An Adirondack Icon Revealed
Old Mountain Phelps was not the backwoods bumpkin you think he was. His recently discovered writings—plus new accounts from his kin—show the quirky Keene Valley guide had an agile mind and an eloquent voice
by Annie Stoltie
There’s a hunk of moss-dappled granite near Baxter Mountain’s Beede Lane trailhead in Keene Valley. You might prop an awkward daypack beside it or lean against it to shake a pebble from a boot. Most folks wouldn’t think to climb it, with Baxter’s summit’s sweet valley views just a mile or so up. But for 38 years this boulder has dominated Shirley Putzig’s daydreams.
Today, 81-year-old Putzig, seated in a Liverpool, New York, dining room, shuts her eyes and remembers her childhood perch where so many summers she’d look down on her grandmother’s farm, then up to the High Peaks that ﬁlled the sky. “I would like to make one more trip there,” she says. “See if my rock’s still there.”
It takes some imagination to conjure the Adirondacks in Putzig’s Syracuse suburb. She was raised in Liverpool village and since 1967 has lived in this neighborhood of pinched-together family homes off a four-lane artery of Interstate 90. On this side of town it’s strip malls interrupted by Dunkin’ Donuts, McDonald’s and Domino’s. Inside the house where Putzig sits, cushy rose carpet coats the floors. Through a window is a patchwork of swimming pool–size yards. On Putzig’s property there’s a sturdy old ﬁr tree that her grandmother Edna gave her as a sapling from the Essex County family farm. Putzig snips the balsam boughs and places them beneath her pillow to “smell the smell of the woods,” she says.
Putzig inherited a handful of artifacts from her Keene Valley kin, including a pack basket her great-great-grandfather wove that she wore as a kid trekking up and down Baxter, ﬁlling it with blueberries and thimbleberries. Also, a curly maple Boston rocker he made for his seventh child—Putzig’s great-grandmother—Luna, named for the full moon that shone the night she was born. She got Luna’s oak leaf–embossed wedding band too. But it wasn’t until Putzig’s dad’s death in 1992 that she read a note he’d left, directing her to protect what she’d ﬁnd in a safe-deposit box in a Liverpool bank. Here, she discovered a cache of yellowed hand-scrawled papers. Overwhelmed by losing her parents and brother within a decade, she says she stuffed the papers in a shoe box and tucked it in a closet. “I didn’t think too much about it,” she admits. “I didn’t realize at ﬁrst what I had.”
What she had was a 172-page collection of her great-great-grandfather’s observations on Adirondack natural history; his poems, short stories, religious theories, letters and weather data. She had the rare writings of Orson Schoﬁeld Phelps, aka legendary guide Old Mountain Phelps, who named Skylight, Basin, Saddleback, Haystack and Dial. Phelps slashed the ﬁrst trail up Mount Marcy 150 years ago, made plenty of ﬁrst ascents and paths over Great Range peaks, and led an esteemed crew of 19th-century intellectuals above the forests, into the clouds. Putzig had an extraordinary piece of Adirondack history.
If you’ve read anything about the Adirondacks, if you’ve hiked its mountains just a little, you’ve probably heard of Old Mountain Phelps, who in the mid-1800s settled in Keene Flats, today’s Keene Valley. At the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, in Williamstown, Massachusetts, you can see Phelps as Winslow Homer did in his 1875 oil painting Two Guides, toting a pack basket, pointing in the distance alongside colleague Harvey Holt. At the Adirondack Mountain Club’s Johns Brook Lodge, in the High Peaks Wilderness Area, a photograph of Phelps hangs on the wall, an alpine guru presiding over his disciples. He served as chief guide to Verplanck Colvin, who did the ﬁrst topographical survey of the Adirondack Mountains and pushed for the creation of the Adirondack Park. Phelps also ﬁgured big in popular 20th-century North Country texts: Seneca Ray Stoddard devoted much of his “Keene Flats” chapter to the guide in his 1874 The Adirondacks: Illustrated. Charles Dudley Warner proﬁled him—and made him a celebrity—in his 1878 Atlantic Monthly essay “The Primitive Man”; chapter 33 of Alfred Lee Donaldson’s 1921 A History of the Adirondacks, Volume 2, is called “Old Mountain Phelps.” The region’s early chroniclers were fascinated by the quirky man with the gnarly Donegal beard and questionable hygiene, his twangy high-country vernacular and inﬁnite knowledge of woodcraft and the wild, mostly untrammeled country—not just the landscape, but the critters that swam the deepest creeks and the flora that clung to the loftiest crags. But what gave the elﬁn guide dimension and complicated his learned friends’ desire to treat him as anthropological case study was Phelps’s scholarship.
