Monday, June 28, 2010

Local Power and Energy History: Windmill Déjà Vu

Scores of gigantic wind turbines in the Adirondacks’ northeastern and southwestern foothills are a startling site amidst historically bucolic scenery. The landscape appears “citified,” with structures nearly 40 stories high where the largest buildings rarely top 3 stories. It is a dramatic change, and a far cry from simpler days when family farms were prevalent.

Few realize that in those “simpler days” of dairy farms, windmills were actually quite common across the region. Of course, the windmills once dotting the North Country’s landscape were nothing like today’s behemoths, which stand nearly 400 feet high from the ground to the tip of a skyward-pointing blade. And, the windmills of old weren’t always efficient machines.

Wind technology took a tremendous leap forward in the 1850s thanks to Daniel Halladay, a Connecticut machinist. Halladay’s windmill not only pumped water, but automatically turned to face into the wind as it changed directions. Almost as important, he devised a way to control the speed of the blades (windmills are prone to destruction from within when operating at high rpm levels). Halladay established the US Wind Engine & Pump Company, setting up shop in Illinois. From the start, the business flourished.

Though his sales were focused on the country’s expansion westward, New York State was also experiencing dramatic growth, particularly in the remote northern Adirondack foothills, where pioneers faced a harsh climate and difficult living conditions. Halladay’s invention eventually helped turn some of those weather negatives into positives by taking advantage of wind patterns across upper New York State.

In 1874, the railroad was expanding north from Whitehall towards Plattsburgh. Since steam engines require water, the line generally followed the shore of Lake Champlain. Tanks were constructed along the route where the rails neared the lakeshore. Steam pumps or windmills were used to fill the feeder tanks, which had a capacity of 33,000 gallons each.

As settlers moved north on both sides of the Adirondacks, windmill technology crept northward with them. Farming was necessary for survival, and the enormous workload was eased by mechanical devices like windmills. The description of one man’s operation about 18 miles south of Lowville was typical of the times: “ … a beautiful farm of 280 acres, milks 35 cows, and is a model farm. House, barns, windmill pump, all systematically arranged.”

In situations like that, windmills often filled tanks placed on the upper floor of a barn. The water was then gravity-fed to the livestock below, and piped to other locations as needed. The machine was also used to grind various grains. Early models were mounted on wooden frames, but many fell victim to the very power they were trying to harness, toppling before raging windstorms. Eventually, steel frames supported most windmills.

Wind power wasn’t just for individual homes and farms. In July 1879, H. H. Babcock & Sons of Watertown was hired to install a windmill at 1000 Islands State Park. Water was drawn from the St. Lawrence River to large tanks near the dining hall, and from there was conducted to the various cottages by galvanized iron pipe.

And at Hermon, a contract for $6,595.00 was signed with Daniel Halladay’s company to install a new waterworks system. Included were a wooden tank of 50,000-gallon capacity, a windmill with a wheel diameter of 20 feet, and more than a mile of piping. The frost-proof tank was 24 feet in diameter, 16 feet high, and 3 inches thick. It sat on a trestle 20 feet high, while the windmill stood on a trestle 80 feet high.

Many hotels, including the Whitney House in Norwood and the Turin House in Turin, used windmills to power their water systems. At Chazy, windmills pumped water from the quarries; at Port Henry, they filled water tanks for the trains; and at Saranac Lake, they fed the water supply of the Adirondack Sanitarium.

In 1889, George Baltz of Watertown handled the Halladay display at the Jefferson County Fair, demonstrating that windmills furnished cheaper power than steam engines and could run a feed mill, a circular saw for cutting wood, or pump water.

Though Halladay’s products were widely known, he did have competitors. Some added their own modifications, and some were “copycats.” And they weren’t all products from afar. In 1882, an advertisement touted a windmill “warranted to take care of itself in high winds, equal to the best western mills, and is sold for half the money. It is manufactured at Potsdam.” It featured a self-regulator, and appeared to be based on Halladay’s own successful model.

In the late 1890s, most of the windmills in the Ticonderoga and Lake George area were products of the Perkins Windmill Company, which had already installed more than 50 units across the lake in Vermont. Though windmills in the Midwest were primarily for irrigation, most of those in the North Country supplied water to homes, businesses, and farm animals.

