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Truths — unvarnished and otherwise

Last week’s column was about the legendary local bordello, The Antlers. And when I say legendary, I mean it literally — since it never existed in reality. It was a Rural Legend at its finest — always believed but never verified.

As a history maven, I tried for decades to chase down the source of The Antlers legend, and finally did: It was a bar in what’s now the village parking lot. Or at least that’s what I’d been told by one of the town ancients. But this week I got an email from Jon Vinograd that disputed my finding.

Jon, a longtime resident who no longer lives here, somehow got in touch with a Facebook group about the Adirondacks, either telling them of my discovery of The Antlers’ origin, or asking if they had more information about it. In return, he got an email from Bob Sasso, who Jon thinks is the group’s moderator. Here it is in full:

“Yeah, I think you might have the wrong town. I have a list of seventy bars and restaurants that have existed in Saranac Lake over the years, but I don’t have one by that name. And I just checked the newspaper archives and came up dry, though it’s kind of a tricky search. So while I won’t say there couldn’t have been a bar here by that name ever, I’d be somewhat surprised if there was.”

So did my quest to find The Antlers’ origin not reveal its true source, but became yet one more Rural Legend itself?

Good question. As Mr. Sasso said, it’s a tricky search, and at this point it appears it’s never going to be solved. All of which inspires me to put in my two cents.

The most logical place to start is with his list of bars. Seventy bars and restaurants, and The Antlers wasn’t among them? While that seems like a sizable list, the real question is, is it a COMPLETE list? I doubt it. In fact, I’d say 70 bars is maybe a good start of a list of local saloons, but not a complete one — not by a long shot.

Saranac Lake was always a bar town. I’d liken our bars to Ireland’s pubs — social centers that never wanted for customers. Through the years I’ve heard all sorts of estimates of how many bars were here at their peak, the numbers rivaling the supposed number of Inuit words for snow. The most authoritative number I know I got from Chief Don Fina, who said when he joined the force in 1969 the town had 39 bars.

Now we do a little playing with figures. In ’69 the town was significantly smaller than in its 1931 heyday, when 8,000 peeps lived here. So it makes sense to think there were a lot more bars in 1931. Also, while legends last forever, bars come and go, often in a historical blink of the eye. So if we consider how many bars came and went from, say, 1920 to 1969, and then from 1969 to today, I’d say knowing the names of 70 of them, while maybe not exactly the iceberg effect, is akin to it.

Maybe there’s a way to find out if there was a bar in the village lot named The Antlers (old tax, liquor licenses and deeds?), but that’s beyond my expertise … and patience. So I concede now I’ll never find out. Luckily, though, I did find out the truth behind another local Rural Legend that had bugged me for decades.

Making a splash

I was a mere poppet of 6 or 7 when I first heard about the man who jumped a horse off the Bluff.

Lest you not know, the Bluff is a 70-foot rock face on Bluff Island, on Lower Saranac Lake. As you can well imagine, jumping off it has been the acid test of My Home Town’s machoboys, no doubt as long as we’ve had them.

But as for the horse jumping off it?

From what I was told, it wasn’t just some nut-job equestrian taking the leap for the hell of it. Rather, it was for a famous early 20th-century serial, “The Perils of Pauline.” The serial was filmed in 1914, and each episode involved the heroine, Pauline, having one brush with death after another. Sometimes she was the intended victim of a black-hearted villain; other times she was caught by some force beyond her control (for example, getting in a hot air balloon for a photo shoot and having the balloon come untethered).

Most of the episodes were filmed in New Jersey, then the film capital of the U.S., but wilderness scenes often took place here, as is the case of the Bluff.

What I heard was, the horse got killed, but the man survived. That was it, and nothing more … at least when I was young. When I got to adulthood, I heard the rider was Harry Duso, the owner of Crescent Bay. In that version, the horse still got killed, but Harry obviously didn’t, since I knew him as an old man (or at least what I then considered old).

It was a story that came up in conversation from time to time. But it wasn’t something I gave much thought to until 20 years ago or so. And when I did, I decided to find out how much, if any of it, was true. And I could do it by going to the horse’s mouth, so to speak — Harry’s son Don. Which I did. Don told me what his father had told him about it, and I accepted his version as true, because if anyone in town was less prone to exaggeration, I never met them.

Like most tales, this one had elements of truth in it, as well as out-and-out fabrications.

There was indeed an episode of “The Perils of Pauline” filmed here, in which a horse jumped off the bluff. But the horse lived, and the rider was NOT Harry Duso. However, Harry was in the movie — in fact, in one scene HE was Pauline.

He was garbed in dress and bonnet, being chased by the villain — chased right to the very edge of the Bluff. Once there, he paused, and before the villain could close in, he dived into the deep blue.

It was a feat of primo athleticism but an example of lousy acting: The script called for Pauline to jump, not dive off the cliff. So Harry changed his dress and bonnet and repeated the scene, this time jumping, as the man with the megaphone and the mazuma had ordered.

From what I read, there were 20 original episodes of “The Perils of Pauline,” but I don’t think all the copies survived, so I’ve no idea if the Bluff episode is still extant.

By the way, Don also told me four people have been killed jumping off the Bluff. Since 75% of all drownings involve alcohol, I assume it may have played a part in the Bluff deaths.

In my case, I would never swim drunk, much less cliff jump. And while sober, I’d never even consider such a thing.

But if next summer your inner daredevil calls you to Lower Saranac Lake, be my guest.

Just don’t take it personally if I don’t join you.

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