Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Barnes Family: Forest Preserve Protection Pioneers

billboardIn 1935, New York State held a large celebration commemorating 50 years of its Forest Preserve. The jubilee, with parades and the unveiling of a new monument, centered in Lake Placid and the list of attendees included Conservation Commissioner Lithgow Osborne, Governor Herbert Lehman and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. New York had much to be proud of, having preserved “wild forest lands” for the previous 50 years with the promise of forever ahead.

A similar celebration would be held for the centennial, but the 50th anniversary resonates in a different way.  It was still close enough to the actual events, and many remembered them, along with the decades of debate over the appropriateness of forest lands to fend for themselves, remaining uncut and wild.

FDRspeaksThe Conservation Department and its predecessors, variously named commissions, had often lead the way in decrying their inability to manage the state’s forest inside the blue line. Yet here they all were, in Lake Placid, listening to speeches, having a parade, even observing a reenactment of the signing of the Forest Preserve legislation.

The New York State Archives has over 100 photos in its collection from this event. Among them are several photos of an unidentified white-haired older gentleman, standing with a cane, in front of a house. The man was someone everyone seemed to want to be photographed with. He was 92 years old at the time and known as the “father of the conservation law” and the “grand old man” of Essex County. He was a Civil War veteran and originally a land surveyor, associated with some of Verplanck Colvin’s work. He was the Honorary Chairman of the celebration, former state Assemblyman Wesley Barnes of Olmstedville.

govcommish and banres at monumentBarnes was said to be the last surviving legislator who was present the day the legislation was introduced in 1885 creating the Forest Preserve. He is also credited with fostering the legislation that required the state to pay taxes on the Forest Preserve lands to local municipalities. It was a revolutionary concept that bolstered communities were state-owned lands dominate the landscape.  Barnes was a figure of such importance in the Adirondacks that in 1941 the Essex County board of supervisors recommended one the High Peaks in the Macintyre Range be named Mount Barnes.

Of the many photographs of dignitaries standing with Assemblyman Barnes, one in particular resonated with me. In the image Barnes is standing next to an “unknown Forest Ranger.” It seems so fitting that he took the time to stand next to one of the uniformed guardians of state land. The inception of the Forest Preserve ultimately led to the formation of the Forest Ranger force. The evolution of today’s Forest Ranger initially included seasonal hires with titles such as Fire Warden, Patrolman, and Special Game Protector.  The “unknown” ranger in the photo, while appearing to have the age of a supervisor, was wearing the standard uniform field rangers wore in that era, breeches, leather puttees covering his shins, and a Stetson hat. I believe this hardscrabble ranger was actually Assemblyman Barnes’ son, Charles T. Barnes.

Ranger Barnes would have been about 67 years old at the time of the photo. It’s hard to imagine rangers working a field position at that age today, but it was not uncommon back then. Following the great fires of 1908, changes were made in the system for patrolling the Forest Preserve. The Adirondacks were divided into three districts, which were further carved into smaller land areas assigned to men with the title “Fire Patrolman”.  It was a seasonal or temporary job at the time and paid 75 dollars a month.

Ranger BarnesCharles Barnes also lived in Olmstedville and was one of these original Patrolmen in 1909. He likely worked seasonally in 1911 and again in 1912, when the title Forest Ranger was adopted. Eventually the system would change again, as the short-comings of having only a seasonal staff was realized in the difficulties in training many new Patrolmen/Rangers each year. The year round position of Forest Ranger was established during this period. Charles T. Barnes was hired again in 1915 into one of these positions and served continually as a Forest Ranger up to the time of the photo.

Neither of the Barnes men lived long after the photo was taken. Ranger Barnes died in the line of duty just two years later. He was working with other rangers building an interior telephone line that connected the Lake Colden outpost with the outside world. His death was ruled a heart attack, he was 69 years old. His father would outlive him, dying on March 27, 1940.

When word of the elder Barnes’ passing reached Albany, Assemblyman Sheldon F. Wickes of Essex County introduced a resolution that was unanimously passed. It read in part:

“Whereas his fulsome life of ninety seven years was a career marked by devotion of duty and unswerving adherence to high ideals; now therefore be it resolved that when this house adjourns today it do so in loving memory of its distinguished former member, the honorable Wesley T. Barnes.”

Photos courtesy the New York State Archives Conservation Department Collection, from above: the Lake Placid billboard announcing the upcoming Forest Preserve anniversary celebration; President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressing the celebration; Wesley Barnes posing with other dignitaries; and Wesley Barnes and his son Charles Barnes.

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Scott van Laer has been a forest ranger for 21 years and is currently a delegate for PBA of NYS, the union which represents forest rangers.

3 Responses

  1. Scott:

    Great story of past “Forever Wild” leaders that I certainly have never heard or read of. There are many, many more. Thanks for digging in to this fascinating history!

  2. Bill Ingersoll says:

    Great story! thanks for posting it.

  3. […] The Barnes Family: Forest Preserve Protection Pioneers […]

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