Monday, July 1, 2013

Airdmore: Pioneering 1920s Auto-Camping Experience

Airdmore headlineCamping in the Adirondacks, popular now for well beyond a century, has evolved with the changing times. Roughing it in open lean-tos and makeshift shelters was largely supplanted by tent camping. Then, with the advent of the automobile, the mountains would never be the same. Auto-camping became hugely popular in a very short time. As the price of cars dropped to where the average worker could afford one, thousands of families took to the road to get away from it all, strapping tents, blankets, fishing equipment, and other gear to their vehicles.

Adirondack hotels remained strong during that time because their clientele tended to be “hotel people,” while auto-campers sought solitude, self-sufficiency, and adventure. But in an interesting experiment at Elizabethtown, one innovative entrepreneur explored the middle ground.

Among the many wealthy folks drawn to the Adirondacks in the late 1800s was the Aird family of Troy. Henry Aird had become a successful, prominent businessman in the city, and Elizabethtown became his favorite escape to the country. Like so many others, he was drawn by great deer hunting, a slower life style, and the spectacular scenery.

For more than two decades, Henry and his growing family spent summers at Elizabethtown, often staying at Deer’s Head Inn. In 1900, his son, Henry A. Aird, moved his family there, in part because of the healthy climate. Within a year, he purchased the local hardware, moved to a new home in the village, and began operating the store. The elder Henry increased his visits to the mountains in order to spend time with his grandchildren.

A very talented and outgoing man, young Henry quickly became an integral part of the local business and social scene. His store was hired to handle all manner of building and repair jobs, providing both supplies and labor. He began umpiring baseball games for the popular town team, and year after year, he played leading roles in local stage productions, sometimes directing as well. Possessing a wonderful voice, he sang in and directed the church choir, and performed roles in local operas that served as fundraisers. He also played music and was chosen as leader of the town band.

After 12 years in Elizabethtown, Henry sold the hardware and moved back to the Troy area due to business and family-health reasons. His father had been ill recently, and finally passed away in late 1913.

The younger Henry, now in his mid-40s, maintained ties to Elizabethtown, visiting frequently. When he first moved there many years earlier, the trips from Troy had been arduous journeys by horse and buggy. In recent years, the automobile had made traveling a relative pleasure for folks like the Airds, who had plenty of cash at their disposal to purchase the latest models.

Tourism had always been important to the Adirondacks, but the advent of affordable cars was a real game-changer. They allowed greater mobility, and lessened the need to arrive and depart wherever the railroad tracks led. As prices fell, many average citizens joined the ranks of car owners.

Auto-campers became commonplace, filling the state campgrounds to capacity all summer long, which clearly demonstrated a need for more facilities. In stepped Henry Aird with an unusual venture. Just south of Elizabethtown village, near the Boquet River, he established a campground unlike any other. Those wishing to camp needed only to arrive at the premises. No equipment was necessary.

Awaiting them in lots shaded by the forest were eight or more tents, each furnished with chairs, tables, and beds. Other services were available at what was characterized as “a moderate price.” What a boon for those who didn’t own camping equipment or traveled infrequently. Without the hassle, they could easily get a taste of the great outdoors.

The idea did not originate with Henry Aird. It was a model that had proven successful in the American South and West for travelers who preferred camping to staying in hotels. It hadn’t yet been tried in the Adirondacks.

In newspapers from northern to central New York in summer 1922, Henry’s small settlement, dubbed “Airdmore,” was touted as the first of its kind in the Adirondacks. Auto-campers who brought tents and fixed their own meals were welcome, just as they were at any other facility, but Airdmore was the first to also offer hotel-like services in a campground atmosphere.

Throughout the summer, the tents were filled. Members of Henry’s extended family in Troy enjoyed Airdmore so much that hardly a week passed without an Aird in residence. The experiment was a success, which is why it came as such a surprise when an auction was announced―at the end of the camping season, everything at Airdmore was being sold. By the end of September, it had all been disposed of.

That Henry would abandon the enterprise perhaps wasn’t so surprising after all. The family was quite wealthy, and they certainly didn’t need the income. Henry could easily afford to stay in the best of hotels, as his father had so often done, but he really enjoyed camping. The following year, he returned with friends to Elizabethtown, where they resided in a pair of tents erected a little further into the woods behind the Airdmore site. The former business was now a place for the Aird family to quietly enjoy.

During the next three years, the state spent large sums of money adding to and improving camping options across the Adirondacks as tens of thousands descended upon the region each summer. Though Airdmore had shown promise, the idea didn’t catch on in a big way in the Adirondacks, where bring-your-own-tent camping became the accepted norm. Camping cabins and similar options available at some facilities are reminiscent of Airdmore’s offerings 90 years ago.


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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

One Response

  1. Andrea says:

    Auto-camping… modern and rustic all rolled into one madcap adventure. 😉 What a great article – thank you for sharing!

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