Thursday, January 28, 2021

A librarian’s memories of working at ‘The Club’ and Dewey’s legacy

By Wayne Miller

Gary Peacock’s piece on Melvil Dui, nee Melville Dewey, spurred my memories about both ‘The (Lake Placid) Club’ and Mr. Dewey.

Dewey had additional connections to the Adirondacks: The Library Bureau and its plant in Ilion produced a number of innovative products constructed of Adirondack maple and other hardwoods, including the card catalog cabinets that used to greet patrons as they entered every library. These and other library staples were needed to implement the Dewey Decimal System. While online catalogs have decimated card catalogs, some of the Library Bureau’s products, like the book truck, remain staples of libraries and bookstores world-wide.

Prior to the system’s invention by Melvil, libraries were arranged using an assortment of methods including when the book was added to the collection, the size of the book, or its color. The system itself was dependent upon use of a printed work whose size and complexity grew as the sum total of recorded human knowledge grew. By the third quarter of the 20th century, the full Dewey Decimal System had grown to three large, thick volumes or, for smaller libraries, an Abridged version, itself several inches thick. Used by over 80% of the world’s libraries, each of the more than twenty new editions became an essential purchase for every library using the DDS. This extensive recurring market and the profits it generated became a part of a brilliant tax avoidance scheme.

Lake Placid Club in 1956

Questionable finances

The Lake Placid Club was not a standalone organization. It was one of the three legs of the Lake Placid Company. The second leg was the Forest Division Press, which published the Dewey Decimal System volumes whose offices (when I worked at The Club in 1975) occupied a portion of the right side of the front of the main Club building. Dewey invested the copyright to his System in the Forest Division Press. This meant the Forest Division received the profits. The third leg of the Company is the only one still standing. The Lake Placid Educational Foundation was and is a vehicle for charitable and educational work. And it was the activities of the Foundation that made the Company tax exempt as a whole and among other things, exempt from property taxes. This included all the Club buildings, grounds, golf courses, the ski area at Mount Whitney and so on.

In 1975, I worked the summer season as the Club’s sous chef. My goal was to pay off enough of my education loans to qualify for even more debt so I could attend library school. During that summer I learned that the Educational Foundation awarded scholarships to students employed for the season, many of whom were related to club members. Most worked ‘out front’ as bell hops or in the dining room. It was unusual for someone who worked in the kitchen to receive an award. But I asked for some of Dewey’s legacy to pay for library school. They awarded full ($800) and half ($400) scholarships. I received one of the latter. It would be decades before I understood that this was one method used to both subsidize Club family members and avoid taxes.

During that summer I observed another ‘financial management’ arrangement that benefited both the Club and its members. This involved catering services. It worked this way.

Mrs. Rich Member wanted to have a small affair for, say, fifty guests. The chef would be contacted to place a takeout order for which Mrs. RM was charged, as a member, a cut rate. Delivering the food would be the chef, half the kitchen staff, and the best china, linen, and silverware the Club had to offer. The Club staff set up, served, and tore down the food and beverage service, all to be cleaned up afterward by the Club staff. And all was included, as best as I could determine, as part of the cut rate cost of just the food.

This, in part, explained the Club’s annual financial deficit. Two years before my Club stint, I had worked a season at the Boca Raton Hotel & Club. This Florida landmark was approximately the same size as the LPC. It grossed about $50 million per year. The Lake Placid Club grossed just $1.5 million. They eliminated the deficits this practice helped create, aside from selling off assets as Mr. Peacock noted, through another piece of the non-profit tax loophole. As a tax exempt organization, ‘charitable’ contributions to the Club were tax deductible. Each year, Mrs. RM could write a check to the Club and would use that amount to reduce her own tax liability, thus subsidizing part of the deficit created when she had been charged a pittance for those catered affairs.

Mistreatment of workers

Gary’s article noted that the legacy of Dewey’s anti-Semitic and white supremacist attitudes and behavior cost the Club convention business. Early on it cost Melvil his post as State Librarian. Perennially cash starved, another part of the Clubs survival and subsidy of its members was through underpayment of its employees. This included not paying us for all the hours we worked. For some, this was at least in part offset by the scholarships. But for those who worked there for a living, it meant grumbling about living on the edge of poverty, but feeling powerless to obtain justice. For the maître d’ at the time, there was another choice. He kept track in a notebook of how much he worked. After completing his employment, he filed a claim with the Wage and Hour Division, New York State Department of Labor. I was oblivious to this until, a couple of years later when I received a letter with a check for hours worked for which I had not been paid, as did many other employees.

While students seeking employment were plentiful during the summers, conferences and conventions were largely ‘off season’ happenings. This created the need for pulses of extra workers that was filled in part through cooperation with Paul Smiths College.

I witnessed this in the early ‘60’s when my older brother, as a Hotel Management student at PSC, worked some weekends at the Club. Housed in the upstairs of an old wooden fire trap of a building outside the back door of the main kitchen (my memory is that it was the sawmill or woodworking shop), it gave him experience and a chance to party in Lake Placid, though I also remember him grousing at the rate of pay. I believe he netted $.17/hour.  