Wind power did face competition from other sources. Gasoline engines became more and more common, offering a reliable alternative. However, they were expensive, noisy, and costly to run. An operator had to be present to start and stop a gas engine, while windmills employed a system of floats to start and stop filling the tanks automatically. A once-a-week oiling was the only required maintenance. The biggest problem at the time was that gas engines ran when you wanted them to, but windmills depended on the weather.

The giant turbines we see in northern New York today are not a new idea. In a peek at the future, Charles Brush of Cleveland, Ohio demonstrated in 1888 the first use of a large windmill to generate electricity. As early as 1895, observers noted that windmills were “destined to be much used for storing electricity. We predict an immense future for the windmill industry.”

In 1910, a farm in America’s Midwest employed windmills to charge a bank of batteries. Wind power provided electricity to light the farm and operate the equipment, and when the wind didn’t blow, the farm ran on battery power for a few days.

By 1925, wind turbines had been used to run refrigerators, freezers, washing machines, and power tools. And in 1926, the NYS Fair urged farmers to purchase windmills, using a 12-foot-high model to show the benefits they might enjoy. It was an enticing glimpse at the potential of electricity. Ironically, the popularity of windmills soon became their undoing.

Though they were a wonderful source of cheap power, the main problem was intermittent operation. When the wind didn’t blow, the tools didn’t go. Battery storage systems were only good for brief periods, and people wanted power WHEN they wanted it. Soon, another overriding factor arose—the growing need for huge amounts of electricity.

By the late 1930s and 1940s, constantly flowing electricity was the goal, relegating wind power to the background of the energy battle. It was still used, and advancements were pursued, but success was limited. One notable effort was the huge Smith-Putnam windmill installed atop Grandpa’s Knob near Castleton and Rutland, Vermont, in 1941.

Though less than half the size of today’s models, it was still large, featuring a 16-ton, 175-foot steel rotor that turned at 28 RPM. Occasional use ended abruptly in 1945 when metal fatigue caused the blade to snap, hurling a huge section 1000 feet down the mountain.

In the North Country, windmills have returned after a long hiatus. They stand ten times taller than their predecessors, and now pump electricity instead of water. Where potato, hop, and dairy farms once dominated, the wind farms of today stand above all others.

Photo Top: Windmills 400 feet tall at Churubusco (and another under construction in the foreground).

Photo Middle Right: Typical use of windmill to fill railroad water tanks.

Photo Middle Left: Halladay windmills were offered by George Baltz of Watertown.

Photo Bottom: Advertisement for Halladay’s company.

Lawrence Gooley has authored eight books and several articles on the North Country’s past. He and his partner, Jill McKee, founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004 and have recently begun to expand their services and publishing work. For information on book publishing, visit Bloated Toe Publishing.


Saturday, June 26, 2010

Venison and Potato Chips: Native Foodways Lecture

During the nineteenth century, a number of Adirondack Indians marketed their skill as hunters, guides, basket makers, doctors, and cooks.

On Monday, July 5, 2010 Dr. Marge Bruchac will offer a program entitled “Venison and Potato Chips: Native Foodways in the Adirondacks” at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Bruchac will focus attention on what might be a lesser-known Native skill – cooking.

The first offering of the season for the museum’s Monday Evening Lecture series, the presentation will be held in the Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. There is no charge for museum members. Admission is $5.00 for non-members.

Nineteenth century white tourists paid good money to purchase wild game from Native people, to hunt in their territories, to buy medicines and remedies, and to eat in restaurants or lodgings where Indians held sway in the kitchen.

Dr. Bruchac will highlight stories of individuals such as Pete Francis, notorious for hunting wild game and creating French cuisine; George Speck and Katie Wicks, both cooks at Moon’s Lake House and co-inventors of the potato chip; and Emma Camp Mead, proprietress of the Adirondack House, Indian Lake, N.Y., known for setting an exceptionally fine table.

Bruchac contends that these people, and others like them, actively purveyed and shaped the appetite for uniquely American foods steeped in Indigenous foodways.

