By Hallie Bond, Town of Long Lake Historian
The Adirondack Canoe Classic, known to many of us as The 90-Miler, is coming up! On September 10, we can stand on the bridge over Long Lake and cheer on those brave souls who are paddling or rowing all the way from Old Forge to Saranac Lake. They will be traveling an ancient route, one that has seen the full range of propulsion options, from human to the gasoline engine. The death this summer of Tom Helms, proprietor for nearly half a century of Helms Aero Service, reminds us that in one Long Lake family we can see most of this evolution happening on this lake over the past 160 years.
By 1858, Tom’s great-great-grandfather William (1824-1908) and “his good natured wife” Rachel (1833-1902) were living a typical Adirondack settler’s life for the time, farming, taking in boarders, and guiding from their “tidy log shanty” near the south shore of Forked Lake. That “shanty” consisted of two rooms and a loft, in which lived the Helmses, their six children (all under the age of eleven), two regular boarders, one hired helper, and any tourists who happened by.
Bill farmed (hay for his sheep, horses, and oxen, and buckwheat, oats, and potatoes) and took “sports” out for fishing or hunting, assisted by his four deerhounds. Rachel looked after the children, cooked for everyone, and probably tended the kitchen garden. Like so many settlers moving into the central Adirondacks at mid-century, he had been born in Vermont, and earned his cash income primarily by looking after the tourists.
Helms’s place was situated well to catch those tourists, since it was at the carry between Raquette Lake and Forked Lake, part of the “great central valley” of the Adirondacks, a water route with just a few short carries from from Old Forge to Saranac Lake and the route of the modern 90-Miler (now with some shortcuts). It was also handy for Little Forked Lake, Cary, Sutton, Bottle, and all the delicious little ponds to the north. This territory has been off-limits to hunters and fishermen since not long after Bill’s time, when William C. Whitney began assembling Whitney Park.
Like participants in “The 90,” Bill Helms and his fellow guides traveled by water. Unlike most of the modern paddlers, the guides of the last century traveled by guideboat, rather than canoe or kayak. Guideboats are rowing craft which evolved among the Yankee settlers of the region, rather than canoes and kayaks, boats propelled by paddle that were traditional among the indigenous inhabitants. They are distinguished by their special, lightweight construction which makes them easy to carry between waterways.
William’s second son David (1853-1934) continued the family tradition of hospitality and guiding. About 1883, at what is now Deerland on Long Lake, he established Grove House where he guided and, with the help of his wife Eunice (1856-1918), took in boarders. Their guests included serious hunters and fishermen and whole families. The artist A.F. Tait was a great friend of the family, and in the Town Archives is a cabinet photograph of Mrs. Polly Tait, inscribed to Mrs. Helms, who had helped deliver the Taits’ two sons in town. Dave was a public-spirited man, donating land for the Deerland School in 1890. He served as postmaster for the Grove Post Office for fifteen years, and as soon as he moved to Grove (as the settlement was then known), Dave got behind the project of improving the track from his place, where the road from town ended, to Blue Mountain Lake. In 1899, he sold his hotel to A.D. Brown of New Jersey and built a house across the road.
While Bill and Dave Helms took their hunters and fishermen around the central Adirondacks in guideboats, a new means of transportation was available by the time David’s son Oakman (1884-1956) went out on his own. Oakman adopted the gasoline engine. By 1908, Oakman had a gasoline-powered launch which was used in fighting the great 1908 fire that destroyed Long Lake West and probably, in quieter times, ferried people up and down the lake. By the 1930s, he was living in the house across the road from the Grove House, and had built a commercial garage adjacent. The house, now empty, and the concrete foundations of the garage, still sit at the corner. From there, Oakman ran a car service, taking people from the train station at Sabattis or Raquette Lake to one of the town’s hotels, boarding houses, or their own camps. He would go farther afield, as well.
In 1938, he drove to New York to fetch the Browns, owners of Grove House (which they had renamed Deerland Lodge). Like the hotel, the post office had changed names, and Oakman was postmaster of the Deerland Post Office. And like his father and later Helmses, Oakman worked for the community in matters such as seeing to the arrangements for a ball at the Forester’s Hall in the first decade of the twentieth century. The Hall, which is now an antique store, was quite the venue for balls in those years, with LaPelle’s Orchestra often providing the music. Oakman’s son Herbert (1916-1998) worked in the garage until World War II began,
when he and his brother Gilbert enlisted in the Army Air Force and furthered their involvement with gasoline engines. Oakman held a farewell banquet for them at the Hedges in Blue Mountain Lake. Gib became a pilot in a B-24, and was shot down in 1944, spending the rest of the war in a German prison camp. Herb served as a B-24 navigator. He was wounded and received a Purple Heart, but flew thirty successful missions in his time overseas. The brothers both came home as first lieutenants.
Herb had learned to love flying during his time in the service, and along with Gib and their younger brother Edward, started Helms Aero Service in 1947. Ed put their first plane in the trees and decided flying wasn’t for him; Gib left the business a few years later, leaving Herb as sole owner. He leased town land alongside the beach for his base, establishing Long Lake’s identity as “the town with the planes on the beach.” Within a few years, Helms Aero Service had two regular pilots and four planes, each suitable for a different purpose. They flew for both government programs and private citizens, stocking fingerlings in remote ponds, flying regular fire-spotting runs, assisting researchers tracking radio-collared deer and surveying beaver ponds, transported summer residents to and from their estates and hunters and fishers to remote ponds, and flew lumber to backcountry locations for camps and outhouses.
