Book adds to Adirondack history

An old adage asserts that the best way to get a million dollars is to begin with two million. Certainly such opportunity has been available in the Adirondacks. In his book, When “Men and Mountains Meet: Stories of Hope and Despair in the Adirondack Wilderness after the American Revolution,” Glenn Pearsall gives us more than a dozen examples of early entrepreneurial initiatives in the region. Most did not fare well. There’s quite a succession of financial failure and untimely death.

What’s striking is how much some of these people had prospered before turning attention to Adirondack development. Wealthy French royalists sought places of refuge where they could re-establish upper-class lifestyles after their own country’s revolution in 1789. Friends and family of Napoleon looked to New York’s North Country as a place of refuge for the fallen Emperor, assuming he could be liberated from his exile on St. Helena Island.

Then there’s John Brown- not the abolitionist, but an accomplished Rhode Island merchant who made a fortune in international shipping. It was his family after whom Brown University was named. In satisfaction of a debt, he ended up with a large tract of land near Old Forge. He and his heirs struggled fruitlessly (and tragically) to build a community.

David Parish struggled, too. Much of his wealth came from silver trading in the American South. Settling near the St. Lawrence River, he expected to prosper similarly by importing Merino sheep. The market for wool bottomed out, taking Parish with it. His mansion still stands in Ogdensburg (it’s now the Frederic Remington Art Museum), and there’s a village named for him, but that’s the extent of his legacy.

Two entrepreneurs showed originality, if not ultimate success.

John Thurman established a thriving industrial town along the Schroon River near today’s Warrensburg. In addition to a grist mill, saw mill, and carding mill, he built a factory that printed calico fabric, the first facility of its kind in New York State. Thurman apparently was an unusually enlightened manager, but using today’s lingo, there was no succession plan. The businesses foundered upon his death.

Garrit Boon showed resourcefulness, too. He constructed an industrial-scale maple sugar operation in the southern Adirondacks. His hope was to lessen dependency on cane sugar raised on southern plantations, thereby helping undermine the value of slavery. Long troughs carried sap from maple trees to central collection points. Think of it as a forerunner of today’s maple houses with their ubiquitous plastic tubing. But the planks leaked, and Boon managed to make only a few hundred pounds of maple sugar. The enterprise failed.

Unfortunately the book does not always read smoothly. The text would have benefited from a tighter editing process. Instead, syntax errors and repetitiveness make too many passages awkward. There’s an occasional inaccuracy, as when stating Plattsburgh had a military base continuously for more than 200 years.

The author is best when he’s focused on his main subject?- that is -?settlement attempts in the region after the American Revolution. When he digresses farther afield, or adds too much extraneous information, the narrative begins to feel disconnected.

Pearsall has a passion for the Adirondacks, and for its history. These manifest themselves through prodigious research. He’s amplified a few tales I already knew something about, and has introduced me to other forays well worth understanding.

Economic success in the Adirondacks can still be difficult to achieve. There are lessons to learn from these efforts over two centuries ago. The author has performed a service in giving these early ventures the attention they deserve.

This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.