April 26, 2017 Traces
Contributed by Ruth Lamb
On a hot summer’s day, a woods road beckons you to leave the thoroughfare behind and drive into its tree canopied shade. Accepting the invitation, you find yourself tunneling into the forest, which closes in around you on both sides of the narrow track. Nearby is a sparkling stream along which the road meanders, drawing you ever deeper into the tall trees. You relax and contemplate the wildness of your Adirondack surroundings….. Or, instead, perhaps you stop at a trail head along a road, and venture by foot up a path that leads you into the sun dappled woods. Looking around, you shed your every day cares and drink in the greenery, and the earthy smells and marvel at the wild world you have entered. You feel as if you have discovered it.
Actually, what we accept as wild today in the lands surrounding Lake George may not always have been so. One hundred years ago, people lived and worked in some of the “wild places” of today. In 1990 my husband and I settled into one such spot, a secluded mountain valley, drained by a burbling trout stream. By 1825 this valley was farmed, and extensive open land spread along the dirt road that still snakes its way upland along Northwest Bay Brook. Homes and barns and even several school houses were built here and there along the way. Today almost all signs of Wardboro – named for the Wards who moved west from Vermont and settled in – are gone.
Looking for traces of earlier settlers when adventuring throughout lands protected by the Lake George Land Conservancy, can provide an interesting diversion for the hiker or back roads explorer. First of all, be alert for trees and shrubs that the earlier residents may have planted. Old apple trees with their gnarled branches are suggestive, as are such bushes as lilacs or forsythia. In this valley, it was the custom to plant two maple trees at each farm to provide shade along the road. Looking for these giant maples has led us to home sites up and down the valley. Perhaps you will stumble on remnants of gardens so carefully tended years ago. We’ve found beds of tiger lilies and asparagus plants still growing at former farm sites.
Much of the present forest land here was purposely planted in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) whose workers covered the open spaces with pine seedlings, row after row. The farmers had mostly left by then; many going west to join the Mormons. These pines now grow in impressively tall groves, but are certainly not a wilderness forest.
Farming in the Adirondacks was (and is) a very rocky business. The hard and arduous life of a 19th century farmer was made even more so by the successive crops of rocks each tilled field would produce. Stones from the fields had their uses, as the remnants of stone walls that bisect the current forests attest. Boulders were also used to construct cellar walls. The farm houses in the valley are mostly gone, but those exploring the woods will often come upon cellar holes, often with large trees growing out of them. Nearby may be the remains of a well, although on some farms water came from nearby springs that still give water today. Above-ground structures, such as barns or mills, often had local rocks built into walls that may still have sections standing.
The trail you hike today may have served as a roadway to a now extinct community. Examine it as you stroll along to see if you can imagine it as a former road. Stone walls along the way could be clues. At a stream crossing, a bridge’s rocky substructure may still be discernible. Sometimes one can find bits and pieces of barbed wire fences still in place. Or even the rusty remains of a sleigh! You may stumble across a few graves in a family or community cemetery. The grave stones may have cracked, or fallen over, with lichen covering the etched names and dates. This is a real find, for you can now get a sense of when the community existed and put names and dates to some of the inhabitants.
Once you find a farm site, it’s possible to run across implements left behind. The litter we’ve found has included bits and pieces of an old cow barn, the seat of a plow, a disintegrating metal hay rake and various pots and bottles. They are all disappearing under the natural litter of a forest landscape. Unfortunately, some also disappear from their resting spots, taken away by thoughtless visitors. Leaving the remains in place will give others who follow after you the pleasure of “discovering” the traces of another time. These settlements are unique treasures of the Adirondacks that await observant explorers.
My husband, Sandy Lamb, considers himself very fortunate to have had family that was part of owning lands in Wardboro starting before 1900. In fact, his Grandmother Thirsa was a descendant of the original Wards. In 1968, ten Wardboro landowners pooled their resources to purchase over 580 acres of lands adjacent to and part of the Northwest Bay watershed and formed the Wardboro Valley Corporation. Twenty-five years later this land was sold to the state as a way to limit the effects of development to the watershed. Now that the Lake George Land Conservancy exists to work with landowners to both protect the land but also make it more available for hiking, boating, fishing, and other low key adventuring, we look forward to being part of this ongoing sharing of both saving and using the lands feeding Lake George.
(Abridged version of this essay was printed in the LGLC’s Spring 2017 newsletter, viewshed)