Community celebrates transformation of Lakeside General Store
By Tom French
When a Brzostek’s Real Estate Auction sign appeared in front of the Lakeside General Store in Cranberry Lake last summer, the first reaction for many was worry. “The biggest little store in the Adirondacks” was the only store for miles and rumors flew that a Lake George developer wanted to tear it down for waterfront homes.
According to Susan Sweeney Smith, a community volunteer and year-round resident, “If someone put a home there, it would have been yet another shuttered business on Cranberry Lake. I was in a whirling dervish about it.”
Despite seasonal visitors in the thousands, Cranberry Lake has struggled over the last few decades to maintain businesses. Forty years ago, the community sported a number of retail establishments including a store with roots to the Emporium Forestry Company when employees were paid in chips that could be spent only at the company store. Its final iteration closed in 2010. Several restaurants populated the lake including two accessible only by boat. None remain. Many of these establishments were open year-round, including the market at the Emporium site and the Lakeside General Store. When the Cranberry Lake Lodge and Restaurant closed about a decade ago, the Lakeside became the last business standing.
When auction day came last Aug. 14, over 40 local residents gathered outside to watch.
“I was just sad,” Denise Barstow, a local realtor, recalls. “And praying somebody would buy it and keep it as a store. Otherwise, it would have killed the economy even more.”
Roger and Anita Backus built the store in the early 1970s as a full-service IGA complete with a meat department, produce, gift shop, gas, and self-serve laundromat. They also established the Campers Village Campgrounds with close to 40 sites. They rented canoes and aluminum boats with 10-horsepower motors.
“Camping was big,” according to Roger. “We put (sites) all over the place.”
Larry and Sue Welling purchased the property in 2003, but within a couple of years were forced to reduce the operation to summers only due to a declining winter population. Without any source for groceries or gas, Cranberry Lake’s roughly 200 winter residents were forced to travel to Star Lake, Otto’s Abode in Wanakena, or Tupper Lake, Potsdam, Canton, or Gouverneur.
Last year, after 19 years, Larry and Sue decided to retire. Without the store, Cranberry Lake’s summer residents would have to travel too.
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Ed Kipp, a summer resident for over 50 years, was concerned about the loss of the marina. “It’s the only place you can put gas in your boat without trucking it from miles away.”
Twenty or so seasonal RV campers could also have been without a home.
Only registered bidders were allowed inside the store where the auction was taking place, so the crowd huddled outside.
“It was scary,” Smith recalls. “(Larry) Junior Welling, Sue and Larry’s son, was standing at the door as the gatekeeper.”
When it was announced that an online bidder from South Carolina had won the auction, people realized it was the son of David and Eileen Birchenough, a local family with two places and a history in the area. People were relieved.
“When I heard they planned to keep running it as a business, I was so happy, I cried,” Smith says.
PJ and Erica Birchenough arrived from Charleston in early April in a caravan of four cars, an RV, boat, and trailer. “We pretty much packed our life up in Charleston,” PJ says. “When we arrived, we had to have Kelly Smith dig the snow out with a backhoe.”
“It was frozen earth, 3 feet of snow,” Erica chimes in.
PJ spent summers in Star Lake in his youth. His parents still own properties in Star Lake and Wanakena. Last August, during a family camping outing to Joe Indian Island with PJ’s parents and others, the subject of the auction sign came up.
“And we got really excited,” Erica says. “The next morning, I caught (PJ) crunching numbers. We delved into a conversation, and he felt like it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We lined up a meeting with Larry, but I didn’t think we had a foot in the race.”
“I wanted to get my family into the mountains,” PJ says. On the day of the auction, PJ participated from his computer. “It was crazy back and forth.”
Against 28 registered bidders, PJ and Erica’s winning bid was $535,000.
PJ and Erica have changed the name to Birch’s Lakeside, in a subtle wink to their name. During a tour of the campground, PJ points out that three-quarters of the 28 sites are filled with seasonal renters. Many leave their rigs at the campground year-round. He intends to keep three sites dedicated for nightly rentals. He also has about 30 boat slips along with “public” docking.
Both PJ and Erica quit their jobs in South Carolina in order to pursue this new enterprise. “I wanted to stir the pot,” PJ explains. “We’re going to make a living with this. I’ve got roots back 60 years. My grandfather built a home within a stone’s throw of the footbridge in Wanakena.”
Although they still plan to winter in Charleston for now, PJ and Erica have big plans. They’ve arranged for Maddox & Ruth’s ADK Soft Serve food truck out of Queensbury to spend the summer beginning July 19. “I was at a bluegrass festival in South Carolina and saw ADK Soft Serve on the side of this truck. I said, ‘What are you guys doing down here? You need to come up to Cranberry Lake and join our little venture,’ and she actually took me up on it. We did a trial run over Memorial Day, and it was a fantastic hit.”
In addition to the only soft-serve in Cranberry Lake, Maddox & Ruth’s will serve coffee and donuts in the morning along with hot dogs, slushies, and other frozen treats.
Birch’s docks will allow people to arrive by boat for ice cream, groceries, and gas. PJ and Erica have freshly baked goods and are working on deli selections and pre-made sandwiches. PJ is also providing a water-taxi for people wishing to fish on the back lakes, hike the Cranberry Lake 50, or just need transportation to one of the homes or cabins.
“The community’s been fantastic,” PJ says. “When we opened on Memorial Day, every parking spot was full. People were hugging us. The outpouring was super supportive and gracious that this long-standing business would remain open.”
Birch’s Lakeside Store will be open from May until mid-October.