Upon stepping into the Ray Brook farmhouse that Phil and Barbara Capone have called home for almost 50 years, one is assaulted by a sense of history and nostalgia, especially for those who have grown up in the country and perhaps even on a farm.
The slightly sloping hardwood floors (good for drainage this time of year as the snow melts off the boots), eclectic mix of furnishings and myriad photos hung about the walls give an immediate sense of a house lived in lovingly for many good years. It brings one back to well remembered days of visiting grandparents in the old farmhouse when life lived under well intentioned parental units became a bit too rules based and the freedom of country living provided lifelong memories.
After this overwhelming moment of sensory nostalgia passes, it is down to business. The Capones begin their story as most humble people do, with a slight hesitation and an opening assertion that "we don't really have an interesting life to speak of."
Phil and Barbara Capone
(Photo — Michael Williams)
After being assured that their history must surely contain wonderful tales of a full life lived here in the heart of the Adirondacks, it is an easy step over the first obstacle and into a rush of recollections.
Phil was born in Saranac Lake in 1930. His parents met when they came to the Ray Brook Sanatorium in search of a cure from tuberculosis. A love took root and a life together led to Phil and his younger brother. Phil spent his first 12 years here, learning to love the outdoors. He was taken under the wing of a friend of the family, C.B. Bridgeman, who brought him on many an outdoor adventure that stay sharp in Phil's memory bank to this day. This context of Phil's childhood came to a close as circumstances pulled his family from the high Peaks to downtown Syracuse.
Well to be honest, I hated moving there," Phil said. "I loved the outdoors and we moved to the city, so that was tough to take."
Phil finished his formative years in Syracuse, attending the New York State College of Forestry (now known as SUNY-ESF). He then entered into service with the U.S. Coast Guard. Phil has some wonderful stories from his time as a quartermaster on an icebreaker that kept shipping lanes open into the arctic regions of Canada and Greenland. His home port was in Boston where there happened to live one Barbara Manning.
As things go, Phil and Barbara never crossed paths in Boston but met on a ski train in North Conway, N.H., heading back to the city after a weekend on the slopes. Phil and his buddy climbed aboard a crowded tourist train and after passing through a number of cars with nary a seat available, they came upon an empty bench across from two young ladies.
It took that ride back to the city, chatting easily with this comely lass and her Bah-ston accent, for Phil to wonder whether this could be the real thing. Even with this thought clamoring for his attention within him, it still took a nudge from his friend for Phil to take a chance and call over a crowded station platform, asking Barbara for her phone number.
The number was given and the rest is history. With Phil and Barbara now married it was time to forge ahead and make a life wherever their spirits (and gainful employment opportunities) might lead them.
"We got married and he didn't even have a job," Barbara said. "I wonder what our parents thought of that."
She took a chance anyway and accompanied Phil back to his family's home in Syracuse. Inquiries with connections at ESF led to a weekend project on Onondaga Lake to lay out a crew competition course.
His boss that weekend was impressed with Phil, and as he happened to be a state forester working out of the Ray Brook state Department of Environmental Conservation office and knew of a position available, he offered Phil the opportunity. Phil jumped at the chance, and in the fall of 1955 he and Barbara moved back to Saranac Lake and took up residence in an apartment on Broadway.
The return lasted one year, and when a full-time forester position came available in Lake George, Phil, Barbara and their first child moved south. Working hard and biding his time, Phil was rewarded with a transfer back home to Ray Brook.
"That was in 1962, and we've been here ever since," Barbara said.
"I just love the Adirondacks," Phil said. "I was especially thrilled to be able to come back here to Saranac Lake."
Upon this return, they found a rental out in the "country" in the form of the house they still reside in to this day. Phil and Barbara enjoy going over the history of the house and the immediate area surrounding it.
"This is probably one of the oldest houses in Ray Brook, pre-1900s at least," Phil said. "It was originally the Ames farm. Daniel Ames, one of the first settlers of Ray Brook, made his home here. There was a grist mill here, sawmill, pond across the way, and with the open farm land, you could see all the way to Scarface Mountain from here."
The decision to take the place was an easy one, the setting being a perfect one to raise five children and the commute to work at the D.E.C. was just right. Phil exudes pride and even joy as he recounts his 36-year career as a state forester, many years working under Bill Petty, whom he talks about with great respect.
Barbara's memories revolve mostly around caring for her family and watching her children grow up with the freedom to roam the area around their home to their heart's content. She shares a story that illustrates the point perfectly.
"An older gentleman came walking down the road one day last summer, and I was out doing something in the garden," Barbara said. "He came over and asked me if I've lived around here long, and when I said 'almost 50 years,' he wondered whether I knew a little boy who lived around here and loved to fish.
"He was the best kid, and a good little fisherman," Barbara recalls the man saying, "I told him that it was my son, who now lives in Michigan. I don't think that story could happen now, in this day and age."
Phil adds that Barbara had a cowbell hanging on a porch support that she would use to call the kids home whenever she needed them come in from their adventures.
At this point, Phil and Barbara find a nice groove bringing the story up to date regarding their children's accomplishments, grandchildren's early highlights and new great grandchild's potential.
The Capones' children, daughters Anne and Cathy and sons Paul, Dan and Matt, have spread their wings and landed in spots throughout the country: Michigan, Florida, Minnesota and one just up the road in Vermontville. Despite the distance, there are enough visits to and from to keep the family a tight-knit unit.
"We're very fortunate," Phil said. "They're all good kids, work hard and have done well in life."
It seems the story telling could go on forever, filling many evenings with the recollections of the good years spent up here. But time and word limits dictate that this story must eventually come to present day and how the Capones fill their time nowadays.
Barbara having finished up a 17-year career as a office clerk at Howard Johnson's in Lake Placid some years back, she fills time keeping the house running smoothly, tending to the flower gardens (in better weather) and assisting Phil in some of his many community endeavors.
This list includes active memberships in the ADK North Woods Chapter, Saranac Lake Knights of Columbus and New York Society of American Foresters.
He and Barbara are longtime members of St. Bernard's Church, with Phil a part of the church choir. To round out the community outreach, Phil delivers Meals on Wheels and volunteers on the Adirondack Scenic Railway. He continues to enjoy as many activities in the outdoors as he can, with skiing being his passion at this point.
The story to date, reaches the conclusion that Phil and Barbara will continue to live in the area as long as life permits. The realization that they found "home" some 50 years ago and can think of nowhere else they'd rather be is an inspiring close to this tale.
This article is based on an interview by Michael Williams who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.