Some writers described him as lazy, misunderstanding his long, silent breaks on a summit or beside a brook—one account has him whispering lovingly to the Opalescent—as an unwillingness to work. Beyond delivering customers to a destination, traditional Adirondack guides were hired to stoke the ﬁre, boil the coffee, cook the game, make the lean-to livable. Perhaps if Phelps ditched his camp-keeping duties to sit off by himself, as some complained, he was meditating, considering religion, maybe even inventorying his surroundings for what was probably the ﬁrst Adirondack all-taxa project.
Phelps made careful study of the literature that trickled to his hand-built home near today’s Phelps Brook up Beede Lane. He had a regular audience with Keene Flats’ distinguished residents, such as ministers Horace Bushnell and Joseph Twichell. Then there was his allegiance to politician and editor Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, a left-leaning weekly that held abolitionist views, published Tennyson’s poetry and, for a time, employed Karl Marx as a European correspondent. About Phelps’s devotion to the paper, Donaldson wrote, “It became his Bible. He not only read it; he soaked and wallowed in it, and then oozed Greeleyism to lard the lean understandings of his associations.” In great-great-granddaughter Shirley Putzig’s possession is a letter, dated April 1858, from Greeley to Phelps, in which the former thanks his biggest fan on behalf of the Tribune’s proprietors and himself, and asks the guide “to accept some of their publications as a testimonial of their gratitude.”
Inspired at his writing desk, pen in hand, Phelps turned off the “a schozzlin,” “callerating,” “up-h’istedness” and “speckerlating” that dominated his guide-speak—though he did write a column for The Essex County Republican called “Speckerlations”—and, despite rudimentary spelling, crafted sophisticated prose on the environment, human nature and spirituality.
Putzig’s isn’t the only Old Mountain Phelps collection that’s emerged. Blue Mountain Lake’s Adirondack Museum has one letter that Horace Bushnell wrote to Phelps in 1868. Another—22 pages of Phelps’s mostly topographical description of the Adirondacks—was purchased from a dealer in 1990 by Bill Healy, an Albany-based antiquarian-book collector, historian and writer. Two years later Purple Mountain Press published that manuscript with Healy’s thoughtful analysis as The High Peaks of Essex: The Adirondack Mountains of Orson Schoﬁeld Phelps, now out of print. It’s just a portion of a draft of a book that Stoddard mentioned in his Adirondacks Illustrated: “[Phelps] has written a voluminous treatise on the Adirondack lakes and mountains, trees, birds, beasts, etc., which shows the close observer and enthusiastic student of nature, and which will contain much valuable information when, as promised, it is given to the public.”
As in Healy’s copy of Phelps’s work, Putzig’s includes the author’s edits throughout—phrases interjected, words slashed (Marcy is systematically replaced with “Tahawus,” the name poet Charles Fenno Hoffman gave the state’s highest peak a month after Ebenezer Emmons christened it for Governor William Learned Marcy). But Putzig’s manuscript is more than 40 pages longer than Healy’s and includes exhaustive detail on waterways, storms (what caused which mountain slides, the great flood of 1830), vegetation (the varieties of mosses, a patch of rhododendron near the base of Mount Dix) and wildlife (no moose or beavers, but lynx, cougars, all sorts of snakes and other creatures). Sadly, much of the ink, which covers every bit of space, front and back, of each eight-and-a-half-by-14-inch piece of paper, has faded to a grape Kool-Aid color, adding to the challenge of translating Phelps’s ribbonlike script. The same goes for the rest of Putzig’s stash: ﬁve pages on the region’s earliest settlers and a 12-page piece on the elements and minerals, both possibly meant for the Adirondack treatise. There are a number of light vignettes: one describes what happened when “moose hunter” and guide Harvey Holt boiled loon eggs for his ﬁshing companions; another is set “on the southern slap of the Adirondacks,” about a mother snooping on her daughter as she’s courted by a “verry pios [sic] ﬁne young man.” There’s also Phelps’s poem “Mountain Song,” a log of precipitation in Keene Flats (likely research requested by Verplanck Colvin) and more than 70 pages on religion, most within the context of nature. Putzig plans to bequeath this collection to a museum where the iconic guide’s writings can be preserved and made available to the public.
The newly discovered Phelps papers are something, for sure, but what their author’s great-great-granddaughter has to say is another considerable contribution to the Adirondack archives. Shirley Putzig’s last trip to the valley was to attend her grandmother Edna Beede Beahan’s November 1973 funeral. Realizing it was the end of an era, she says, “I sat on my rock and I cried my heart out. I thought about Mountain [as the family calls Phelps], looked at his mountains, listened to the woods.”