They searched for lost hikers and planes, landing once on Lake Colden to evacuate a man complaining of chest pains. One of Herb’s early customers was the fabled hermit Noah John Rondeau, who, when he needed a dose of “civilization,” would stay at the Adirondack Hotel. Before returning to the woods, Rondeau would pick out his groceries and leave them with Herb, who would fly them up the Cold River and drop them at Rondeau’s hut. And, of course, he took sightseers on short runs to see the Adirondacks from a new perspective.
Just as Herb’s grandfather and great-grandfather had had to know the woods intimately to guide their customers to a place to catch a fat trout or shoot a noble buck, so did the early bush pilots need to know the mountains. Norton “Bus” Bird (1908-2000) started a flying service a few years after Herb and used the memorable ad slogan, “Fly With Bird.” Bus remembered that the early pilots “flew contact,” without instruments, and the cardinal rule was never lose sight of the ground. They had to assess the local weather in the little pockets where they landed, as well as the routes in and out. Bus also remembered that Herb Helms “no doubt had more time in the air than any bush pilot in the state.”
Herb’s son Tom (1946-2022) followed his father into the military. When he came home, he obtained his commercial pilot’s license, married Julia Sandiford, and joined the business just in time for the State Land Use Master Plan to go into effect with its prohibition on motorized vehicles in wilderness areas. This was a major blow to the Park’s seaplane pilots, reducing the number of lakes they could land on by 700. Herb fought the State in court for years, joined as plaintiffs by Tom and the other two seaplane operators, Payne’s Air Service and Bird’s Seaplane Service, saying, as their lawyer put it, “the airplane is unique in that it has the least environmental impact of any vehicle” in terms of the amount of time it is noisy on a given lake (about 30 seconds according to Helms) and the damage it does to the area surrounding the lake (none). Flying also benefits people who might otherwise not be able to get into the wilderness. The pilots never could prevail against the state and supporting conservation organizations, however.
Ironically, after the bans were firmly in place, Tom landed on an otherwise prohibited lake to rescue Anne LaBastille, then a commissioner of the Adirondack Park Agency, and her dog. Latterly, Helms Aero Service lands regularly on only about eight lakes. Tom took over the business in 1998 when his father died. The work now is different from when his father started flying almost 80 years ago. These days, the main business is taking families up for 15-minutes sightseeing flights and moving fishers and hunters to the backcountry, although they will still aid in rescue operations or report signs of fire—particularly important as the state no longer uses fire towers. For most of the 75-year history of commercial bush pilots in the Adirondacks, there were three operators: Helms, Payne’s, and Bird’s. In the summer of 2022, there are two, Payne’s in Inlet and Bird’s in Raquette Lake. Helms in Long Lake is slated for re-opening in 2023.
When asked by the Adirondack Explorer to name his favorite views in the Adirondacks, Tom Helms remembered “climbing out on a gray day just after a hard rain shower that gives rise to wisps of fog; the wet woods are gleaming, and the fog looks like white yarn tying to a green patchwork quilt. Flying late in the day near the mines at Tahawus below broken clouds, and when the sky clears in the west, the low, strong sun finds a hole next to Santanoni and shines on a dense shower just past Mount Adams. We can see two complete circle rainbows, brillant and compact…. But then a sight of yellow tamarack in a swamp in late fall is special, too. Pretty much every view is.”
We thank him, and the four generations of Helmses before him, for sharing their special views with us.
Great story, Hallie.
I went to Camp Onondaga on Long Lake for the first time in 1947. My father was a counselor at the camp. On one of his days off, he took me into town where he put me on a Helms plane piloted by Herb. (My dad was too scared of flying to go up himself!)
My wife and I have canoed the entire route of the 90-miler from Old Forge to Saranac Lake Village. Whereas those in the race do it in three days, it took Barbara and me 37 years!
Our family beginning in 93 flew with the Helms for many years, first with Herb then Tom and a few times with Tom Jr…..It is heartwarming to see that this iconic family business will reopen next year…..Thanks Hallie for this beautiful story of the Helms family….
For many years begining in 93 our family flew with the Helm’s. First with Herb then Tom and even some with Tom Jr. We have such great memeories of those times.It is wonderful to learn that this iconic family business will take wing again next summer. We wish them nothing but the best.
Hallie, thank you for this beautiful story of the Helms Family history…..
Wonderful article. I always love reading about our town history but enjoyed the focus on Tom and his family. I grew up with him and miss him and his dad so this touched my heart. Thank you.
Before the 90 Miler there was the 44 Miler form the beach in Long Lake to Tupper Lake. I was stationed at Andrews AFB outside Washington DC at the time and came up for the race. I accidentally left my Air Force Field Jacked on the beach at the start of the race and was back on base before I missed it. The next year I drive up from Andrews again for the race and Mrs. Helms came over and said “Oh John, we have your field jacket at the house, you should stop by after the race to pick it up”. I did and had a nice conversation with them and even had something to eat. This was back in 1973 & 1974. Before the Air Force I had worked at Huntington Forest in Newcomb and had friends in Long Lake and new of the Helms but not first hand. This was just typical of a day in the life , or year, of this wonderful family. I’ll never forget that kind gesture.
Loved this article. It takes me back to childhood. I sure do miss those people and hoping this summer we will again hear the familiar rev of Herb’s airplane engine as it sails past my sister’s house on the lake. Thanks for writing. Love reading your pieces.