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March/April 2012

Hermit French Louie

Hard as granite and tough as spruce

French Louie postcard from the Adirondack Museum

In the late 1800s word began to filter out of the Adirondacks about a mysterious person living deep in the woods at the head of West Can­­ada Creek. A few of the more adven­turous woodsmen had run into the individual, but for many he was an al­most mythical being. Some of the ru­mors even had it that a “wild man” was living in that remote part of Ham­ilton Coun­ty. Those who had actually met him said that he was known as French Louie.

There was one place French Louie, born Louis Seymour, was a household name. He hunted and trapped near Newton’s Corners—or Spec­ulator, as it became in 1896—with men from that small village. Louie was famous for his twice-yearly visits to town to sell furs and drown his thirst, an­nouncing his arrival by hoots and howls. Since wolves were no longer found in that area, residents knew that French Louie was back in town.

Louie had come down from Canada in 1849, at about the age of 17, to find work with traveling circuses. He also signed on as a mule driver on the Erie Canal, transporting, among other things, Adirondack lumber to western New York. Though somewhat short in stature, Louie was sol­idly built and could hold his own among both circus rowdies and canalers.

After two decades in the lowlands, his French Canadian love of the woods and mountains beckoned him to the Adirondacks, and glowing re­ports of the area from lum­berjacks visiting Sara­toga Springs sent him packing for Indian Lake. He built a small cabin at Lewey Lake, where he hunted, trapped and drove logs on the nearby Jessup Riv­er. Louie soon expanded his territory over Blue Ridge to Pillsbury and Ce­dar Lakes, building small trapline camps along the way. For a couple of years he trapped with Burr and Jim Sturges, of Newton’s Corners, out of their Whitney Lake camp. During this period of learning the country, he decided to establish a permanent homestead at the east end of West Canada Lake, a few miles be­yond Whitney Lake.

Louie knew what he was getting into when he built his cabin; he couldn’t have found a more remote or rugged place for a homestead. The closest route in was 12 miles from Perkins Clearing and that was a six mile wagon ride from the Corners. It was a long hike from Inlet, passing the Kenwell place at Indian Clearing on the Moose River. From Piseco it was a journey of 18 miles and even farther up the West Canada Creek from Nobleboro. With its westerly location lying at the head of the Moose and Cedar Rivers and the West Canada Creek, the area was a weather producer, especially in the winter. There might be a foot of snow on the ground at North­ville or Remsen and four feet at West Canada Lake.

But if anyone was up to the challenge it was Louie Seymour. Moose River guide Gerald Kenwell, who had known the trapper most of his life, wrote that Louie “packed more of a wallop than I’ve ever seen in a small package. He never spent more than four or five hours in bed; the rest of the time he was busy either around camp or on a trapline.” Harvey Dunham, author of the classic 1952 book Adirondack French Louie, added that he was “hard as Laurentian granite and tough as Adirondack spruce.”

Louie ran his traplines to all points of the compass for pine marten, fox, fisher or “black cats,” otter, mink and bear. Marten brought him $1.25, fisher about $20 and a bear skin $15 to $20. His lines ran north to the Moose River, down the Indian River, east toward Cedar Lakes and down West Creek. There were other trap­pers around him: Frank Baker on the Moose River; Johnny Leaf, Hy Burke and Burt Conklin down West Canada Creek. Trappers from New­ton’s Corners came in as far as Whitney Lake. But Kenwell claimed that Louie was the best otter trapper he knew.

It was not unusual for Adirondack trappers to have a camp or two at the far end of their lines, but Louie had about 15. Most of them were of the lean-to variety, solidly constructed with split-plank floors and roofed with shakes, spruce bark or overlapping hollowed-out halves of logs de­signed for drainage. The lean-tos were often built within a foot or two of a large flat rock to reflect the heat and light of a campfire back into the shelter. A few of his camps were of the more rustic variety, including one loggers found in Otter Valley, a few miles north of West Canada Lake, consisting of a large hollow yellow birch log sealed off on the open ends with a door cut in the side.

Louie’s main source of income was his trapline, but he did other things to put cash in his pocket. He had a maple sugar camp in Otter Valley, where he produced both syrup and sugar for his own use and for sale to sports and out at the Corners. Those who saw it said he sometimes had hundreds of pounds of sugar stored in tins in his cabin. He also made and sold venison jerky until that became illegal, and rented boats and guided at both West Canada and his Pillsbury Lake camp.

With West Canada Lake right off his front doorstep he didn’t have to go far for fresh fish. The lake was home to both brook and lake trout, but primarily the latter. One winter a Speculator lumberjack stopped at Louie’s and peeked into the side room that he used as a refrigerator; the frozen trout were stacked chest high. Louie told him, “Help yourself.”

Louie’s garden was a big reason for his success in the remote woods. He kept it well fertilized with leftover trout, Mud Lake suckers and remains from his hunting and trapping. According to visitors, if you passed by on a warm day when the wind was wrong you’d better hold your nose. Nonetheless, his rhubarb was said to be as thick as a person’s arm.

His pet snakes and chickens roamed the garden to control insects; the chickens also kept him supplied with eggs and an occasional hen for the pot. During the days when lumber camps were operating in the West Canada country, Louie would drop off a large basket of eggs and leave with flour, tea and pork.

Like many backwoodsmen, he wasn’t going to win any awards for cleanliness, especially around the kitch­en. When lum­berman Ernie Brooks had his camp at Mud Lake, he would often stop to visit the hermit and have a bite to eat—al­though he insisted on something like eggs, which he figured would be safe. Ernie’s brother Ed, also a lumberjack, was decidedly more skittish. Louie called him a “tenderfoot.”

When Louie came to town for one of his drinking and spending sprees, he would patronize the Brooks Hotel or the Speculator House. People often thought that Louie foolishly squandered his hard-earned money, but one of his first stops in town after selling his pelts was at the guideboat shop of John F. Buyce, where he would deposit $500 in Buyce’s safe.

Unlike his drinking bouts in town, Louie didn’t touch a bottle when he was in the woods—he knew very well that you wanted all your wits about you when handling bear traps, razor-sharp axes and guns. One slipup that far from civilization could spell disaster.

Louie was usually quite congenial, but there was one group he didn’t want to see: the Wads­worth Gang from Wells­town, or Wells as it became known. Ben, Jim and Uncle Charlie Wads­worth had been implicated in robberies around the area and in the disappearance of a pack peddler. When Louie saw them approaching his cabin one day he picked up his Winchester and told them to hit the trail. Charlie was later involved in a shootout with Hamilton County sheriff Isaiah Perkins and, when captured, was locked up by Sam Lawrence, a friend of Louie’s.

Louie often had a following of kids around the village asking him to imitate wild animals. He would oblige by mimicking the call of a wolf, an owl or some other critter. And it didn’t hurt his popularity that he often tossed the children pieces of candy and small change.

When French Louie died at the Brooks Hotel in February 1915 he had lived in the West Canadas for almost 40 years. The day of the service, school was closed and each of the children filed past his body and placed a small balsam bough in the casket. His grave went unmarked until 1954, when Harvey Dunham and others contributed toward the purchase of a suitable headstone. Even today some people leave flowers at the grave and sometimes toss down a few coins just as he had. The old hermit and trapper is gone but not forgotten.

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