Timbuctoo story gets richer the more you learn
We’d like to call your attention again to a piece of little-known history, from the days when slavery was still in full force in the United States.
People usually call this story “Timbuctoo,” after a short-lived farming colony of African-Americans in the town of North Elba, near present-day Lake Placid, but the story is much bigger than that. Black people acquired and sometimes moved to property all over the region, such as Negro Brook near Bloomingdale and Blackville near Loon Lake. These settlers farmed, cut timber and guided tourists just like their white neighbors did. Some of those white neighbors got on well with them. Some were antagonistic. Some just ignored them. In the end, the ignorers mostly won since this history was mostly wiped out. Yet photos of the era show black loggers and guides alongside white workers.
The story started with a simple idea that seemed like a perfect solution for a problem of the time. New York, though not a slave state, enacted a law in the 1840s requiring black men to own $250 worth of property before they could vote; no such restriction was placed on white men. Gerrit Smith, a wealthy abolitionist and land speculator, decided to give 120,000 acres to black people in 40-acre lots. [Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said Smith sold the lots to African-Americans, whereas he actually gave them free of charge.] A single 40-acre lot in the remote Adirondacks wasn’t worth $250 back then, but it was a start, and it opened up the dream of rural land ownership and self-sufficiency to black people as a freer alternative to city life — especially with the new flood of Irish and other white immigrants competing for urban jobs.
The vision was idyllic, and the land agents were true believers. They were immensely successful in terms of distributing Smith’s lots, but few of the new landowners ended up moving their families to the cold, rustic north — and some of those who did didn’t stay long. It was a lonely life, without the sense of community a city neighborhood gives. Counties ended up reclaiming most of the “Smith land” parcels for unpaid taxes.
This is just a brief synopsis. Like the best stories, this one takes a lot of telling but also makes room in one’s mind to hold it all. Perhaps the best place for local residents and visitors to absorb it is in an old barn at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid. Inside is a series of banners full of words and pictures, functioning as the best kind of textbook or museum exhibit.
The exhibit is called “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” and it was curated by Amy Godine, a historian who has been devoted to this story for a long time and kept it in the public eye. With the help of Lake Placid designer Karen Davidson, this is a revamped, permanent version of a 2001 traveling exhibit on the same subject. It was installed last year, but after a recent visit, we felt that people could use a reminder: Please visit, whether for the first time or the umpteenth, and get sucked into this story’s plot twists, its colorful characters and its major relevance to modern American life.
Do so before November, when the doors will be shut for winter. Visiting hours are between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. every day except Tuesdays, when the site is closed. The barn also has historical videos and panels on slavery’s cruel history, and you can get an excellent guided tour of the cabin inhabited by firebrand abolitionist John Brown’s family –and sometimes by him, too, when he wasn’t out rabble rousing. Admission to everything, including the cabin, costs a mere $2 for adults, $1 for seniors, students and group members, and nothing for children 12 and under.
Outside visiting hours, you can see the graves of Brown and his family, and hike or ski on some very nice trails.
There are other ways to absorb this story as well. Godine’s writing on it isn’t hard to find — her essay, “Forty Acres and a Vote,” appears in “The Adirondack Reader” — and Helen Demong’s Northern Lights Choir has been signing portions of composer Glenn McClure’s unfinished “Adirondack Folk Opera” on the subject. It’s a theme worthy of operatic treatment, and McClure’s songs more than meet the challenge.
While Gerrit Smith’s experiment was mostly aborted, it was not a failure. The idea that rural America offers non-white people a special kind of opportunity and freedom has never been explored as much as it could be, at least not here in upstate New York. There’s still plenty of hope still to be drawn from it. What rural areas like ours need, far more than tourists, are more people to commit themselves to living here, working here and being contributing community members.