From the Adirondack Explorer, January/February 2008
LAKE PLACID’S COLORFUL PAST
Review by NEAL BURDICK
People in Lake Placid knew that their longtime village and town historian, Mary MacKenzie, had written on local history for many years. But hardly anyone knew how prolifically, or how diversely, or what a dogged and accomplished researcher she was.
“I don’t think most people had any sense of the real magnitude of the work she’d been amassing over the years until we published the collected works,” writes Lee Manchester, a former Lake Placid newspaper reporter who took on the task of organizing and gently editing her writings for publication after her death in 2003 at 89. The result is “The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid.”
The well-constructed, 400-page volume is not only a marvelous research tool but also, and perhaps more important, a tribute to a woman who devoted much of her life to uncovering the history of her hometown. Manchester has structured the book in three main parts — “The Pioneers,” “The Golden Age of Hotels,” and “Lake Placid,” the latter a potpourri of everything from ice-trotting races to the WCTU horse fountain — and added headnotes that provide context and source information.
And the history of North Elba, a township, and Lake Placid, a village within that township, is not like that of any other place. (For one thing, no other place in America has hosted two Winter Olympics.) The mountain setting, the cold climate and the colorful personalities who settled, sojourned or passed through conspired to spin a unique tale. Among the characters who show up in this book are the firebrand abolitionist John Brown, author Richard Henry Dana Jr. (“Two Years Before the Mast”), winter-sports icon Art Devlin, centenarian Nordic skier Jackrabbit Johanssen, composer Victor Herbert (“Babes in Toyland”), singer Kate Smith, and librarian Melvil Dewey (he of a famous library classification system and an infamous attempt at “simplifyd speling,” which is why his first name is chronically missing its final “le”).
We also encounter dashing actors and producers from the silent-movie era, who found the rugged scenery ideal for their epic films before the industry, like so much else, headed west. And there are daredevil athletes who risked life and limb in the place where winter sports were introduced to this country. But, MacKenzie being an egalitarian, we also meet humble settlers who struggled to carve out a life in harsh conditions, not always succeeding; freed slaves who tried even harder to make an agricultural go of it in an environment that was alien both physically and culturally; the ladies of the Garden Club; pastors and teachers; bankers and storekeepers. Their stories are not always happy; MacKenzie is an objective researcher and honest reporter, notwithstanding her love of her community, and she does not sugarcoat reality.
The first of 72 entries (plus an appendix that contains a chronology of historical highlights) is indicative of what’s to come. “Elijah Bennet: Lake Placid’s First Settler” outlines the travails of this “unlikely” pioneer, an aging, impoverished and crippled Revolutionary War veteran who survived family tragedy, summers with winter weather, and isolation to pave the way for others. “He was an unimportant man,” says MacKenzie, going on to show us how he was in fact very important historically. Simultaneously she gives us a picture of life in the wilderness circa 1800, long before Lake Placid was transformed into a bustling resort. Years later, Bennet’s Pond was rechristened Mirror Lake — by a tourist rocking on a hotel porch.
“Mary MacKenzie had a rare combination of gifts and skills as a historian,” observes Manchester. “She had the kind of mind that naturally sorted multiple disparate bits of information into coherent patterns. When she came upon a puzzle, an inconsistency or a mystery, she loved nothing better than tracking down an answer. … On top of all this, Mary really knew how to tell a story — and if you’ve ever had to wade through some of the horrible prose written by academic historians, you’ll know what a rarity that gift is.”
“I have traveled a great deal — in the town of North Elba,” MacKenzie said. With apologies to Henry David Thoreau, who made a literary career — also belatedly recognized — out of saying much the same of Concord, Mass., we can be grateful to Lee Manchester and the others who contributed to this book for helping us see how far she traveled, and what she saw and shared for posterity.
MARY THE POET
Lee Manchester found a cache of poems while organizing the papers of Mary MacKenzie. “Even those who knew Mary well, including the closest members of her family in Lake Placid, had no idea that she’d written poetry as a young woman,” he says.
Manchester sent samples to Richard Henry, editor of Blueline, the Adirondack literary magazine, which produced a supplementary issue devoted entirely to her poetry. The Lake Placid Public Library, which holds the copyright to her work, authorized the reissuing of her poems under a new title, “The Secret Poems of Mary C. London.”
Her poems reveal that MacKenzie (neé Landon) was sensitive not only to people’s stories, but to nature as well. The following is presented with permission from the library:
Watch for me in the wild thickets
Watch for me in the wild thickets;
I will run
Through tall catalpas
Spattered with the sun.
Wild-eyed and startled as the listening doe;
Not into somber maples.
