History of the Adirondack guides

Historic Saranac Lake began its annual seminar series on Thursday, May 9, about hunting camps and hunting in general. The seasoned panel included Billy Allen, who provided great slides about hunting camps and pictures of him and his father, William P. Allen, an Adirondack legend among outdoorsmen. Billy’s father only inhabited four places on this earth: home, job (a camp caretaker, of course), the Blue Line Sport Shop and “up the river” at his camp.

Joe Hackett – newspaper columnist, storyteller and Adirondack guide who owns Tahawus Guide Service – was a panelist with Jack Fogarty, Saranac Lake High School teacher for 30 years and a member of the East Branch Rod and Gun Club for 40 years … a great night with what is now a little-known subject.

Bob Brown was the moderator now he has more titles than the emperor of Ethiopia, just limited to hunting and fishing organizations across New York state. His advice and counsel is sought after when it comes to gaming laws. He is also well known for perfecting the wild turkey call; however, when he is practicing in the field across from my house, the turkeys seem to run the other way.

Historic Saranac Lake does a fine job with this type of presentation, and the room was packed, with many in the audience probably having their first visit to the famous John Black Room of the Saranac Laboratory Museum on Church Street.

It was sort of a fashion night for the woodsy outdoorsmen. We spotted Joe Spadaro, the guideboat builder, turned out in his best Adirondack woodsman shirt and sporting a pair of black nylon warm-up pants.

Now that is a long lead-in to get to my story about the Adirondack guides; the following excerpts are from Enterprise clippings found in the archives of the Adirondack Room of the Saranac Lake Free Library, one of Saranac Lake’s treasures. The Enterprise story by Albert I. Evans was datelined Aug. 2, 1948.

Guides organized in 1891

“From the so far away days following the Civil War when the first scattering of down state sportsmen came into these mountains to hunt moose and other big game of that period, Saranac lake was noted as the headquarters for guides. A great number of the hunting parties started form the Saranac Lake region.

“By 1890 the first little group of guides who resided here had increased to such an extent there were then half a hundred or more working out of the Saranac Lake region. At that time many waters on which are now situated famous and fashionable Adirondacks resorts were then merely wilderness lakes and ponds. Many of the so-called trails of that period are said to have been so faint it required the services of a real woodsman to keep hunters and tourists on them.

“Saranac Lake and Paul Smiths were the quarters of by far the greatest number of real guides in the Adirondacks. Many of them had already earned enduring fame, some for their beloved stories by the camp fires and others who were marvelous cooks. From the most simple food stuffs, most of it supplied from the woods and waters about them, they could prepare dishes fit for a king.”

A rift develops

“But in 1890 there was ‘a rift in the lute’ for the guides in this region started to hear complaints from a few of their patrons. These were to the effect that a few men who called themselves good guides were anything but what they claimed. They were ill-equipped and overcharged for their services.

“A meeting was held on July 27, 1891 which was attended by most of the local guides to form an Association and it was successful from the very first. At the end of five years it had a membership which is said to have included almost all the real guides in the Adirondacks.

“So it was that on February 4th, 1897 it was officially incorporated and on that day of incorporation the officers of the Association were as follows Verplanck Colvin, honorary president, Albany; Warren J. Slater, president, Saranac Lake; vice presidents, Thomas Healy, Saranac Lake, Warren Cole, Long Lake, John W. Ford, Old Forge, Douglas E. Hinkson, Childwold, E. L. Scraftin, Paul Smiths, James D. McBride, Tupper Lake, A. H. Billings, Lake Placid, C. W. Blanchard, Blue Mountain Lake, C. C. McCaffery, Saranac Inn, E. E. Summer, secretary, Saranac Lake, O. A. Covill, treasurer, Saranac Lake.

“After a score or more of years its incorporation flourished and the phony guide racket was wiped out.”

(The Enterprise story about the guides is long and detailed. We have just scratched the surface here, so a complete copy will be available at the Historic Saranac Lake museum.)