Return to the Philosophers’ Camp

A paradise lost. That is what William James Stillman found when he returned to Follensby Pond in the

A paradise lost. That is what William James Stillman found when he returned to Follensby Pond in the northern Adirondacks. Scorched earth and ash marked the spot where he and nine other prominent Boston-area scholars had made camp among towering white pines and great maples.

Twenty-five years earlier, in the summer of 1858, Stillman, a Schenectady native and painter, organized a trip to Follensby. The adventure culminated in what became known as the Philosophers’ Camp — one of the Adirondacks’ greatest gatherings. The 10 scholars made camp near the pond’s southern end on a site they dubbed “Camp Maple,” so named for the massive trees that grew there.

Multimedia features

To view an interactive map of the philosophers’ journey, click here.

To view an audio slideshow of the philosophers’ journey, includng excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “The Adirondacs”, click here.

To read about local artist William James Stillman, click here.

To read how guides remain an important part of the Adirondack experience, click here.

To view a list of those who took part in the Philosophers’ Camp, click here.

“We seemed to have gotten into a not too greatly changed Eden,” Stillman wrote of the encampment in The Century magazine in 1893.

The scholars — including eminent philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, poet James Russell Lowell and scientist Louis Agassiz — ventured to New York’s northern wilderness at a time when it was familiar to wealthy hunters and landscape painters. But after the Civil War concluded in 1865, Americans flocked to the Adirondacks and they descended on Follensby like a swarm of locusts.

“Careless tourists” cut down the pond’s trademark maples and let fires ravage the woods, Stillman wrote. When he returned to Follensby 25 years later, with the guide who had accompanied the 1858 trip, the two had difficulty finding Camp Maple. All that was left of it was a landmark boulder and a backed-up spring.

Today, Follensby remains a paradise lost, but in a different way. Nature has shrugged off the ruins the tourists left. The shoreline is nothing but endless green: cedars, hemlocks and pines sprinkled with leafy hardwood trees.

It is as though Follensby agreed with Emerson, who wrote, “In nature every moment is new; the past is always swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit.”

But Follensby is an Eden nonetheless. Few people ever see its sparkling waters; it is the largest single-party-owned body of water in the Northeast. Almost five miles long and covering 1,000 acres, its vistas have largely been reserved for a handful of loggers and hunters.

Instead of an angel wielding a flaming sword at the entrance of this forest paradise, there is an iron gate. Locals simply refer to it as “The Gate” or “McCormick’s Gate,” after Follensby’s 94-year-old owner, John McCormick Jr. of Manchester Depot, Vt.

That gate might swing open soon: McCormick is negotiating with a conservation group for the property. But now the closest most people get to Follensby is outside the gate, near The Wild Center wildlife museum in Tupper Lake. The gate blocks the entrance to the long dirt road that leads to the pond.

Two visitors were welcomed to the other side of the gate on a recent Thursday in June by caretaker Thomas Lake, who led the small expedition to the Philosophers’ Camp in his green Chevrolet pickup.

City Slicker Pioneers

In his definitive “A History of the Adirondacks” (1939), Saranac Lake historian Alfred Donaldson called Stillman’s troupe at Follensby “the most illustrious and variegated group of intellectuals who ever camped out together in the Adirondacks.”

Donaldson noted that the Philosophers’ Camp was little known in the 1930s, and it remains an obscure historical event outside of the Adirondacks and academia. But historians agree that the gathering at Camp Maple marked a seminal early stage in the Adirondacks’ emergence as a popular destination.

“It’s really part of the 19th-century Romanticism. It’s the first really American intellectual movement linking nature with art and literature,” said Jerry Pepper, the librarian for the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake.

Sleeping in lean-tos at Camp Maple along with Stillman were two doctors (Estes Howe and Amos Binney), two lawyers (Ebenezer Hoar and Horatio Woodman), two scientists (Louis Agassiz and Jeifries Wyman) and two poets (Emerson and Lowell). John Holmes, the gifted younger brother of the witty writer Oliver Wendell Holmes, was the shy one of the party.

“They were pioneers. They saw something here that they were seeking out, that others soon followed,” Adirondack Architectural Heritage Executive Director Steven Engelhart said.

It was Emerson’s first book, “Nature” (1836), that fueled an intellectual revolution called Transcendentalism, a breed of idealism that stresses harmony with nature and self-reliance.

But in the Adirondacks in 1858, Agassiz was the group’s “only celebrity,” Stillman wrote. The Swiss-American scientist and staunch critic of Darwinism had recently rejected French Emperor Napoleon III’s offer for a keepership of the Jardin des Plantes and a high-paying senatorship in Paris.