Nine steps south, and go
West, and westward keep,
Else you might one day find me there
Drowned in a leafy silence, by
All the winds asleep.
From the Lake Placid News — Thursday, August 2, 2007
OUR HISTORY IS IN GOOD HANDS
‘Plains’ packs a powerful punch
Lake Placid News Editor ED FORBES
takes an inside look at local historian Mary MacKenzie’s lifework
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — We owe Mary MacKenzie, historian of Lake Placid and North Elba from 1964 to her death in 2003, a great deal.
With the publication this week of her collected writings, “The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid,” our collective debt to her grows even more.
“The Plains of Abraham,” edited by former News staff writer Lee Manchester, packs powerful punch after powerful punch of local history into its more than 400 pages. Drawing its title from the name first given to the region by settlers of European descent, the book is an essential read for anyone who thinks they understand this place, and it’s even more essential for those who do not. Newcomer and native alike will delight in MacKenzie’s keen eye for detail and in the breadth of her research.
Gathered from more than 40 years of notes prepared for talks, columns for local and regional publications — including the News — and essays prepared for the sake of posterity, Manchester has woven MacKenzie’s impressive oeuvre into the most comprehensive survey of local history to date.
“Until Mary MacKenzie became town historian of North Elba in 1964,” Manchester writes, “there had been no one, really, who had studied Lake Placid history in a really rigorous, systematic way.”
That’s an absolute truth.
I’ll tell you from personal experience that MacKenzie’s work is truly the gold standard for local and even regional history. Her influence pervades the pages of this newspaper. My colleague, Peter Crowley, fondly recalls when, as a rookie reporter for the News in the late 1990s, MacKenzie sternly reminded him that he was writing for the historic record.
That reminder is advice he — and this writer — still offer rookie journalists.
Of course, Manchester and his work on compiling MacKenzie’s oeuvre should be familiar to readers of the News. In his six years at the News, from 2000 to 2006, Manchester based countless features on MacKenzie’s research. Even more importantly, he compiled a detailed Lake Placid chronology, and he personally scanned thousands of Mary’s slides, both of which we constantly refer to.
After her death in 2003, Manchester compiled information for her Lake Placid News obituary and, in so doing, he says MacKenzie’s heirs appointed him her de facto literary executor.
Manchester explains in the preface to “Plains” that he approached the editing and condensation of MacKenzie’s work in three separate projects. First, he set out to publish what he found to be the greatest treasure of her archive: A group of poems she wrote in the early 1930s. These were written when MacKenzie was still Mary Landon, a young woman living in Lake Placid in her early 20s. The poems appeared as a 2005 supplement to Blueline Magazine, “Mary Landon MacKenzie: Collected Poetry, 1931 to 1937.” Copies of the supplement, available through local sellers to benefit the Lake Placid Public Library, were sold out within a year of the collection’s publishing.
The second piece of the process was scanning the thousands of slides MacKenzie used in her presentations. Manchester collected MacKenzie’s photos into the Mary MacKenzie Historic Slide Collection. As I mentioned earlier, we and others around the community, refer to this priceless collection of local history constantly.
Along the way, Manchester said he painstakingly combed through, and later copy-edited and condensed, thousands of documents — including 25 monographs on individual settlers of Gerritt Smith’s North Elba Black colony — MacKenzie had hoped to one day publish as a definitive Olympic Region history.
The result is “Plains,” an elegantly presented book published by Nicholas K. Burns Publishing of Utica. Manchester has divided “Plains” into three sections based on theme and historic chronology. They are “Part One: The Pioneers,” “Part Two: The Golden Age of Hotels” and “Part Three: Lake Placid.”
Each contains fantastic detail, from long profiles of the region’s first settlers, to descriptions of Gilded Age hotels, to a comprehensive outline of winter sports development and the lead-up to Lake Placid’s Olympiads.
All of the work he’s put into the book, Manchester says, has been of the volunteer sort. As he suspects MacKenzie would have wanted it, all of the royalties will benefit the Lake Placid Public Library.
It’s a fantastic read and, again, a must-have for every resident of and visitor to the Olympic Region.
“The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid,” will be publicly launched at 1 p.m. on Aug. 4 at the Lake Placid Public Library.
