Film explores Gov. Hughes’ connections to, passions for the Adirondacks

Hughes and his family in the Adirondacks
Gov. Charles Evans Hughes and family at Lady Tree Lodge in Upper Saranac circa 1908-1909 — Courtesy The Folklife Center at Crandall Public Library

By Paul Post

Charles Evans Hughes — a 20th century political titan who almost became president, and was among the U.S. Supreme Court’s greatest chief justices, also did a great deal to protect and expand the Adirondack Park as New York governor (1907-10).

A Glens Falls native, born Aug. 11, 1862, Hughes spent his formative years enjoying the outdoors and championed conservation while recognizing the importance of timbering to the North Country economy. The first paid state forest rangers were assigned to the Adirondacks, 115,000 acres was added to the Forest Preserve, and more than 1 million trees were planted annually at state-run nurseries during his term as the state’s chief executive.

In short, his policies like those on many other issues, from civil rights to women’s suffrage, were far ahead of his time, which still today make him one of America’s greatest, most admired and critically important statesmen.

Hughes’s amazing life, career — he was also U.S. secretary of state (1921-25) — and lifelong love for the North Country is captured in a newly-released, 43-minute documentary, “My Native Air: Charles Evans Hughes and the Adirondacks.” The title comes from a speech Hughes made during a 1906 gubernatorial campaign visit to Glens Falls. “I am glad to breathe my native air again,” he declared.

The film takes viewers to many of the Adirondack sites Hughes frequented throughout his life, from Lady Tree Lodge on Upper Saranac Lake ,where he conducted state affairs during two summers as governor, to several points on Lake George, which he returned to numerous times.

Deep love of the Adirondacks

“Hughes spent many summers in the Adirondacks hiking, fishing and golfing as part of his efforts to recover from over-exertion due to his demanding responsibilities as governor, secretary of state and two stints on the Supreme Court, one as chief justice during the Great Depression,” said William Loughrey, an historian and Hughes biographer (“Hughes: Crossroads”). “As a practicing attorney for two decades, he learned much about industry through his experiences with business and bankruptcy law.”

Timbering and pulp and paper were major industries in the Adirondacks and many of the mills were in the Glens Falls area. Clear-cutting and deforestation were significant problems, even to some extent around Lake George and Saranac Lake.

“Using his encyclopedic mind and photographic memory, Hughes was able to develop major policy initiatives in both land and water conservation, which encompassed most of the forests in the Adirondacks and bodies of water from the Canadian border to Saratoga Springs,” Loughrey said. “Hughes took a balanced approach as he also understood the need to bolster industry and create jobs.”

Trailer for “My Native Air.”

Balancing interests

Modern environmentalists would no doubt dig their heels in against some Hughes proposals, such as his call for selective cutting and sustainable practices on forest preserve land. He believed that money loggers paid the state could be used to acquire more land. But the idea was soundly rejected by the Legislature, as widespread destruction of pristine forestland was fresh in many people’s minds.

“Hughes presided over a period of time similar to today in that the state was struggling to properly manage the Forest Preserve as forever wild,” said John Sheehan, Adirondack Council spokesman. Voters had demanded an end to clear-cutting, which was prohibited by an 1894 Constitutional amendment that established the “Forever Wild” clause, two years after the Adirondack Park’s creation in 1892.

Louis Marshall, an attorney from New York City and Camp Knollwood near Saranac Lake, led the floor debate to establish the clause. However, Sheehan credits Hughes for expanding the Forest Preserve by having the state buy up lands that timber, charcoal and glass companies had abused by clear-cutting it and moving on to the next parcel. In addition, Hughes convinced the Legislature to let the state pay a higher price for land that hadn’t been clear-cut.

“This was a major game-changer as it was a deterrent to unscrupulous private landowners who clear-cut land, but didn’t pay local property taxes, knowing that by the time it was foreclosed on the value would be diminished to the point that only the state would buy it,” said Maury Thompson, the film’s co-director.

“Hughes’s interest in the Adirondacks was part of a comprehensive, lifelong interest in preservation and outdoor recreation,” Thompson said. Hughes climbed Mount Marcy while governor, a much more arduous feat at the time without the benefit of modern hiking gear. He saw the Adirondacks, source of the Hudson River that provided New York City’s water supply, as a common link uniting upstate and downstate interests. “That approach forged collaboration between The Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks and the New York City Board of Trade and Transportation, to work with Hughes on conservation,” Thompson said.

Lady Tree Lodge, former home of Gov. Hughes
Lady Tree Lodge as it appears today — Courtesy Snarky Aardvark Films

Lady Tree Lodge

Instead of seeking the Oval Office in 1908, Hughes backed fellow Republican Howard Taft and ran for a second term as governor, announcing his candidacy from the steps of Lady Tree Lodge, which functioned as the summer state capital in ’08 and ’09. The lodge, just west of Saranac Lake village, was built about 1896 in rustic Adirondack Great Camp style for Alfred H. Belo of Texas, a former colonel in the Confederate Army. Now owned by Chris Cohan and his wife, Rita Wong, it was added to both the State and National Registers of Historic Places in 2018. The building’s library served as Hughes’s office, and the view is the same now as in his day. Looking out across the lake, Hughes could see 20-plus Adirondack peaks from Whiteface to Ampersand, Seward and many others in between.

“He was very busy,” Cohan said. “Every day he was taking care of the state’s business as well as hunting, fishing and spending time with his family. This really was his base of operations. I think it was helpful to him not only for running the state, but to have a little bit of a retreat to get that perspective about the best way to proceed forward.”

“Reporters would come over from the (Saranac) Inn or from town and he would meet with them regularly on the front porch,” Cohan said. “He did so many things in his life that humble me. He was a tower of a man. I just wish there were more people like him today.”

About the film

“My Native Air” is co-directed by Thompson and Caitlin Stedman, Snarky Aardvark Films founder.

A special virtual premier is taking place until Feb. 15. Tickets may be purchased online (woodtheater.org) for $15, which allows purchasers to view the film, with all proceeds benefiting Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls and Glens Falls Arts District.

Public showings aren’t allowed now because of the COVID pandemic, but will be held at Crandall Public Library and Silver Bay Association as soon as such gatherings are permissible. Plans also call for a possible airing on Mountain Lake PBS.

Groups and organizations interested in scheduling a showing of the film may contact Thompson by email: [email protected] or by calling (518) 761-1186.

Updates and news about the documentary may be found by following the link below.

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The Adirondack Explorer is a nonprofit magazine covering the Adirondack Park's environment, recreation and communities.

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