When the band of intellectuals arrived in Keeseville, a mill town that then served as a gateway to the central Adirondacks, the town’s selectmen were waiting “to see a man with no regard for money and distinction.” The town crowded around Agassiz, “the rest of the party being ignored,” Stillman wrote.

In the mid-19th century, Keeseville was best known for its horse nail factory — the world’s first mechanized horse nail manufacturing operation. The clang of forges and trip hammers there engulfed the town.

Today, all that can be heard from Main Street is the sound of the rushing Ausable River and an out-of-tune church bell that marks the hour.

The offices for the town of Ausable are in the village of Keeseville, across the street from the site of the horse nail mill. And while town Supervisor Sandra Senecal is familiar with Emerson and Lowell, the name Agassiz drew a blank stare.

From Keeseville, the scholars followed the Ausable River further into the Adirondacks, riding on horse-drawn carts. They chose their boats and guides at Lower Saranac Lake and headed toward the Raquette River and down the outlet to Follensby.

A Deal for Follensby

The road to Follensby is bumpy, worsened by the ice storm that downed many trees last winter. The wheels of Lake’s truck squealed the entire way to the pond, and he vowed to have a mechanic check out the noise, a little nervous about a breakdown in the isolated woods.

Since 1970, Lake has served as the caretaker of Follensby for McCormick, who around 1952 bought the 14,500-acre tract that includes the pond. Lake is a former logger and helicopter pilot, originally from Gale, a small community west of Tupper Lake.

He lives in the home by the gate. A self-proclaimed “country boy,” he readily points out wild azaleas, wild strawberries, the laugh of a loon, a deer, a bear cub. He is also an avid bottle collector.

While driving, Lake talked of the shattered whiskey bottle he found at what he believes to be the site of the Philosophers’ Camp. He keeps the shards framed in his house.

Lake regularly makes trips to Follensby, but that Thursday was the first time in his 38 years as caretaker that he had taken a news reporter or photographer to the pond. It was a sunny day, with blue skies and wandering clouds.

“This property is in play. Once Mrs. McCormick passed, things changed. Before that, it was pretty private,” Lake said.

In January 2007, McCormick’s wife of 69 years, Bertha “Bird” McCormick, died. She was once a chairwoman of Vermont’s Nature Conservancy chapter, and in 1984 she received the environment group’s Oak Leaf Award for her land conservation efforts.

Last August, John McCormick auctioned many of the items long housed in the historic White Birches lodge at Follensby. Items sold included two guide boats, for $24,000 each, and an inkwell possibly used by Calvin Coolridge, for $4,750. Lake said another auction hosted by Blanchard’s Auction Service in Potsdam is slated for mid-August.

But John McCormick is not only looking to unload the trinkets, tools and furnishings remaining at Follensby. He is also looking to part with the Follensby tract, which the state unsuccessfully attempted to buy in 1994.

“There are negotiations . . . the state is involved in the background,” John McCormick told The Sunday Gazette in a phone interview.

John McCormick is in talks with the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy. He said he is optimistic a deal will be reached but couldn’t put a date on it.

Adirondack Nature Conservancy Executive Director Michael Carr would not make himself available for an interview. Conservancy spokeswoman Connie Prickett said the group is interested in helping McCormick preserve the property.

It is not clear how a deal for the property would work out. One scenario is for a conservancy to hold onto the property until the state is ready to purchase it, said John Sheehan, a spokesman for the Adirondack Council in Albany.

In 1994, when the state’s Environmental Protection Fund was a year old, negotiators could not reach a deal for Follensby. But in April the Legislature set aside $66 million specifically for land acquisitions in the $255 million Environmental Protection Fund.

Since 1992, Follensby has been on the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s Open Space Conservation Plan, which lists properties the agency wants to purchase.

“The department definitely is interested in adding it to open space public lands,” DEC spokeswoman Lori O’Connell said of Follensby.

O’Connell declined to comment on the negotiations between the Adirondack Nature Conservancy and Follensby’s owner. The Adirondack Council this year is also pushing for the acquisition of the Follensby tract, which it ranks as the Adirondack’s third most high-priority land at risk.

No Walden Pond

John McCormick, a Pittsburgh native, frequently vacationed at Follensby with his family and friends. But it was only after he purchased the land that he learned of the gathering of 10 luminaries along the pond’s southern shore in 1858.

But McCormick was familiar with those luminaries. While at Princeton University in 1935, he wrote a thesis on Henry David Thoreau, Emerson’s handyman and pupil who famously spent two years, two months and two days living in a shack he built at Walden Pond in Concord, Mass.

