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ON THE SCENE: Two iconic Adirondack personalities

June 12, 2014
By Naj Wikoff , Lake Placid News

The Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown is honoring, with exhibits, two icons of the Adirondacks, each having made a significant and very personal impact on the lives of many others: Arto Monaco, creator of the Land of Makebelieve in Upper Jay, and Grace Hudowalski, the first woman 46er, who will be only the second woman to have an Adirondack High Peak named after her.

The Land of Makebelieve opened in 1954 and continued until 1979, when it was so seriously damaged in a flood (having survived 11 previous) that it was deemed unsalvageable. Hope remained to save and restore several of the major buildings, most especially the Castle, but Hurricane Irene demolished any hope, thereto washing away it and many remaining artifacts.

The Land of Makebelieve was special. It was designed and scaled for the pleasure of children. The doors and rooms of many buildings were too small for most adults to enter. There was a sense of whimsy about the place, which was divided up into a series of themed areas such as Cactus Flats, Pirate's Cove and Billabong Belle, and included a train ride that again was too small for adults to ride.

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Photo – Naj Wikoff
A Grace Hudowalski exhibit from the Adirondack History Center Museum in Elizabethtown

"The one thing I remember about the Land of Makebelieve is that it was designed specifically for kids to have a good time," said Rich Joy. "Everything was kid-sized. It was magical. These photographs and artifacts bring back a lot of the things I have forgotten. Seeing all this is like being in a kid in a candy shop."

"I remember pretty much everything of the Land of Makebelieve: the stage coach, the train rides, the castle. It was just a neat place to go," said Rodney Hutchins. "My grandfather took me and my brother every summer. We enjoyed everything about it. The photographs bring back memories. It's too bad they couldn't save more from the flood, that somebody didn't do something before now."

"Arto Monaco was a kid at heart," said museum President Carol Blakeslee-Collin. "What was special about the Land of Makebelieve is that it was designed for kids, and the kids brought the parents. It was open for exactly 25 years, and it really went out at its top. Irene totally destroyed the Castle and what was left of Cactus Flats. We have a grant from the Charles Woods Foundation for conservation and the creation of a permanent exhibit, which will include the circus mural from his shop. This exhibit includes photos loaned by Bob Reiss, whose father Julian was one of the founders of the attraction. Arto had been making animal coops for Julian's Old McDonald's Farm and said, 'I am sick of making houses for animals. I want to make houses for kids.' That's how the Land of Makebelieve began. His whole point was to make a theme park for kids - not for parents, for kids."

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"I got to go," continued Blakeslee-Collin. "We lived in the Catskills, and my father took us places. He took us to the Frontier Town, Santa's Workshop and the Land of Makebelieve. What I remember was being able to be anything I wanted, being able to dress up, and that there were so many choices. I wasn't used to that. My brothers, sisters and I could go wherever we wanted, and somehow we couldn't get lost."

"The mission of the museum is to preserve the arts, the history and culture of Essex County," said Diane O'Connor, director of the Essex County Historical Society and the Adirondack History Center Museum. "We provide a full schedule of exhibits and programs from mid May through mid October. We have an excellent lecture series that takes places on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in July and August, that this year will include a lectures on the War of 1812, Arto Monaco, and Grace Hudowalski and the Adirondack 46ers."

"Grace Hudowalski fell in love with mountains and climbing them," said Blakeslee-Collin. "She climbed Marcy for the first time when she was 16, and she re-climbed the 46 High Peaks when she was 70. She was driven. Her legacy is that women didn't climb, they weren't outdoor people, and she got all her friends to climb. During World War II she started defending the 'forever wild' clause, going up against lobbyists promoting development, damming rivers, overdevelopment of ski areas and so forth. She argued incessantly. She took them on and was passionate about it.

"As a member of the Adirondack Mountain Club, she wrote letters encouraging and confirming people's attempts to become 46ers. There are over 8,000 46ers, and it now takes 20 people to do what she did single-handedly. When she moved to Boulders in Schroon Lake for the summer, it took a truck and several cars just to bring up her files and correspondence. Communicating with her became a ritual for those attempting to climb the High Peaks."

"Grace was a close and dear friend and a mentor of mine," said author Sandra Weber, wearing Grace's 46er shirt. "I got to know her when writing my first book about Esther Mountain. It turned out that Grace finished her 46th on Esther, so it was a very special place for her. She was a writer, editor and an inspiration to me. The first letter I wrote to her was about my ninth peak, which was my first trail-less peak. She wrote back to me, 'Sandy, surely Hough Peak is not the first peak you climbed. Why haven't you been writing earlier?' One time a man wrote her about climbing Whiteface as his 46th peak, meeting and celebrating with his family at the top, and then riding down with them in their car. She wrote right back and told him he was not a 46er. 'I am not giving you your patch. You don't get a number until you climb it and walk back down it.' That was Grace. She didn't put up with that kind of crap. I can't say enough to describe how wonderful this exhibit is. Miracle workers created this exhibit. Grace's spirit is alive in this room."

"It has been 10 years since Grace's passing," said Weber. "She left all her savings, all her letters and all her memorabilia and created the Adirondack 46ers Conservation Trust so her legacy would be to keep the Adirondacks wild, to preserve it the way it is and to promote education and stewardship, and as part of that, the trust has been supporting the Adirondack Summit Stewards program."

A Dix peak will be renamed for Grace on Aug. 26, a celebration that will include a hike, a screening of the documentary about her, "The Mountains Will Wait for You," and a wine and cheese reception at the museum.

For more information on the museum's exhibits, hours, lectures and other events, visit or call 518-873-6466.



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