Friday, January 5, 2024

Forest Rangers’ Wives – A Story of Dedication

NYS forest rangers and their wives

By Louis Curth

Retired forest ranger Gary Lee’s recollections about the life that he and Karen shared at the West Canada Lakes Ranger Station tell an important story about the vital role of forest ranger wives back in the 1960s. In those days, [female] forest rangers were scarce to non-existent. It was no secret that the Conservation Department favored hiring married men for ranger positions. Married men were viewed as more reliable and better able to fit into the rural community lifestyle of most of the assigned ranger districts. On top of that, the department obtained the many additional services performed by the ranger’s wife for free! 


When I came on as a forest ranger in 1964, I saw firsthand how important the rangers’ wives were to getting the job done – especially since I didn’t have one yet. Over time, my admiration for these amazing women only increased. Time and again I saw how these ranger wives, from all kinds of backgrounds and with vastly different  personalities, managed to fit their lives around their ranger husband’s career, to help him get the job done. Many wives became active community leaders as well. 


In those days, forest rangers were required to maintain a public office at their homes. In more remote areas such as West Canada Lakes, state-owned cabins were provided. Most ranger headquarters, however, were privately owned or rented by the ranger. When the ranger was away, it fell to the ranger’s wife to answer phone calls and greet the public coming to their door at all hours. When the fire tower observers were not on duty, and before we had effective radio dispatching, it was the ranger wives who kept tabs on the rangers to make sure they made it home safely. 


Family weekends and holidays had to be adapted to ranger work schedules and emergencies. Some wives issued burning and camping permits, and even had to shoo the occasional inebriated hunter off the front porch when their husbands were elsewhere.  Some were deputized as fire wardens. Others were hired by the department to maintain fire weather stations for a small stipend. Ranger wives did all of this and more, while raising children, cooking, cleaning, and doing their best to keep the family running  smoothly.

Banner for 1985 NYS forest preserve centennial

Photo provided by Louis Curth.

During fire emergencies, wives made sandwiches and fed fire crews. They phoned around to recruit help, and delivered food, tools, and supplies to the scene of fires and searches. Talk about multi-tasking –  the ranger wives invented it! If that wasn’t enough, they cheerfully accepted rangers and other personnel into their homes. I can’t count the number of times Lynn Day, Jim Ide, Gib White, Vic Sasse and I – or some other variation of rangers – sat and  drank coffee in Jane Day’s  kitchen before heading out into the woods. Nor will I forget Stella’s hospitality whenever Vic Sasse and I got together in North River.


The long list of contributions made by ranger wives was extremely important to success in the ranger job. The wives were our unsung heroes, and the rangers of that era can never thank them enough for all they did.


On September 13, 1985, the DEC finally acknowledged the services performed by ranger wives with a banquet in their honor. On that night, they were recognized and thanked as part of the official Forest Preserve Centennial celebration program held [in] Lake Placid. It was a well-deserved tribute – even if too long overdue.


On Sunday, September 15, 1985, as the centennial events came to a close, the forest ranger wives gathered together with their husbands and DEC Commissioner Henry G. Williams for the group photograph seen [above.]


In closing, let me add my congratulations to Karen and Gary Lee celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary. Well done!


Capt. Louis Curth (ret.)

NYS Forest Rangers 


Photo at top: Forest ranger wives gathered together with their husbands and DEC Commissioner Henry G. Williams for a group photograph in 1985. Photo provided by Louis Curth.

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9 Responses

  1. Alan Jones says:

    Wonderful story. About 1970, my wife and I were canoeing from Raquette Lake to Long Lake. There are several long and tough carries on the Raquette River between these bodies of water. Our guidebook told us that the Ranger’s wife at Forked Lake provided a shuttle service. We used her services two different years. She was very reliable and very pleasant.

  2. David Gibson says:

    Simply outstanding. And so well documented. These stories by retired rangers Lou Curth and Gary Lee remind us all, lest we forget, that when any of us, by being un or underprepared or by behaving impulsively and thoughtlessly in the wild forest and wilderness of the Adirondack or Catskill Forest Preserve, we place not just the responding Forest Rangers at risk, but also their family and loved ones.

  3. Katharine Gibson says:

    While I am glad this piece is recognizing the sacrifices women made on behalf of their husband’s careers, I am saddened that there is no reflection of how the women felt about this from their own words. They ” cheerfully” accepted people into their homes but is that what they experienced, or what the writer assumes was genuine happiness rather than the expectation of unpaid hospitality? . A banquet is great but I feel that this is where the acknowledgement will end, and proper acknowledgement requires reflection that this system benefited some but it was unfair to others, and that is completely absent here- likely because the piece is written from the point of view of someone who was benefitting from it. It’s a tricky thing to walk a line between acknowledging women who went above and beyond, and glorifying this type of unpaid labor on behalf of their husband’s job as the gold standard. I fear this writer leans too far to the latter, as he never once expresses regret for this system, or that this expectation of wives at that time was unfair. When the writer talks about the great memories of having coffee in another ranger’s home, it feels like he’s reminiscing about the ” good old days” with only his experience to draw on- that of benefitting from the unpaid labor of a woman. Why not take a step further and ask those wives what it was like and quote them; feature them? The writer is clearly grateful for the unpaid labor these wives did alongside everything else expected of them as a traditional wife, but gratitude without acknowledgement of the inequality which allowed the writer to blissfully sip his coffee with his buddies is not as effective or convincing. I just hope the writer washes the dishes once in a while.

  4. Wanda Murtagh-Dorchak says:

    Loved this story Lou Curth

  5. Gary Lee says:

    Thanks Lou, You nailed it, as they did a lot more!

  6. Helen K Chase says:

    I have said this often, as one person who cares deeply about our unique Forest Preserve – that the NYS DEC is the “Peoples’ State Agency” – it watches over (…among many things, including) the Forest Preserve and its public lands – and the Forest Rangers watch over the users of those public lands (yes, and even the adjacent private lands). They are our angels (this being the Holiday Season and all). It is so important that our Forest Rangers be well-trained for their specific purposes and duties on the lands of New York State. We are very fortunate that Forest Rangers – and their families – watch over us in the forests, on the mountains, and in the waters of our public lands, and hopefully those families will grow another generation of young people who want to stay “in the woods” and follow in the footsteps of their parents. We need more Forest Rangers to watch over the increasing number of users of our public lands. Thank you (!) to the Forest Rangers and their families.

  7. Terry Barber says:

    …and they all accomplished their duties with care and compassion! Thank you Rangers and families!

  8. Nice article, Lou!
    The National Museum of Forest Service History has a podcast series available on the very same topic, “What Did We Get Ourselves Into?” From Ehlers Koch’s wife Gerda and the start of the US Forest Service, to Carma Bosworth, whose husband Dale rose through the ranks to become Chief of the USFS, it is a fascinating look at the role of the Rangers’ wives.

    Hans Erdman
    MN DNR State Park Ranger (Ret.)

  9. louis curth says:

    Hello Hans,
    What a nice surprise to hear from you after so many years. Lot’s of memories when you were part of the ranger scene here in the High Peaks.
    Thanks for the article link on ranger wives.

    Here’s a link back to you about our need for more rangers here to get ready for the looming fire disasters of global warming, if you are interested.
    All the best to you in 2024.

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