Though many famous artists have used the Adirondacks as the subject of their work, one artist stands out as a painter, activist and illustrator. Rockwell Kent was a prolific artist and through his seascapes and landscapes provided a window into the wilds of Alaska, Newfoundland, Greenland, Tierra del Fuego, the Adirondacks and beyond.
Signs of spring are finally starting to surround us with songbirds arriving and bulbs pushing their way through the ground. At Asgaard Farm and Dairy, owners Rhonda Butler and David Brunner, have a different barometer for measuring the change of seasons. Since mid March about 75 baby goats (kids) have been born with more due in the upcoming week.
When I visited last year I spoke with owner Rhonda Butler at length about the spring births and was delighted to find out there are many opportunities to visit the kids and even attend a birth. The goats at Asgaard are bred through their natural cycle. Though larger dairies use artificial light to manipulate the goats to breed off-season, Asgaard continues to follow the natural season. The doelings (mother goats) are bred in the fall and give birth in the spring with the kids drinking the doeling’s milk. After being weaned, Asgaard Farm uses the milk for their various cheeses and goat milk soaps. Some of the kids are culled after the season and harvested for their meat to produce Chevon or sold as pets or to other working farms. Asgaard maintains a milking herd of about 50 goats that are expected to produce about 100 kids. » Continue Reading.
In thinking about Adirondack unsung heroes, singer-songwriter Peggy Lynn’s powerfully moving song Lydia about Lydia Smith (wife of Paul Smith) comes to mind. I write about another Lydia who related very strongly to that song, and who did so much for the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (AFPA). Her name was Lydia Serrell. I worked with Lydia for 18 years, and can attest that she was an extraordinary Adirondacker in her own right, and instrumental to the success of the organization. Lydia Serrell fell in love with the Adirondacks at an early age. The daughter of Hungarian immigrants and carriage makers working in Schenectady, she was “shipped out” after her mother’s death c. 1918 to live with her mother’s sister, her Aunt Anna and Uncle Chris Kohler, at their farm in Gravesville, Town of Ohio in the southwestern Adirondacks. Lydia’s great friend Linda Champagne writes: “Lydia attended a small north country school. Her uncle, a guide in the nearby Adirondack League Club (Uncle Chris), and his wife (Aunt Anna), who had been a cook at the club, created a comfortable life for the city girl. The modest home had only a spring for water. Entertainment meant skating on ponds and reading Zane Grey novels by kerosene lantern in the evenings. When her father remarried, and she returned to Schenectady, she continued a lifelong love of hiking, touring and reading the history of the Adirondacks.” » Continue Reading.
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.
Long ago there were whales at the edge of the Adirondacks, but it wasn’t till last year that I saw one myself—the same day our trail was blocked by a bull moose, another creature I’ve yet to see here. This wild kingdom was on Gaspe peninsula, Quebec. The whale left a huge impression, as did Moby Dick. I can’t pretend to have read this engrossing however longass 1851 book, but I listened to it on tape during that trip, and it took another week to finish it. So it was as unexpected as a water spout to spy a poster announcing that Pendragon Theatre, in Saranac Lake, is staging the story this weekend. Pendragon’s Web site has an explanation. “Moby Dick Rehearsed is a play that attempts to turn the 800-page novel into a two-hour play,” says director Karen Kirkham of Dickinson College. “That in itself is a feat to admire. Orson Welles’s 1955 play is little known. Even less known is Welles’s repeated opinion in interviews later in life that the play ‘is my finest work—in any form.’”
The show is at 7:30 Friday and Saturday, November 20 and 21, at and 2 p.m. Sunday, November 22. Tentative performances in December are Dec. 4 at 7:30 and Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. The production will tour schools and arts centers around the region until March. Tickets are $20 for adults and $16 for seniors and students; $10 for age 17 and under. Pendragon is at 15 Brandy Brook Avenue. For information and reservations, contact Pendragon Theatre (518) 891-1854 or email@example.com.
A 1930 edition of Moby Dick illustrated by Rockwell Kent, who lived in Ausable Forks, is credited as a factor in the novel’s rediscovery. You can see Kent’s powerful pen and ink drawings at this link to the Plattsburgh College Foundation and Art Museum, to whom many of Kent’s works were bequeathed by his widow, Sally Kent Gorton. The 1930 printing was first offered as a limited edition of 1,000 copies in three volumes held in metal slipcases. AntiQbook is offering a set for $9,500—something for the Christmas list.
Cover of the 1930 Chicago, Lakeside Press edition of Moby Dick, illustrated by Rockwell Kent
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