The Adirondack Museum celebrates food, drink, and the pleasures of eating in the Adirondack Park this year with a new exhibition, “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions.” The exhibit includes a 1915 photograph of Emma Mead as well as her hand-written recipes for “Green Tomato Pickles” and “Cranberry Puffs.”

Marge Bruchac, PhD, is a preeminent Abenaki historian. A scholar, performer, and historical consultant on the Abenaki and other Northeastern native peoples, Bruchac lectures and performs widely for schools, museums, and historical societies. Her 2006 book for children about the French and Indian War, Malian’s Song, was selected as an Editor’s Choice by The New York Times and was the winner of the American Folklore Society’s Aesop Award.

Photo: Dr. Marge Bruchac


Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ausable and Boquet River Associations Hosting Native Plant Sales

The Ausable and Boquet River Associations (AsRA and BRASS) will host native plant sales offering gardeners a selection of plants native to northern NY and the Adirondacks. A Master Gardener will also be present to offer gardening advice.

BRASS will host a sale tomorrow, on Friday, June 25 from 9-1pm at the Elizabethtown Farmer’s Market located on Hand Avenue. AsRA will host a sale this Sunday, June 27 from 9-2pm at the Keene Valley Farmer’s Market located at Marcy Field. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Farmers Market Returns to Adirondack Wild Center

The Wild Center welcomes local farmers and crafters back for a weekly seasonal market, beginning Thursday, June 24th from 11-3 pm. Over a dozen vendors from the Adirondacks and the Champlain and St. Lawrence valleys will return to the summer pavilion tent at the museum. Meats and vegetables, baked goods and herbs, hand-made crafts, honey and maple syrup will be available for sale by the producers who grew or made them. Vendors may include Sunwarm Gardens, South Meadow Farm Maple Sugarworks, Underwood Farms, The Cupcake Market, Lake Flour Bakery, Well Dressed Foods, Kirbside Gardens and Merchia Farms, plus many more.

Though this is only the second season for The Wild Center market the sponsor, Adirondack Farmers’ Market Cooperative, marks its 20th anniversary this year. Celebrations will be taking place at farmers’ markets around the region this summer. The Wild Center market will host an anniversary event at the market on August 12th with music, a pie contest, crafts and more.

Buying local food can have great benefits for you and your neighborhood. Local food can be healthier for you, and there is something special that happens when you meet the people who have made the food that you feed your family.

The market will be held every Thursday through September 30th, rain or shine, from 11 am to 3 pm. The Wild Center outdoor grill will be open from 11 am- 2 pm featuring produce and meats from the market vendors. All related Farmer Market outdoor programming is free and open to the public. Admission to The Wild Center exhibits and additional programming is not included. For more information and directions please contact The Wild Center www.wildcenter.org or call 518-359-7800


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Let’s Eat: Adirondack Spring Water

The Adirondack Mountains have long been treasured for the healing properties of clean air, beautiful scenery, and sparkling water. The air and scenery could only be experienced in the Park itself, but water could be bottled and shipped elsewhere, and became a major export from the region during the 19th century.

Urban-dwelling New Yorkers in the late 1800s suffered from the effects of overcrowding, poor ventilation, summer heat, and the stresses of working a nine-to-five job. New ills like “dyspepsia” and “neuralgia” could be alleviated with a healthful escape to the Adirondack Mountains, where fresh air, exercise, and pure water would restore the weakest constitution to vigorous health.

For those who could not afford the time or cost of a summer in the mountains, bottled water from Adirondack springs was a more affordable alternative. Bottled water, some imported from overseas, was served in fine restaurants in New York City. Bottled from mineral springs, it often contained slight amounts of sodium bicarbonate, which could soothe an unsettled stomach. Bottled water was valued not only as an aid to digestion, but also for other perceived medical benefits.

In the early 1860s, the St. Regis Spring in Massena, New York, produced water advertised as a “curative for all affections [sic] of the Skin, Liver and Kidneys.” Harvey I. Cutting of Potsdam bottled and sold “Adirondack Ozonia Water,” the “world’s most hygienic water” from a spring “in the wildest portion of the Adirondack wilderness, far from the contaminations of human habitation” near Kildare in St. Lawrence County.

