorous city, where malaria and typhoid were taking their ghastly toll.
By the 1880’s, some camp owners in the Adirondacks were incorporating as shareholders in private clubs. The clubs began to purchase large tracts of the forest as hunting and fishing preserves. In some areas, fences went up—and no-trespass signs. In 1892, the New York State Forest Commission estimated, a full quarter of the Adirondacks was held as preserve by clubs, associations, and individuals. Morgans, Whitneys, Vanderbilts, and Rockefellers presided over vast woodland retreats. Near Old Forge, the Adirondack League Club purchased a hundred thousand acres. To the east, the Ausable club held some thirty thousand acres along one flank of the High Peaks.
Old “Adirondack” Murray saw what was happening, and he didn’t like it. Two years before his death in 1904, in an article for Field and Stream , he denounced the posting of large properties in his beloved mountains. “There are on the earth,” he wrote, “certain creations too precious to man; too essential to his welfare to pass under private ownership.” But the landowning gentry did not see it as Murray did. If they were to prolong the sport, in the face of increasing pressures on fish and game, the gentry reasoned that private ownership was the only way left for them to go.
By the turn of the century, another part of New York had attained a certain ogue among sportsmen, especially those whose bias ran in favor of trout and the art of angling for them with the artificial fly. The brooks of the Catskills were teeming with trout. There seemed to be something special about the chemistry of such streams as the Beaverkill, Willowemoc, and Neversink—a mineral in the water, perhaps; or possibly some entomological gift from the gods—that gave them surpassing excellence as habitat not only for the native brook trout, but for the transplanted Western rainbow and the wily, imported European brown as well.
About this time, a Pennsylvania angler named Theodore Gordon returned to America from a visit to England. There, from the banks of the old country’s trout streams, he had watched English anglers manipulating a new kind of fly. Unlike the wet flies then in vogue in America, this one—properly dressed—floated on the surface of the water.