Commenters reflect on uses for abolitionist’s site
By Gwendolyn Craig
Commenters on plans for John Brown Farm offered an eclectic mix of visions for the historic site named for the abolitionist. A Brown relative, a state politician, multiple artists, environmentalists, neighbors, college professors and historians gave input for the 213-acre parcel just outside of Lake Placid.
Though the public comment period is over, the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation seeks even more feedback and is lining up an online survey for later this year. The office could release a draft unit management plan and environmental impact statement by the spring or summer next year.
“This historic site is an essential piece of not only North Country history, but also state, national and international history,” said Billy Jones, the Democratic state assemblyman from Plattsburgh.
One commenter, Jeffrey Gurwitz, did not think the state should enhance the site at all. He objected to further glorification of Brown, who led a violent raid of the arsenal at Harpers Ferry in Virginia in 1859.
“Does John Brown deserve recognition as an abolitionist, yes,” Gurwitz wrote. “But should he be celebrated as a hero? I don’t think so.”
Most commenters, however, had many hopes for the property, which is one of five parcels in the 6-million-acre Adirondack Park classified as historic. It is also a rare spot in the park overseen by the Parks Office.
Most public lands in the Adirondacks are managed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The Parks Office, DEC and the Adirondack Park Agency—the state organization charged with long-range planning and overseeing public and private development—are working on a unit management plan for John Brown Farm. A unit management plan includes natural and physical resources in a specific area of the park, and a list of projects that must comply with APA rules and regulations.
In addition to two virtual public meetings, the state asked for written comments on what those plans should entail.
Many commenters echoed ideas John Brown Lives! proposed. The nonprofit friends group wants a year-round visitor and conference center.
Marty Brown, who said she is the great-great-great-great-granddaughter of John Brown, hopes for a contemporary building and exhibit space for artists. Several artists wrote asking for residency programs.
“I visited the site about ten years ago and was surprised by the lack of information and interpretive material provided to visitors,” Brown wrote.
Not all think such a meeting space is necessary. Douglas Ridenour and his wife, whose address was redacted in response to the Explorer’s records request for comments, wrote that there are many conference centers in the Lake Placid area. They want to see the state use what is already in place “instead of wasting more money on a new building that would not be necessary and would take away from the natural beauty that the John Brown Farm site encompasses.”
Many commenters are hoping for an expanded trail system.
Pete Nelson, co-founder of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, described potential trails connecting the farm to Timbuctoo, an historic settlement for African Americans in the mid 1800s. Nelson would also like to see the state recognize the homestead of Lyman Epps, one of the Black men who settled in the area and helped establish the Lake Placid Library. Epps was also a local guide and helped people navigate through Indian Pass.
“This pass, representing one of the few through-routes connecting lands north of the main Adirondack ranges with the south, played a largely undocumented role in Indigenous history, having been a path of Native American commerce for hundreds of years, if not millennia,” Nelson wrote. “(A) trail from the John Brown Farm south past the Epps homestead and connecting to the existing High Peaks trail to Indian Pass, would have considerable historic significance.”
The proposal would involve amending the Saranac Lakes Wild Forest unit management plan and the plan for the High Peaks Wilderness. Nelson didn’t think this should stop the state from considering building the trail in phases.
David Fadden, an Akwesasne Mohawk artist, asked that the state better acknowledge Indigenous people and their ties to the site.
“Like most places in the Adirondacks, the narrative usually starts when the Europeans arrived to the mountains,” Fadden said. “They tend to mention Indigenous people as a footnote or ‘they just passed through.’”
Commenters would like to see specific changes to existing trails, too.
Jason Thurston, outreach coordinator at International Paper-John Dillon Park and chairman of the Accessibility Advisory Committee to the DEC, asked for a more accessible trails system with firmer surfaces. James Lancel McElhinney, an artist living in the Champlain Valley, suggested the state install more benches for people to rest along the trails. McElhinney would also like to see guided nature walks and more interpretive signs.
Environmental groups, including the Adirondack Council and Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, called for a site analysis of the farm’s wildlife and ecology, avoidance of wetlands for any development and limiting of tree and vegetative clearing.
Farm and history
Some want to see a working farm blossoming on the land once more.
That includes Anthony Lawrence, who said he is from North Elba and now lives in California. Lawrence said he is the great-grandson of the first caretaker of John Brown Farm. He envisioned an institute there offering degrees in farming, animal husbandry, hospitality and tourism.
McElhinney suggested a victory garden, with plots rented yearly by some and given to those in need.
“This would provide a venue for social interaction between people at different socioeconomic levels, as a way to build a harmonious community,” he wrote.