At the Aug. 4 library program, several of Mary MacKenzie’s friends and colleagues will tell the story of this remarkable local historian and the newly compiled book she left behind. The speakers, each of whom will talk for just a few minutes, will be:
- Patty Perez, Director, Lake Placid Public Library;
- Shirley Seney, Supervisor, Town of North Elba;
- Jamie Rogers, Mayor, Village of Lake Placid;
- Beverley Reid, Historian, North Elba & Lake Placid;
- Jennifer VanBenschoten, Director, Lake Placid/North Elba Historical Society;
- Mary Hotaling, Director, Historic Saranac Lake;
- Andy Flynn, author, “Adirondack Attic” syndicated Adirondack history column and book series;
- Lee Manchester, editor, “The Plains of Abraham,” and
- Nick Burns, the book’s publisher.
“The Plains of Abraham” (trade paperback, 424 pages) will retail for $24.95. Copies of the book, signed by the editor, will be available for sale at the Lake Placid Public Library program on Aug. 4. The book will also be sold at most regional bookstores, and online at Amazon.com.
MacKenzie, a founding member of the Lake Placid/North Elba Historical Society in 1961, became North Elba town historian in 1964 and Lake Placid village historian in 1980, posts she held until just a few months before her death in early 2003.
Inducted into the Lake Placid Hall of Fame in 1992, MacKenzie won the recognition of her fellow historians again and again. Among the awards bestowed upon her were the Clinton County Historical Society’s McMasters Prize, the “Bessie” Award of the North Country Local Historians Association, the 1997 Outstanding Historian of the Year award from the Association of Municipal Historians of New York State, and the 2002 Edmund J. Winslow Local Government Historian’s Award for Excellence, given jointly by the Office of the State Historian of New York and the Association of Public Historians of New York State to recognize excellence in one or more public history projects or publications.
MacKenzie published numerous stories about the history of Lake Placid and North Elba in magazines, newspapers and historical journals during her lifetime, and in 2002, she published a short illustrated history of her home town and village. Much, much more of her material, however, remained in her archives, unpublished or uncollected, at the time of her death.
From the Valley News (Elizabethtown, N.Y.) – Saturday, August 4, 2007
‘THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM’
Exploring the history of Lake Placid
By WHITNEY JACKSON, Editor
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — Although Mary MacKenzie passed away in 2003, her work has been gathered to create the most comprehensive history of the town of North Elba and the village of Lake Placid ever published.
“The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid” contains more than 70 individual essays on most of the key people, periods and events that made up the community. MacKenzie was historian of the town of North Elba beginning in 1964.
The book was edited by Lee Manchester. From 2000 through 2006, Manchester was a staff writer for the Lake Placid News. In that capacity, he got to know MacKenzie and became familiar with the extensive research she had done on the history of Lake Placid and the surrounding township of North Elba.
“When she died in 2003, I was afraid that most people would never know of the body of work she had developed, because most of it existed only as letters, papers for her public addresses, or monographs written for individuals,” said Manchester.
With a background in editing and compiling the work of others as an editor for an international nonprofit organization, Manchester asked Mary’s family and the Lake Placid Public Library (where her files are housed) if he could create a collected works that might eventually be published for the benefit of the community.
“What surprised me the most about the material I worked with was Mary MacKenzie’s absolute, relentless, unflagging commitment to the truth,” said Manchester.
MacKenzie had earned a reputation as “one tough cookie,” sharply criticizing the work of other historians’ when they made unfounded assumptions, did shoddy research or trusted too much in old timers’ tales without verifying their accounts with hard documentary evidence.
“She held herself to the same standards she applied to others, often spending years tracking down the answer to a single historical question. Indeed, it was her love of that kind of historical detective work that probably kept her from compiling her own collected works — she simply enjoyed the research process too much to lock herself up in a room for a year or two and devote herself to writing it all up,” said Manchester.
Manchester said the title comes from the name given by the first settlement colony to the territory that eventually became the township of North Elba; they called it “the Plains of Abraham,” and such a beautiful, evocative historic name seemed like the perfect choice for a book of local history about such a beautiful, inspiring place, he said.
The book preserves an incredible body of historical research about a very unusual community — the birthplace of winter sport in America, a tiny mountain village that has hosted not one but two Olympiads, and a pioneer Adirondack resort community.
“There are very few communities that have anything like this depth of material about their own history; Lake Placid and North Elba were indeed lucky to have someone like Mary Landon MacKenzie born among them,” said Manchester.
“The Plains of Abraham” also serves to debunk some myths and misinformation about the history of North Elba by providing good, solid, in-depth documentary research on subjects like John Brown, the North Elba black colony, the story of the early Elba Iron Works, the real source of financing for the first church built in the township, and many other issues.
“It covers Placid local history at a depth nobody has ever before attempted. The great bonus of the book is that, unlike some academic historians, Mary MacKenzie knows how to tell a story, which makes “The Plains of Abraham” a genuinely good read from start to finish. She tells her tales in an original voice that is at once authoritative, familiar and humorous,” said Manchester.
