Hint: Not the kind of tanning you might expect. A look at the twin trades of leather-making and tourism in Caroga Lake
Story and photos by Tom French
When I signed up for the AARCH (Adirondack Architectural Heritage) tour of Caroga Lake, I didn’t look at the title. It was the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round in the picture that caught my eye. So given the times, please excuse my first thought as I read Tanning, Tourism, and the Arts on the program when I arrived for the tour.
Tourism and tanning are two words that often go together, but creating leather out of hides is definitively not a recreational activity. Necessary to prevent hides and skins from rotting, civilizations have been tanning for almost 10,000 years using various trees (and other materials including brains), but hemlock became the bark of choice for the tanning moguls of 19th-century New York City. As supplies dried up in the Catskills and along the Hudson, operations moved into the Adirondacks.
Many Adirondack communities have roots in tanning, the fifth largest industry in the United States by the 1850s. One of the most well-documented and largest in New York was in Wheelerville, 12 miles north of Gloversville (where close to 90% of all gloves in the United States were manufactured until the 1950s). Caroga is also unique because the businessman behind the operation, future governor and congressman of Massachusetts, William Claflin, had a vision beyond resource extraction toward creating a vacation destination.
The AARCH tour began at the Caroga Historical Museum along the London Bridge Road off Routes 10 and 29a – a collection of buildings, some moved to the site, that include an historic family homestead, cobbler’s shop, ice house, and the Arcade, a substantial collection of artifacts from the heyday of Sherman’s Amusement Park.
The pegged barn, a 150-year-old structure with a history of two farms and a Girl Scout camp, includes a significant display about the tanning history of the area. Much of the exhibit is based on research by Barbara McMartin, renown author of the Adirondacks who died in 2005. In addition to her guidebooks, McMartin, a lifelong resident of the area, was considered an authority on the history of tanning in the Adirondacks and published Hides, Hemlocks, and Adirondack History in 1992.
Denny Fincke, a museum trustee and guide for the tour, began by explaining how his house, built in the early 1850s and part of the AARCH Tour, may be the “first vacation home” in the Adirondacks.
While touring glove factories in Johnstown and Gloversville in the late-1840s, Claflin, co-owner of a shoe and boot business with his father, fell in love with the area, purchased land, and built a summer home. Years later, in 1865, realizing his Massachusetts hemlock supplies were dwindling, he purchased 20,000 more acres with an abundance of hemlock and established a tannery along an inlet to Canada Lake. In addition to building company houses and a store (later the Nick Stoner Golf Course clubhouse that burned in 2020), he converted his vacation home into a boarding house. Jonathan Wheeler, among others, was tasked to run the operation.
Wheelerville became the largest tannery in the state, but by 1888, with a declining hemlock supply and other changes in the industry, it closed. All that remains of the leaching sheds and drying barns is a historic marker, a few houses, and overgrown troughs in the woods next to the golf course.
But Claflin’s venture with a five-story, grand hotel on the shores of Canada Lake, built in 1866 at the same time as his tannery operation, demonstrated the area’s potential as a resort. After his hotel, the first Canada Lake House, burned in 1884, he began subdivided the shoreline into “cottage lots” for “summer residents and excursionists.”
Claflin’s Canada Lake House burned in 1884, but other hotels were built. Claflin was not the only wealthy entrepreneur to recognize the potential for tourism. James Fulton’s Canada Lake House opened in 1888 followed by the Auskerada in 1893. By the 1890s, several steamers plied the waters.
In 1897, Alfred Dolge, founder of Dolgeville, created the Auskerada Park Club. The brochure renamed the lakes and created a fictional Native American hero. Unfortunately, poor business decisions resulted in bankruptcy. In 1904, Dolge’s properties were acquired by future U.S. Rep. Cyrus Durey and others who planned to harvest timber and further develop the area’s potential as a summer resort. Durey is often associated with road building in the early part of the 20th century which made it easier for tourists to visit.
Between the tanning industry and later lumber mills, significant amounts of timber were harvested by the 1920s. Fincke shared photos taken from the 12th hole of the golf course in 1935 “without a tree in sight right down to Sherman’s (Amusement Park)” over a mile away.
By the 1920s, Durey’s interest turned toward a “recreational park” including an airfield for sightseeing rides. When that venture failed, he focused on what would become the Nick Stoner Golf Course – the oldest, continuously-operated, 18-hole golf course in the Adirondacks. Named after the Revolutionary War veteran and backwoodsman, the first six holes opened in 1925. Holes seven and eight were finished by 1926, and the back nine were added by 1929. Because of a proviso written into the deed, the course was prevented from closing during the depression and war years.
The New York State Conservation Department (now the DEC) opened the Caroga Lake Campground in the late 1920s, and three amusement parks opened in the area as well, including Sherman’s, where an operating carousel, lighted Ferris wheel and a bumper car pavilion can still be seen as part of the Caroga Arts Collective.
The Caroga Historical Museum is open from late June until through August, 1:00 to 4:00 Thursday through Sunday. More information can be found at https://www.carogamuseum.org/.