Historic Debar looks toward next step
DUANE — The state Department of Environmental Conservation is asking for public input on a plan to manage nearly 90,000 acres of land in the northern Adirondacks.
The state is developing the first unit management plan (UMP) for the Debar Mountain Wild Forest, which is comprised of about 40 parcels of land in the towns of Brighton, Duane, Franklin, Santa Clara and Waverly in Franklin County.
The lands include several well-known attractions, including Loon Lake and Debar mountains, as well as numerous waterbodies such as Debar Pond, Meacham Lake and Kushaqua Lake, along with parts of the Osgood, Deer and St. Regis rivers.
DEC held two public meetings to gather public input earlier this year, and the DEC said about 90 people attended the two meetings in Duane and Vermontville.
“DEC has assembled (an) interdisciplinary team, assessed the natural and physical resources of the lands and waters, and researched applicable laws and policies of the Debar Mountain Wild Forest, the Madawaska Flow – Quebec Brook Primitive Area and the Deer River Primitive Area,” DEC spokesman David Winchell wrote in an email. “DEC continues to accept public comment regarding the future management of and recreational infrastructure of the lands and waters within the unit.”
People at the two meetings brought up issues such as improving and expanding recreational opportunities as well as the future of the Debar Lodge, which has sat on the shore of Debar Pond for more than 70 years.
One of the most recognizable portions of the wild forest complex includes the lodge at Debar Pond. The state took full ownership of the Adirondack great camp in 2004 after a 25-year lease with the previous owner expired.
The current lodge was built in the 1930s, but the history of human activity at the site goes back much further than that.
Debar Pond (and the mountain of the same name nearby) were named after a Canadian trapper who discovered the pond in 1817, according to Adirondack Architectural Heritage.
In the late 1800s, the heir to a German beer fortune named Robert Schroeder began purchasing land around the pond to start a hop farm. A book titled “Historical Sketches of Franklin County and its several towns,” written by Frederick Seaver and published in 1918, notes that Schroeder burned through his family’s money faster than he was making it selling hops.
According to the book, Shroeder “purchased more than two thousand one hundred acres of farm and forest lands on the plateau which comprises substantially all the arable land in the town, paying fancy prices for most of it.
“He erected large and expensive hop houses; set out several hundred acres to hops; bought barn fertilizer in New York City, freighted it to Malone, and then hauled it 15 to 18 miles by team to the yards.
“Everything was done with a lavish disregard for expense, and there were no profits.”
According to an article from 1931 in the Malone Farmer, Schroeder had about 600 acres of land planted for hops, making Duane home to what some called the largest hop farm in the world at that point.
Schroeder’s penchant for spending money unwisely soon led to problems.
The first houses he built at the pond burned down, and he replaced them with a stone main house, complete with heavy steel doors. This stone house was connected to the servants’ and guest quarters, a three-story wooden structure. The two buildings were made up of about 60 rooms.
Schroeder envisioned his own fiefdom and had numerous families living on the property, working the farm fields and tending to chickens and horses. Schroeder had a racetrack built, and would set up in the middle of the track with chilled champagne to watch his horses get worked for hours on end, according to an article in the Chateaugay Record from 1915.
Schroeder married a woman who was also heir to a beer fortune, and the pair, through the poor investment in hops and extravagant entertaining, soon went broke.
Schroeder departed for Europe and left his wife and daughter in New York City, where the wife had gotten some building lots in exchange for the mortgage on the Debar lodge property. Schroeder returned to live with his family again, but the lone child of the marriage soon became entangled in her own controversy which ultimately led to the family’s demise.
The daughter, Elsa, eloped with a man who claimed to be a descendant of European old money, but that turned out to be untrue.
The discovery that the new husband actually worked in a cigar store was too much for the elder Mrs. Schroeder, who committed suicide early in 1912. The fake count also took his own life in April of that year after being discovered as a fraud. Robert Schroeder himself, after squandering his and his wife’s family fortunes, also killed himself in July of that year.
The Schroeder buildings are long gone, with the property having been sold to three people from Malone after the Schroeder deaths. The Malone trio who bought it envisioned a private club or sanitarium, according to AARCH, but those plans went unfulfilled.
In 1939, the Wheeler family of Palm Beach, Florida, purchased the property. By this time, Schroeder’s stone lodge was in serious disrepair and was leveled by the Wheelers.
The Wheelers employed local architect Bill Distin to design a lodge for the family. Distin was based in Saranac Lake, and designed such memorable buildings as the 1932 Olympic Ice Arena in Lake Placid and The Point on Upper Saranac Lake.
Distin designed the 17-room log cabin that sits on the Debar site today. The Wheelers owned the property for 20 years, and in that time erected numerous buildings there.
In 1959, the Wheeler family sold the property to a retired WWII Navy pilot named Farwell Perry. According to AARCH, Perry was known locally for coming to and from the camp in a sea plane that he landed on Debar Pond up until the 1970s.
The lodge currently sits on state Forest Preserve land and its fate is up in the air. Unless the state reclassifies the land the lodge sits on, it is a non-comforming structure according to the state constitution.
Several other man-made structures on state land have been saved by the state with a historical land classification, such as the St. Regis Mountain fire tower and Great Camp Santanoni in Newcomb. A similar legal limbo is currently taking place with the former Camp Gabriels prison that can’t officially be sold until an amendment to the state constitution passes.
Local officials see a chance for the lodge property to become an economic engine for the area.
Duane supervisor Duane Edward J. “Ned” LeMieux Sr. has pushed for the state to sell the lodge to the town or a private individual for development as a residence or business.
“It is a worthwhile thing to try and save,” LeMieux told the Watertown Daily Times last year.
Winchell said the DEC is not currently using the lodge, but has taken measures to protect and secure the building. However, DEC is seeking comments on all aspects of the lands, not just the lodge.
“DEC is seeking public input on how to best manage these lands and provide access for a variety of outdoor recreational activities,” DEC Region 5 director Robert Stegemann said in a press release announcing the public meetings. “DEC’s goal is to protect these natural resources, provide outdoor recreational opportunities for residents and visitors alike, and ensure the Forest Preserve is an asset to these communities and benefits local economies.”
Comments and recommendations on the state’s forthcoming UMP can be submitted to DEC Forester Robert Daley by mail at NYSDEC, PO Box 296, Ray Brook NY 12977; by telephone at 518-897-1369; or by email at R5.UMP@dec.ny.gov. Winchell wrote in an email that there is no end date for comments, but interested parties should submit their comments sooner rather than later.