Beginning in the 1930s Putzig also listened to the chatter on the porch of her family’s Keene Valley farmhouse. This was her great-grandmother Luna Phelps Beede’s simple, two-story wooden home that she shared with her husband, Charlie Beede—a renowned guide and close friend of Luna’s brother, Ed, considered by some a more accomplished guide than his dad, Old Mountain Phelps. After Charlie’s death, in 1933, Luna lived in the house with her grown children: Edna, whose husband had left long before, and bachelor Alan “Baddy” (as a child he was particularly naughty and refused to milk the cows). Inside was a wood-burning iron stove for heat and cooking, and kerosene lamps to illuminate the rooms at night. A privy and henhouse were out back; running water coursed from a spring on the property.
It was Putzig’s Shangri-La—the destination for her family at Easter, when they’d help at the farm’s sugar bush, and all summer long, after the school year wrapped. At the Keene Valley homestead Putzig slept with her parents and younger brother, Douglas, in the “tenant house”—a tin-roofed, weathered structure across a meadow from the farmhouse. Old Mountain Phelps had built this home for his wife and kids, though it originally sat on land a half-mile or so down the road, owned by the Lowrie family. The story goes that the Lowries tolerated the clan of 10 as squatters, with the provision that the house be removed upon Phelps’s death. Sure enough, in 1905, a team of horses hauled the place up twisty Beede Lane.
In Putzig’s time the Beede land was still an operational farm with a couple of barns, pig sties, Guernseys yoked with heavy bells to spook the bears, and northern spy and softball-size yellow transparent apple trees. The land was cleared enough to allow, from the porch, sweeping views of the Great Range. “At night,” remembers Putzig, “it was almost like you could reach up and grab a star.”
What she learned during porch time, after chores were ﬁnished, as Luna, Edna, Baddy and her parents rocked and laughed over locals—they’d say, “There’s a lot of odd jiggers in the valley,” recalls Putzig—was that Mountain was her hero. “Mother said I had a Phelps nose,” she says. “I’d always say, ‘I’m proud of it, Mom.’ I wish I could have known him. He’s where I got my love of nature and animals. I’ve got a lot of Mountain in me.”
Even Phelps’s “Mountainisms” were adopted by his family. Today his handles for the valley’s creatures are still on the tip of Putzig’s tongue. She says geese were “honkinflappers”; frogs, “croakers”; crows, “gossips with wings”; bees, “bumble-buzzers”; blue jays, “peelicks”; owls, “hooters”; chipmunks and squirrels, “skitterypups”; woodchucks, “gudgers”; porcupines, “porkypetes”; raccoons, “bandits”; foxes, “chicken thieves”; cows, “hornyaks”; and hornyaks in a mountain pasture, “side-hill clinchers.”
Putzig’s grandmother Edna relayed Phelps’s vision that someday “boats with wings would fly”; the purpose of Mountain’s trademark beard was “to keep varmints from biting in the summer and keep him warm in the winter”; that he loathed litter on peaks, particularly his beloved Mount “Mercy”; that after ﬁnishing his soup and salad at what was, possibly, a St. Huberts Inn banquet, he balked at the lobster main course, saying, “I drank yer dishwater an’ I ate yer grass, but I’ll be derned if I’ll eat yer bug!” Though he is celebrated for leading the ﬁrst women to ever scale Marcy, in 1850, he called the subsequent fashion-obsessed, high-heel-wearing ladies he was hired to guide “dern city fools.” Messing with urban folks became a pastime: Phelps once hung an old alarm clock on a fence post along the trail up Baxter. He told his clients he’d hung it up, relays Putzig, “so the porkypetes knew when it was time to go to bed.”
There was lots of action on the Beede farmhouse porch: according to Putzig, in the 1950s Norman Rockwell, pipe in mouth, visited the farm to sketch Mount Marcy for Life magazine. “When he told Gram [Edna] he was a painter and asked if it was all right to sit on the porch to work, she said, ‘Yes, and while you’re at it you can paint the house.’” Great-grandmother Luna recounted denying a president (most likely then New Jersey–governor Woodrow Wilson, who visited friends in St. Huberts in 1912), entry into her home. After hiking Baxter, he and his party stopped at the house, at the trailhead, and asked for a drink of water. “She gave them a drink,” says Putzig, “but insisted they stay on the porch on account of his being in the wrong party.”
