The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid

Nicholas K. Burns Publishing, 2007 Softcover, 399 pages, $24.95
Nicholas K. Burns Publishing, 2007
Softcover, 399 pages, $24.95
Mary MacKenzie’s poems reveal a love of nature.
Mary MacKenzie’s poems reveal a love of nature.

People in Lake Placid knew that their longtime village and town historian, Mary MacKenzie, had written on local history for many years. But hardly anyone knew how prolifically, or how diversely, or what a dogged and accomplished researcher she was.

“I don’t think most people had any sense of the real magnitude of the work she’d been amassing over the years until we published the collected works,” writes Lee Manchester, a former Lake Placid newspaper reporter who took on the task of organizing and gently editing her writings for publication after her death in 2003 at 89. The result is The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid.

The well-constructed, 400-page volume is not only a marvelous research tool but also, and perhaps more important, a tribute to a woman who devoted much of her life to uncovering the history of her hometown. Manchester has structured the book in three main parts—The Pioneers, The Golden Age of Hotels, and Lake Placid, the latter a potpourri of everything from ice-trotting races to the WCTU horse fountain—and added headnotes that provide context and source information.

And the history of North Elba, a township, and Lake Placid, a village within that township, is not like that of any other place. (For one thing, no other place in America has hosted two Winter Olympics.) The mountain setting, the cold climate and the colorful personalities who settled, sojourned or passed through conspired to spin a unique tale. Among the characters who show up in this book are the firebrand abolitionist John Brown, author Richard Henry Dana Jr. (Two Years Before the Mast), winter-sports icon Art Devlin, centenarian Nordic skier Jackrabbit Johanssen, composer Victor Herbert (Babes in Toyland), singer Kate Smith, and librarian Melvil Dewey (he of a famous library classification system and an infamous attempt at “simplifyd speling,” which is why his first name is chronically missing its final “le”).

Mary the Poet

Lee Manchester found a cache of poems while
organizing the papers of Mary MacKenzie. “Even
those who knew Mary well, including the closest
members of her family in Lake Placid, had no idea
that she’d written poetry as a young woman,” he
says.

Manchester sent samples to Richard Henry, editor
of Blueline, the Adirondack literary magazine,
which produced a supplementary issue devoted
entirely to her poetry. The Lake Placid Public
Library, which holds the copyright to her work,
authorized the reissuing of her poems under a new
title, The Secret Poems of Mary C. Landon (available
at Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid for $16.95).

Her poems reveal that MacKenzie (neé Landon)
was sensitive not only to people’s stories, but to
nature as well. The following is presented with
permission from the library:

Watch for me in the wild thickets
I will run
Through tall catalpas
Spattered with the sun,
Wild-eyed and startled as the listening doe;
But stare
Not into somber maples.
Nine steps south, and go
West, and westward keep,
Else you might one day find me there
Drowned in a leafy silence, by
All the winds asleep.

We also encounter dashing actors and producers from the silent-movie era, who found the rugged scenery ideal for their epic films before the industry, like so much else, headed west. And there are daredevil athletes who risked life and limb in the place where winter sports were introduced to this country. But, MacKenzie being an egalitarian, we also meet humble settlers who struggled to carve out a life in harsh conditions, not always succeeding; freed slaves who tried even harder to make an agricultural go of it in an environment that was alien both physically and culturally; the ladies of the Garden Club; pastors and teachers; bankers and storekeepers. Their stories are not always happy; MacKenzie is an objective researcher and honest reporter, notwithstanding her love of her community, and she does not sugarcoat reality.

The first of 72 entries (plus an appendix that contains a chronology of historical highlights) is indicative of what’s to come. “Elijah Bennet: Lake Placid’s First Settler” outlines the travails of this “unlikely” pioneer, an aging, impoverished and crippled Revolutionary War veteran who survived family tragedy, summers with winter weather, and isolation to pave the way for others. “He was an unimportant man,” says MacKenzie, going on to show us how he was in fact very important historically. Simultaneously she gives us a picture of life in the wilderness circa 1800, long before Lake Placid was transformed into a bustling resort. Years later, Bennet’s Pond was rechristened Mirror Lake—by a tourist rocking on a hotel porch.

“Mary MacKenzie had a rare combination of gifts and skills as a historian,” observes Manchester. “She had the kind of mind that naturally sorted multiple disparate bits of information into coherent patterns. When she came upon a puzzle, an inconsistency or a mystery, she loved nothing better than tracking down an answer. . . . On top of all this, Mary really knew how to tell a story—and if you’ve ever had to wade through some of the horrible prose written by academic historians, you’ll know what a rarity that gift is.”

“I have traveled a great deal—in the town of North Elba,” MacKenzie said. With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, who made a literary career—also belatedly recognized— out of saying much the same of Concord, Mass., we can be grateful to Lee Manchester and the others who contributed to this book for helping us see how far she traveled, and what she saw and shared for posterity.

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