Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Mob Rule: The Murder Of Orrando Dexter

William_RockefellerThe village of Brandon, in the town of Santa Clara, Franklin County, was built by a lumber company for its workers.   When the company and the lumber industry declined, most of the people left.  John D. Rockefeller’s brother, Standard Oil co-founder William Avery Rockefeller Jr., bought the land surrounding the village, fenced it in, and posted it. Woods located on private property that had been open for years to sportsmen and other residents were suddenly closed.

William Rockefeller made offers to the villagers for their houses and in the end just a few residents remained. One was Civil War veteran Oliver Lamora, with whom Rockefeller would battle over access to his new property for years. The full story of Lamora’s battles, financial and legal, against Rockefeller is given in Lawrence Gooley’s excellent 2007 book Oliver’s War (I wrote this article several years before Gooley’s book).

1905 Saint%20Regis-1905-rp1908Beginning in  1902, William Rockefeller repeatedly filed charges against Oliver Lamora (and his son Will) for trespassing and poaching. The Lamora’s could not afford appealing these cases and paid the judgments and often more expensive court costs.

In 1904 Rockefeller moved the Brandon Post Office onto his estate. When Lamora went to get his mail, he was accused of trespass. Lamora could no longer receive his mail, including his pension, or utilize the railroad service, without trespassing on Rockefeller’s property.  Fortunately, for Lamora and the other residents of Brandon who faced the same problems, the postmaster reopened the Brandon Post Office.  Also, the NYS Railroad Commission ruled that Brandon could not be denied railroad service or the mails it brought.  In another incident Rockefeller’s guards were accused of hand-cuffing women and children that were picking berries and escorting them from the estate.

The controversies garnered nationwide attention and outrage at Rockefeller’s actions.  One news account described how Rockefeller’s armed guards were “sniped” at, and during a large fire in the area someone said “not a man would raise a hand to stay the flames on Mr. Rockefeller’s lands.”

The anger at Rockefeller ran deep among the residents of the Adirondacks, especially guides (someone posted bills offering a reward for his death along the rail line), and this only intensified when Orrando Dexter was murdered.

dexter orrandoOrrando was the son of Henry Dexter, President of the American News Company.  Orrando bought two contiguous tracts of 6,000 and 4,000 acres at Santa Clara near Blue Mountain Road, near Santa Clara. (Orrando’s name is often given erroneously as Orlando.)

At what is now Dexter Lake, he built a mansion designed after Albrecht Durer’s Nuremburg house, a large cottage for his workmen, a sugar bush and a farm. He also fenced his lands, the traditional haunts of locals, prevented lumbermen from crossing his property, and built a house on a widely used road, posting guards who were said to have orders to shoot trespassers on site.

Soon judgments sought by Dexter against local people for trespassing and poaching led to threats.  At one time, his lands were flooded by damming the outlet of Dexter Lake.  Orrando’s father warned him to relent or face physical danger.

On September 19, 1903, Orrando Dexter was driving his carriage on the road from his farmhouse to his home.  A hired-hand named Guiles was in a wagon some distance ahead. Bert Russell, a farmhand was in another wagon trailing behind.  Two shots rang out. Dexter’s wounded horse and empty carriage met up with Guiles, who saw blood on the seat.  He turned the carriage back and found Dexter’s body on the ground, shot twice in the back.  Investigators later determined that whoever killed Dexter had fired from behind a pile of logs.  Two calibers of bullets were found, suggesting that it may have been the work of two assassins.

Henry Dexter, Orrando’s 90-year-old father, claimed he knew the murderers but couldn’t prove it.  He offered rewards and other large landowners quietly aided the search, knowing they might also be in danger.  Newspapers decried the murder, but noted it may have been retaliation against the super-rich landowners.  More signs threatening William Rockefeller appeared, and Orrando’s lawyer Azro Blake was forced to leave the area after receiving threats while investigating the murder.

Orrando Dexter HouseAt his New York City home, Henry Dexter received mysterious letters from a presumed participant saying he’d confess only on his deathbed.  Henry offered a $10,000 reward for discovery of the murderer (a reward that was included even in his will).  Henry Dexter died in 1910 and though the murderer’s identity was believed to be known by local residents, it has never been revealed.

As a legacy to his son, Henry Dexter’s estate gave $250,000 in cash and $55,000 in granite for construction of a new building for the New York Historical Society at 170 Central Park West in New York City.  A marble archway over the entrance to its auditorium says:  “The Orrando Perry Dexter Memorial-The gifts of Henry Dexter made in memory of his only son Orrando Perry Dexter have enabled the New York Historical Society to erect this building.”  The second floor gallery is known as the Henry Dexter Hall.

St. Lawrence University later received a portion the Dexter estate for use as a conference center. In 1994, it was sold Shania Twain and her husband Robert “Mutt” Lange.  They demolished the historic Dexter House, which had only recently been restored, and built a 23,000-square-foot recording studio, without permits. After being fined by the Adirondack Park Agency, Twain and Lange put the building on the market.

Photos, from above: William Avery Rockefeller Jr.; a map of the Rockefeller Estate; Orrando Dexter; and the Dexter House from a 1994 sales brochure (courtesy Historic Saranac Lake / Mary Hotaling).


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Since the early 1980s when Charles Herr purchased a camp in Inlet he has been interested in the history of the Fulton Chain region of the Adirondacks. He has been contributing history articles about the times and people of the Fulton Chain, covering transportation, steamboats, hotels and most importantly, the people to the Weekly Adirondack of Old Forge since November 2006. His ambition is to uncover local and regional Fulton Chain history about people and events prior to 1930 and little covered in the histories of the region. He is the president of the Inlet Historical Society and presents summer programs on Inlet history at the Town Hall in Arrowhead Park in Inlet, NY. His book, The Fulton Chain-Early Settlement, Roads, Steamboats, Railroads and Hotels, was published in May 2017. More information is available at . During 2023, Herr was appointed Inlet Town Historian.

6 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    Wasn’t there some issues regarding Dexter blocking a road that crossed his lands? A road that loggers were trying to use to get logs out from another parcel of land. I think this was going on close to the time when the murder occurred.

  2. Charles Herr says:

    I think that’s covered in the line “prevented lumbermen from crossing his property”. I know that doesn’t give a lot of details in the story, but it meant he wasn’t going to let these folks follow their normal skidding and towing routes as before.
    Thanks for the comment.

    • Paul says:

      Thanks. Yes, you did cover it with that. I wonder if those lumbermen were the suspected killers? If I remember correctly from the book there was an incident that occurred right around the time of the murder. It sounds, like with Rockefeller, he had plenty of enemies.

  3. Charles Herr says:

    In the Watertown Herald, Sept. 26, 1903, the article about Dexter speaks in more detail about the road the lumberman wanted. I will email that piece to you.

  4. Charles Herr says:

    For those interested in this event, the paper reported that a lumberman claimed a right to build a road through Dexter’s barbed wire enclosed land, the courts agreed, but Dexter put a house on the road through his property with an armed guard.

  5. Jeff says:

    In reference to death of Dexter. I was born and grew up in this area as did my father and his father. You are correct in that the locals knew (know) who killed Dexter.

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