After two weeks in the Adirondacks of upstate New York I began to learn more about the culture of the area. Though the Adirondack Mountains are ancient, the human history within them is relatively young. It is unusual to meet second generation residents and third generation families are a rarity, so it was a privilege to meet Judy Damkoehler, a descendant of the men who built the Irondequoit Inn. “My great-grandfather and great-uncle Herbert first saw the Adirondacks in 1877. To celebrate Bert’s graduation from high school in New Jersey, they decided to walk to Montreal to visit my great-great-grandmother. Bert went on to college and married, but he never forgot this area.” When Bert finally convinced his buddies to visit the area they were so smitten that they immediately began buying up land. The present-day Lodge and Annex of Irondequoit Inn – originally old farmhouses in the village of Piseco Lake – were dragged up to the site on rollers by a team of oxen. Soon, the partners were welcoming guests and selling shares in the property. One hundred and twenty years later, many shares are still owned by descendants of the original investors.
Damkoehler first came to the Inn in 1930 at the age of three. Piseco was an unincorporated rough and tumble lumbering town, full of bars and raucous men. “There was no electricity in those days and we ate fried sneaker soles for dinner – probably illegal venison,” she grinned. “By the time I was 10 or 11 I was allowed take the rowboat out on the lake alone.” During the Depression years she worked at the Inn. “We called ourselves ‘slaves’ and lived in the ‘slaves quarters’ (the annex). We waited tables, washed dishes, cleaned rooms…and met boys.” Damkoehler has traveled to South America, Iceland and Europe but her favorite place in the world is still Piseco Lake. “It gets in your blood,” she insists, adding that the next generation – her cousins – are now coming to the Inn every summer.
Everywhere I went in the Adirondack Mountains I met people living close to the land. At the Adirondack Museum Caleb Davis was sponsoring a paddle-making workshop. Caleb made his first paddle by hand at the age of 11 and has run a paddle-making business each summer for the past 22 years. While it’s great fun, paddle making is also hard work; participants on the day I visited had sore arms and aching shoulders from working with wood planes and files. So why do they do it? “Making something themselves – I think that’s the thing people are missing more and more nowadays. It’s about being connected; working with your hands, your eyes…feeling things,” says Caleb. Certainly, that was motivation for Brian and Leia Johnson. “We’ve just gotten into paddling and we thought it would be kind of cool to have our own paddles. It’s a sense of pride to be able to say, ‘This is the one I made and I’m going to use it.’”
At Great Camp Sagamore, I found artisan David Woodward in the original blacksmith shop that served the Vanderbilt family back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. In his long leather apron and protective ear muffs, he stoked the furnace to a temperature of 3,000 degrees, pulled a red-hot metal wedge out of the fire, and pounded it with a ball peen hammer to demonstrate the rustic ornamental ironwork that the rich owners of the camps coveted. Woodward, who attended the Brotman Forge Blacksmith School in Vermont, has turned his fascination with the art of blacksmithing into a successful career. When he’s not demonstrating at Sagamore, he is in his studio, Train Brook Forge, where he creates intricately detailed metal implements ranging from fireplace screens to cooking utensils.
Back at Irondequoit Inn for dinner, I was mulling over the unique ways in which Adirondackers had carved out existences in this challenging corner of the world when I turned over the Inn’s dinner menu and read the following: Continue reading