Cutting’s advertising included testimonials from satisfied customers. G.W. Schnull, a wholesale grocer in Indianapolis, Indiana, wrote in 1905, “I have used your Adirondack Ozonia Water for several months and find it to be the best water I have ever had. It acts on the kidneys and bowels in such a way as not to be annoying.” With typical Victorian hyperbole, the company touted the water’s “most excellent medicinal qualities,” claiming it cured hay fever, “congestion of the brain and prostate gland,” breast cancer, rheumatism, inflammation of the bladder, Bright’s disease, and “stomach troubles.”

By 1903, the Malone Farmer reported “an average of 1,500 gallons of Adirondack water is shipped from Lowville to Watertown each week. The water is sold in that city in three gallon cases at 15 cents per case.” In 1911, the Ogdensburg Advance and St. Lawrence Weekly Democrat ran a story in the Farm and Garden column advocating “Water as a Crop,” as “a great many cities are complaining of the inferior quality of the water furnished by city waterworks.” Water wagons, bearing loads of spring water, were a common sight in many cities, and a “profitable trade in bottled water could be worked up at little cost to the farmer, provided, of course, they have never failing springs of pure water from which to supply the demand.”

A. Augustus Low (1843-1912), was a prolific inventor, entrepreneur, and owner of the Horse Shoe Forestry Company in northern Hamilton County, near the center of the Adirondack Park. Low produced lumber, maple syrup, wine, and jams and jellies. In the 1880s, his company began exporting bottled water from the “Adirondack Mt’s Virgin Forest Springs.” In 1905, Low designed and patented a glass water bottle with heavy ribs near the neck that strengthened it, reducing breakage while in transit. The ribbing also made the bottles easier to grasp.

In 1908, Low’s Adirondack empire collapsed when a series of devastating forest fires burned through his Adirondack properties. The Adirondack Museum owns several objects relating to the Horse Shoe Forestry Company’s products, including one of Low’s spring water bottles and the patent he received for its design. Both are on exhibit in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions,” open in 2010 through October 18.


Photo: Bottle for spring water, Horse Shoe Forestry Company, 1903-1905.


Saturday, June 12, 2010

Upper Saranac Cookbook Sales Fight Milfoil

A hardcover cookbook containing more than 500 tried-and-true recipes from residents of Upper Saranac Lake and their families and friends is on sale in Tri-Lakes museums, gift shops and book stores. All proceeds will benefit the fight against invasive milfoil on Upper Saranac Lake.

The Upper Saranac Cookbook: An Adirondack Treasury of 500 Recipes was created by volunteers from Upper Saranac who worked for nine months to produce the approximately 500-page book as a charitable project. » Continue Reading.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Lobbyists Gut Phosphorus Fertilizer Legislation

A bill that would have limited the sale of phosphorus-based fertilizers linked to algae blooms has been gutted by lobbyists’ pressures on legislators.

Among other things, the new version of the bill would prohibit municipalities from enacting stronger regulations without the authorization of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“This was a compromise; the industry did not want local governments passing more restrictive laws once a statewide law was enacted,” said a source within the DEC. “The agriculture community is freaking out about the bill as it stands now,” the source added.

Dan Macentee, a spokesman for Betty Little, Lake George’s representative in the State Senate, confirmed that additional amendments were being drafted to address the concerns of the New York State Farm Bureau. Those amendments are likely to weaken the bill even further, a Senate source said. “The bill’s sponsor, Senator Antoine Thompson, is amenable to amending even his own bills,” said the Senate source. A spokesman for the New York Farm Bureau did not return calls seeking comment before press time.

The current version of the bill restricts the use of fertilizers containing phosphorus within twenty feet of a water body, rather than prohibiting the sale of fertilizers with phosphorus throughout the state, as last year’s version of the bill did.

Prohibiting the use of fertilizers with phosphorus is a crucial step in protecting Lake George’s water quality, said Peter Bauer, executive director of the Fund for Lake George. “Legislation to control phosphorus pollution from household cleaning products and lawn fertilizers is critical to help manage and reduce water pollution. Lake George is enormously important to the local economy. Lake George’s high property values, robust tourism season, sport fishing and boating industries, all require clean water,” said Bauer. If the current version of the bill is enacted, New York State’s regulation of phosphorus would be far weaker than a town-wide ban proposed by Lake George Supervisor Frank McCoy, said Bauer.

