Monday, March 4, 2024

Willett Randall and the Music of the Adirondacks

When most people think of Adirondack Music, they usually think of a lively fiddle at a square dance or a guitar strumming an old folksong around a campfire, but to Willett Randall the true music of the Adirondacks was the sound of a pack of beagles. To him the sharp throaty yelps of an America Patch Beagle on the scent, nose to the ground, running the trail was a joyful symphony.  To him, it was the music of the mountains themselves. 

Willett was born in 1875 and, like so many others, came to North Creek when his father, J.B. Randall, was called to preach at the local Baptist church. It soon became apparent that the preacher’s boy preferred the company of animals to that of people and had developed a knack for caring for the wounded and abandoned critters people would bring to him. Willett only attended school until he was 13 years old. He dropped out, bullied by other kids who couldn’t understand why he was more interested in learning about Adirondack animals than playing baseball. But by then beagles had earned a special place in Willett’s heart. He bought his first hound with the twenty dollars he won in an essay contest and immediately began breeding them, a passion that would last a lifetime as would his ability to write.

There seemed to be plenty of work around for a young man who knew the ways of Adirondack creatures. He was hired by Richard Hudnut who had made a fortune in perfumes and beauty products before eagerly purchasing 1200 acres  near Johnsburg. Hudnut was building an impressive house and fancied his place a kind of wildlife refuge.  He wanted Willett to build a brick and concrete structure that resembled a place where a red fox might live in the wild. It was to have a fenced run and, like the Hudnut house, it was to be top of the line.  Then Willett was told to catch a young fox, or kit, to live in the exclusive structure and when the fluffy little red fellow was added, the Hudnut estate had its name, Foxlair. Willett enjoyed working there and even tamed a pair of fawns to eat out of his hand, swearing that with a little kindness and a lot of patience, just about anything could be tamed. Unfortunately that may not have applied to humans because he was fired although he always claimed to never know why.

After Foxlair Willett was hired to manage the Beavermeadow Farm, a lonely isolated place between North River and Indian Lake with only an odd collection of ghosts for company. The Beavermeadow Farm had the usual cattle and sheep and was a good place for his beagle kennel, but Willett decided to add a herd of Nubian Goats. That’s when he really became interested in breeding the best of the strain to develop the most desirable of its trait. Today it would be called genetics.  His efforts apparently met with success because he sold eight of the long floppy eared animals to a buyer in Argentina. But Willett still seemed a natural target for teasing. The North Creek Newspaper, the Enterprise, reported that whenever he visited in town, people were always trying to “get his goat”.  

After a few years Willett resigned from the Beavermeadow Farm when his aging father asked him to move back closer to North Creek, promising to buy and stock a farm for him to run where he could keep his kennel of beagles. Before he left Beavermeadow, Willett scratched “In memory of my beagle pets” on a big rock as a memorial to the dogs he had buried near there. He said goodbye to the ghosts and headed to the farm that would soon become known as “The Arc.”

In addition to the beagle kennel, the farm soon became a home for injured deer, raccoons, and rabbits along with a bear that stood on his hind legs to eat out of Willett’s hand. But he did have a non-Adirondack native, a monkey named Joe.  In good weather Joe was kept in a big cage in the front yard. He escaped one day and Willett thought he had seen the last of him but five weeks later Joe turned up in Lucerne, chasing some local chickens. It wasn’t hard for the police to figure out who Joe’s owner was and they called the Arc asking Willett to come get his monkey. A few years later Willett had to drive to Brookgreen, South Carolina with a load of wildlife. He had three of his friends go with him to help with the driving and knowing  Joe’s fondness for travel, decided to take him along too. One of the boys became particularly friendly with Joe and they were soon sharing peanuts out of a cup. Every time they stopped for gas the boys went into the store and came out with a canned beverage in a paper bag. This was shared with Joe too. 

Willett began working for the New York State Conservation Department. Considered an authority on the behavior and habits of Adirondack animals, he was often asked to give talks to rangers as well as the public and frequently brought some of his menagerie along. He began writing articles for magazines like Hounds and Hunting and had a weekly column in the North Creek News Enterprise. People started to call him a naturalist.