There will be a launch program on Saturday, Aug. 4 at the Lake Placid Public Library with several speakers talking about MacKenzie and her remarkable career as a historian.
The 424-page book is published by Nicholas K. Burns Publishing of Utica and retails for $24.95. All royalties for the book have been dedicated to the Lake Placid Public Library.
The book will be sold at book and gift stores throughout the Adirondacks, including the Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, which is owned and operated by MacKenzie’s family. Orders can also be made at Amazon.com.
“The Plains of Abraham” was one of three projects Manchester undertook, as Mary MacKenzie’s literary executor, to preserve her intellectual legacy. The first of those three projects was a collection of 148 poems she had written in the 1930s as a young woman.
“Her family discovered those poems in her desk drawer after her death, much to their surprise — because none of them had known a thing about her writing poetry, much less really good poetry,” said Manchester.
The first edition of that collection was published in 2005 as a book-length supplement by Blueline, the literary magazine of the Adirondacks. A second edition will be released later this year under a new title, “The Secret Poems of Mary C. Landon,” her maiden name.
Manchester’s third MacKenzie project was the restoration of a group of more than 300 historic slides that MacKenzie had compiled to use as illustrative material for her public lectures. Manchester integrated the restored images with interpretive text drawn from her writing to create a Power Point slide show, “The Mary MacKenzie Historic Slide Collection.”
The Lake Placid Public Library has posted an Adobe Acrobat version of the slide show on its Web site, which can be downloaded for free — although it does take a few minutes to download because of its size. You can visit the download site by clicking here. Once it is downloaded, save it onto your computer’s hard drive.
Manchester is now on the administrative staff at Wagner College. Manchester splits his time between Jay, N.Y. and Grymes Hill, Staten Island.
PRAISE FOR ‘THE PLAINS OF ABRAHAM’
Steven Engelhart: In “The Plains of Abraham,” Lee Manchester has done an amazing thing. He has taken the far-ranging writings of Lake Placid historian Mary MacKenzie and woven them together into an informative and most readable history of the settlement and development of North Elba and its primary village. Herein are Mary’s stories of early pioneers, farming, industry, road building, prominent citizens and scoundrels, camps, hotels, and churches, and hardly any aspect of the town’s history is untouched or unfathomed. This book will forever change how the reader sees, understands, and appreciates this remarkable place.
Steven Engelhart is executive director of Adirondack Architectural Heritage, the region’s preeminent historic preservation organization.
Amy Godine: Lucky, lucky North Elba! Few indeed are the rural towns in New York State whose resident historians bring Mary MacKenzie’s curiosity, ability and literary flair to their material—and what material this is! The history of North Elba is the history of the Adirondack frontier, from blizzard-bound pioneers to backwoods bootleggers, hard-fisted abolitionists to lumber barons, barefoot berrypickers and innkeepers to the grizzled guides of presidents. Through local history, Mrs. MacKenzie shows us the world.
Amy Godine is a writer, social/ethnic historian, and regular contributor to Adirondack Life magazine. Among her stories is an homage to Mary MacKenzie, “There’s Something About Mary,” published in the August 2006 issue of Adirondack Life. Godine curated “Dreaming of Timbuctoo: From Africa to the Adirondacks,” a traveling exhibition about Gerrit Smith’s Adirondack black colonies—including the one that drew John Brown to North Elba. She is currently working on a book about the black colonists.
Derek Muirden: The book reads like a breeze. I am amazed at MacKenzie’s tenacity in getting at the truth, knowing in doing so, that Adirondack History is all the more exciting! This is her tribute to the past as well as an honest and lasting gift to the future; a cornerstone for Adirondack History.
Derek Muirden, Emmy Award-winning senior producer at Mountain Lake PBS-TV in Plattsburgh, New York, is the long-time host of “Roadside Adventures,” the Adirondack travelogue series. In 2006, Mountain Lake PBS premiered Muirden’s hour-long documentary on the life of the late Arto Monaco, beloved creator of the Land of Makebelieve theme park in Upper Jay, New York.
Fred Smith: Kudos to Mary MacKenzie and editor Lee Manchester for creating one of the best — if not the best — pieces of local Adirondack history that I have ever read. Her work is a great gift. I finished reading regretting that I had never met the author, obviously a bright and charming woman whose research skills and appreciation for history are impressive.
Frederick G. Smith was curator of the Alice T. Miner Museum in Chazy, New York, before his retirement in 2006.