Thoreau later wrote a book on his two-year hermitage that started on July 4, 1845. Although a flop at first, Thoreau’s “Walden,” with its stress on simple living and communing with nature, later inspired generations of Americans.

In his Century essay on the Philosophers’ Camp, Stillman strove to differentiate Emerson’s stay at Follensby from Thoreau’s at Walden.

“This was not the solitude of Walden Pond,” Stillman wrote, “where isolation kept in the sound of the dinner horn . . . but a virgin forest, where the crack of our rifles reached no other human ear, and where the carelessly wandering foot found no path to lead it back to camp.”

The scholars hunted. They fished. Each scholar had his own guide, though Stillman served as Agassiz’s guide. The camp’s two doctors dissected deer, weighed a trout’s brain and caught salamanders, lizards, mice and dragonflies. They boated on Adirondack lakes. Sometimes they shot bottles for target practice.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Harvard European languages professor who also penned the poem “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” was invited to join the party in the Adirondacks. But learning that Emerson would be there with a gun, Longfellow told Stillman: “Then somebody will be shot!” He declined the invitation.

Thoreau also had doubts about his mentor’s marksmanship. After Emerson returned to Concord, Thoreau noted in his journal on Aug. 23 how the philosopher retold stories of shooting bottles. “It sounds rather Cockneyish,” Thoreau wrote.

‘This Is Where

They Camped’

Lake is not sure whether the bottle he found last summer at Follensby was broken by a rifle slug. But the bottle is from the 1850s, he said.

After slowly navigating the dirt road, Lake parked his truck on a grassy patch on the pond’s southern end near a brook. The devastation Stillman found when he last visited the pond during the last quarter of the 19th century was gone: “Mother Nature, you know, she reclaims everything,” Lake said.

With a hatchet in hand, Lake crossed a narrow, steel walking bridge over the brook and began the half-mile trek to Camp Maple. He followed an old logging road overgrown with ferns and grass.

Lake passed the site where, in the early 1980s, the DEC released more than 20 Alaskan bald eagles into the wild. For three summers, the DEC Endangered Species Unit ran the eagle program at Follensby.

“We’ve got eagles here, but they don’t nest here because we have ravens. The ravens drive them away,” Lake said.

Stopping in a flat clearing, Lake turned around and proclaimed, “This is where they camped.” Part of his certainty about the site comes from a century-old map that came with the property’s abstract. The map points out a peninsula called “Philosophers’ Point.”

Lake pointed to the spring and moss-capped boulder Stillman used to find the camp when he returned to the ravaged Follensby. Stillman included that boulder in his “Camp Maple,” a painting of the scholars in the woods.

“Just a big rock. It’s the one in Stillman’s picture.” Lake said.

Down a slight hill from the boulder is a shore littered with driftwood. Across the pond rises Buck Mountain. From the shore of their camp, the scholars could have watched the sun set behind the mountain, across the shimmering water.

“We had at last come to the state where what each man was and had made of himself was the real measure of his relation to the world, and the universal mother took us all on the same terms,” Stillman wrote in The Century.

‘Uncontained and immortal beauty’

After the black flies became too much to bear, Lake took his expedition back to his truck. The truck’s wheels squealed on the way back to the gate. For a while, a red-tailed hawk flew over the truck, an impatient guide. The hawk eventually flew away, and the truck made it back to the gate in one piece.

One adventure ended; another back to Albany began.

Immediately after driving away from Lake’s house, we passed St. Alphonsus Cemetery. My thoughts drifted to another cemetery in Emerson’s Concord: Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

At Sleepy Hollow, many of the nation’s most revered 19th-century writers are buried: Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne. Toward one end of what is called Author’s Ridge, there is the Emerson family plot. But for Concord’s esteemed philosopher poet, there is no tombstone. Instead, over his grave sits a massive boulder with a bronze plaque cast with Emerson’s name, dates and epitaph. At 79 years old, he died in 1882.

The rock seems out of place in the tranquil cemetery shaded by old fir trees. Yet, perhaps, there could be no finer marker for Emerson than a boulder, at Sleepy Hollow or at Follensby. Either way, the coincidence of these two stones seems no more accidental and no less beautiful than a rhyme in poetry.

When I first saw Emerson’s tomb, the rock seemed to speak to the greatness of his character and intellect. But the boulder at the Philosophers’ Camp suggested another meaning: That through all the changing seasons, through the years, through the fires and the life that rose from the ashes, something endures.

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” Emerson wrote, “ . . . I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty . . . In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

Categories: Schenectady County

Leave a Reply