Looking out over Long Lake, it is difficult to think of it as a place of extreme hardship. But life in the central Adirondacks in the mid-19th century was not easy. In 1849, for example, Livonia Stanton and her family moved to Long Lake in the middle of the winter and her father had to use an ax and shovel to clear their cabin floor of snow and ice before they could even use the fireplace.
Self-sufficiency was the rule here. You grew or made what you needed or you went without. The nearest store was over 30 miles away and the nearest doctor 60 miles, over little more than a wild foot-path. Many settlers gave up and went back home. Those that toughed it out did so because the land was cheap; fish, venison, and fur were plentiful, and the seemingly unlimited supply of timber for building and fuel was a big attraction for a poor family.
Mitchell Sabattis and his family were the first permanent Long Lake settlers to take advantage of these plentiful resources. The Sabattis family came from Parishville, NY around 1830, but because they were pure-blooded Abenaki Native Americans, some historians incorrectly claim that white settlers were the first Long Lake residents.
As a young boy, Mitchell Sabattis demonstrated great skill and resourcefulness. His parents once left him and his friend alone on what is now Owl’s Head Lane before a single house existed in Long Lake, while they took a trip into the mountains. The two boys quickly ran out of supplies. Their only weapon was an old flintlock rifle. Their gunpowder was wet, and they had no bullets. So they carefully dried the gunpowder and located small pebbles to use as ammunition. Then they paddled out onto the lake and tracked and shot a deer at very close range with their primitive weapon and homemade bullets.
Sabattis grew up to be one of the most ethical, sought after, and written about of all Adirondack guides. Two prominent clergymen, who visited and wrote extensively about the Adirondacks, hired Sabattis to guide them while on vacation in the region.
John Todd, who published the first description of Long Lake in 1845, would eventually make a substantial donation to Sabattis when, twenty years later, he was raising funds for the new Wesleyan church at Long Lake. Another early Adirondack writer, Joel Headley, who also contributed to the fund, thought of Sabattis as a moral inspiration.
While deer hunting one day, the two men disturbed a family of ducks in the reeds at the outlet of Long Lake. The mother was making a big fuss and began zig-zagging ahead of their boat, drawing the hunters’ attention away from her ducklings. Headley inquired whether he should take a shot and Sabattis calmly replied “I guess I wouldn’t. She has young ones.” Headley felt rebuked, not by his own conscience, but by his thoughtful guide’s. He was shocked to think that a hunter could teach him tenderness of feeling, and he wondered how he could have ever considered killing the mother of helpless baby ducks. Headley would later write about his friend and guide: “I shall long remember him – he is a man of deeds and not of words – kind, gentle, delicate in his feelings, honest and true as steel.”
John Todd, on the other hand, could have used a healthy dose of Mitchell’s ethics. He gained a sour reputation among guides and townspeople for killing deer just for the fun of it and leaving them to rot, or stripping their skins to help pay for his vacations. Still, Todd tried to establish a congregation in Long Lake by preaching the first sermon and baptizing eight children during one of his first visits to the Adirondacks. When he returned to Massachusetts at the end of the summer he urged Long Lake residents to continue their worship by assembling on the Sabbath to read sermons. But only one person in the entire congregation could read and he “swore so like the Evil One,” no one wanted to hear him read sermons.
Mitchell Sabattis took an early active role in Todd’s first efforts to organize a church in Long Lake, but he had a drinking problem that turned him into a madman whenever he imbibed. Lucius Chittenden, a wealthy Vermont politician who spent summers near Long Lake, became close friends with Sabattis and at the end of one five week vacation, noticed that Sabattis and his wife seemed depressed so he pressed them for an explanation. Mitchell told him that their home was being foreclosed on and that they could not come up with the payments. Chittenden offered to take over their mortgage in order to give them time to come up with payments on the condition that Mitchell quit drinking.
The following February, Sabattis showed up at Chittenden’s house in Burlington, Vt., having traveled nearly 150 miles on a crude sled that he had constructed, filled with venison, bear meat, a variety of small game and over a hundred pounds of trout…enough to feed his family for a full year with enough left over to sell and completely pay off the mortgage that Chittenden held. Mitchell Sabattis not only made good on his debt, he never touched a drop of alcohol again.
No other Adirondack guide is so fondly remembered as Sabattis. Today, a road, a village, a mountain, a railway station, and a Boy Scout Reservation are all named in honor of Mitchell Sabattis.
Photos: Long Lake photo by Gary Peacock. Sabattis Adventure Camp courtesy of Van F. Anderson, Ed.D., Camp Administrator. The others from the Almanack archive.