The Town of Lake George will consider the proposal as early as June 14, when it is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the proposed ban. If the ordinance is adopted, Lake George will not only be the first town within the watershed to limit phosphorus, but the first community within the Adirondack Park to take that step.

Lake George Town officials officials have posted a survey on the Town’s website to solicit comments about the proposal. The survey will be found on the left side of the site under the heading “Give us your opinion,” along with a conceptual description of the proposal. Opinions submitted through the website will be presented at the public hearing, said McCoy.

Illustration courtesy Lawn to Lake, a program of the Lake Champlain Basin Program.

For more news from Lake George, subscribe to the Lake George Mirror


Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Let’s Eat: Adirondack Ginseng

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius), a perennial herb, once proliferated along the eastern seaboard from Maine to Alabama. It is similar to Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), and was one of the first herbs to be harvested and sold commercially. The name “ginseng” comes from the Chinese word “jen-shen” which means “in the image of a man,” a reference to the shape of the mature root, which resembles the human body.

Wild ginseng in China and Korea has been relatively rare for centuries, a result of over harvesting. It was discovered in central New York in 1751. By the late 18th century, Albany, New York had become a center of trade in ginseng. Most Adirondack ginseng was exported to China where it was (and is) used as a popular remedy.

By the middle of the 19th century, wild American ginseng was in danger of being eradicated by “shang” hunters, who dug up the brittle roots for sale to wholesale enterprises. Horticulture experts and private citizens alike experimented with cultivating the herb.

The September 5, 1906 issue of the Malone Farmer featured a front-page ad: “Wanted—People to grow Ginseng…Any one can do it and grow hundreds of dollars worth in the garden. Requires little ground.” F.B. Mills, of Rose Hill, NY, provided seeds and instructions (at cost) and a promise to buy the mature roots at $8.00 per pound.

Ginseng farming takes patience. It grows in cool, shady areas, in acidic soils such as are found in hardwood forests. The larger and older the root—which can live 100 years or more—the more it is worth. Ginseng is relatively easy to cultivate, but one must wait for the plants to mature over the course of 5-10 years before seeing a return on investment.

Nevertheless, by the turn of the 20th century, ginseng farming was common, and held the promise of great profit. The July 16, 1908 edition of the Fort Covington Sun ran a headline proclaiming “PUT GREAT FAITH IN GINSENG. Chinese Willing to Pay Fabulous Prices for Roots.” In 1904 a Plattsburgh paper reported that L.A. Childs of Chazy “will make an extensive exhibit of this product at the coming Clinton county fair, and this will be the first public exhibit of it ever made in Northern New York.” Three years later Miss Melissa Smith of St. Johnsville, “probably the only woman in America who grows ginseng for a living,” was reported to have roots valued at more than $10,000.

The actual medical benefits of ginseng have been disputed in Western medicine for centuries. The September 19, 1900 issue of the Malone Farmer expressed the opinion that “The ginseng trade is the most extraordinary in the world. American doctors believe it to be practically valueless as a medicine, or at the most about as potent as licorice.” Users claim it increases energy, prolongs life, and induces a feeling of wellbeing.

The Adirondack Museum’s permanent collection includes this ginseng root harvester, used in Franklin County during the late 19th century. Ginseng is never pulled from the ground. Whole, unbroken roots have the greatest value. This tool was used to dig the soil around the plant, some six inches away from the stem. Once the soil around the root was removed, the shang hunter could lift the root out and carefully brush away the dirt.

The market value of ginseng has risen and fallen over the centuries, but it remains an important forest crop. In 1977, the US Fish and Wildlife Service imposed restrictions on the sale of ginseng under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. New York State, as well as most states in the Northeast, tightly regulates the sale and harvest of ginseng. No wild ginseng may be harvested on state lands.

Photo: Ginseng Root Harvester Found in Tupper Lake, NY ca. 1850-1890. Courtesy the Adirondack Museum (2001.38.2).


