Friday, May 19, 2023

“I’m new at this, what’s your excuse?”

Guest playing tennis and ball boy, Sagamore Lodge, ca. 1913.

Guest playing tennis and ball boy, Sagamore Lodge, ca. 1913.

By Robert Engel

Great Camp Sagamore’s Historian from 2017 – May, 2023

Margaret Emerson Vanderbilt loved to compete. She also expected her guests at Sagamore to engage each other on the field of battle, be it croquet, tennis, or canoe racing. As a guest of Margaret’s, you didn’t have to win but you did have to play. Did the actress Gene Tierney and the business magnate Howard Hughes confront one another on Sagamore’s tennis court? Sure they did, maybe. Did General George Marshall play Madame Chiang Kai-Shek in a croquet match on the Main Lodge lawn while discussing the fate of the world? Why not?

Competition was Margaret’s way of drawing people together. The idea was that if you met someone new at Sagamore and then spent the day either teamed together, or competing against one another, you would have plenty to talk about at dinner.

The best part was that famous guests did not need to discuss the work that made them famous. They could instead talk about missed wickets and sizzling backhands. At Sagamore, they had the rare opportunity to feel and act unaffected by their fame. How wonderful.

There’s a favorite moment near the end of the history tour at Great Camp Sagamore. The guide has led his or her group out of the Playhouse, where Margaret’s guests might have competed at pool, ping pong, dancing, and martini mixing, not necessarily in that order. Now, at the closed entrance of the last building on the tour, the guide will recap Sagamore’s gaming traditions as they ask first-time visitors to guess the function of the building they are about to enter. Does anybody know?

That’s right, the Vanderbilts bowled.

Great Camp Sagamore’s historic open-air bowling alley. Photo by Kevin Hong

When Margaret’s late husband, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, was 18-years old in 1895, he attended his Uncle George’s family-only Christmas party at Biltmore, George’s new estate in North Carolina. George Vanderbilt surprised the family with a shiny two-lane bowling alley in the basement of his enormous mansion. Eighteen years later Alfred built his bowling alley, but not in a basement.

Sagamore’s open-air, two-lane Brunswick bowling alley was constructed ca. 1914. To prevent frost heaves, the building sits on a solid, six-foot slab of reinforced concrete. Not even Adirondack winters can budge that. With spruce log roof and trusses, cedar posts, and no walls, the century-old lanes remain straight and true.

The building has a rough-stone fireplace for warmth and atmosphere, and a string of electric lights that were originally powered by the camp’s hydroelectric powerhouse. The lanes had no automatic pinsetters, but they did have a patented Loop-the-Loop ball return.

The caretakers’ kids set the pins which earned them the title of Pin Monkeys – how exotic. The Collins siblings always claimed they were paid a nickel per game. (Howard Hughes carried nickels?) Later in life, they never revealed the saucy conversations they certainly overheard while setting pins for America’s cultural elite, with bowling ball, cocktail, and cigar in hand, not necessarily in that order. (See title.)

Sagamore’s historic lanes are still in use. Now our annual crop of interns set the pins; it’s actually hard work. And, for historical accuracy, Sagamore still pays them with nickels.

Bowlers and the Loop-the-Loop ball return, Great Camp Sagamore, 2019. Photo by Roger Smith

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Robert Engel is historian at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake.

One Response

  1. Eric Hancock says:

    Love this. I can’t believe the weather hasn’t affected the lanes.

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