Dependable revenue

Dewey had endowed the Lake Placid Company with a reliable cash cow: Forest Division Press. It continued to generate profits as the ever increasing number of areas of human endeavor led to significant changes in both the Dewey class numbers and subject tracings, the other method the DDS has for finding materials. The perpetuated demand for updated DDS volumes whose contents were largely the product of the donated professional activities of librarians. 

Within a few decades of its invention, the Dewey Decimal System had become widely adopted. That was also a period when the number of college, public, and school libraries exploded. Increasingly staffed by professionals trained in Dewey’s library school or one modeled upon it, and members of the American Library Association that Dewey helped found. The vast majority of these libraries and the trained librarians they employed used the DDS books to organize their collections and catalogs. This provided a considerable and consistent built in market for a product with very low overhead.

Lake Placid ClubThe Club’s decline

Gary Peacock noted some causes of the Club’s decades-long decline. There were also changes in society and transportation that added momentum to its decline. 

World War II was a watershed. In addition to the Club being put to military use (in return for which DOD built the steam plant), the War evidenced the tradition of Club members transplanting their families from the megalopolis to Lake Placid (usually by train) for the summer. With the wife and kids comfortably ensconced and breathing the clean mountain air, hubby would divide his time between city and mountains before decamping altogether at summer’s end. Many would return to Placid for mid-winter holidays and enjoy the outdoor sports Dewey’s Club had helped develop. Others would instead opt for Dewey’s southern alternative, Lake Placid, Florida.

Following the war, commercial jet travel became ubiquitous. Now families could easily and quickly vacation anywhere. With world views expanded by the global conflict, travel far and wide became the standard. The Club was now a former military billet. Its charms were further compromised, as Gary points out, with the development of a convention business. Dewey’s rules against non-WASP memberships caused cancellations of things like the State Rotary convention. By 1970, the New York Library Association, part of Dewey’s legacy, was no longer willing to overlook the discriminatory and exclusionary parts of his legacy and refused to hold any meetings there.  This was despite the Club’s moves to loosen it exclusionary policies which also served to further dull the luster of Club membership. 

When, in 1974, Lake Placid was finally successful in securing a second chance to host the Winter Olympics, the Club was essentially running on fumes. Deferred maintenance had left some blocks of rooms unfit for occupancy, rugs and drapes were shop worn, some facilities were abandoned as they wore out. Yet, with the prospect of a huge bump coming in 1980, everyone soldiered on. In the end, the once mighty Lake Placid Club limped across the Winter Olympics’ finish line.

Grant-making foundation

But it was not the end of the (Lake Placid) Company, for it still had assets, including the Forest Division Press. As the Company’s assets were liquidated, the proceeds were used to endow the Lake Placid Educational Foundation. No longer having worker/scholars to whom it could award monies, the LPEF morphed into a grant-making foundation that funded regional and library projects.

In the later 1980’s, while a school librarian, the Foundation funded a grant I wrote that covered the cost of digitizing the Brushton Moira Central School’s library catalog and the District’s first network (LAN). Another grant helped the Long Lake Central school library also become the Long Lake Public Library. And a large multiyear commitment was made to a New York Library Association project.

Perhaps the most significant project to be funded was for seed money to start the Adirondack Community Trust, or ACT, in 1995. Six years later, LPEF endow the Trust with a $2,000,000 fund, the income from which would perpetually cover the ACT’s operations. With its name changed in 2013, to Adirondack Foundation, this organization continues to award grants from Dewey’s legacy, as well as an increasing number of other regional funds. 

I’ll end by recalling one last Dewey invention:

  “Good People Require Speedy Learning, So Try Fine Library Helpers.” 

He created this mnemonic device as an aid to remembering the ten main divisions of his Decimal System.

  1. Generalities
    100 Philosophy, psychology
    200 Religion
    300 Social Sciences
    400 Languages
    500 Science
    600 Technology and applied science
    700 Fine arts and performing arts
    800 Literature
    900 History and biography

Wayne Miller, a retired librarian and local historian, lives just north of the Park with his wife in a 170-year-old farm house where she and their five children were raised. The winner of the 1978 McMaster Prize for North Country Historical Writing, he has published two books and written numerous successful grants applications. For seven years, he was the Special Collections Librarian and archivist at Feinberg Library, SUNY Plattsburgh.

Photos from top:

Group of Lake Placid Club Guests Gathered on the Mirror Lake Shoreline. Photo courtesy of Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society

An aerial shot of Lake Placid Club Grounds in 1956. Courtesy of Lake Placid Public Library Photograph Archive

A couple is being pulled in a horse drawn sleigh in front of the Lake Placid Club. Mirror Lake Drive is snow covered. Courtesy of Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park.

Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at [email protected]




14 Responses

  1. Phil Fitzpatrick says:

    Fascinating and well written. Thank you.