Friday, May 28, 2010

Lake George Considers Phosphorus Fertilizer Ban

Lake George’s Supervisor wants his town to become the first within the Lake George watershed to ban the use of lawn fertilizers containing phosphorus.

If the ordinance that Supervisor Frank McCoy has proposed is adopted in June, Lake George will not only be the first town within the watershed to limit phosphorus, but the first community within the Adirondack Park to take that step, said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council.

“The Lake George Park Commission should follow the town’s lead and ban phosphorus in fertilizers everywhere on the lake,” said Sheehan. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Let’s Eat: Adirondack Spruce Gum

In the late 19th century, a new fad swept the nation. Chewing gum was decried by newspaper editors and public pundits as “an essentially vulgar indulgence that not only shows bad breeding, but spoils a pretty countenance.” Nevertheless, the June 14, 1894 edition of the Malone Palladium commented, “No observant person can have failed to note the marked growth of the habit of chewing gum…in all parts of the country and among all classes.” The paper noted that even the “late Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was a firm believer in spruce gum chewing.”

The gum-chewing craze began in the conifer forests of Maine and the Adirondacks. Made from the dried and crystallized sap of spruce trees, spruce gum was an important commercial crop in the Adirondack region during the 19th and early 20th centuries. » Continue Reading.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Battling Dandelions in the Adirondack Lawn

Eventually, every naturalist writes a piece about dandelions, those golden discs of sunshine that dot our lawns, raid our gardens, and provide hours of entertainment for children and frustration for adults. The time has come for me to write mine.

The dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, is, quite frankly, an alien invasive. And like many invasives, it has done quite well on our side of the pond. But we really should consider all aspects of this plant before we make any judgments. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Let’s Eat: Oval Wood Dish’s Riteshape

The Oval Wood Dish Company was founded in 1883 in Delta, Ohio. Four years later, the company relocated to Mancelona, Michigan. There they manufactured wooden dishes, made of a single piece of wood, scooped out to form a bowl a sixteenth of an inch thick. The bowls were disposable containers used by butchers as temporary containers for the ground beef and other meats purchased by customers. Eventually, the company replaced the wasteful method of scooping out the bowls with a wood veneer, cut and stapled to form a bowl.

In 1892, the Oval Wood Dish management moved operations again, to Traverse City, Michigan. The firm was successful; by 1899, the plant was using thirteen million feet of lumber annually, and its wooden bowls were in “every grocery store in the nation.”

Success had its price, as the local timber supplies began to run out. Oval Wood Dish planned to move again, to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Those plans took a turn in 1913 when two of the company’s executives vacationed in the Adirondacks. Seeing the vast amounts of local hardwood, the company moved instead to Tupper Lake, New York in 1918.

The community welcomed news of the company’s arrival. The local newspaper reported that the firm would employ 300 men and 200 girls. New construction would be needed to house the influx of workers and their families. Oval Wood Dish revitalized the small logging town. Its owners held company picnics, built the first ski hill, and donated land for the Tupper Lake Country Club golf course. Oval Wood Dish also employed large numbers of women (unusual for its time), advertising that “Tupper Lake Girls Do Better Here.” Female workers were offered “light pleasant work…the factory is clean, light, well ventilated, and warm in Winter.”

Although the firm struggled during the Depression, the company rebounded with the introduction of the “Ritespoon” and “Ritefork” in 1937. The equipment needed to manufacture the new products was designed and tested in the Tupper Lake plant. The Tupper Lake Free Press announced the new line of Riteshape products: “They are the only wooden spoon on the market with a bowl, and the only ones shaped like a metal spoon. Both products are made from selected white birch, and are smooth and sanitary. There are no rough edges or splinters, and they are not rendered useless by heat, oil, or moisture…even when used in hot drinks.” The Ritefork was shaped like the spoon, but with three short tines—the equivalent of the modern “spork.” Both utensils were “packed in cellophane packages which display the contents but prevent contamination.”

The Riteshape line of wooden tableware proved a success. By 1940, Oval Wood Dish employed 539 workers in Tupper Lake, fulfilling predictions that the new line would revitalize the company: “The equipment already in service to turn them out is being worked 24 hours a day.”