But Willett’s true joy remained his beagles. Originally bred from larger scent hounds in Europe and brought to the US in 1840, the smaller dogs were given the name beagle from the gaelic word for “little.” The beagle was recognized as a separate breed by the American Kennel Club in 1885. Willett, using his knowledge of breeding, was intent on developing a strain with traits tailored to the Adirondacks, a strain with the nose, endurance, and determination to track rabbits. Since he had started the line with a dog named Forest Patch he decided to register his kennel as the Patch Kennel.  Willett’s happy little dogs, with their distinctive throaty bay and happy yelp, weighed around 20 pounds and were either thirteen or fifteen inches high with long floppy ears. Perhaps the most distinctive thing about Willett’s beagles was their color. They had a tan, black or red patch on their furry white coat and the American Kennel Club made it official. The breed became known as the American Patch Beagle.

Before long word had spread about Willett’s beagles and people came from all over the country to North Creek to visit the Arc and buy one of his dogs. Some were even shipped to hunters who couldn’t come to North Creek but were still eager to own a strain of Patch Beagle bred in the Adirondacks. The popularity of the Patch Beagle continued to grow with their performance at field trials like those hosted by the Northern Hare Beagle Club in North Creek. Dogs from throughout the northeast were entered and while the owners stayed at the American Hotel, the Gaines Dogfood Company provided food for all the four-legged contestants.  

The field trials were a unique competition. Three to seven dogs would be let loose at one time and two judges would rank each dog on their ability to find the scent of a rabbit then follow its trail. The dogs were never to harm the rabbit just as retrievers are never to harm the birds they are sent to fetch. Judges looked for a dog that could search a wide area until they found the scent then follow the trail through all kinds of terrain; dry field, dense under growth, and wet swamp like the Cooper Swamp on the North Creek –Wells Road. The dog had to show good endurance, the ability to run all day, and the determination to find their target and not get distracted by the occasional squirrel or startled deer (resulting in a beagle’s inbred stubborn streak familiar to owners today). This is where the music comes in. The owner must follow their dog but since it’s impossible to keep up with them or even keep them in sight, only by listening for their unique bark can the dog be located.  

When World War II broke out, there was little call for hunting dogs. Willard was too old to be drafted but instead kept up with his beagle kennel and the other animals at the Ark. After the war a small zoo named Animal Land was developed outside of Lake George. Knowing of Willard’s skill with animal care, the owners hired him to take charge of the animals even though he was 78 years old. He continued to write articles for the magazines, speak at Conservation meetings, and even wrote a book, Wilderness Patchwork , telling stories of his life and his beagles.   

At the age of 93 Willard fell and broke his hip, passing away soon after. His obituary called him “the famed naturalist” who was “a self-taught lover of the land and wildlife”. Willard had once said he thought of dying as merely following the hounds to the other side of the swamp. So on a cold Adirondack night if you step outside to see the stars you may think you hear the sound of beagles following the scent, the music of the Adirondacks. It’s only Willard following the pack to the far side of the swamp.

Photos provided by the author.

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Jane Hartenstein is the author of the Voices series of historical fiction novels. She has written and produced two documentary films for the North Creek Depot Museum in North Creek, New York; Teddy Roosevelt; Ride to Destiny and Dr. Thomas Durant; Railroad Pioneer. Jane is a member of the Florida Writers Association and the Mental Health Writers Association. When she is not at home in North River, she can be found speaking on colonial field surgery at the Castillo San Marco National Park or explaining the use of 19th century water treatments at the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Florida.

4 Responses

  1. Deana Wood says:

    Nice article Jane.

  2. Spent many weekends as a young adult, hunting snowshoe hare with beagles in the central highlands near Mt. Ellen in Vermont, when the vegetation of young conifers and small Aspen whips were at a optimum. We had to figure out where the hare would go based on the yelps from the beagle. By the way, we no longer have the vegetation that supports the Snowshoe hare densities that are also prey for many predators.

    • Jane says:

      So many of our Adirondack memories have vanished. We were truly fortunate to have been able to experience and know those things that make the Adirondacks so special.

  3. Amy Godine says:

    Pretty great read! Thank you!

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