Different Name, Same Great Experience
August 15, 2019
By Pat Gormley
Writer and Artist
When I was about eight, our parents took my younger sister and me to The Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake, New York. After two hours in the backseat of our dark green Chevy Impala, parking at the museum was a relief. (Our dad drove up tortuous Route 28 at a breakneck pace — as if we could be late for vacation.)
The museum was quite a bit different than it is today. The eight-year-old in me remembers the wooden sailboat called the “Water Witch” encased in a huge glass dome, the steel fire tower and the boating, logging, and transportation exhibits. Seeing the perfectly preserved 19th Century locomotive and passenger cars is something I found particularly enjoyable as a boy.
It was this very steam engine that inspired Harold K. Hochschild to establish a place to preserve the history of his beloved Adirondacks. In his boyhood, Hochschild summered on Blue Mountain Lake not far from the Marion River Carry, a 1,300-yard stretch of land that bordered the Marion River between Raquette and Utowana Lakes. In 1904, developer William West Durant built the shortest standard gauge rail line in the world to “carry” customers from the steamboat dock on Raquette to the steamboat launch at Utowana. From there, patrons would boat a few miles to any of the lavish hotels around Blue Mountain Lake or disembark and take a stagecoach to other destinations. Hochschild was enthralled by the steam-powered vehicles transporting people to and from his summer paradise.
After serving in World War II, Hochschild became an executive in the family business, the American Metals Company. All the while, his love of Adirondack history persisted, and he collected as much information and as many artifacts related to the region as he could find. Then, vision and hard work met opportunity. William Wessels owned the Blue Mountain House, one of the earliest and most popular resort hotels in the area. The elegant structure was located on a hillside overlooking the lake and operated from 1876 through the late 1940s. With the closing of the hotel, Wessels, Hochschild, and others began to consider a new use for the site. First, they formed the Adirondack Historical Association. Then, in 1953, the Association purchased the 25-acre parcel to construct the first museum dedicated to Adirondack history and culture. The Adirondack Museum opened August 4, 1957, and at its center was the H.K. Porter steam engine from the Marion River Carry that Hochschild so admired as a boy.
Monday August 12, 2019. I’m standing in the same courtyard of the museum I had visited that summer of ‘75, and the place has changed considerably, beginning with the name. As part of a five-year plan to evolve and update the museum, the word “museum” has been replaced by “experience” to make it more welcoming.
Once a working title for a new permanent exhibit, “Adirondack Experience” stuck as the institution’s 21st century appellation. For Ausra Angermann, Director of Marketing, the decision to discard the term “museum” was necessary “to attract new and younger audiences [especially] millenials with young families.” According to Angermann, the name change brings immediate attention to the new direction of the facility. “We’re trying to make the Adirondack Experience a destination of its own rather than a destination within a destination,” she said.
The centerpiece of the renovation is the 19,000-square foot “Life in the Adirondacks” exhibit. This “core exhibition” is truly an introduction to the human story of the Adirondacks. There is a balance between stories of work and play told through a high-tech movie theater, interactive activities such as driving logs down a digital river, and professionally-designed displays of artifacts. A section of the exhibit is dedicated to the Abenaki and Mohawk peoples representing their respective contributions to the Adirondack story.
Two structures with historical significance are also featured in the exhibition. The actual cabin of the famous Adirondack author and environmentalist Anne LaBastille (1935-2011) has been restored as it was when she lived there and wrote “Woodswoman”. Another structure tells the story of a segregated Adirondacks and nation. In 1957, Fulton Fryer was the first African-American invited to attend the prestigious Seagle Music Colony in Schroon Lake. When he arrived, he was shown to his quarters: a small clapboard shed off the laundry. The gifted tenor labelled his new accommodations, “The Closet.’’ He spent two summers in the shed hundreds of miles from his home in North Carolina.
One temporary exhibit that has garnered quite a bit of attention is entitled “Curious Creatures.’’ These creatures may be curious, but they’re also stuffed. The exhibit is about the craft of taxidermy. The term comes from the Greek taxis meaning arrangement and derma meaning skin. Christine Campeau, School Programs Manager and Educator took me for a guided tour.
“We’re getting mixed reactions with this exhibit mainly because we have a mixture of wild animals and domestic pets,” said Campeau. (Yes, you read that correctly.) According to the explanation on the wall of the exhibit, having one’s deceased pet stuffed as a memorial was common in the mid-19th century. This was done not only to dogs but to cats and birds as well.
Another interesting element of this display is the presence of exotic animals alongside those found in the Adirondacks. A polar bear in full roar, carefully brought over from a shop in Saranac Lake, stands just a few feet from a grazing adult moose, and a python, in a frozen slither, is adjacent to a bobcat. A cape buffalo head from Africa hangs on the wall. Below the mount, a card explains that in 1973 an Adirondack camp owner named Herb Birrell was hired by an African village to kill the dangerous animal that was “terrorizing the locals and killed a mother and child.” Of course, many of the old Adirondack Great camps were adorned with the glassy-eyed trophies from around the world.
Other subjects border on the whimsical featuring boxing squirrels, squirrels playing poker, and 48 baby rabbits attending school in a glass display case. Another piece features a monkey riding a goat. The exhibition likely has something that will make anyone a bit curious.
According to Campeau, there has been a resurgence in the interest of taxidermy, especially among women. The upcoming symposia and workshops will be mostly attended by women based on early registration; many of the women are from urban areas such as New York City. “It’s really interesting to see the diversity of people who want to learn more about taxidermy,” said Campeau. Visit www.theadkx.org for upcoming events.
Today, the Adirondack Experience encompasses 121 acres with 23 buildings dedicated to teaching people about this unique relationship between people, both past and present, and the expansive Adirondack landscape. At its core is Harold K. Hochschild who recognized the necessity of preserving the history and culture of this region through a museum. Most would agree it was time for a creative and thoughtful renovation to share the stories of the Adirondacks with new generations of visitors and locals alike.
The Adirondacks have long since shaped human lives. And we have long
shaped the Adirondacks.
-Except from the “Life in The Adirondacks” exhibit.