Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Roots Of A Classic Adirondack Guide Joke

GHT portraitDid you hear the one about the guide who took his wealthy client out trolling for lake trout? His customer paid more attention to his bottle of whiskey than his fishing line, finishing off the quart while sharing not a drop with the guide. Looking at his empty bottle, the gentleman remarked to his guide, “I am sorry not to have offered you any, but I never let my guide drink on a trip.” To which the guide retorted, “You are quite right sir; one drunk in a boat is enough.”

It is rare that one can trace a joke back to its origins, but in this case, my family is the butt of the joke.

Harold K. Hochschild, the founder of the Adirondack Museum, wrote the following in his 1962 book Township 34:

The genial Mayor John Boyd Thacher, 1st, of Albany used to tell a story on himself… The mayor came up one April in the 1870’s to fish for lake trout. He engaged Mike McGuire as his guide. One bitter cold windy morning, Mike was rowing his patron around Blue Mountain Lake. Thacher, seated in the stern, swathed in a heavy overcoat and rug, pulled out a flask of whiskey and took a swig.

 “I’m sorry not to pass this to you, Mike,” he observed as he replaced the flask in his pocket, “but I never let my guide drink on a trip like this.” Mike rowed on in silence. An hour later, Thacher again helped himself to his flask. “You’ll have to excuse me for not offering you any, Mike,” he said apologetically, “but you know how I feel about it.” “Ye’re quite right Mr. Thacher,” rejoined Mike quickly, “one drunken man in a boat is quite enough.”

When I first came upon this story, I thought it quite funny. However, something did not seem quite right. In the 1870’s, John Boyd Thacher was still a strong young man in his twenties. Wouldn’t he be quite capable of rowing himself around while trolling for lake trout? My research about him also lacks any evidence that he was particularly fond of fishing. And while not a teetotaler, there also is no indication he was a heavy drinker.

Hochschild did not come by his knowledge directly from John Boyd Thacher, who died in 1909. However, the author did personally know John Boyd Thacher 2nd, who summered on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. Undoubtedly, the story was told to Hochschild by JBT2, who had heard it as part of our family’s oral history.

Like the childhood game of telephone, family oral history is susceptible to the warping of fact caused by the passing of hearsay. I thought perhaps John Boyd Thacher was not the true protagonist of this humorous story. His father George Hornell Thacher (shown above), who often fished on Raquette Lake, is a more probable suspect.

My first clue was a letter written from the Thacher Camp on Raquette Lake on in June, 1878. George Hornell Thacher, writing to his other son George Jr., wrote: “I adhere to my rations of whiskey and cigars the same as before I left.”

George Hornell Thacher wrote of his lake trout fishing in each letter we have from Thacher Camp. In June of 1883 he either caught a trophy fish or tells a heck of a fish tale:  “I caught a 23 pound lake trout on Monday last, one yard and half an inch long and 20 inches in girth.”

I would suspect a tall tale if not for the wilderness writer Nessmuk’s attesting that the largest trout recorded in George Hornell Thacher’s logbook came in at 28 pounds.

To ferret out whether my suspicion was correct, I sought to learn what I could about the guide, Mike McGuire. He was identified as a guide for Blue Mountain Lake in the 1890s .  Two clues point to his operating on Raquette Lake in earlier years, however.

In Aber and King’s History of Hamilton County, a description of Alvah Dunning states: “Now it was time to withdraw from any semblance of civilization and Alvah had selected the wilds of Raquette Lake. It was just one year before ‘Adirondack’ Murray began frequenting the locality during summers. Alvah later told that, at the time of his arrival [circa 1865], Mike McGuire and Bill Nash were at hand, making a living by providing deer and trout to the fashionable hotels at Saratoga Springs.”

Mike McGuire with GerstersThe diaries of Dr. A. G. Gerster speak of Mike McGuire serving as a guide for his family on Raquette Lake. McGuire is seen on the far right of this 1888 photo from the Adirondack Museum’s collection with the Gerster family and fellow guide Jerome Wood on the far left.

Clearly, McGuire did work as a guide on Raquette Lake during George Hornell Thacher’s occupation of the Thacher Camp from 1878 to 1885. Can we know if it was George Hornell Thacher in that fateful boat with the quart of whiskey?

My intuition proved correct when I discovered the origin of the story in Notes on the Adirondacks published in August, 1881 in Forest and Stream magazine.

082581 Forest and Stream p 66

George Hornell Thacher would have been an “old gentleman” of 63, whereas his son John was only 34 in 1881.   The author’s choice to not publish the Thacher name was probably out of respect for the four-time Mayor of Albany.

John Boyd Thacher 2nd likely told Hochschild a story of Mayor Thacher, and as both George Hornell Thacher and John Boyd Thacher had been Albany mayors; Hochschild simply assumed the wrong protagonist.

I graciously accept on behalf of my great-great-grandfather his rightful place in this humorous heritage.


Related Stories

Tom is the great great grandson of the very first “summer folk” on Blue Mountain Lake. The Thacher family built the first private summer home on Thacher Island in 1867.

Tom has spent every summer of his life on Indian Point of Raquette Lake on lands purchased by his family in 1876. In researching the origins of his family’s century old, one-room cabin, Tom is discovering over 200 years of Adirondack History seen through the lens of one plot of land.

Extended versions of this article and other stories and photos can be found at Fifty Acres of Beach and Wood which chronicles tales of iconic characters of Adirondack history whose footprints have graced the shores of Indian Point.

Tom is currently fundraising to publish a book of his research. The proceeds from the book will support the Adirondack Lakes Center for the Arts. You can make a contribution to the book fund here:

2 Responses

  1. Keith Silliman says:

    Thanks for sharing this; i often tell this joke when I take people fishing in my boat. I never drink. But they do.

  2. Jim S. says:

    Great piece of history. I enjoy the old stories involving guides. I am struck by how professional they were, Thacher drank up all the whiskey yet he guided him still.

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