Editor’s note: This first ran in the July/August 2018 issue of Adirondack Explorer. Click here to subscribe
Christine Campeau, school programs manager at the Adirondack Experience for the past twenty-one years, has a simple formula for attracting young people to Adirondack history: “If you’re enthusiastic, the kids will be interested.”
Then they must be interested.
An hour spent with Campeau at Thaws in Newcomb in late May produces a lively string of stories of Adirondack history and lore mixed with true admiration for the place. She launches into tales of the construction of the Adirondack Ironworks blast furnace and the span of mining in the area from 1826 to 1980s; of David Henderson’s accidental shooting death on Calamity Pond; of Theodore Roosevelt’s famed ride from the hunting camp as President William McKinley lay dying; of the living Adirondack residents with ties to the mines who have been able to fill in missing stories; of Verplanck Colvin’s use of triangulation while surveying the Adirondacks. Each part of the conversation is triggered by sites and artifacts she sees along the Tahawus Road (County Route 25).
Most of what Campeau knows about Adirondack history she learned at the Adirondack Museum, now the Adirondack Experience, starting with an eight-week internship in 1997 that turned into a full-time job soon after, when the education assistant position came open. She takes advantage of lectures and tours around the Park to fill in parts she doesn’t know.
“It’s been an on-the-job history lesson,” she says. “We have spectacular collections.”
In 2009, she was invited into a master’s program at Skidmore College where she created her own program of study. She got her master’s in museum education and interpretation.
Campeau grew up on a dairy farm in Chateaugay, not far from the Adirondack Park, and had visited the Adirondack Museum and Lake Placid, but that was the extent of her experience with the Adirondacks. Later, she visited a friend in Long Lake, and on one of those visits met her longtime partner, Tom Bissell Jr. Their dates brought her back to the Adirondack Museum, to Tahawus, and on camping trips. She moved to Long Lake in 1997.
Today, Campeau manages the school programs for the Adirondack Experience with two other educators and has built the program from the ground up. Her role: to connect students with the Adirondacks, its social and cultural history.
The Adirondack Experience offers free programming for schools in the twelve counties that lie wholly or partly in the Adirondack Park. In a year, the program reaches eleven thousand students.
“We drive all over and bring these kids their history, their heritage, ”Campeau says. Covered in that are Adirondack industries—logging, mining, hunting, and trapping.
At the blast furnace at Tahawus, for instance: “This being such a spectacular artifact, kids ask, ‘Is that real?’ and I can tell them. That’s so important. Kids around here have family who worked here,” she says. “We talk about mankind’s impact on the land. We talk about extractive industry and how its shaped Adirondack communities.”
The story of the work of the Adirondacks can be taught from many angles: the environmental impacts, the forest products needed for other products, the immigrant miner who came because he needed a job, strikes and unions, the crushing impact on communities when the mines closed.
“I’m attracted to the industry stories, the working stories,” she says. Campeau worked with the museum to gather oral histories from people connected to the mining industry in the Adirondacks, some of whom had lived in the mining village of Adirondack. And in schools where the focus is on preparing for state testing, enrichment programs—especially at no cost—are essential, she says.
“That all connects to the school curriculum,” Campeau says. “We can put them right in the place where it happened.”
Places she wants others to know about:
One of Campeau’s favorite places in the Park is the historic Tahawus Tract in the town of Newcomb, former home of the Adirondack Iron Works Company, for its social and industrial history. For years, the mining operation employed many Adirondack families, some of whom lived in the village built on the property for employees.
In 2003, the Open Space Institute bought the property for $8.5 million from NL Industries, which mined titanium from the land from 1940 into the1980s, preserving that history and protecting the headwaters of the Hudson River. Trails have been added and interpretive placards explaining the remaining structures and their history. Visitors can see the towering remains of the furnace as well as parts of the wheelhouse machinery.
“The interpretation OSI has done is great,” Campeau says. Campeau’s first trip to Tahawus was twenty-three years ago—a date with Bissell. At the time, you could drive by and never see the furnace because it was covered by the forest, she said. Over the years, Campeau has brought school groups there and even stood inside the blast furnace. “It’s like an artifact just left in the woods,” she says. Near the site is the MacNaughton Cottage, where Theodore Roosevelt stayed before making the trip from Tahawus to Buffalo after learning President William McKinley was dying. “I’m a huge Teddy Roosevelt fan.”