Great Camp—the term stirs impressions of a style, an era, a way of life that passed quickly across the Adirondack stage but left a lasting impression. It conjures images of fabulous wealth, of excess, of changes in the Adirondack social order. And did we mention fabulous wealth?
A few Great Camps survive today, under various guises, reminding us of their celebrated time in the limelight. They were the profoundly private retreats of profoundly public figures, built on estates that could encompass thousands of acres and a lake or two or three. The Great Camps often had so many buildings that they resembled hamlets more than camps, with their own work forces (the help included guides, chefs, and sometimes, a singing coach).
Their creators “discovered” the Adirondacks in the years following the Civil War, and the rush was on to outdo each other’s ostentation. They arrived in their own velvet-and-mahogany railroad cars that were as glamorous as their outposts and much more comfortable than most Adirondackers’ homes (one can be walked through today at the Adirondack Museum). They spent their summers in practiced leisure surrounded by sprawling log lodges full of furniture made of sticks, as though to tell the world, “I am playing rustic when I want to because I can.” Their last names came off the nation’s social registry: Durant, Huntington, and Vanderbilt of railroad fame (or infamy, depending upon which side of their machinations you came out on); J.P. Morgan, who was either a financial genius or a scoundrel of the first rank, again depending; New York Governor Levi Morton; and, as evidence that the upper stratum was not limited to men, Lucy Carnegie and Marjorie Merriweather Post.
All of this is chronicled in a handsome new book, An Elegant Wilderness: Great Camps and Grand Lodges of the Adirondacks, 1855-1935, by Gladys Montgomery, published in 2011 by Acanthus Press in collaboration with the Adirondack Museum, with a foreword by Caroline Welsh, the former executive director of the museum. The book itself is so elegant as to provide one of those fancy bound-in ribbon bookmarks, and if weight is any indication of quality, then it’s a prizewinner, for I don’t recall having to lift a book quite as heavy as this one.
One might reasonably ask why we need another book on Great Camps. The 250-item bibliography suggests that they have been written about extensively. This book is spectacularly illustrated, and it is, so the dust jacket claims, “the first book to place the rustic Adirondack architectural style in the context of cultural, social, and environmental history.”
That context is provided primarily by Welsh’s foreword and Montgomery’s comprehensive introduction. Welsh discusses the rustic style, saying that our attraction to it was (and, it is worth adding, still is) grounded in our fascination with untamed wilderness, even as we have gone all out to tame it, and with our mythologizing of the log cabin.
Montgomery neatly places the story of the Great Camps in the context of several other movements, among them the emergence of recreation and the sporting life, the romanticizing of nature, and the Gilded Age with what pioneering sociologist Thorstein Veblen called its “conspicuous consumption.” She explains how the rustic style relied on native materials to demonstrate harmony with nature, a pattern that did not extend to interior décor, which trended toward Japanese, Turkish, and other fads of the period. She also describes how the Great Camps fostered the development of guiding as a profession. One editing error creeps in: reference to the Adirondacks’ Bob Marshall Wilderness, which does not exist (not yet, anyway).
The book then proceeds to the heart of the matter, profiling twenty-five Great Camps, many famous and others less well known, in chronological order from Brandreth Park (north of Raquette Lake), which arose in 1855, through Eagle Nest (west of Blue Mountain Lake), which came into being in the midst of the Great Depression.
The story of Nehasane, one of the better known, is representative, both of the genre and of the outstanding treatment these places receive in the book. Built by William Seward Webb, who started out as a doctor but had the foresight to turn into a Wall Street financier and marry a Vanderbilt, it was a forest preserve and game park whose headquarters consisted of the magnificent Forest Lodge plus a dozen other main buildings and eighty-six ancillary structures along Lake Lila, which he renamed for his wife. Webb also built the only trans-Adirondack railroad, partly so he could get to his playground, planting alongside the tracks a station to which one could buy a ticket only with his permission (parts of this line survive in the tourist operations out of Thendara and Lake Placid-Saranac Lake).
As the pictures of Nehasane suggest, dead animals were a common accessory of Great Camps. A 1902 photo shows four people admiring an eviscerated buck. Another reveals that dinner guests—one of the points of Great Camps being that their commanders could “entertain,” a euphemism for “show off”—ate with the stuffed heads of deceased caribou, moose, and creatures never seen alive in the Adirondacks peering over their shoulders.
Suggestive of the history of many Great Camps, the property remained in the family for over fifty years after Webb’s death, but for a variety of reasons became the property of New York State in 1979. In accordance with the forever-wild clause of the state constitution, the buildings were destroyed, “catalyzing a new era of historic preservation in the Adirondacks,” writes Montgomery. And thus the site of this Great Camp, like many others, returned to the wilderness it was supposed to mimic.
Montgomery says the “secluded Adirondack camps whispered of the quiet power associated with unassailable wealth.” The marketing value of that image lives on; find an ad for Tupper Lake’s proposed Adirondack Club and Resort, and you will encounter the lure of “Great Camp lots.”