Saturday, January 26, 2019

That So-Called Adirondack Hall of Fame

I’ve made it a point of personal honor not to engage in arguments over lists, a lesson learned in high school when the radio stations would play their obligatory end-of-year “100 Greatest Rock and Roll Songs of All Time” segments.

And you’d sit around with a bunch of people in your friend’s basement having a meltdown that Stairway to Heaven placed ahead of Satisfaction.

The capper was when stations, looking to reintroduce some buzz into a growingly tired feature, would pick something like Rubberband Man by the Spinners as the No. 1 Rock and Roll Song of All Time, spurring a renewed burst of moral outrage that even weed couldn’t suppress. The Internet has made things far worse, as morons in search of clicks have ranked stuff like the Top 10 Grasshoppers and the 10 Best Places For Retirees to Buy Housing Shingles.

So I hate to be drawn into the Walk of Fame debate at the new Queensbury welcome center, which focuses on 21 of the Adirondacks’ most prominent citizens. Or semi-citizens. Or noncitizens who have at least stopped to clean the blackflies off their windshield on the side of the road.

Since the list-makers were obviously stretching to find candidates, it’s the more glaring omissions that rankle. If Bruce Springsteen’s drummer doesn’t yet have deep enough roots, fine. But whither Rockwell Kent, the greatest (sorry Georgia O’Keefe) Adirondack artist, who painted many iconic Adirondack scenes from his AuSable Forks farm, and whose rightful place in history was thwarted by McCarthyism?

But the most unthinkable snub is of a gaunt North Elba man who was known the world over and rocked our very nation to its core: John Brown. No one else in the Adirondacks comes close. This wasn’t just an oversight of whatever committee it was that came up with the list. Dozens of online posts that sought reader suggestions for additions and corrections ignored John Brown as well. The inescapable conclusion is that, even here in the North, even on the 160th anniversary of his greatest infamy, John Brown still scares us.

And he scares us, because we, collectively, still don’t know what to make of him. One person’s hero is another’s terrorist and vice versa. Our oversimplifications — his cause was just, but his his tactics were wrong — are as intellectually dishonest as contending that if he had just left well enough alone, all this slavery unpleasantness would have worked itself out just fine, and all it would have cost us was another generation or two, or six, of black lives — and then so many white people would never have had to die. Nor is it any more reasonable to suggest that taking up arms against countrymen and country is in any way a solution to what bothers you.

But the correct answers to these pickles are unknowable, just as Brown was unknowable, maybe even to himself. I have known fanatics, having been raised by one, and I know that no matter how intractable they might seem, doubt creeps in. Their drive, I believe, is fired to such extremities by fear, that nagging voice that says, “What if I’m wrong?”

Richard Henry Dana, author of Two Years Before the Mast, was hiking in the Adirondacks in 1849 when his party became lost, with nothing to eat overnight but one four-inch trout. At last they stumbled onto a wagon road and into the path of John Brown, who was transporting two runaway slaves to his farm. Dana was struck by the gentleness of the stranger’s soul, as he referred to his black companions as “Mr. Jefferson” and “Mrs. Wait,” and in turn insisted they call him by his first name. He also insisted they ride up front and, later, eat at the same supper table as the whites. For the former slaves, his humble respect was almost too much, and Dana wrote about the obvious awkwardness they felt at being treated as equals. It is this John Brown that we don’t know.

Nor is his obscurity in this sense, or any sense, confined to state bureaucrats.

I was teaching a college level English Comp course in a Maryland state prison some years back, to a predominantly black class of Baltimore murderers and drug dealers, some of whom were achingly talented. From the prison yard, you could see the gap in the Blue Ridge where the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers gave rise to the armory town of Harpers Ferry.

They had never heard of John Brown, and further, were little inclined to believe that some white guy with fewer than two dozen men would take up arms against the entire United States Army for the benefit of the black race. Their overriding view was that John Brown, if he did indeed exist, was a loon. Until one young man sparked a spirited and colorful debate, with me furiously taking notes to be sure I got it down verbatim:

“I’da rolled with him.”

“What? He’s planning to go to war with 21 homies. Do what you want, but I ain’t signin’ on ’til I’ve sat down with the man and had a talk about the fundamentals.”

