Remembering Adirondac

For some, it's just a lonely ghost town. For others, it symbolizes a life of bliss.


Story and photos by Shaun Kittle

An abandoned home, now a mere shadow of its former self

Jim Gereau sits at the end of the bar in the Newcomb House in Newcomb, NY, his calloused hands wrapped around a glass of beer. When he speaks, he is thoughtful and deliberate. Sometimes his eyes stray and it seems as if his mind is elsewhere, and then he smiles as he sums up his memories of his life growing up in Adirondac. “We had everything. It was perfect,” Gereau says, his flannel shirt rising briefly as he shrugs. He sips his beer, and once again appears to be someplace else, someplace where everything felt right.

For people like Gereau, the tiny, abandoned mining town of Adirondac is more than just a strip of empty buildings rotting along a lonely road on the outskirts of Newcomb. It is a place that represents a forgotten community of individuals and families who looked out for one another, and it was owned by National Lead, a company that had a reputation for taking care of its employees.

When National Lead purchased the property in 1939, it had already been utilized by two very different entities. Titanium ore was discovered in the area in the 1820s, and the McIntyre Iron Company was established shortly thereafter by a group of people hoping to cash-in on the resource. Extracting the ore was not a problem, but transporting it proved costly; too costly, in fact, for the operation to continue. As a result of the financial burden, the company was forced to abandon the project in the 1850s, and the holding lay dormant for almost 20 years.

It was sometime in the 1870s that a group of wealthy individuals came together and formed the Preston Ponds Club. The club, renamed the Tahawus Club, began building cabins on the property throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, and only allowed society’s upper-crust use of its facilities. Sportsmen came and went, including then Vice President Theodore Roosevelt, who stayed at the Tahawus Hotel in 1901. Times were changing, though, and the great performance on the world’s stage was about to spew blood.

“We had everything. It was perfect.”

In 1939, ownership of the property was transferred to National Lead, who told Tahawus Club members they had to leave the premises. Suddenly, the mining industry was booming, and it was no coincidence that World War II was just beginning to cast its ugly shadow on the minds of God-fearing citizens everywhere. “There was a war to win, baby,” says George Canon, Newcomb town supervisor and former resident of Adirondac.

The interior of an Adirondac home

Canon, like all of the men who lived in Adirondac, worked for National Lead, but he felt there was more going on in the town than the work at hand. “We were all kind of family there,” Canon says. “There was a sense of camaraderie among the people of Adirondac.” The sense of unity was certainly a reflection of the kind of people who lived in the town, but it was the company they worked for that made their community possible.

Instead of leaving the 30 Tahawus Club cabins vacant, National Lead opted to make use of them by giving their employees, and their families, an affordable place to live. “I think my father paid 15 dollars a month for us to live there. That’s pretty cheap,” Gereau says.

Besides providing low-rent housing, National Lead also sent painters out every three years to paint the interior of the homes any color the occupants wanted, free of charge. During the summer months, the company hosted picnics and softball games, and New Years Eve was the centerpiece for the biggest party of the year. If someone needed help, like a jump-start for a drained car battery, National Lead would send someone. If someone passed away, they were there to provide amenities to the grieving. It was this sort of looking-out that earned the company respect from its employees. It was the lifestyle of dwelling in a small mountain town that created a bond between its inhabitants.

Summertime in the mountains carries its own set of responsibilities for those who live there. In a community like Adirondac, this responsibility created a common link among its people. When the men of the town weren’t working in the mines, they were hunting and fishing, and when they weren’t looking for food, there was yard work to be done. The women baked, sewed, joined one another for tea, and tended to the children, who were usually outside, romping through the woods. Despite the daily chores and providing for their families, there was still time for recreation.

“There was a war to win, baby”

Canon, who was 21 years old and newly married when he moved to Adirondac, has many fond memories, but one of his favorites is an all-night fishing escapade. “It was sometime in the mid-fifties. Me, and three or four others, went up to Sanford Lake and fished ‘til three in the morning. We came home, cleaned the fish, got pancakes ready, and ate pancakes and bullheads for breakfast,” Canon recalls. It was this simplicity of life that provided a healthy release from the daily grind of mine work, and it was a lifestyle the children enjoyed every day.

John Helms moved to Adirondac with his family in 1948, when he was only 4 years old. The Helms’ stayed there until 1964, and he has wanted that life back ever since. There were 23 families living in the town during its peak, and the children spent their days playing in the abundance of forests and waterways that characterize the area. “Nowadays, kids are into computers,” Helms says. “We used to go hikin’ and fishin’, and we’d play Cowboys and Indians. We had stick horses, but we didn’t have the head, just the stick…YAH!”

The road through Adirondac

It was not unusual to walk through the quaint little town on a summer’s day and see groups of children brandishing alder-branch fishing poles, on their way to the Hudson River. It was also not uncommon to see a family heading toward Mt. Adams for a mid-afternoon lunch on the summit. “We didn’t have T.V., it wasn’t a big part of our lives,” Canon says. “We didn’t stay home and watch the idiot box like we do now.” As far removed from modern convenience as they were, there was one place they could go for entertainment that didn’t involve outdoor recreation — Tahawus.

When the people of Adirondac got a hankerin’ for big city life, they headed a few miles down a twisting mountain road to Tahawus, another mining town owned by National Lead. Compared to Adirondac, Tahawus was a bustling metropolis, boasting 100 housing units and a population that exceeded 400 people. “Tahawus had everything. A pool hall, barbershop, grocery store, post office, and restaurant,” Helms says. It also had a YMCA, whose bowling alley was a hot- spot for adolescents in the area. Helms, along with several other Adirondac boys, worked as pin-setters, and used the money they earned to purchase movie tickets at the local theater.

Although there was unity between the two towns, there was also some friendly competition to be had. There were six different jobs in the mines; miner, crusher, mill, dry mill, wet mill, and cinder plant. Each department had its own softball team, and they would often challenge each other. “Some of ‘em would get pretty wild, but nobody got into fights,” Gereau says.

"We had stick horses, but we didn’t have the head, just the stick"

It has been said that all good things must come to an end, and the wilderness utopia of Adirondac was no exception. By 1964, National Lead had relocated everyone to Tahawus or Newcomb. The company was doing well, and had decided it was time to get out of the landlord business. Canon was one of the last to leave, and was eventually given no choice in the matter. “They finally said, ‘Canon! You have to get out,’” he says.

Canon’s reluctance to move from Adirondac was a feeling that everyone in the town could relate to. One by one, families packed their belongings and headed elsewhere, leaving behind a stretch of empty homes, and bringing with them the fondest of memories, all formed under the soft, green canopy of the Adirondack forest. If given the opportunity, Gereau, Canon, and Helms would have never left. For them, what the town provided was intangible. With its location, and its people, it offered them a positive environment to raise a family, it offered them safety, and perhaps most importantly, it offered them happiness.

 

 



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