Public encouraged to provide ideas for historic site
By Gwendolyn Craig
State agencies and John Brown Lives!, a nonprofit organization focused on human rights and education, are taking a close look at John Brown Farm and what its future could hold.
The state historic site near Lake Placid in the Town of North Elba honors the abolitionist perhaps best known for being hanged after his 1859 raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, VA.
With little fanfare, John Brown Lives! drafted a proposal in 2021 that included building a year-round visitor and conference center. The plan also involves an accessible, permanent, three-season pavilion with electricity and restrooms; trails and experiences for visitors with autism and developmental disabilities; a gift shop; additional interpretive and educational programming; host facilities for visiting scholars, activists and artists; a sustainability and climate resiliency plan; and a wish to rename the site the John and Mary Brown Farm State Historic Site and Center for History and Human Rights. Mary Brown was John Brown’s wife.
The plan could help inform the state Offices of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the Adirondack Park Agency, as they develop a unit management plan for the site. John Brown Lives! is part of the core team for that plan, which is a document that sets management objectives for the protection and rehabilitation of the site.
Unit management plans are made for specific areas of land in the Adirondack Park and must comply with APA rules and regulations. There are only five parcels in the approximately 6-million-acre park classified as historic, and John Brown Farm is one of them. It is managed by the Office of Parks through a memorandum of understanding with the DEC.
The state agencies held two meetings to gather public feedback about the farm’s future this week. They will also accept written comments through March 13. Those may be emailed to JohnBrownFarm.Plan@parks.ny.gov or mailed to Paige Barnum, Senior Planner, OPRHP Planning Bureau, 625 Broadway, 2nd Floor, Albany, NY 12207.
“I was very excited by the ideas that people were putting out there,” said Jeff Jones, board president of John Brown Lives! “We’re uncovering a hidden history here, and every year we learn a little bit more.”
It’s not a fast process for the plan to be completed, let alone management actions to start.
The state agencies expect, following drafts and additional public comment periods, a final plan to be adopted by early 2025. This isn’t the first time the state has tried to plan for the farm’s future since acquiring it in 1896. In 1978 leading up to the 1980 Winter Olympics, the state created a redevelopment plan of John Brown Farm but never implemented it, said Barnum. In 1988, the site’s superintendent conducted an assessment report, but nothing came of that either.
“Little has actually changed on the landscape since 1977,” Barnum said at one of the public meetings.
Some of the discussion on Wednesday night centered around the prominent statue of John Brown and an African American child. The statue was commissioned through private donations and the John Brown Association and erected in 1935.
Juan Moreno, a member of the public, said he was struck by the height of Brown compared to the African American and wondered if the state planned on erecting a new statue.
“In reading his biography, he saw himself at the same level as the slaves of that time,” Moreno said.
Moreno’s concerns led to others comments about the lack of information at the site and how the statue’s significance could be better explained.
Cordell Reaves, of the parks office, said Brown was known for being a protector of children and thus far, the state had not explored creating a new monument. Reaves said there was an opportunity to use the statue as a talking point in the future.
Aaron Mair, director of the Adirondack Council’s Forever Wild campaign and past president of the Sierra Club, said early members of the NAACP helped commission the statue and how it is interpreted is key. He encouraged the state to diversify its core group and reach out to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. to help interpret the period. The stories at the farm, Mair added, are resting on conventional historical accounts “that really downplay the significance of people of color.”
Naj Wikoff, an area artist who founded several Lake Placid organizations and a two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar, said “there’s a need for an interpretation center when you’re first coming onto the property that really can tell the context of John Brown, of Timbuctoo, of slavery at that time and the critical role that Blacks played, you could say, in forcing the Civil War.”
Amy Godine, an independent scholar who has curated several exhibits including John Brown Lives! “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” said the Timbuctoo settlement should be part of the story. Timbuctoo is the homestead of many of the mid-19th-century African American families that came to the Adirondacks. She also hoped the farm could be tied to Harper’s Ferry.
Brown was joined in the Adirondacks by several Black families because of Gerrit Smith, one of the richest men in New York in the 19th century. In 1848, Brown learned that Smith was gifting parcels of land in upstate New York to help African Americans gain the right to vote. At the time, state law stipulated African Americans must own $250 in real estate to be able to vote. “Purchasing a lot from Smith, Brown moved his family to the upstate wilderness area where he acted as a leader and teacher to the Black families who were developing their own farms,” according to the National Park Service.
Liz Clarke, a neighbor to the farm site and vice chair of the Ausable River Association, said she used to work for 25 years on management plans for units in the National Park system across the northeast. Clarke suggested the site become affiliated with the park service to open more funding opportunities and technological assistance.
Clarke also suggested the state build a trail to a portion of the Ausable River on the property. Staff said they are currently looking into that. Pete Nelson, of Adirondack Wilderness Advocates and the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, also suggested the state build a new trail from the farm to the Indian Pass trail, winding through Saranac Lake Wild Forest.
In addition to being a state historic site, John Brown Farm is also on the National Register of Historic Places, is a national historic landmark and was most recently designated a National Park Service Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Site.
The property covers over 200 acres and includes a family cemetery, a farmhouse, a barn and other buildings. A 4-mile network of multi-use trails are in the shadow of the High Peaks and the Olympic Regional Development Authority’s ski jump complex. State staff said thousands of people visit the farm each year. John Brown Lives! and the state park staff also conduct wildlife, historical, cultural and artistic presentations and programs on site.