“No man, think about it, you got a deal goin’ down, you ain’t thinkin’ about the consequences, you thinking about the flip. Ain’t no different.”

This went on for the better part of the class, and all I could think about was how John Brown could be just as polarizing in this setting, in this demographic, as he could in a Mississippi parlor populated by unapologetic aristocrats plotting how the South might rise again.

A decade after stumbling upon the mild-mannered stranger in in the Adirondack wilderness, Richard Henry Dana was riding a train in Europe when he picked up a paper telling the story of John Brown of North Elba who had led a wild, bloody raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry. He sat stunned, as for the first time he put two and two together.

One hundred and sixty years later, we are still at a loss. But we should be unanimous on this: Love him or despise him, if you are drafting a fantasy team of famous Adirondackers, John Brown is your No. 1 pick.

Photo of John Brown by Southworth and Hawes, 1856.

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Tim Rowland is a humor columnist for Herald-Mail Media in Hagerstown, Md., and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include High Peaks; A History of Hiking the Adirondacks from Noah to Neoprene and Strange and Unusual Stories of New York City. He has climbed the 46 high peaks, is an avid bicyclist, and trout tremble with fear when they see his approaching shadow. He and his wife Beth are residents of Jay, N.Y.




33 Responses

  1. Boreas says:

    Certainly an interesting man. His old tannery was close to where I grew up in PA. I think the fact he ran a tannery contributed to speculation on his later mental faculties due to possible mercury poisoning from the tanning process.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Brown_Tannery_Site

    • John Warren says:

      I think it’s fairly well established that Southern historical revisionism is what led to claims he was crazy. He was well established and respected in the abolition community then as now.

      • Boreas says:

        Just stating the fact that there indeed was speculation on this.

        FWIW, Mad-hatter’s Syndrome was related to hatters and not the tanning industry, which used predominantly plant-based, acidic solutions (tannic acid) to tan leather back then. For centuries, hatters specifically were associated with mercury poisoning which could cause mental problems and death. To my knowledge, Brown never dabbled in the hatting industry.

  2. James Bullard says:

    I’ll second that.

  3. Jim S. says:

    When I visited Harper’s Ferry I was shocked at how differently John Brown is portrayed compared to how he is viewed in the Adirondacks.

  4. What an inspiring thoughtful column. I was so excited that I re read it three times to make sure I didn’t jump over any of the text.

    Thank you.

  5. CommunityGuy says:

    Excellent article. John Brown is number one, of course!

    There is also an amazing local organization named “John Brown Lives.” They are an anti-slavery and racism group – very intelligent and dedicated to the legacy of John Brown. I find them inspiring. Well worth checking out!

  6. Sandra Weber says:

    I whole-heartedly agree; John Brown should be at the top of the list. Let me also share a little caution about Dana’s nrrative…
    Dana’s account of his visit, entitled “How We Met John Brown,” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly of July 1871. A much more detailed and precise account of his visit appeared in Dana’s 1849 journal. Although he tried to stay true to his journal notes, Dana adjusted his account to match other accounts by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Wendell Phillips. But Dana had not visited the John Brown farm; he had visited the Browns when they lived at the Flanders farm. “Mr. Jefferson” and “Mrs. Wait” were not fugitive slaves; they were local black citizens hired by Brown. The actual journal gives a truer sense of John Brown and the Brown family.

  7. Vanessa says:

    Great article, but I don’t see (personally) why there’s any debate over whether he was a hero or not. He deeply understood the mechanics of one of the most violent systems of oppression in American or even world history.

    It takes som cajones (pardon me) to sit here in our arm chairs – most of us beneficiaries of the same system of racism, still sickenly violent – and pronounce judgement on a man who faced that violence head on. He stared it in the face. He had an extremely sober assessment of whether the politics of the time were going to alleviate the violence or not. (Spoiler alert, obvious to historians: a whole war was fought on this topic a few years after the state hung John Brown.)

    Now before you all freak out, NONE of this comment is an endorsement of terrorism. But I really do get annoyed that this whole “debate” is held under the assumption that any of us can make serious commentary about pacifism when we’re STILL the beneficiaries of a system that is violent, unfair and endorsed mostly by the state.

    That modern violence is a lot more hidden to white people than it was in John Brown’s time. Though this point IS debatable, and when the majority of white folks are honest, we can’t claim to even understand its mechanics, much less truly claim to have opposed it in any substantial way, violent or not.

