This is the heart of the Adirondacks, the most rural county in New York state, a 90-mile drive up Route 30 without a single traffic light, and more state forest than private land.
The traditions of the 5,400 year-round residents include snowmobiling, hunting and voting Republican — so much so that John McCain beat Barack Obama here last fall.
For the past 45 years, the traditions have also included electing a Parker as the top local cop, Hamilton County sheriff.
But that will end this year when Sheriff Douglas Parker retires, after succeeding his father, Arthur Parker, in 1983.
Parker, 67, will have spent a total of 40 years with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Department when he leaves on Dec. 31.
He’s responded to sick birds and tragic family killings, been the chief investigator of numberless accidents and a handful of murders. He once spent months living under the same roof as notorious Adirondack killer Robert Garrow.
“There’s enormous respect for him,” said Morehouse Supervisor William Farber, chairman of the Hamilton County Board of Supervisors.
The county is so rural the entire sheriff’s road patrol is three full-time deputies, plus four more added in the summer to patrol by boat on the county’s popular recreational lakes.
One of just two counties located entirely inside the Adirondack Park, Hamilton County is due north of Fulton County and about 70 miles northwest of Schenectady. Many Capital Region residents own seasonal homes here or visit for the foliage or to hike, snowmobile and ski.
Parker works closely with state police, environmental conservation officers and state forest rangers — but even so, law enforcement is spread thin covering a 1,700-square-mile area from Long Lake to Benson. Hamilton, while by far the least-populated, is the third-largest county in the state geographically.
“You’re alone. I remember once being on a call in Morehouse and the nearest backup was in Fonda,” Parker said, referring to the state police substation a two-hour drive away in Montgomery County.
Parker also oversees the six-cell county jail in Lake Pleasant, a stone-and-masonry building, part of which dates from 1840. There’s a staff of six, including emergency dispatchers.
“At the moment we have one inmate,” Parker said early last week. “Sometimes this past summer, we had none.”
He and his wife lived above the jail when Garrow was held for nine months awaiting a murder trial in 1973-74, an experience Parker called “a nightmare” because of the constant precautions against possible escape.
“We didn’t trust Garrow to take a shower. He took a bath in a kiddy pool. He was never out of his cell but that there were two deputies with him.”
But more often he’s talked with those he arrested and come to understand some of what might have led to a violent outburst or pathological desire to steal.
“You’re touched by all of them,” Parker said. He speaks happily of former inmates who have returned productively to society.
By all accounts, Parker has a way with people.
“I’d describe Doug as one of those rare individuals that can project authority that isn’t questioned and still has the ability to listen and empathize, almost like a social worker,” said Farber, who has known Parker 40 years.
“He’s seriously going to be missed. We have a department that’s second to none in how they handle people,” said Hamilton County Judge S. Peter Feldstein. “More young people get turned around because of their interactions with the department, and that’s all because of him.”
Growing up in tiny Long Lake, where his father was then town supervisor, Parker wanted to become an electrician, and he spent three years as an electrician’s mate in the Navy in the early 1960s.
“I would have been happy to spend my career in the Navy if it wasn’t for Brenda,” he said, referring to his wife.
His father got permission from the county board to hire him as jailer soon after he got out of the Navy in 1969. He and Brenda, as jail matron, made $3,800 that year. Brenda Parker has remained by his side for 41 years, now as his confidential secretary. They have two grown children.
After four years as jailer, Parker was promoted by his father to undersheriff, and he then won the office of sheriff when his father retired in 1983. Since then, he’s been elected six times without opposition.
Parker said he learned lessons about public service and voter loyalty from his father.
“I remember once he got a call to come rescue a cat. He didn’t want to go, but he did, and you know he got that woman’s support,” Parker said.
He himself once got a call about a sick blue jay, which then flew away before he got there. But most calls are more serious, and the deaths he’s seen have piled up over the years.
“I’ve been to more autopsies than I can count,” he said. “We’ve had car accidents, boat accidents, suicides — a lot of suicides — hunting accidents, snowmobile accidents.”
There have been five murders in the county during his entire career — one of them unsolved, a Fulton County man found in a lake in Benson months after he disappeared. Parker believes that man was probably a drug dealer.
The sheriff keeps a surprisingly large collection of marijuana-smoking paraphernalia in a locked case in his office, and said he’s seen a lot of what isolation and alcohol can do to people. “A lot of the snowmobile accidents, there’s alcohol involved,” he said.
The Hamilton County population swells to an estimated 55,000 in the summer as the Adirondack seasonal camp and tourism economy peaks, but Parker said that that doesn’t mean 10 times the trouble.
“We have a lot of good people come. The troublemakers, they’re out of their element,” he said.
One time, he recalled, he broke up a fight involving five young people from the New York City area near Piseco. Driving one suspect away, the youth offered that he could beat Parker up and escape from the car.
“And I said we can leave you at the end of a dirt road,” Parker recalled. “Right on cue, we came around a corner and there was a bear in the road. After that, it was, ‘You’ll have to beat the [crap] out of me to get me out of the car.’ ”
THE GARROW CASE
The Garrow case remains one of the most memorable of Parker’s long career.
Robert Francis Garrow Jr., then 38, had already committed a murder in Syracuse and killed two would-be hikers he encountered in Wevertown, Warren County, when he approached four young campers in Wells on July 29, 1973. Using a rifle, he took them hostage, tied them to trees, and then tortured one of them to death with a knife.
Another was able to get free and run for help, resulting in a massive state police-organized manhunt. Garrow eluded the initial dragnet by speeding away in the middle of the night, and was working his way north through the woods for a week before running a roadblock with a stolen car. That break led to his capture two days later after an environmental conservation officer shot him in the back and leg in Essex County.
“They said he was this great woodsmen, but he really wasn’t,” Parker said. “But the troopers they sent in after him had very little woods experience.”
Garrow was brought back to Hamilton County for trial, and claimed paralysis from his wounds. He used a wheelchair, but police generally believed he was faking.
“In all the time he was here, we never had to help him onto the toilet,” Parker said.
Garrow was found guilty of murder at trial in Lake Pleasant, and later pleaded guilty to three other killings. Parker believes he may have committed many murders he never admitted. Garrow was sentenced to life in state prison, and was killed after escaping from a prison in East Fishkill in 1978.
Parker will his replaced by his son-in-law, Undersheriff Karl G. Abrams, who is running unopposed in the Nov. 3 election.
Farber said the selection of Abrams is justified even without the Parker family connection, because he’s the county’s longest-serving deputy, with a demonstrated commitment to serving the county.
“A lot of the younger deputies leave for greener pastures, better pay,” Farber said.
Even with state police available, having a local sheriff’s department is important, Farber said.
“They’re really the broad umbrella law enforcement for the whole county,” he said.