February 2013

Hairy Tale

A celebration of Adirondack beards, from classic to creative

Blind Owl Band photograph by Aaron Hobson

Trends come and go, but beards are a recurring theme in Adirondack life and lore—from the shaggy jaw of a backcountry pioneer to the deliberate stubble of a seasoned ski bum. Although a full face of fur might raise eyebrows elsewhere, around here it’s a badge of honor.

The region’s first pinup boy was new kid on the block Samuel de Champlain, who, in the early 17th century, sketched his heroically whiskered self at the heart of a skirmish—winning friends and influencing people on the shores of his future namesake.

Thirtyish years later Father Isaac Jogues, perhaps the first European to visit Lake George, discovered that facial fuzz was not to everyone’s taste when he wound up on the wrong side of a forcible plucking at the hands of his Iroquois captors.

And that wasn’t the area’s only martyred beard. Legend has it that one patriot willingly put his chin on the chopping block in 1775. Disguised as a peddler looking for a shave, he gained admittance to Fort Ticonderoga in advance of Ethan Al­len’s raid. The chap walked away clean-faced and with enough intel to leave the Brits red-faced.

The Golden Age of the hirsute in the Adi­ron­dacks was the 19th century, when bushy-mugged guides personified the wilderness they wandered. In 1874 travel writer and photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard im­mortalized Or­son “Old Mountain” Phelps as “muffled up in an immense crop of long hair and a beard that seems to boil up out of his collar band; grizzley as the granite ledges he climbs, shaggy as the rough-bark cedar.”

Noah John Rondeau, the Hermit of Cold River, took up the tufted torch at the dawn of the 20th century—which coincided with the ascendance of Gil­lette’s revolutionary safety razor. Growing against the barefaced grain, Rondeau cultivated a beard to “rival even Santa Claus at his best,” ac­cording to biographer Adolph Dittmar. In fact, Rondeau did take a turn as the jolly old elf at Wilmington’s Santa’s Workshop during the 1950s.
It was around that same time that cheek-blanket connoisseurs started regrowing their fan base, as whisker wars sprouted up at festivals and field days around the park. In one 1955 Chamber of Commerce contest, Tupper Lake menfolk who refused to let their hair down were forced to buy “shaving permits” at a buck a pop.

A survey of our sidewalks and trails (or a perusal of these pages) quickly proves that beards are still the ultimate Adi­ron­dack accessory—especially when the weather turns ornery. As generations of hardy North Country boys have learned, growing a winter coat is not just fashion sense, it’s common sense.

Brothers of the Bush

Bob Seidenstein photograph by Mark Kurtz

Saranac Lake’s Brothers of the Bush has no bylaws and holds no meetings. The club doesn’t even have entrance requirements. “Our standards are fuzzy,” says longtime member Bob Seidenstein. That means any folks motivated to celebrate facial hair, even those who can’t grow any themselves, are invited to march with the band in the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival parade—usually the group’s only public appearance. Just be ready to carry a banner proclaiming “Bristles Not Missiles” or “Sampson Was Right” or “Support Your Local Fuzz.”

Seidenstein—seen above in the 2010 parade—remembered the brotherhood fondly from the winter carnival parades of his youth. (He says the boisterous bunch mysteriously disappeared sometime in the 1970s.) So, along with Ron Burdick and Hughie McGill, he revived the untrimmed tradition in 2009. Now a couple dozen converts step out every year, and they “usually pick up a few more stragglers” along the way.

Beards, says Seidenstein, are “a great tribute to indolence. There’s not many things where you don’t do anything and you have something great to show for it.” He hasn’t touched a razor for 42 years and he encourages others to “grow it, don’t mow it.”

For those building a new chin nest, Seidenstein concedes that the hardest part is getting over the initial itchy stage. “It can be maddening,” he says. “But you just have to gut it out. This is art we’re talking about, and we all know you have to sacrifice for art.”

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