    Therefore, white folks, after you’ve taken a super sober look in the mirror and assessed honestly your complicity in the VERY SAME system of oppression that John Brown fought against – then and only then should any reasonable person debate you over pacifism.

    Btw I am also white, for whom it matters to. Like they say on Twitter, @ me at your own risk, my ADK friends. I’m happy to discuss the above, but be prepared to be called out on any racist views that you may possess :p

    K thanks, bye now. -Vanessa

    • Boreas says:

      Vanessa,

      Who are you speaking to?? I haven’t read any comments here debating or passing negative judgement on Mr. Brown. If you are looking for a fight, I doubt you will find it here.

      • Vanessa says:

        Hi Boreas,

        Nice to hear from you. A couple of thoughts: as i mentioned to John below, though i have never felt the need to comment on the pages of the Almanack before, i am an avid reader. i’m also a reader of the comments section. i am certainly not “looking for a fight,” but i would be surprised if everyone agreed with my thoughts above. in my time spent in the ADKs, i have frequently felt uncomfortable with most of the local attitudes towards race and diversity that i’ve personally encountered. this is really unfortunate, and is also an interesting topic to unpack via separate discussion. (sidebar: i went to school upstate and am a frequent visitor, but not am not local).

        and to summarize a bit better, my main point is that the whole frame of this famed “debate” over John Brown is fundamentally incorrect. i’m not looking to debate whether his impact was positive or negative. rather, i’m saying that the battle he fought isn’t over. It’s not a closed chapter in history. we’re all still on a side, still participants, whether we’re aware of it or not, because we’re either the beneficiaries or victims of a system of racial oppression that for the most part *still exists.*

        Tim’s choice at the end of an anecdote involving presumably non-white folks in prison is a telling (if ironic and unintentional) allusion to just this issue. why are those non-white folks in prison in such disproportionate numbers in comparison to white folks? – this is a question i believe John Brown would have been concerned with, were he alive today.

        Taking the life of John Brown out of it’s very important and relevant context and “debating” it as closed history has always annoyed me. i’ve read very, very little online that doesn’t question this framing. Tim’s article is not free of this issue, so i decided to comment.

        hopefully this clears up who i am speaking to. thanks

  8. Cristine Meixner says:

    I agree wholeheartedly. Compare the Queensbury Walk of Fame to Times magazine’s Person of the Year. Somehow many people have come to believe that person is someone who is most admired. Not necessarily so. Rather, it is someone who Times has chosen as having had the most influence on the past year’s events, whether for ill or for good. It is the same with John Brown. He certainly should be at the top of any Adirondack list of famous people. And thank you for putting your finger on what I have always felt about John Brown, but could never really pin down. He always made me feel uneasy but I never knew why.

  9. Vanessa says:

    Huh it looks like my other comment was not posted. This is the first time I’ve tried to comment on an Almanack article. Too controversial? It would be a damn shame if an article about John Brown is censored by whomever moderates here. 🙁

    • John Warren says:

      No need for conspiracies. All first timer comments are moderated. That takes a person, and it’s Sunday.

      • Vanessa says:

        Hello! Nope, no conspiracies here. I saw additional comments posted after i put my original, which was sent in at about 9am. am well aware of moderation processes, and i was concerned that mine may have been skipped. was not aware that first timers are singled out.

        I have been a reader of the Almanack for years, but have never commented before. john brown is an icon of the region and deserves more attention. i too shall take a moment to shamelessly plug JBL, as they are doing EXCELLENT service to his legacy 🙂

  10. Naj Wikoff says:

    Looking over the list; how can such athletes not be included as Charles Jewtraw of Lake Placid, who won the first gold awarded in the very first winter Olympic Games or Billy Demong, the first American to win a Nordic-Combined Gold, or Lowell Bailey, first American to win a biathlon World Championship, Jimmy Shea who won the gold in Skeleton, Erin Hamlin, an Olympic winner in Luge.One could go on. Then there is Melville Dewy who help launch winter sports in American and successfully secured the Third Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid

    I am pleased to see David Smith on the list as well as Georgia O’Keefe, but then where is Rockwell Kent, Frederick Remington, and Winslow Homer. How about the Broadway composer Richard Adler or operetta composer Victor Herbert. Singer Kate Smith was a season resident for decades. Author Russell Banks and architect William West Durant are worthy of this list.

