In the Adirondacks’ secluded west, an old sporting camp adapts
By Neal Burdick
It has survived two evictions. It has burned to the ground. It has weathered cyclical financial crises and changing tastes in outdoor recreation. Its members have gotten lost and been shot (accidentally). It has relocated itself half a dozen times. And yet the Rap-Shaw Club continues to this day, on two neighboring islands in the Stillwater Reservoir, the oldest ongoing institution of its type in the vast western Adirondacks.
The club’s name derives from a telescoping of the last names of two of its founders, John Rapalje, ironically a seller of fire suppression equipment, and Leander Shaw, funeral home and opera house owner and county coroner. The two Buffalo-area fishing buddies, during a May 1896 expedition in some of the Adirondacks’ most remote territory north of the Beaver River, hit upon the idea of forming a club through which they could continue their avocation. Their cofounders were a handful of other gentlemen, mostly from Buffalo and Elmira, with occupations ranging from master plumber to brewer to lawyer to New York State comptroller. Hardly the super-rich “Great Camp” set, they were nevertheless established enough to sustain an organization that would satisfy their leisure tastes.
All this and more is told in a new book by current club historian and immediate past president Edward Pitts, a retired attorney and administrative law judge from Syracuse. “The History of the Rap-Shaw Club: 1896 until 1958” tells concisely the history of the association’s first 62 years, explaining such mishaps as the evictions, imposed because the club’s first facilities stood (with initial permission) on the grounds of irascible William Seward Webb’s sprawling Nehasane estate.
The book is generously illustrated with high-quality historic photos. They show long steam-powered passenger trains arriving at the Beaver River station (the closest debarkation point in the pre-automobile era); generations of loyal guides shouldering guideboats over carries; the camps’ buildings, from rustic to refined; camp shenanigans; fish stocking by airplane, an endeavor the club pioneered; and much more of “the sporting life.”
Some of these old images demonstrate that women took part in club activities from nearly the outset. While outdoor recreation was one of few ways in which women were allowed to be on something approaching equal footing with men in the Victorian Era (but not equal apparel, as these photos also show), the Rap-Shaw Club was ahead of the times in this regard.
The author concedes that the principal audience for this book will be “members of the club and their friends.” And yet the club’s story is the story of many in the Adirondacks, not as long-lived yet representative of one hallowed niche of the region’s recreational life.
Regarding the end date in the title, Pitts says, “By 1958 the club had achieved the form it pretty much retains today. That year also marks the end of the Wilder/Nye era—it’s remarkable that one family (the Wilders’ daughter married a Nye) operated the club from its earliest days,” he explains, adding that their skills as guides, cooks, and all-around handy people “held the place together” for its first six-plus decades.
That’s not to say history came to a standstill in 1958, of course. Adirondack Park Agency regulations have “generally been of not much concern,” Pitts says. WiFi has arrived, but “there are no TVs in the cabins. Principal daily activities remain boating, fishing, swimming, playing games and relaxing. Some members jokingly call the club ‘nap-shaw.’” Pitts also cites “reasonable financial security” as a major stride, one that any number of similar but struggling clubs must envy.
“It is impossible to talk about the club’s history since 1958 without mentioning Forest Ranger Terry Perkins,” Pitts says. “One of his challenges was to end the practice of dumping refuse into the reservoir. He gave everyone a little time to clean up the mess they had made over the years. In the spring of 1971 he met with the Rap-Shaw steward and told him in no uncertain terms that dumping the club’s trash into a back bay had to stop. That’s all it took.”
One thing that has ensured Rap-Shaw’s longevity has been its ability to adjust to the times. At first a traditional fishing and hunting camp, over the years it “became more attractive and comfortable for families,” Pitts says. “Fall hunting trips composed mostly of men continued until 1955, while fishing never stopped. But use of the camp for family vacations gradually moved from a sidelight to center stage, largely because more and more members wanted a place to relax with their wives and children. To achieve economic stability, the club increasingly came to rely on the income from family camping during the warmer months.”
The History of the Rap-Shaw Club: 1896 until 1958
Edward I. Pitts
Privately published, 2019
Soft cover, 122 pages
$20.00 plus tax
Pitts notes two other factors in the club’s self-preservation. One is its 100-year determination “to make membership affordable. This has allowed some key families to maintain long-term membership, thus preserving our traditions, while at the same time bringing in a constant flow of new members with their new energy.”
The other is the appeal of “Beaver River Country.” Pitts says, “The area around Stillwater Reservoir is one of the wildest in the park, almost completely Forest Preserve. The dark night sky is amazing. Loons are plentiful. Bald eagles are frequently spotted, and a family of merlins nests on our main island. We even have visits from the occasional moose and bear. There is simply no other part of the park quite like it.”
“In short,” he interjects, “the club has survived because of lots of love and some good luck.”
And how are relations between local folk and these outsiders? “The club has existed for so long that locals seem to consider it a part of the landscape,” Pitts asserts. He points out that the club patronizes local merchants and services. “To celebrate our many local connections, every fall we host a clambake to which local residents are invited and many attend,” he says.
Looking ahead, Pitts sees many more years for the Rap-Shaw Club. He notes that the membership today includes families with young children who “will love (the outdoors) for the rest of their lives” and likely maintain their affiliation. (Potential new members must first visit.)
“Old-time clubs like ours are not for everyone, but I believe those who love them will continue to make great efforts to see them survive and thrive,” he concludes.
“The History of the Rap-Shaw Club” is available by mail from the author and online at bit.ly/2DoexQ6. Copies are also available at the Village Mercantile in Saranac Lake, the Stillwater Shop at Stillwater Reservoir, the Goodsell Museum in Old Forge, and a few other booksellers in the North Country. For information about how best to obtain a copy, email [email protected].