  2. Joseph Dash says:

    I’m surprised no one in this discussion has mentioned that the Dewey Decimal System has been largely abandoned by colleges and universities, including Columbia University where Dewey once worked, in favor of the Library of Congress System.

    • Wayne Miller says:

      You are correct that most large general (academic) libraries have long since recatalogued to LC. And specialized ones such as medical and music have adopted hybrid models usually based upon a subset of LC, such as the NLM (National Library of Medicine). As best I know, given that there are many more small (school, public, other) libraries for which a more general intuitive and easily catalogued arrangement is desirable, something like 4/5ths of all libraries still use the DD system. It’s worth noting that some public libraries are adopting schemes similar to that used by Barnes & Noble bookstores. The first I visited that used that is the Delaware branch of Albany Public.

  3. Philip Terrie Phil Terrie says:

    Dewey’s Anti-Semitism wasn’t his only sin. He was a notorious harasser and groper of women. He was expelled from the American Library Association, which he had helped found, for aggressive and offensive behavior toward women.

  4. Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

    Thank you for the great read Mr. Miller!! I got my start in the Special Collections dept at my ungrad university in the Capitol region, so take it on good authority that work like yours is most appreciated!

    Times have indeed changed in many ways, I think overall quite for the better. Though I needed about 40k in scholarships/work credit to get myself through library school…so maybe not that part.

    As of 2011 I worked in a couple of public libraries that still used Dewey. But yup, per previous article it’s going out of style fast. Can’t stop the internet and I don’t think we should try.

  5. stan says:

    So, is his legacy and contribution to society good, bad, or mixed, as are the legacies of most “great men”?

    • Judy Lance says:

      Stan, I expect you would agree there are women in that group, too. But you are correct, there’s almost always more to a story & it’s best to search for it. Still true today.

    • Wayne Miller says:

      Well, Stan, as my father used to say, “It’s an ill wind that blows no good.” For example, his antisemitism unwittingly led to the protection of the Adirondacks and far western old growth forests. It begins at the New York Library Association’s 1903 ‘Library Week.’ I’ll quote from the WorldCat summary of a 40 page booklet published by Dewey and addressed to ‘Lake Placid Club members’: “New York Public Library librarian, Henry M. Leipziger browsed a 1901 Lake Placid catalog which gave the criteria for membership with an added line referring to the exclusion of Jews. Outraged, he contacted lawyer Louis Marshall who, with ten other men, signed a petition to the Board of Regents calling for the removal of Dewey as State Librarian. Dewey found an ally in Isidore Singer who suggested he compile a pamphlet which included the petition, Dewey’s response, and letters to various newspapers, so Singer could forward it to the members of the Jewish Publication Society. An account is given in Irrepressible reformer: a biography of Melvil Dewey (1996). The author, Wayne A. Weigand, refers to the pamphlet as a circular entitled “Action on Petition to Remove State Librarian.” The first forty page pamphlet, compiled by the husband of Dewey’s niece, Asa O. Gallup, the treasurer of the Lake Placid Club, prefaced it with a paragraph to the membership of the Club that it was to provide background when deciding whether to vote to change the membership criteria. A second, fifty-six page pamphlet, included more letters to the editor, including one by Isidor Singer. Melvil Dewey resigned as State Librarian, effective January 1, 1906.”

      • Wayne Miller says:

        Louis Marshall had played a key role in the drafting of the ‘forever wild’ amendment and would subsequently, along with his son, Bob Marshall, be at the forefront of the environmental/conservation movement during the first half of the twentieth century. But his involvement with Dewey proved that Dewey, for all his knowledge and intelligence, was not a great reader of public opinion. And, more importantly, it provided Marshall with an education in how he could mobilize public opinion to influence decision making governmental bodies. In this case it was the Board of Regents, but the lessons he learned were subsequently used by Louis and his son, Bob, and others to stop the building of dams and other proposals that would have degraded our natural heritage. An excellent biography of Marshall is: Silver, Matthew M. “Louis Marshall and the Rise of Jewish Ethnicity in America: A Biography.” Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2013.

      • Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

        It’s worth adding that Dewey’s views were not an aberration for his time – they were widely accepted and quite popular. Heck, they’re still more popular now than a lot of folks want to admit… When a certain political party lied about the legitimacy of the 2020 election, was it an accident that they focused on questioning the votes of non-white people? One could point out that certain elected leaders *in this very region of the country* voted immediately post-coup attempt to throw out 1000s of majority non-white votes, because the votes weren’t for her candidate…

        …which is a long way of saying that let’s not pat ourselves on the back too much at all, or think that Dewey’s attitudes are too far in the rear-view mirror.

  6. Ruth Gais says:

    My father, when he was a young doctor, worked at the Lake Placid Club as a house doctor in the 1920s and told me about the rampant anti-Semitism he encountered there. Alas.

  7. Bob Meyer says:

    Thank you for this very educational and well written article.

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