Anne Mackinnon: Lee Manchester has done a marvelous thing in collecting and editing Mary MacKenzie’s history of Lake Placid and North Elba. In a voice that is at once charming and adamant, fond and authoritative, MacKenzie tells the story of the village she knew so well and its many connections to the wider world. Manchester’s notes pull the story together and help us savor the insights of this very special historian.
Regional history writer Anne Mackinnon is a frequent contributor to Adirondack Life magazine. Among her stories are “A Home to Live and Breathe: The Adirondack Architecture of Rockwell Kent,” “Arto Monaco : From Tinseltown to Land of Makebelieve — A Portrait of Upper Jay’s Old Master,” and “Welcome to Siberia,” an article on the North Country’s infamous Dannemora Prison.
Andy Flynn: Lee Manchester has succeeded in compiling a history of Lake Placid for the ages. “The Plains of Abraham” is a real-deal Adirondack treasure.
It is wonderful to have Mary telling her stories again. As I read “The Plains of Abraham,” I feel like I’m back on Mary’s couch, enthralled by her storytelling—and, once again, I can’t leave until I’ve heard it all.
Thank you, Lee, for bringing Mary back into my life with this collection of thoroughly researched tales of Lake Placid history. Now I’ll have her best stories in one volume to read over and over again.
If you want dry history, read someone else. Mary MacKenzie’s stories are accurate and full of passion, told in a matter-of-fact way from an outspoken historian.
True local historians fall in love with their towns, and Mary MacKenzie’s love for Lake Placid continues to reach far beyond her life on this earth. Thank you, Mary, for giving us these stories.
“The Plains of Abraham” is a fitting tribute to Mary MacKenzie, the mother of Adirondack history. She was a tireless researcher, a stickler for accuracy, a model historian and an artful storyteller.
Andy Flynn is the author of the “New York State’s Mountain Heritage: Adirondack Attic” book series and former editor of the Lake Placid News and Adirondack Daily Enterprise.
Marty Podskoch: If you like the Adirondacks, and if you are interested in local history, then you’ll love Mary MacKenzie’s “The Plains of Abraham: A History of North Elba and Lake Placid.” As town historian for over 40 years, Mary amassed a huge collection of notes and stories that are well-documented and researched. She was a stickler for truth and facts—in fact, often disproving famous historians. Lee Manchester, a local newspaper writer, has accomplished the monumental task of resurrecting Mary’s writings from eight file drawers, compiling them into an interesting, informative, and easy-to-read book. Often, these writings shed light on little-known facts about Adirondack history. Manchester’s three-year effort was a labor of love, asking for no monetary compensation; all royalties go to the Lake Placid Public Library. The book is a must-read.
Retired seventh-grade Delhi reading teacher Marty Podskoch is best known as the author of a three-volume cultural history of the fire observers and fire towers of New York State’s Catskill and Adirondack Parks. His newest book is “Adirondack Stories: Historical Sketches,” illustrated by Sam Glanzman, based on the regionally syndicated weekly newspaper feature of the same name.
Sandra Weber: As a fledging, self-taught historian, I showed up at Mary’s door one spring day. She talked about flowers, the bear that had visited her yard, and then “Mister Van,” Henry Van Hoevenberg. She encouraged me to avoid folk tales and dig for valid evidence. Often that evidence came from Mary’s earlier work.
Here at last is a large part of her work, presented in an accessible and organized form. “The Plains of Abraham” is filled with Mary’s meticulous research and witty stories. Every village should be as fortunate as Lake Placid to have a Mary MacKenzie to retrieve its history.
Sandra Weber is the author of several books of regional history, including “The Lure of Esther Mountain: Matriarch of the Adirondack High Peaks,” “Mount Marcy: The High Peak of New York,” and “The Finest Square Mile: Mount Jo and Heart Lake.” She also co-authored “Breaking Trail: Remarkable Women of the Adirondacks” with Peggy Lynn, and “Two in the Wilderness: Adventures of a Mother and Daughter in the Adirondack Mountains” with Carl Heilman.
Ed Kanze: Mary MacKenzie has written a humdinger of a history of Lake Placid, New York, home to Winter Olympic Games in 1932 and again in 1980. This is history that’s hard to put down—grounded in years of solid research but interpreted in a most engaging and often humorous way. From tales of early settlers to the coming of John Brown and the Underground Railroad to the Olympic heroics of 1932 and 1980, there’s something here for everyone. Many thanks to editor Lee Manchester and publisher Nick Burns for rescuing the late Mary MacKenzie’s brilliant historical writings from obscurity and publishing them in this handsome, compelling book.
Edward J. Kanze is the author of “Over the Mountain and Home Again: Journeys of an Adirondack Naturalist.”