    How about Verplank Colvin, or Paul Schaefer who kept the state from flooding the Hudson River Gorge. John Brown should definitely be on the list and also Inez Milholland, a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. Then there is the Pell family for saving for Ticonderoga, Harold Hochschild for founding the Adk Experience (Adk Museum) at Blue Mt lake, and hotelier Paul Smiths.

    I think their current list should be scrapped and then a group of leading scholars and historians be brought together by Adk Experience to come up with first a set of priorities and categories, and then select people who can best represent the diversity of talent that grace or have graced our region.

    • Richard L Daly says:

      Good observation! ADKX would be a good enabler of the discussion. It is the place for social&political history of the Adks., while TheWildCtr covers the natural history.

  11. Great article. For anyone wanting to learn more about Brown, the time he lived in and his motivations, I’d recommend Louis DeCaro’s FIRE FROM THE MIDST OF YOU and FREEDOM’s DAWN, and David S. Reynolds’ JOHN BROWN: ABOLITIONIST.

  12. Tom Bebee says:

    Great article. Could not agree more that JB should be on the list if not #1.

  13. It’s ok, you don’t have to apologize to Georgia, who, after all, was more of a “seasonal resident”. Hubby Stieglitz was the one who lived there a lot (and with Mom).

    Is David Smith on the list there (I haven’t stopped in yet)? and his wife the sculptor Dorothy Dehner?

    How about our U.S. Senator (or do they have to be dea? …perhaps the next President of the United States.

    yours was a very good article. thanks for doing.

  14. Terry Dearmas says:

    Rockwell Kent was a great Adirondack artist but I again have to mention Winslow Homer as a great (if not greater) Adirondack artist!

  15. Richard L Daly says:

    1. Greetings from Plattsburgh (Town) to Jay! Thanks, Tim, for yet more thoughts on the subject. It is still one that needs attention. 2. Now, if AdkAlmanack would answer my suggestion to include LINK to native email to ease sharing, I’d be even more thankful. 😉

  16. FRED V PROVONCHA says:

    Good article. I’d also like to see Gerrit Smith and Timbuctoo mentioned more in relation to John Brown. John had a passing friendship with my Elizabethtown Browns, to the point that he invited them to join him. Perhaps fortunately for me, they declined..

  17. Meredith Leonard says:

    For the record, two commenters missed on spelling Georgia O’Keeffe’s last name correctly. Thanks for the very interesting article and discussion.

  18. Melanie Reding says:

    Thank you Tim for pointing out this extraordinary omission. John Brown was much more than just an abolitionist. He believed in and practiced equality, treating black men equally and espousing women’s rights (however imperfectly lived in his family life). The lessons and legacies of John continue to inspire future generations and call many of us to civic action in addressing the critical issues of today.

  19. Avon says:

    John Brown lived to be 59, but evidently was in the Adirondacks for only 7 of those years. I know who writes Wikipedia articles (anyone and everyone who cares to), but evidently few if any Adk folks have contributed to John Brown’s … New York State figures in only a tiny percentage of the very long and thorough article. Springfield, Mass. is treated as far more formative. Then he went “cold” to the Adirondacks in 1848. After 1855 (when he went to the highly inflammable territory of Kansas and, with a small band of supporters, killed five pro-slavery settlers there) he evidently never returned; he was mainly in New England but also Rochester, Syracuse, Iowa and elsewhere for his cause – but the Adirondacks don’t figure. He died in 1859.

    I’d say the Adirondacks can’t fairly claim him – even though his time in North Elba was important to those who were there with him and those who gave due notice to his African American farming colony there … and perhaps life-changing for Brown himself. (I don’t know that, but, if it’s so, someone needs to add that to Wikipedia! Anyone can just click “Edit,” though it’s best to cite the specific historical evidence.)

    Overall, I think any sort of Adirondack Hall of Fame should focus on people whose fame related to their lives in the Adirondacks. There are plenty! We can admire someone without crediting every place they’ve ever been with their “fame.”

  20. FRED V PROVONCHA says:

    Ok, so what do you know about him, Gerritt Smith, and Timbuctoo?

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