Almanack Contributor Robert Engel

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

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.

» Continue Reading.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Digging into Native Americans’ history in the Adirondacks

native american pottery shards

A young boy on my tour last year asked a simple question, “were there Indians here?” With nowhere else to go, I repeated the worn-out line that Native American people used the Adirondacks as hunting grounds. It was an unsatisfying response, for both of us. As Sagamore’s historian, I knew as much as that kid about 98% of the area’s human timeline.

I quickly found a small but growing body of research on Native American history in central and northern New York State. I also learned that these topics, this knowledge, is not new. From my perspective, I could dig into books and articles about the academic pursuit of knowledge. But, Native Americans have been telling their own stories from the beginning. To properly answer that boy’s question, Sagamore needs to welcome the perspectives of the people about whom we’re speaking.

The Eurocentric university-based perspective and the Native American oral history perspective are often presented in concert, each welcoming the other. I reached out to John Fadden at the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, New York. John’s father Ray Fadden and his family, who lived in the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, opened the center in 1954 so that the general public “may acquire the knowledge needed to better understand the history, culture, contemporary realities, and the potential future of Native Nations.” The center remains northern New York’s leading source for discovering a variety of perspectives on Indigenous people.

» Continue Reading.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Coming home to play

“Oh, how cute!”

That was our first impression on seeing the little piano in Linda Kaiser’s basement in Syracuse.

Then we tried to carry it up a flight of stairs.

Linda had called Great Camp Sagamore’s executive director, Emily Martz, to donate the piano that she and her husband Harvey bought at an auction on Sagamore’s Main Lodge lawn in October 1975.

The piano has only 61 keys – the standard is 88. Margaret Emerson probably bought it for her children to play at Sagamore. Her grandson, Alfred Vanderbilt III, remembers playing a piano with “a strange number of keys” when he would visit camp as a young child.

Linda’s generosity reminds us of the extraordinary confluence of institutions, individuals, and events that surrounded that fall weekend in 1975.

» Continue Reading.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

How to be the life of the (socially distant) party

Spending time at home lately? Maybe it’s an opportunity to pick up a musical instrument.

Good parties need great music, ‘twas always thus. If you can play, you’re the life of the party. Okay, maybe this was truer before the invention of DJs, but it’s still true.

 Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt grew up in the 1880s–1890s hearing superb orchestras play at lavish parties hosted by his parents and others in their social set. Years later, the parties Alfred threw at Sagamore, his Adirondack camp, would not have orchestras, but guests would play the piano.

 And it appears that the host himself had skills. The photo is a little blurry, but just look at Alfred’s smile while he strums his mandolin, sitting on his Main Lodge porch in the summer of 1913. Let’s imagine the scene at the Playhouse that night: “Alfred, where’s your mandolin.” “No, no…well, ok!”

» Continue Reading.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Social distancing from black flies: Durant’s floating houseboat

Who likes black flies? No? Some folks like them, and some like hummingbird liver and pickle relish sandwiches!

Black flies hatch in May and last well into July. They move in packs and bite for blood. I’m pretty sure that’s all they do! You can swat, but that just amuses them. You can move to New Jersey or Antarctica. Or you can do what William West Durant did at Camp Pine Knot.

W.W. Durant built Great Camp Sagamore, but Camp Pine Knot on Raquette Lake was his first. He moved to Raquette as a young man in 1876, where he met his first and his 5-trillionth black fly, both on the same day.

To escape these creepy critters, he built something so cool that we still talk about it.

The strength of the black fly is in the numbers. Alone, they’re clumsy fliers and they can’t cross lakes. So, to escape the flies, Durant built a houseboat and christened it the Barque of Pine Knot.

» Continue Reading.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Good Ole Route 28: A trip that used to be a journey

raquette lake


We take roads for granted. I sure did as a kid riding from Syracuse up to my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Blue Mountain Lake. We drove on Friday nights with my parents and eight brothers and sisters, all stuffed into a station wagon (they were like minivans in 1960s and 70s). My grandfather told us stories about when he was a kid and Route 28 did not exist!

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