Community rallies to transform former church into new gathering place
By Tom French
Cranberry Lake is overflowing with history beginning with a timber crib dam in 1866 whose purpose was to “improve hydraulic power on the Oswegatchie.” Lumber companies, railroads, sportsmen, and tourists came after that. The Emporium Forestry Company expanded into the region in the first decades of the twentieth century and built a significant operation by 1917 with buildings that dominated the shores of Silver Lake and the edge of the hamlet.
But before Emporium, there was a Presbyterian church. Most signs of Emporium are gone, along with the many hotels that dotted the shore, but the church, built in 1897, remains – the last historic structure in Cranberry Lake. When the Western Adirondack Presbyterian Church decided to sell it in 2018, it was a call to action for many in the community.
Susan Sweeney Smith, a community volunteer and wife of a local, year-round contractor, organized a public meeting In the Cranberry Lake Town Hall. Over 80 people showed up. By the end of the meeting, the Cranberry Lake North Shore Hub (the Hub) had been formed.
With a mid-September deadline for purchase offers, the group had three weeks to raise the funds. Around 200 people contributed almost $200,000 before the deadline. The Northern New York Community Foundation served as a steward allowing tax-deductible contributions while Denise Barstow, a local real estate agent, completed the paperwork for non-profit status.
The group met with church representatives and made a presentation about what they would do with the building. Because it would be a nonprofit, the church accepted the Hub’s $125,000 offer, then gifted $15,000 back to support the project. The church was theirs.
The building was structurally sound, but needed a new roof, siding, and other extensive renovations that took three years. An open house was held last summer so people could see the interior and the progress of refurbishment. A wedding was celebrated at the church last fall.
The Hub has many goals in addition to the preservation of an historic building. Already, they have replaced the break wall and partnered with the Cranberry Lake Boat Club to provide roll-in docks for public use. Two fingers currently reach into the lake, one belonging to the Hub, the other to the CLBC, allowing lakeshore residents and visitors to arrive by boat, use the post office, attend an event, or shop at the only store for miles, Birch’s Lakeside.
The Hub will be hosting a Listening Session with Adirondack Explorer on Thursday, Aug. 10 beginning at 6:30 p.m. Featuring Digital Editor Melissa Hart and freelance writer Tom French, who has written many articles on the Cranberry Lake Area and explored the northwest corner of the Adirondacks extensively.
The Hub will also be open to the public from 2 to 4 on three upcoming Wednesdays this summer: Aug. 2, Aug. 16, and Aug. 30. A Hub board member will be on hand to answer questions, and visitors will be offered a free Cranberry Lake North Shore Hub magnet (while supplies last).
A cement pad has been installed along the shore to provide a stable tent-covered platform for outdoor events. Knotty Paddy, a Celtic rock band based in Wanakena, will perform on July 29. An official grand opening event took place July 15 with six, museum-quality, informational panels unveiled inside the church. In pictures and text, the panels highlight the history of the hamlet, the lake, the church, the Boat Club, and the Grasse River Railroad (now a rail trail). One panel includes the earliest known navigational map of the lake.
The group sees the church as a community space for concerts, performances, or lectures. They hope people will book it for weddings and family gatherings. They plan to repurpose the basement (which was hand dug in 1950s or 60). A vertical lift is being installed for accessibility.
Sweeney stresses the role the community has played. “We have people who pull weeds, water the plants, and do the landscaping. A couple of cement engineers did a complete evaluation of the basement concrete. A local builder put in and took out the docks for years. He also helped with every aspect of the rehabilitation including wiring for the performance pad.”
The Adami family donated back the original pump organ from when the church first formed. Made by the Needham Piano Organ Company, “The Little Beauty” was saved by John and Dorothy in the early 1970s when the church replaced it with an electric organ.
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“They were going to take it to the dump,” Barstow explains. “And Mrs. (Dorothea) Queen (an active church member and a devoted lover of the organ who lived next door to the Adami’s) said, ‘You aren’t taking that to the dump,’ so she took it and she gave it to the Adamis.” Their son, John Jr., restored it to working order before donating it back.
“That’s the magic of Cranberry Lake,” Sweeney says. “At first, I did not want to take on a project of this scale. It felt too big and overwhelming, but there was such love and energy at the community meeting, I knew we had to find a way. So much magic came through the door that I just couldn’t believe how amazing this community was.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a change to the year the church was built and the type of docks used at the Hub.
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