Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Unique Legacy of Lake Placid’s Old McDonald’s Farm

Old McDonald's Farm Lake PlacidOn Saturday an Adirondack Diversity Symposium will be held in Newcomb as part of an effort to make the Adirondacks more attractive to people of diverse backgrounds.

In July, one family celebrated it’s sixtieth anniversary of doing just that – introducing inner city youth to the wonders of nature and, in so doing, helping them on a path towards a healthy and rewarding future.

In Lake Placid and Wilmington Julian Reiss is perhaps best remembered for creating Santa’s Workshop on the Whiteface Mountain Memorial Highway, among the first and longest continually operating theme park in the United States, but there was far, far more to the man than that one achievement. He was a national leader in the fight for civil rights who was called on numerous times by his government to lead civil rights initiatives. He was also a person who put his beliefs into actions in his own businesses by, as an example, establishing a profit sharing plan with his employees in the 1940’s, decades before others.

Paul & Paul 2His more enduring legacy is, first and foremost, the spirit of altruism carried on by his children, grandchildren, and now great grandchildren, followed by the foundation and initiative he launched 60 years ago to provide inner city youth a new lease on life – an effort inspired by his love and understanding of the healing benefits of the Adirondack experience – a program carried forth by his offspring. The program here was initially called Camp Monserrate.

Julian Reiss died young, but what has not died is the impact he has had on countless youth through many of his initiatives. If you have never taken your children or grandchildren to Santa’s Workshop on the side of Whiteface – take them. Yes it’s quaint, dated, and has none of the razzle dazzle of contemporary attractions the world over, but as far as your kids are concerned the magic is still very much there.

In the fifties Santa’s Workshop had cars lined up all the way down to the Wilmington village center. This success inspired him to try another, Old McDonald’s Farm located down behind Placid Pond plaza on Saranac Avenue. The farm had hayrides, lots of farms animals for kids to pet, and popular square dances held in the barn, with kids often sitting in the rafters shaving wax that would land on the floor below to be polished into the wood by the dancers’ feet. Fun though it was, the attraction was not a success and Julian was already working on converting it to another manifestation with kids at its center, this time though with a very different purpose.

Julian realized that living in the Adirondacks provided he and his family a very healthy lifestyle, and a place to relax and renew their physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being – a benefit he knew well as he first arrived to “take the cure” as he was living with tuberculosis.

He felt inner city kids would benefit from a similar experience, and began laying the plans to convert the farm into a summer camp for inner city boys, many from Hispanic backgrounds. Knowing full well the not-in-my-back-yard thinking of many well meaning Americans, be it the location of a prison, a place for the emotionally handicapped, a waste water treatment plant, they decided to be a quiet about this new venture – at least until relatively recently.

Cathy & Uncle PeterDuring the set-up stages Julian died (1959), but not his dream as his son Paul Jacob Reiss agreed to carry it forward. Paul and his team initially realized that the participants, most especially needed to learn how to speak English, and that the benefits of being here for four to six weeks, great though they were, would diminish if the kids had no follow-through or similar support structure when they returned home. So he went looking for a partner agency, found one, which initially led to their creating a middle school in New York. Since those beginnings the program has moved to the Hunt’s Point section of the Bronx, the second poorest congressional district in the nation. Later a parallel program for women, named Camp Forrest Brook, was launched led by Paul’s daughter Cathy. Once a kid enters either program, the Reiss Foundation team stay with him or her right through their college graduation with many going on the successful careers. So successful has been the program, which brings about sixty boys and sixty girls each summer to Placid, that it has inspired similar programs throughout the nation.

Significantly, all these campers are literally in the Reiss family’s backyard as many of the kids and some grand-kids have seasonal homes in and around the land that once hosted Old McDonald’s Farm. Paul Reiss has passed on leadership of the foundation to two of his kids and one grandchild, while much of the extended family is involved in various aspects in one form or another while others have engaged in other service that would make Julian Reiss very proud.

Chapel by Jay Rand, SrAlso important is the extent that the family, from Paul and his wife Rosemary on down, are involved in so many aspects of what makes Lake Placid special – the Lake Placid Sinfonietta being but one such example. Sometimes that spirit of humanity is very quietly done – Jay Rand Sr., who struggled with the outcome of battle fatigue (PTSD) – from his World War II service – was provided the challenge and opportunity to design and create an interfaith chapel on Camp Monseratte grounds. Used by family and campers alike, this simple but beautiful jewel enabled Rand to leave a legacy of his own providing proof positive of where the artistic abilities of several of his own children and grandchildren came.

“The motto of program pretty much says it all, ‘Opportunity is Nativity’s gift to you, what you do with that opportunity is your gift to Nativity,’” said Paul Reiss. “We have graduates doing that in many different ways.” Paul went on to describe how graduates of their programs for inner city kids have returned as counselors, volunteers, contributors, and of the many successes they have had in life and in their careers – a spirit of generosity mirrored by he and his sisters and brothers, and their children and grandchildren. Their original partner, the Nativity Middle School eventually closed as an outcome of changing demographics, now they partner with St. Ignatius School in the South Bronx and other programs.

