Follensby Pond

Close but no cigar

By Jeff Jones

A frozen Follensby Pond from the air. Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Someday, paddlers traveling the Raquette River between Long Lake and Tupper Lake may be able to detour to visit Follensby Pond, one of the gems of the Adirondacks.  But for now, it’s still in private hands — following the biggest acquisition disappointment of the decade when the state, after years of negotiations, failed to buy this four-mile-long lake and add it to the “forever wild” Forest Preserve. The deal fell through in 1994.

But conservationists can be cheered by the strongly-held views of the owners, John and Bertha McCormick, who recently told the Explorer, in essence, “not to worry.” One way or the other, it appears that this priceless real-estate will be preserved.

The Follensby outlet flows into the Raquette west of Axton Land-ing, originating in a beautiful, curving lake — one of the largest, privately-owned waterbodies in the United States. Thanks to its remoteness, Follensby Pond  (perhaps only in the Adirondacks would a lake of this size be called a “pond”) was once chosen to be a site for state efforts to reintroduce the endangered bald eagle. It’s also a storied place, known for the Philosophers Camp, a mid-summer gathering in 1858 that included poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and nine other artists and thinkers.

According to John McCormick, who owns the lake and the surrounding 14,000 acres,  there is no sign today of the famous campsite. He has searched for it for more than 35 years.  Of more lasting impact was the logging, McCormick says, which devastated the woods around the pond in the years after the Civil War. “Now the lake is pristine and the shoreline has recovered,” he says.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

McCormick, who is 85, says he and his wife Bertha will get to Follensby Park four or five times this year, travelling from their home in Manchester Center, Vermont.

During McCormick’s many years of ownership, he has continued to log the land, using sustainable practices he says have been beneficial for the forest. He’s worked hard to restore the land that was scarred by earlier cutting practices. Today, Follensby Park is logged only in winter. Skidding the fallen timber over the snow protects the young trees trying to get established. “It will stop with the spring thaw,” he tells me.

McCormick compares his land to the Whitney estate. Last summer, New York acquired some 15,000 acres, including all of Little Tupper Lake, from socialite Mary Lou Whitney. The purchase price was $17 million.

“We have a lot more forest than the Whitneys have left,” he says. “Whoever gets Follensby someday will have nice woods to go with the lake.”

In 1990, and again in 1993, deals were in the works between the McCormicks and New York State to acquire Follensby Park and make it part of the “forever wild” Forest Preserve. In 1993, in response to my question about his plans, McCormick said he wished to sell to the state. “It belongs to the Park,” he said. “We’d hate to see it dismembered.”

That same year, while New York was trying to come up with $6 million or so in funding to make the purchase, Bertha McCormick, who has served on the board of the Vermont Nature Conservancy, told Newsday that they would wait for the state to buy their property.

“No developers will get in there,” she vowed.

None has, although the state never completed its purchase. The McCormicks changed their mind in 1994 and the deal died. Criticisms of the state’s land buyer, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), were harsh. On the other hand, these failed negotiations contributed to the creation of New York’s Environmental Protection Fund, a pot of money that could be used to buy Follensby if ever it comes back on the market.

That’s exactly what the state would like to do, according to DEC spokesman Gary Shef-fer. But there must be a willing seller.

The Philosopher’s Camp at Follensby Pond, August 1858 – “Showing how Prof. Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and James Russell Lowell amuse themselves in the summer.” Photo courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

McCormick doesn’t blame anyone for what happened five years ago. “We backed out ,” he says simply. “We decided to keep it.” McCor-mick, who says there is already a problem of trespassers “slipping in” to his property, was worried about “the nuisance” of people canoeing up the outlet from the Raquette River to Follensby Pond.

And as a businessman — he’s a retired bank director and industrialist — McCormick doesn’t seem worried that his opportunity to sell might have slipped away. He notes the “big price Mrs. Whitney got” for her land and he speculates that his choice piece of the Adirondacks “probably won’t go down in value.”

Even if New York isn’t able to respond to a future sale opportunity, there are at least two conservation-minded prospects McCor-mick chooses not to identify who have indicated their readiness to buy and preserve Follensby Park.  Ultimately, what happens to the land will be up to his heirs, a son and two daughters, McCormick reports. “They will keep it if they want,” he says. “But if the state makes an offer, they might well accept it.”

Meanwhile, the McCormicks are keeping in shape. While John’s golf game isn’t what it used to be, did a lot of cross-country skiing in Vermont this past winter.

And they are looking forward to their next trip to the park. “The older I get,” says John McCormick, “the more I appreciate the place.”

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About Adirondack Explorer

The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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