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A Journey Through Our Region’s Back Pages Re-Discovering North Country Life

By Anthony F. Hall

Monday, June 24, 2013

By now, Adirondack history is a ground that has been covered almost as thoroughly as the Adirondacks themselves. (Any time you think you have discovered something new about the Adirondack guide-boat, for instance, you’ll find graffiti saying, “Kenneth Durant was here.”)  William J. O’Hern, though, has found a few out-of-the-way places that have escaped the notice of the hordes.

In addition to his books about Noah John Rondeau, O’Hern has published books about Harvey Dunham, the author of the classic “Adirondack French Louie: Early Life in the North Woods,” and Thomas C. O’Donnell, whose books in the late 1940s and early 50s chronicled the history of upstate New York.

His most recent book is “Adirondack Kaleidoscope and North Country Characters: Honoring the Mountains and Their History.”

Although you couldn’t know it from the title, the book is, for the most part, an anthology of pieces that appeared in the magazine ‘North Country Life’ between 1946 and 1974.

Bill "Mack" McAleese

O’Hern would have accomplished something significant had he done no more than republish some things that have not seen the light of day in years – pieces such as the folk artist Edna Way Teale’s recollections of life in the Champlain Valley in the 1800s.

But he’s done much more than that. He’s rescued Glyndon Cole and his tiny magazine from undeserved obscurity. For those unfamiliar with North Country Life, this anthology is the perfect introduction.

Carl Carmer once wrote, “upstate is a country,” and North Country Life helped delineate much of what was distinctive about that country.

According to O’Hern, Cole was inspired by the compulsion, shared by many others at roughly the same time, to document everyday life in upstate New York before all traces of it disappeared.

The same impulse drove Marjorie Porter Lansing to record folk songs in the farms and lumber camps, Richard W. Lawrence to create the Adirondack Center Museum in Elizabethtown, Harold Hochshild to begin Township 34 (out of which the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake emerged) and Carl Carmer, Harold Thompson and Louis Jones to collect folk tales.

Cole operated on a shoestring, says O’Hern. Nevertheless, “Throughout New York and across the United States, fans made the quarterly digest a much-anticipated periodical. People were as smitten then as they are now with the magic of the North Country, and Cole’s quarterly gave them a delicious dose of that magic. He included poetry, art and literature, and interesting reprints of old newspaper and periodical stories, true backwoods tales, pioneer stories and military history, among other topics,” says O’Hern.

This anthology, O’Hern says, includes “stories about hermits, guides, artists, philosophers and preachers, along with ghost stories, tales of lost mines, one-room schools and old-time general stores.”

Cole seems to have lacked the inclination or the temperament to wield the blue pencil with any force, and much of what appeared in North Country Life was written by amateurs, and not very well. But that was beside the point. The point was to have our history and our way of life documented.

Fred Stiles, the Knapp Estate caretaker whose family settled on the east side of Lake George in the 1850s, is a good example of the typical contributor to North Country Life, and O’Hern devotes a chapter to him.

“Fred’s recollections were the kind of accounts Cole found significant… they needed to be preserved for future generations. Stiles’ stories took readers back to humble farm and roadways,” O’Hern writes.

O’Hern says that a second volume of selections from North Country Life will appear later this summer, one that will include more recollections about individual characters who would be lost to history had not someone taken the time to write about them. And there are plenty of characters to choose from.

Among them: Bill “Mack” McAleese, who came to northern New York from Ireland in the 1870s and who worked on the log drives on the Grasse River and later opened a hotel on Cranberry Lake. More noteworthy than McAleese himself, though, is the man who chose to write about him: Eastwood Lane.

All but forgotten today, Lane was a composer from upstate New York whose music was performed by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra and who was said to be a major influence on Bix Beiderbecke. His most significant work, it is said, was a piano suite, Adirondack Sketches, consisting of “The Old Guide’s Story”, “The Legend of Lonesome Lake”, “Down Stream”, “The Land of the Loon”, “A Dirge for Jo Indian”, and “Lumber-Jack Dance”.  If that music is ever performed again, perhaps it will be because someone, somehow, once stumbled upon an old issue of North Country Life and, like Jay O’Hern, began his own journey through our region’s back pages.

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