Until it went out of business in 1964, Oval Wood Dish manufactured clothespins, bowling pins, tongue depressors, furniture pieces, commercial veneer, hardwood flooring, ice cream and popsicle sticks, and, well into the 1960s, the small, flat spoons many remember from childhood: “Five hundred million wooden spoons alone are produced annually, and the chances are that the wood spoon that comes with your cup of ice cream …brings silent greetings from Tupper Lake.”

Come see the Oval Wood Dish Riteforks (84.51.3) (“The True Shape of Tableware”) and more, in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Opening for the season on May 28, 2010.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ellen Rathbone: The Vagaries of Spring

How many of you cringed when you heard yesterday’s forecast for up to a foot of snow here in the Adirondacks? And how many merely smiled and said “of course…this is the Adirondacks”? However you look at the meterological foibles of the North Country, you have to admit that living up here keeps us on our toes.

Now, I should confess that I am personally responsible for our latest snow storm. Yes, it was I, for last weekend I foolishly decided to plant my peas. But, in my defense, “they” say you can plant peas as soon as the ground can be worked, and this year that could’ve been March! Peas are supposed to be pretty hardy, though, so I’m sure this white coat the ground is now wearing will do very little harm to the hard round peas that are an inch or so beneath the surface.

But what about all the other trees and shrubs and non-woody plants that greened up early? I took this photo on my way in to work this morning – I love the way the new green leaves stand out palely against the white snow. It’s a lovely color. But will they survive? How much damage will they suffer? I suspect that since the temperatures did not drop radically (we were only 30 degrees Fahrenheit last night), they will come through okay.

Many plants are perfectly well-adapted to the seasonal vagaries of spring. The next time you are out wandering the woods this spring, take a look at the stems and leaves of the earliest bloomers. Odds are you will find that at least some part of these plants is covered with hairs. On some these hairs are fine and a challenge to see, while others are covered with a robust downiness that looks downright furry.

Take coltsfoot, for example. Coltsfoot is probably the earliest “wildflower” blooming around here. Usually not open until about the second week of April in my neck of the woods, this year it presented its first blossoms on the 4th. One might be led to think that this flower had been fooled by the ridiculously warm weather we had in late March and early April, but closer examination of the plant shows that it is prepared for any cold weather emergency. Each stem is covered with overlapping scales as well short hairs, both of which help insulate the plant from the wildly erratic temperatures of spring.

Some plants merely close up their flowers when the temperatures head southward. I imagine this is a strategy to preserve nectar for pollinators. After all, bees and flies and other pollinators won’t be flying around when the mercury falls – they are “cold-blooded” creatures that need warmth in order to move, and if they aren’t flying around looking for food, then they won’t be doing any pollinating. The flowers are better off closing up the shop until the sun comes back out and the customers return.

I was driving through central New York yesterday, in the snow, past all those apple orchards that make this state a major player in the apple market. I didn’t see many trees in bloom, but then it was snowing pretty heavily and I was keeping my eyes mostly on the road ahead. But I know that many fruit growers have been concerned as their fruit trees burst into flower earlier and earlier each year, only to get walloped by a “late season” snow storm (which in truth isn’t really late – everything else is early). When that happens, there isn’t much they can do, for apple blossoms are not designed for freezing temperatures.

Already, though, the snow is melting – large, heavy clods are dropping from branches and roofs. By the weekend, the weather prognosticators say the temps will be soaring up to the seventies! All this snow will be gone – a mere memory recorded in photographs and on blogs. The plants that were prepared will continue to blossom and grow. Those that weren’t will either shrivel up and die or will rally their forces and try to produce a new set of flowers/leaves. It’s the cycle of life. They don’t agonize over it. You either adapt and move on, or your genes do not make it into the future. Hm…sounds like a lesson to me.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Let’s Eat: ‘Brekfast’ at the Lake Placid Club

Melville Louis Kossuth Dewey was born on December 10, 1851, in Adams Center, New York. The youngest of five children, he displayed a propensity for organization and efficiency early in life, rearranging his mother’s kitchen cabinets while she was out. At the age of 12, he walked 11 miles from his family’s home in Oneida to Watertown to buy his first book, a copy of Webster’s Dictionary. In 1874, after graduating from Amherst College, Dewey was hired as the college librarian. Shortly thereafter, he created his first Dewey Decimal System for classifying books.

