It all began when one person decided to introduce an acquaintance to high technology so he could record his low-tech life. “I didn’t really start out to write a biography,” says Marylee Armour of her book Heartwood: The Adirondack Homestead Life of W. Donald Burnap.
The book, first published in 1988 (so when we say “high technology” we aren’t talking iPods), was reissued in 2007. “I wanted to help Don learn to use his new tape recorder. It’s hard to just start telling your stories into a microphone, so I began to ask him questions. Later, with miles of recordings and questions answered, I realized that the material I had gathered would make an interesting book.”
“Interesting” is an understatement. The book is fascinating, and very well done as self-published books go. Armour, a retired educator who, now in her eighties, still blogs (were we speaking of modern technology a moment ago?) and summers on the Fulton Chain of Lakes, knows how to interview, how to write and how to put a book together. She has organized those “miles of recordings” into a narrative that’s a pleasure to read.
The printing is also top quality, another attribute one does not always see in selfpublished works. Close to a hundred illustrations, everything from family photos to store bills (a pair of socks cost 25 cents in 1908), maps, newspaper clippings and old advertisements enliven the text and reveal details of life in the central Adirondacks that we will not see again.
But Armour is the “as told to” person for a reason. The book, presented in the first person, is really Don Burnap’s. For forty-seven years (1929-75) he was captain of the Fulton Chain mailboat, which delivered mail to homes, camps and hotels on the lakes. This was an official floating U.S. Post Office for which the motto “neither rain nor…” took on special meaning. The Armours’ place was one of his stops.
Armour’s daughter, Jean Polly, recalls, “To me, as a child standing on the dock holding the mail bag, waiting for that big mailboat to come, Don Burnap always seemed like a crusty sea captain, his expression cold and inscrutable as a winter sky. Yet this was the same guy who hand-fed deer from his back porch. It’s a shame that most people knew Don only from those fleeting lakeside encounters. On the other hand, if he had stopped at every dock to chat, the mail would never have gotten delivered!”
Boats and Burnap seemed made for each other. As a lad of nine, he was hired to pilot a boat for the state attorney general, and he was overhauling engines by age twelve. Yet there’s just one short chapter about the mail service. The book is more about growing up in the Adirondacks and carving out a diverse living through the ups and downs of the twentieth century (Burnap lived from 1902 through 1987).
But plenty of others have done that. What about Don Burnap warrants a book that lets us get to know him better than many did when he was alive? Maybe it’s that he was representative.
“Don Burnap, like other Adirondackers I’ve met over the years, was exceptionally serious about his work,” says Armour. “It was his responsibility, regardless of the weather, to get the mail properly delivered and on time. Don did that.”
Also like many Adirondackers, he did lots of other things as he cobbled together a living for himself and, later, a growing family, mostly in the environs of Fourth Lake. One of these involved turning the family home on the lake into a resort over a period of years. Like most such enterprises in the Adirondacks, this was a family affair. One job Don had by himself was catching smelts and selling them for bait in the days before the state regulated the activity.
But let’s take a few steps back. The book begins with Burnap’s arrival at Fourth Lake in 1902, when he was six weeks old. “I don’t remember the trip myself,” he says, with no hint of coyness, a clear sign that here is a straightshooting, plain-spoken man. “But my family always told me that my father carried me in a packbasket, a distance of 25 miles.” His father brought his family to Fourth Lake from the Port Leyden area, west of the Adirondack Park, because there was building to be done: In 1902, Fourth Lake had been for almost twenty years sought out by those wealthy enough to afford a vacation home, and George C. Burnap came there to build them. The senior Burnap lost his life in a dynamiting misfire when Don was fifteen, and Don instantly became a grown-up.
From here on, the book is a smorgasbord of tips on how to get on if you fly through a wormhole back to the Adirondacks of a century ago. You will learn how to depend on the railroads (yes, plural) to get you around; there were more passenger trains in Herkimer County when Don was young than there are in the entirety of upstate New York today. You will learn how to tune an engine, which you will need to know since there won’t be a Jiffy Lube just down the street—and you will learn well, because Don Burnap was enthralled by mechanics and loved to talk about how things worked. You’ll learn how to fill an icehouse properly, butcher a pig, build a breakwater, rebuild a boat that’s had a tree fall on it, bathe in a washtub (you can forget about showers), make soap to bathe with, lay pipe, harvest cranberries, send a telegram, make acetylene gas, tan a hide so as to strip it to make snowshoes, and make a skipjack (akin to a sled) out of the staves of a vinegar barrel.
Those are your useful skills. You’ll also pick up a dose of history, for this book is not just the story of one man, but the story of a place.
“I’ve always felt that at Minnowbrook School we had a better education than we might have had in a larger school,” says Burnap. Maximum enrollment was nine, half of whom were his siblings, and they got there by foot, canoe, snowshoes, whatever it took. The Fulton Chain region was water-oriented; in addition to his mailboat, there were the Bakery Boat, the Ice Cream Boat, the Church Boat and the Pickle Boat, which was a steam-powered grocery store complete with an on-board meat-cutter. All of these passed into history in the World War II era as roads improved and people obtained cars.
Burnap doesn’t express opinions often, but usually they have to do with regulations, with which he doesn’t usually have much patience. The state’s management of the deer herd and the board that controlled the level of water in the Fulton Chain come under fire, although in gentlemanly language. Surprisingly, his views about the Adirondack Park Agency and its land use plans do not surface.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” Marylee Armour confesses. Like Don Burnap delivering the mail, she let no obstacles stay her from her course. We are the beneficiaries of her perseverance.