- Historic Sites
Out Of The Woods
Amid a hundred mountains and a thousand lakes, a fascinating institution tells the story of America’s engagement with its Eastern wilderness
April 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 2
To evoke the modern driver’s experience of the Adirondacks, curators mounted a car’s steering wheel on a wall and, to its right, four buttons for visitors to push. The first three played peppy advertisements for nearby attractions, Ausable Chasm, Santa’s Workshop, and Frontier Town; the fourth blared “Indian Lake” by the Cowsills, a mind-numbing 1960s song about a neighboring town “where the air is FINE with sweet-smelling PINE .” While I was trying to read about Earl Covey, the man from Big Moose Lake who first patented the snow tire, an intractable child was pushing button number four over and over, racing around the room, and rolling on the carpet. When I tried to slip into the next gallery, he shouted, “Mom!” and I had to claim ownership. “Macadam and Mountains” will be replaced this summer with a more sedate display of some of the museum’s extensive collection of paintings of the Adirondacks.
The man responsible for assembling this extraordinary picture of life in the region was Harold K. Hochschild, an American Metal Company executive who began coming to Blue Mountain Lake as a boy in 1904. Two years later he was a passenger in the first car to drive to the lake. He and two friends used a U.S. Geological Survey map to plot their route. Hochschild’s family owned Eagle Nest, a camp first built as a golf club for the millionaires who acquired land here in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1952 Hochschild privately published an illustrated history of his corner of the Adirondacks, Township 34 , an undertaking that led him to interview miners and lumbermen, guides and steamboat hands, on how they went about their work. Those interviews, and the documents and artifacts he collected in the course of his research, formed the basis for some of the first exhibits at the museum, which he and other members of the Adirondack Historical Society founded in 1955.
Not long ago Hochschild’s son Adam published a memoir of his father, whose obdurate will—so useful in the boardroom—made him a harsh and difficult parent. The locals called him Mr. Harold, Adam writes in Half the Way Home . “Bizarrely, it must have seemed to these villagers, it was this Jewish industrialist from the big city who had made himself the leading expert on central Adirondack history.” Why? the son wonders. “Not introspective, he never speculated; the rest of us never really knew.” Harold Hochschild may simply have felt more at home here than anywhere else, here where the wealthy found sport in a peculiarly American fashion—in elaborately casual, enormously expensive houses surrounded by their own piece of the frontier.
THE ADIRONDACK PARK is larger than Massachusetts. You can stop at every lake and hamlet, or you can pick your spot.
In 1969 Nelson Rockefeller appointed Hochschild to the Temporary Study Commission on the Future of the Adirondacks, a group organized to reconcile the competing interests of park residents, real estate developers, recreation groups, and conservationists. Most people, possibly even Rockefeller, had low expectations for the commission. But in 1971 Hochschild and his colleagues presented a land-use plan to protect the forest and discourage large developments of vacation houses. Their most significant proposal was the creation of the Adirondack Park Agency (APA), an independent, bipartisan authority to oversee planning for both public and privately owned land. Without such oversight, the commissioners feared, private lands would be developed in ways that would destroy the public ones.
Furious lobbying by developers postponed any action on the bill until 2:00 A.M. on the last night of the year’s legislative session, but finally (and with last-minute arm-twisting by Hochschild) the state assembly voted the commission’s recommendations into law.
Some of the Adirondack Park Agency’s early rulings struck landowners as capricious. But today, with most state residents more determined than ever to preserve what’s left of the natural environment, park dwellers, developers, and the APA are trying harder to find common cause. “We’ve learned a lot in twenty-five years,” explained Karyn Richards, deputy director of the APA. “We’re still here to carry out our responsibilities. But we want to do it in a way that is sensitive to the needs of the people who live in the park.” The APA is working with communities to help them develop their own land-use plans, balancing the requirements of local economies with those of the environment. Once a plan has been approved, the APA will largely get out of the way, letting communities make their own decisions about what permits to grant.