In 1890, Melville and his wife Annie made their first trip to Lake Placid. Both suffered from seasonal allergies and sought relief in the clear air of the Adirondacks. Three years later, Dewey organized a cooperative venture, which he called the Placid Park Club, by inviting a select few to join: “We are intensely interested in getting for neighbors people whom of all others we would prefer.” The Club was to be “an ideal summer home in ideal surroundings,” where people of like background and interests could socialize in an informal atmosphere. Membership would not be extended to anyone “against whom there can be any reasonable physical, social, or race objection. This excludes absolutely all consumptives or other invalids whose presence might endanger the health or modify the freedom or enjoyment of other members.” The first summer season, in 1895, attracted 30 guests. » Continue Reading.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Let’s Eat: Rockwell Kent’s Asgaard Dairy

In 1926 artist Rockwell Kent married Frances Lee, his second wife. An infamous womanizer, Kent made little effort to hide his affairs, even bringing some of his paramours home for dinner with his new bride. In less than a year, the Kent’s marriage was in serious trouble. To save the relationship, Rockwell and Frances agreed to leave New York City and move to a place with fewer temptations.

Frances found a perfect spot in the heart of the Adirondacks–an old farm near Ausable Forks with views of Whiteface. Kent remembered his first view of the property: “The nearer we got to the house the worse it looked; and when we finally came so close as to lose sight of its general proportional unsightliness we became only the more aware of its particular shoddiness.” Nevertheless, the couple purchased the property for $5,000. It was about 200 acres, the heart of the farm “being level meadowland, and the rest pine woods and pasture of a sort…Lock, stock, and barrel we had purchased our farm: the land, the buildings, the team, the cows and heifers, the wagons, implements, and tools.”

Within three weeks of purchasing the property, plans for a new house and barn were complete, and within five weeks contractors had poured the concrete foundations. By snowfall, the buildings were under roof. Kent named the farm “Asgaard,” meaning the “farm of the gods” in Nordic myth. He painted the name in four-foot-high letters on the barn.

The property came complete with a tenant farmer on site. Kent purchased a local milk route, and hired the man to manage the dairy operation. The business of farming did not prove very profitable: “You’d think—I mean that people who have never owned a farm would think—that when a farmer, paying his own taxes and all his costs of operation, can earn enough to live, he’d earn at least as much when someone else pays his taxes and his costs for him, not to mention a salary. But it’s funny about farming…It just doesn’t work out that way.” Kent persisted, finding satisfaction in making his land productive, if not entirely profitable.

During World War II, Kent aided the war effort by doubling Asgaard’s milk production, increasing the size of his herd of Jersey cows, enlarging the barn, and installing a bottling plant so he could sell directly to local customers.

In 1948, Kent’s business ran afoul of local political sentiment when he organized a chapter of the leftist American Labor Party. After distributing political leaflets in Ausable Forks, his customers began canceling orders, one of them saying, “We don’t want Russian milk.” The local Catholic priest visited his workers, telling them to quit and asking them if they were Communists. After losing two employees and the major portion of his customers, Kent gave his entire business to two of his remaining employees and asked them to move it off the property as quickly as possible. When he and Frances received death threats, and a warning that “Someday they’ll be up to burn him out,” friend Billy Burgess watched the property armed with two guns.

The national press picked up the story of the controversy, and although Kent estimated that the incident cost him $15,000, the resulting publicity for the American Labor Party was well worth it. Kent himself decided to run for Congress on the American Party ticket, but to no one’s surprise, was not elected.

In 1969, lightening struck the house at Asgaard, and burned it to the ground. Rockwell and Frances rebuilt a smaller home on the site, where Kent, aged 87, died two years later. He is buried at Asgaard, under a slab of Vermont marble inscribed “This Is My Own.”

Come see Rockwell Kent’s milk bottle (2008.21), and more, in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. Open for the season on May 28, 2010.