In July the extended Reiss family gathered in the former barn of Old McDonald’s Farm to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of the Julian Reiss Foundation and in so doing educate the younger generation about their spiritual and ethical inheritance.

“It takes four or five of us to do the work that my father did alone for many, many years,” said Paul Julian Reiss. now chairman of the Julian Reiss Foundation. “It’s just a question of carrying on the good work the foundation was set up to do, and it would be a shame to lose that. It’s just a matter of giving back all that we have been given, and to be able to enable some kids from the city the ability to enjoy the Adirondacks as we have done. The kids come from a neighborhood of gunfire and prostitutes in the street, and here they are scared of the sound of the owls and bullfrogs. They don’t know what they are. They haven’t seen stars at night before or experience a night without light. It’s great to have them see that there are other worlds out there where you don’t have to have that street edge and can let down your guard.”

“The whole culture difference was a big shock to me,” said Chris Reiss (Paul Jacob’s son) who served as a camp counselor last year. “It made me realize what I take for granted. A lot of them don’t have fathers back home. They don’t have the family support that I do. Coming here gives them a family. The pool was a shock to them. They thought they were going to just play around, not that they would learn how to swim. I look forward to seeing them again.”

“The camp open horizons for them,” said John, a member of the board. “It shows them that there is a whole other path to the world.”

“I’ve learned humility, that not everyone sees they way I see, and at times I am missing a lot that they see,” said Fr. Jack Podsiadlo, former director of the Nativity School about what he learned from the participants at Camp Monseratte. “You also can say to them, you’ve climbed Mount Marcy, the highest mountain in the state, what other mountains can you climb? What mountains can you climb in math class? What mountains are you going to climb in reading?”

You can find the Bronx Ignatius Summer Camp on Facebook here.

Photos, from above: A postcard for Old McDonald’s Farm; Paul Jacob Reiss (Julian’s son) and long time Chair of the Julian Reiss Foundation with his son Paul Julian Reiss, current chair standing in front of the former Old McDonald’s Farm barn, now used as a center of activities for Camp Monserrate; Cathy Reiss, who helped create the summer camp for women, and her Uncle Peter Reiss; and the chapel built by Jay Rand, Sr.

Related Stories

Naj Wikoff is an artist who founded Creative Healing Connections, the Lake Placid Institute, and co-founded the Adirondack Film Society-Lake Placid Film Forum.A two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar, Wikoff has served as president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, director of arts and healing at the C. Everett Koop Institute, Dartmouth Medical School, and director of Arts and Productions for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Wikoff also covers Adirondack community culture events for the Lake Placid News.

9 Responses

  1. Paul says:

    It was always interesting driving into LP from SL and seeing those bears at the top of the poles waiting for some kid to send up some food in a can!

  2. Pete Nelson says:


    A great story and another example of how much of our diverse Adirondack history is unknown and how many unsung heroes have striven to make a difference. Thanks for sharing it.


  3. Cathy Sloan says:

    Great story, Naj. Several minor corrections however: I’ve been Cathy Sloan since 1982, and merely was the initial catalyst for the camp for middle school Girls (not women). Female school officials and my Dad actually “launched” Camp Holy Child.

    Chris Reiss is the son of Paul Julian, the doctor from Vermont, and Paul Jacob’s grandson. Paul Jacob’s daughter Martha Acworth is the third person currently running the camps with two of her brothers, but could not be there on the day of your interview.

    Re: the comment from “Paul” above: He’s referring to an adjacent, unrelated establishment known as “1000 Animals” which continued to operate through the 1960s, not Old MacDonalds Farm. Bears and mink were never farm animals as far as i know.

    • Paul says:

      Right, thanks for the correction. I do remember the name “1000 animals” now. I was thinking this was all one operation.

      You are right mink are not necessarily farm animals but they were raised for fir in one operation that use to be out near Lake Kiwassa near Saranac Lake. Some kind of fir farm. I think they had foxes there also.

    • Paul says:

      BTW: I came to Saranac Lake in 1973 so it must have been there a little longer.

  4. Paul says:

    Naj, do you think that today folks around LP would still have the “not in my back yard” attitude that they were afraid of back then? This would be an interesting topic for these diversity forums.

  5. sandy lalonde says:

    I’m searching for music recordings/ tapes from a group that played at Old McDonalds Farm in the 60’s. Dick Lalonde played guitar and sang. Any direction or advice would be very helpful. Thanks and God Bless.

  6. Naj Wikoff says:

    Sandy The person to speak with is Paul Reiss. He’s in the phone book in Lake Placid. He, or another member of his family, may well know. Naj

  7. tom english says:

    My brother Jack and I spend one whole month at Old McDonald’s Farm camp on the shores of Lake Placid. We took trips to Santa’s Workshop and a really wet ride down Ausable Chasm river in a rubber boat. We canoed on the lake and went up Mt Marcy. We waved to Kate Smith who lived across from us on, if I remember right,, Moose Island. She would drive her speedboat back and forth and wave back to us. We learned to ride a horse,, take care of chickens and all sorts of wonderful stuff that a kid from 98th st would never have the experience to enjoy. Thank you!

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox