2.14.2006

The Ghosts of Sagamore

Author's Note: This essay was written this summer for Adirondack Life Magazine. Unfortunately, they turned down my offer, so I've decided to put it up here. However, it is written in the present tense, but is six months old and refers to events and thoughts from this summer. -J

For the past six months, I have been the Tour Supervisor at Great Camp Sagamore, living and working on the grounds as generations of workers have done before me. Sagamore is a National Historic Landmark outside of the hamlet of Raquette Lake in the central Adirondacks. One comment that we receive almost weekly on the public tours is the similarity, at least superficially, that our compound has to the mountain hotel in the film The Shining. Isolated high in the mountains, our old wooden buildings are maintained in glorious isolation by a single caretaker, Bob, throughout the long winter. Having wandered the halls of the Main Lodge late at night with only the emergency lighting, I know the eeriness that grand old buildings can have. However, in contrast to the hotel of The Shining and the silence of winter, for six months out of the year, we are a bustling little community; also none of our staff has ever tried to kill each other, except possibly the chefs, but that’s a story for a different day.

Yet, the similarities between Sagamore and the film run deeper than this simple comparison. At the heart of the film is the concept that the actions of the living leave behind traces in the wake of their passing. Like the “smell of burnt toast,” the crimes and passions of those who have gone before haunt the places through which they have passed. What complicates the film is that some people, like Jack Nicholson’s character and that of his son, have an ability called the “Shining,” which allows them to see these residues in the form of ghosts. Of course, being a horror flick, the spirits in The Shining all committed unspeakable acts that perpetuate themselves over and over again, eventually driving Nicholson to madness through the horror they reveal.

A work of fiction, the film is meant only to be entertaining, and yet, like most great stories, it has a kernel of truth at its heart. We do leave behind traces of our passage when we move through a place. It forever holds the imprint of our passage, and the ghosts of those who have come before.

For those who have not driven the four mile dirt road from Route 28 to the Camp, Sagamore is one of those rare places in America that simply exudes history. Unlike a Revolutionary War battlefield or the typical historic house, Sagamore is not associated with a single event or person in history. It is also not a site frozen in the past, it is a living place where people play and work, love and hate. Not only do our interns and employees live in the old worker’s quarters, but throughout the summer and fall, people stay with us, learning traditional crafts, attending conferences and Elderhostels and participating in our grandparents-grandchildrens camp. It is a place that contains layers upon layers of the past, each folding into, affecting and being affected by the others.

Sagamore is one of the famous “Great Camps” of the Adirondacks, meeting the recreational desires of the urban rich of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In particular, they, like many of us, made a yearly summer quest to escape the crowded, filthy cities of the Gilded Age to return to nature. The Great Camp was a collection of small, simple buildings deep within the forest, usually upon the edge of the water. They were built in a style that was consciously rustic: little cabins, covered in bark-cover logs of local trees, blending into the forest. This aesthetic was carried into the interiors with polished knotty paneling, magnificent hand-peeled beams and coarse granite fireplaces; the textures of the outdoors, indoors. The Camp was intended to be self-sufficient, thus Sagamore had a year-round staff of around 40 men when it was built. These employees farmed the land, timbered the forests and maintained the delicate illusions that high-society Camp life required.

Built in 1897, the Camp’s designer was the legendary William West Durant who first fused the decorative ideas that are today called the “rustic.” Durant intended for the Camp to become a model home through which he could market his development empire. While Durant was exceptional at creating works of architectural genius, he seemed to have no talent for making nor keeping money. Accumulated debts and lawsuits forced him to sell the Camp in 1901, at a loss, to its most famous owner to date: Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I. Between 1901 and his death in 1915, Vanderbilt expanded the facility from its original function as a simple hunting camp until it became a complete rustic village serving dozens of guests and servants.

High society entertainment in the Adirondacks between the World Wars rose to unprecedented levels. The Vanderbilt Family entertained the likes of Richard Rogers of Rogers and Hammerstein, Hoagie Carmichael, Madame Chang Kai-Shek and General George Marshall of celebrated Marshall Plan fame. Meanwhile, the workers swelled to over 150 in the summer, creating a unique cultural sphere that became the crucible and cradle for techniques of craftsmanship in wood, stone and iron that today make the region notable.

Eventually, Vanderbilt’s widow, Mrs. Margaret Emerson McKim Vanderbilt Baker Amory (she was a busy woman, Mrs. Emerson), gave the camp in 1954 to Syracuse University. It became a conference center and was used as such for two decades. In the mid-1970s, the land was sold to its current owner: the Sagamore Institute of the Adirondacks. The Sagamore Institute is a small non-profit that acts as the steward and interpreter of this National Historic Landmark.

Working at Sagamore is not like working in most other places. We live here, in a world without television or cellphones, one radio station and only dial-up internet. It takes an hour, round trip, to go to a small supermarket (in Inlet) and four hours to reach the closest mall (in Utica).

But it is a place that teaches lessons to those who stop to listen. These types of old places, should they not be bulldozed, whitewashed or drywalled into oblivion, accumulate a crust. That remnant, almost a smell of the past, hanging on the walls and gathering in forgotten corners, is absent in much of our current, disposable culture. The hands of hundreds of nameless individuals have left their mark and their voice in this place. Millionaires and valets, guides and sports, generals and college students, fabulous movie stars and humble tour guides, they all haunt Sagamore. Of course, they only appear if you know which corner to peak your head into and how to breathe life into them. This skill, in many ways, is analogous to the possession of the mystical ability of the Shining.

Possessing and the passing on of the Shining is the true goal of the tour guide. Every day, at 10 am and 1:30 pm, we at Sagamore try to convey this vague feeling of historical awe into something approaching a cohesive narrative to a group of visitors. When it is done properly, this historic tour makes the phantoms of the past emerge from the walls to dance for the people, yet, when it is done poorly, it is the reason so many people despise history. History without this special element is a dead, withered collection of facts that crumbles at the touch of an inquisitive mind.

But, if you open your eyes, you may realize that not only this nationally proclaimed place is historic, but that history is everywhere where humans can be found. Realization of the presence of ghosts comes in strange ways. Such as scratching your head of over the dozens of unmarked VHS tapes containing hours upon hours of television programming hidden in a back room, or thankfully using the conveniently placed, apparently handmade, nails in your closet wall. These things are everywhere that humans have been, we simply choose to ignore them in our daily life. It is unfortunate that some times, America, in its rush for the newer and the bigger, we lose the older, subtler, quieter things that give our society depth, sophistication and an ability for introspection.

Perhaps that is why a place like Sagamore, where you can’t get cell reception or a good tv station, is so important today. On a greater scale, the Adirondack Park itself, is an oasis and a respite for escape and contemplation. They encourage, foster and force one to feel the interaction between past and present, and people and their surroundings. At Sagamore, everything we touch will bear the legacy of our passing. In this view, history is not something dead and separate from life, it is instead a narrative entered, recreated through our passing and then left behind, sending out ripples to mark our presence. This type of thought is both empowering and humbling. This is an experience with the Shining, perhaps not as suddenly mindshattering as what faced Nicholson in the movie, but just as profound in changing how we view ourselves, our communities and our world.

-Posted by Jesse

1 comment:

Stefanie Noble said...

Nice read... I worked at Santanoni this past summer so I can definitely relate!