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‘An Elegant Wilderness’ brings it home

July 18, 2012
By JERRY MCGOVERN - Special to the Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Early in her excellent book about Adirondack great camps, Gladys Montgomery quotes from an 1875 Rod and Gun magazine. About the homes on Fourth Lake of the Fulton Chain, the writer says, "We have many of the comforts of home, with the sports and luxuries of the woods."

That tension or balance between comfort and the Adirondack forest provides the title for Ms. Montgomery's "An Elegant Wilderness: Great Camps and Grand Lodges of the Adirondacks 1866-1935." In a beautifully produced book, Montgomery examines the culture, the architects and the families that created paradoxical wilderness mansions.

Montgomery defines the Adirondack great camp as "a single-family residence, constructed of indigenous, natural, local materials in a style influenced by contemporaneous architectural design, and having its own water source, separate buildings for various functions, and service units, as a power generator and a farm, that enabled it to be largely self-sustaining."

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In chronological order, Elegant Wilderness examines 25 such camps, beginning with Brandeth Park, created by English-born Dr. Benjamin Brandeth on the 26,000 acres he purchased (for 15 cents an acre) in Hamilton county. Under various names, including Camp Comfort and Trophy Lodge, Brandeth Park has survived and is still frequented by the doctor's descendants.

Eagle Nest in Blue Mountain on Eagle Lake, is the last camp Montgomery profiles. It was originally owned by the notorious Ned Buntline, author of books about Buffalo Bill Cody and other "heroes" of the American West.

Buntline, whose real name was Edward Zane Carroll Judson, was also the founder of the Know-Nothing party, and a fierce opponent of all things Irish and/or Catholic. In 1888 William West Durant purchased the Judson/Buntline property to create a country club. A few years later, Durant was forced to sell the property to a group including Berthold Hochschild, whose family continues to own Eagle Nest.

Between these great camp bookends, Montgomery reveals surviving camps such as Sagamore, Santanoni and White Pine, as well as those that have not been preserved Camp Inman on Raquette Lake, for example.

Not surprisingly, William West Durant is a large presence in these pages. He built Pine Knot in 1877, Camp Uncas in 1893, the Sagamore in 1895, Kamp Kill Kare in 1898, as well as the ill-fated country club at Eagle Nest. Though he suffered huge financial losses, Durant's influence on Adirondack camp design and construction is profound.

In addition to each camp's history, Montgomery provides the cultural context such as the expansion of the leisure class and the growing emancipation of women surrounding the movement to the woods by wealthy people who built the camps. She also notes the influence of the new appreciation of nature, in both the William Wordsworth romantic movement sense and the Edward L. Trudeau remedial sense. In this way, and with a large collection of wonderful photographs, Montgomery connects the Adirondack's "elegant wilderness" to the larger world, and we see the camps as reactions to and representatives of events occurring both within and beyond the mountains from 1855 to 1935.

Montgomery's book is a well-researched, carefully written and handsomely produced addition to Adirondack literature. She provides insight and scholarship about the mansions built in the "forever wild" forest preserve of New York state.


This review reflects the individual view of the reviewer, not the views of the Adirondack Center for Writing or the Enterprise.



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