Historic marker gives recognition to little-known Black settlement in Loon Lake
By Tim Rowland
Willis Hodges, an educated, free black man in antebellum Virginia, saw greater promise in the North than was to be found in the Tidewater. So he left his successful family farm and moved to Long Island, where, to his chagrin, he was deemed worthy only of menial jobs far below his talents.
He returned to Virginia, where he was reminded why he had left in the first place — a community growing increasingly hostile. As tensions over slavery were rising from a simmer to a boil, it was whispered the outspoken Hodges might be the second coming of Nat Turner.
In what became a pattern, he returned to New York only to become disillusioned all over again, running a grocery that was a far cry from his agrarian ideal. “Selling food was not like growing it,” said historian Amy Godine.
Hodges would go on to live a rich and impactful life, at times a newspaper editor, politician, minister and abolitionist. And for about five years in the middle of the 19th century, he was also an Adirondacker, living on Loon Lake courtesy of land granted by abolitionist Gerrit Smith.
This settlement of a small band of black pioneers became known as Blacksville, similar perhaps to Timbuctoo, a community that flickered in the heart of the wilderness before vanishing with scarcely a trace.
But if these communities disappeared physically, historians say their significance echoes loudly through the ages, and that their long-ignored stories are well worth reviving. So to honor Blacksville and the men, women and children who lived there, a William G. Pomeroy Foundation historic marker commemorating the site was unveiled on Aug. 6, in the company of about 30 onlookers.
Curt Stager, a professor of Natural Sciences at Paul Smith’s College who has championed underrepresented Adirondack communities, said the exact location of the community isn’t known, although an educated guess places it on a knoll overlooking Hodge’s Bay on land owned by Craig and Silke Johnstone.
Craig Johnstone, a diplomat who served as Ronald Reagan’s Ambassador to Algeria, as a director of finances and planning in the Secretary of State’s office during the Clinton Administration, said the settlement had come on his radar independently of historical research that was going on at the same time.
When discussion of a marker came up, Johnstone said he and his wife became enthusiastic supporters of the project. “We’re very proud to have played a part,” he said.
Gerrit Smith’s land scheme has been chided for its failure to produce lasting results by past historians who have largely missed the point, or never bothered to add context to their research, said Amy Godine, author of the forthcoming book The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier (Cornell University Press).
The land was less about farming than it was about voting, as it helped blacks meet state property requirements that were meant to keep them away from the ballot box. Even if they never sank a plow in the ground — or even visited it, for that matter — it was still valuable. Godine said it’s telling that many blacks only sold their parcels after 1870 when property requirements were repealed, an indicator that Smith’s plan was indeed successful.
Meanwhile, those who did venture to their holdings often found the land unsuitable for farming, or lacked capitalization for tools, animals and seed. White historians of the last century perpetuated the narrative that they didn’t have what it took to make it in the North.
But even if they did not develop their granted property it didn’t mean they failed — they may have simply squatted (a common practice at the time) on more fertile ground, leaving no public record of their existence. Stager said some are known to have moved on to other work at, for example, Paul Smith’s hotel.
Hodges himself was a skilled farmer, and salted his existing knowledge with region-specific expertise, such as the amount of firewood needed to make it through the winter or the best way to deal with black flies.
Godine said his struggles were evident, as he wrote of the need for teamsters and the precarious state of food supplies. His friend, abolitionist John Brown, sent barrels of pork and flour to the settlement, along with a warning to make it last because his own financial situation at the moment wasn’t much better than the pioneers. Hodges and his fellows made do. “Quitters?” Godine said. “I don’t think so.”
A prodigious writer, Hodges himself wrote little of his day-to-day life in the Adirondacks, perhaps wary that the wrong people might get wind that he was operating a stop on the underground railroad. Similarly, his wife burned letters he exchanged with Smith.
“Wouldn’t you like to read those?” Godine said.
The stories of these settlers “are largely missing in action in Adirondack history,” Godine said. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. “Blacksville glows much brighter if we think of it as part of a continuum (toward) racial justice and equity,” Godine said.