Putzig remembers Luna’s crisp, high-collared white blouses with puffy sleeves, her white shawl, long skirts and high-button shoes. “She’d rock on the porch keeping time with her cane,” she says. She disliked “dungarees—she’d say they weren’t ladylike as she’d thump her cane on the porch.” Putzig, who was 12 when Luna died in 1941, recalls the funeral on the Beede farmhouse porch. During the service, she says, “not a leaf was stirring.” But as soon as it ended, Luna’s favorite oak tree, beside the porch, “shook, as though it was saying goodbye.”
So much family history was imparted by Edna and Luna, so little by Putzig’s father, Charles Beahan, who had grown up on the family farm, attended SUNY–Plattsburgh, then Syracuse University and later taught business at Liverpool High School. “He was a private man, he didn’t say much,” says Putzig. On trips to his Adirondack homeland he’d ﬁsh for trout in the Ausable River and Heart Lake. He once told Putzig, “You can learn more along a river than you can in college.”
In person, Beahan might have been silent about his roots, but, angered by some writers’—especially Warner’s “Primitive Man”—and townsfolks’ comments that his great-grandfather was shiftless and unaccomplished, he didn’t hold back in an essay published in Oliver W. Winch’s 1974 Wilmington of the Adirondacks: A Brief History. Beahan cited Russell M. L. Carson’s Peaks and People of the Adirondacks, who wrote, “The period, 1849–1869, may be called the Phelps Period with propriety, because Old Mountain Phelps had the greatest influence on the mountaineering activities of those two decades. During this period … under the influence of Phelps, mountain climbing began to be a popular pastime with summer vacationists.… He was a great guide because, in addition to a guide’s equipment of woodcraft and knowledge of topography, he had the soul of a philosopher and poet and a ﬁne appreciation of the beauties and sublimities of nature. With the skill of an artist, he displayed all the wonders of the mountains to the appreciative tourist. To Phelps, ‘Mercy,’ as he called it, was the chief mountain of the globe, and his love for it amounted to worship. Probably no guide in all Adirondack history loved the peaks and his profession as he did.”
Beahan continued his defense, describing Phelps’s craftsmanship as a furniture maker, pack-basket weaver, builder of Keene Valley’s ﬁrst schoolhouse, and his role as the ﬁrst mail-carrier of the hamlet’s post ofﬁce. And as ﬁnal testimonial to Mountain’s character, Beahan wrote of his great-grandfather’s faith: “He saw God in every sunrise and in every sunset.… To his ears the tinkling of a clear mountain stream produced a symphony no composer could write. To his eyes there was a majesty that no words could express when he saw the wild geese winging their way southward in the fall. When he went to his eternal rest on April 14, 1905, at the age of eighty-eight, he fully expected to see more beautiful sunrises and sunsets among other ranges of mountains which he hoped he would learn to love as he loved his own Adirondacks.”
Nowadays, at putzig’s boulder, the woods are thick with the conversations of peelicks, hooters and croakers, but the forest has crept up and around the farm, erasing its alpine skyline. The Runyon family—descendants of famed mountaineer John Case and of the Taylors, who ﬁrst established Keene Valley’s Rivermede Farm and preached at its Congregational church—owns this acreage and, unlike many private landowners, permits public access across the property to Baxter Mountain’s historic red trail.
The Beede farmhouse still stands, renovated in 1979: the place was gutted, a caved roof replaced, electricity and indoor plumbing installed, a garage added. A clawfoot tub was brought over from the tenant house, where a pipe drained it out a hole in the wall (likely at Phelps’s wife’s insistence, as he’s famous for saying, “Soap is a thing I hain’t no kinder use for. I don’t believe in this eternal sozzlin’.”). Anne Runyon Hurd and her toy Schnauzer, Udo, live here now, tend to the land and respect its colorful past. Hurd keeps photographs of Baddy and Edna throughout her home, and Edna’s apron hangs in the kitchen. Against the advice of local carpenters the tenant house was saved too, remodeled in the 1980s into a retirement pad for Hurd’s parents, John and his late wife, Honor Case Runyon. Both buildings have morphed in modern ways, but the foundations of Old Mountain Phelps and his kin’s domestic lives remain.
On a recent drizzly autumn saturday Shirley Putzig, after months of poor health, uses a cane to push herself up the old Beede farmhouse steps. She waited almost four decades for this pilgrimage because, she says, “I couldn’t bear to go back without Gram being here.” She never thought she’d stand on this porch again, never thought she’d smell this smell of the woods again. She can’t make it up the trail to her rock; Luna’s oak beside the porch is gone; Mount Marcy and her entourage are concealed by new growth and a paper-color sky. But that doesn’t matter. Anne Runyon Hurd hands her Edna’s apron and says, “This belongs to you.”