December 1981 | Volume 33, Issue 1
A photographic portrait of Lake Placid, New York, in the pre-Olympic Age
The Algonquin Indians, legend has it, called the natives who inhabited the mountains of upstate New York ” Adirondacks,” or “Those Who Eat Bark.” And so the mountains got their name—although by the end of the nineteenth century not many of those who came to the mountains would have been driven to eating bark. Consider the 1883 summer excursion of the banker and philanthropist Anson Phelps Stokes, which included, according to his daughter, “Anson Phelps Stokes, wife, seven children, one niece, about ten servants … one coachman, three horses, two dogs, one carriage, five large boxes of tents, three cases of wine, two packages of stove pipe, two stoves, one bale china, one iron pot, four washstands,… seventeen cots and seventeen mattresses, four canvas packages, one buckboard, five barrels, one half barrel, two tubs of butter, one bag coffee, one chest tea, one crate china, twelve rugs, four milkcans, two drawing boards, twenty-five trunks, thirteen small boxes, one boat, one hamper.”
And so the rich went out to play. By 1900 one of their favorite playgrounds was Lake Placid (later the site of the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics), and particularly the Lake Placid Club, founded by Melvil Dewey (of the Dewey Decimal System) in 1895, a 229-room woodsy retreat with an additional 42 cottages scattered about the grounds. It catered only to the rich, who skied, skated, bobsledded, swam, hiked, and rode surrounded by the trappings of rustic luxury.
That splendid life is mostly over now, but we are fortunate that it was thoroughly documented in photographs, especially in the work of Chester D. Moses and Irving L. Stedman, the club’s official photographer. Philip Lief, who brought their work to our attention, writes that “Ken Lawless, managing director of the Lake Placid Arts Center, played a crucial role in the recent discovery of this collection. If it were not for him, the Stedman glass plates would still be rotting in the center’s basement.” From this cache of thousands of pictures—now in the collection of the Nettie Marie Jones Fine Arts Library in Lake Placid—we offer a selection that illuminates a time when if money could not exactly buy happiness, it could at least buy a little fun in the country.