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IT’S OUR HISTORY: Slide into the past with new photo collection

The Willis Wells slide collection at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society (Photo provided)
A photo from the Willis Wells slide collection at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society (Photo provided)
A photo from the Willis Wells slide collection at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society (Photo provided)
A photo from the Willis Wells slide collection at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society (Photo provided)

The Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society recently acquired 120 35mm Kodachrome slides taken between 1940 and 1949 by Willis Wells, the former town of North Elba supervisor.

Wells was an impressive leader in the town of North Elba from an early age. In 1910, at the age of 21, he was elected North Elba town clerk, a position he held for seven years. Having experience working in village stores, in 1916 he established his own general store at the corner of Mill Hill and Main Street in Lake Placid. A year later, he left the town clerk position and won election as North Elba’s town supervisor.

In 1927, Wells was named first chairman of the executive committee of the Whiteface Memorial Association, a group tasked with convincing the state to build a highway to the mountain’s summit. In 1935, the Whiteface Veterans Memorial Highway was completed, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was New York’s governor before that, dedicated the highway to all the fallen veterans of World War I. In 1929, Wells was vice president and one of seven original members of the Third Olympic Games Committee, a group that later expanded to 11 members. As chairman of the finance committee, Wells obtained pledges to satisfy the International Olympic Committee’s requirements, verifying that North Elba was a serious and capable host of the 1932 Winter Olympics. Wells was also involved in overseeing construction of various Olympic venues. As town supervisor, Wells oversaw the hosting of countless events, including major summer and winter skating competitions, AAU swimming championships, the Kate Smith Amateur Golf Tournament, and many more. He served as president of the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Essex County National Defense Committee during World War II, chairman of the Essex County Board of Supervisors for eight years, and vice president of the New York State Association of Towns. While Wells was known professionally as a leader in town, many people in the community knew him for his general store and hosting an elaborate Christmas party each holiday season for children. The first year the Christmas party was held, there were four attendees. By 1940, nearly 500 children received 6,000 gifts, including toys, clothes, candy and fruit. In 1946, Wells was named to the U.S. Olympic Committee for the London games of 1948. In 1947, he lost the Republican primary, ending his record run of 30 years as North Elba town supervisor. In May 1949, he died at the age of 59. In 2006, Wells was voted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame, for both his professional and civil legacies. His Kodachrome slides, now housed at the historical society, depict views of the Adirondack Mountains, varying local structures and of his friends/social life. They are a fun way to slide back in time!

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(Courtney Bastian is the administrative director/collections manager at the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society.)