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MARTHA SEZ: ‘Camping Out’ in 19th-century high style

The summer tourist season in the town of Keene typically begins with a rush on the Fourth of July weekend. Some of us wondered whether the COVID 19 pandemic would keep people home this year, but it doesn’t look that way. People who have been cooped up for weeks or months are eager to get out, and the Adirondacks seem like a fresh, virus-free refuge, at least so far.

Most customers now streaming into shops and restaurants are good about wearing face masks, but I cringe when I see masks worn below the nose, covering only the mouth, in close quarters indoors.

Here in Keene Valley, we feel that summer has truly begun when the AuSable Club stages its annual Independence Day fireworks display. This year, however, the club’s scheduled events and activities and most services have been canceled, due to concerns about the pandemic. No fireworks! Maybe next year.

During the late 19th century, Beede’s Hotel in St. Huberts was a popular wilderness camp destination for wealthy sportsmen. At Beede’s, businessmen, aided by local guides, could get away from it all, hunting, fishing and generally roughing it in the High Peaks.

William G. Neilson, a prominent Philadelphian, formed a corporation with a group of friends to procure the site and 25,000 acres of surrounding forest from the lumber company that owned the land.

Much of the Adirondacks was clear-cut in those days; photographs show mountain peaks that look majestic and yet strangely naked. In 1905 the corporation — named the Adirondack Mountain Reserve — founded the AuSable Club on the site where the old Beede Hotel once stood. (St. Huberts is now part of Keene Valley.) Those were the days of the great Adirondack hotels in Paul Smiths, Loon Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, Saranac Lake, Tupper Lake, Lake Placid, Long Lake, Keene, Elizabethtown and other locations. Many of these grand old structures, like Beede’s Hotel, have since burned down.

Families traveled from New England to upstate New York by train, then loaded their trunks and bags onto stagecoaches, which carried them to their various destinations, where they typically stayed a month or two at a time. The railroad gradually made its way deeper and deeper into the Adirondacks, from Whitehall and Plattsburgh to AuSable Forks by 1874.

Like modern-day shuttle buses and vans, stages from the hotels would line up outside the train station to pick up their passengers. Upkeep of the local roads was problematic, with fallen trees and beaver dams adding to the difficulty.

“The Successful Housekeeper,” a manual published by M.W. Ellsworth in 1882, has a chapter titled “Camping Out,” which provides advice to those who are “tired out with the excesses and burdens of civilization.”

“If you are a woman,” the author advises, “your oldest winter dress, abbreviated at its hem, re-bound neatly and firmly, and loosened at its waist, should be taken along for scrambles over muddy places, and for boating, when bailing out the craft becomes one of the formalities. On rainy days will this gown prove its loyalty and efficiency for your needs.

“Then you must have a fresh costume for beauty’s sake, and so that your guide and cook (a combination of accomplishments seldom or never dissociated) will write limp-footed and ill-spelled verses to you, that shall combine, in about equal proportions, maudlin sentimentality and poor grammar. These droll apostrophes, generally inscribed on birch bark, will do you no end of good.

“… Plaids, the real tartan, in flat bands about the skirt, and a scarf or sash tied or pinned ornamentally to the back of the left shoulder, are always comely; and a highland bonnet, with a heron’s, a lew’s or a peacock’s feather, is as easy to the head as it is pretty to the eyes.

“Of course it is not against the law to take a serving woman, but such feminines are liable to demand more conveniences and to languish with more vehement discontent in the absence of civilization than the mistress herself. Indeed, they not infrequently revolt determinedly or disappear altogether from the most fascinating of game and trout dinners … and from couches of aromatic pine needles and blankets.

“The long rambles over beautiful wild spaces, and … the calm, cool nights of slumber that bring back youth and beauty, and … revive an interest in living … are the reanimating blessings of a summer life in the depths of the forest!”

I notice that M.W. Ellsworth makes no mention of blackflies or other biting insects, which does make me wonder.

Have a good summer.