LAKE PLACID - Seventy-nine-year-old Leonard Gereau asked his former neighbors at the once-vibrant mining town of Tahawus to dig through their attics. So they did. And they found hundreds of photos from their days living in this village in the town of Newcomb.
The community was built in 1941 to support the titanium mining for the war effort and was dismantled in 1963.
Gereau, who now lives in Virginia, has taken many of those photographs and stories to produce a new book on the former mining town called "Tahawus Memories, 1941-1963: The Story of a Unique Adirondack Hometown."
(News photo — Andy Flynn)
"This is a hometown that only existed from 1941 to 1963," Gereau said. "I lived there from 1943 to 1959. In those 16 years as a child and a teenager, I made a whole lot of friends and have contacted most of those people who are all over the country. And they have shared with me, from their attics, numerous photographs and they also gave me several individual stories. I've put all that in the book, focusing on the culture of what it was like to live in Tahawus during a very unique time in history. It covered World War II, the Korean War, the beginnings of Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. All of that took place in those 22 years we were living in Tahawus."
Gereau visited Lake Placid while he was distributing his book. It was an appropriate location for the interview since it was Lewis Elijah Benedict, an Abenaki Indian, who showed associates of the failed Elba Iron Works on the Chubb River the abundant ore in the town of Newcomb in 1826, traveling from the town of North Elba through the Indian Pass.
"Tahawus was at one time the largest titanium mining operation in the world, just the other side of Lake Placid," Gereau said. "You walk through Indian Pass and 14 miles from Lake Placid you'll find Tahawus."
Tahawus was the community built in 1941 at the National Lead Company mine on Sanford Lake. The original name for the community was Elijah, according to the Oct. 17, 1941 issue of the Lake Placid News.
"The National Lead Company has fixed Elijah's fame permanently in Adirondack legend for without his discovery the titanium secret might long have remained unknown," stated the News. "It is expected the company will apply formally to the State Committee on Geographic Names to place the name on the map."
In the end, the name Tahawus was chosen for the mining town instead.
"When my dad went there in 1943, the salaries were about 50 cents an hour, 10-hour days, six-day weeks, shift work, a very difficult time in history," Gereau said.
After 22 years, the mining company decided to move the community of Tahawus down the road to the hamlet of Newcomb.
"In 1963, National Lead Industries found an additional rich ore supply right underneath the village," Gereau said. "They moved the village, most of it, to Winebrook Hills in the town of Newcomb, which was about 11-12 miles away. And they basically destroyed the culture of the community because once they left with the homes, the YMCA became a dead issue. It was the backbone of the community. All of the church activities stopped."
Even though he'd already left his hometown, the village's move affected Gereau's family.
"They moved to Winebrook Hills," Gereau said. "At that point, National Lead industries allowed the laborers to buy their homes. Before they were all company-owned. So my parents bought that home, and my sister has that same home today in Winebrook Hills in Newcomb."
Between 1941 and 1963, life in Tahawus was as vibrant as any small-town community, maybe more so because it was so isolated.
"It had everything," Gereau said. "Every person I've contacted in the past year who grew up there in the time I was there said they wished their own children could have grown up in Tahawus. It had 19 civic groups, sportsmen's shows and the YMCA was the heartbeat of the community. Everything was owned by the company, so to live in Tahawus, you had to work for the company and you had to rent one of their homes. What really took place over those years was a sense of community where the folks grew up together and became a large family. At one time, there were about 1,000 people. Those families were so close that it is carried on even today in the year 2014."
Gereau's greatest memory was the fact that he had the largest playground in the world at his doorstep.
"When I walked out the door every day, I could hike all of the mountains," Gereau said. "And as I crossed the swinging bridges over the Hudson, I used to think at that point as a teenager that here we were in Tahawus at one end of the Hudson River and New York City on the other, but our swinging bridges were as nice and just as majestic as the George Washington Bridge."
"Tahawus Memories" is unique in that there is nowhere else people can learn about the village of Tahawus, other than the Newcomb Historical Society museum, where visitors can watch a video of the men moving buildings to their new home in 1963. Visiting the mine today, there's no trace of the former community. That's one reason why this book was such an important project for Gereau.
"It was important to me because I didn't want to see the history of those 22 years not be recorded somewhere," he said. "The village meant so much to me, and it probably was the main basis for whatever success I've had in life. So it was a way to pay back, on my part, to record this information and make it available to the great-grandchildren in particular or anyone else interested in what took place in that 22-year period."
All the proceeds of "Tahawus Memories" will be going toward a scholarship.
"I set this up as a legacy scholarship," Gereau said. "The families who grew up in Tahawus - their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren - will be eligible for the use of the profits that are made from this book."
Tahawus Memories" is 312 pages and includes more than 500 photos. The retail price is $20. For more information or to purchase the book, contact Leonard Gereau at 540-586-8188 or the Bookstore Plus.
(Editor's note: Andy Flynn's company, Hungry Bear Publishing, is the publisher of record for "Tahawus Memories." However, Flynn donated all his time and will receive no monetary compensation for the project. Likewise, the author's son, John Gereau, donated his time for the book's layout. The author funded the printing himself for this all-volunteer effort. Proceeds will benefit the scholarship fund.)