Voices from the Adirondack Past
by Niki Kourofsky
Forty years ago this month the North Country lost its memory. Or, at least, its most prolific memory keeper, Marjorie Lansing Porter, who died in Elizabethtown at 82. Fortunately, the Champlain Valley native didn’t leave us empty-handed—she donated a treasure trove of materials from her lengthy career as historian, journalist and folklorist to the State University of New York (SUNY) Plattsburgh. At the heart of the collection are more than 450 sound recordings taped between 1941 and 1967, capturing songs and stories from around the Adirondack region.
And now, thanks to a three-year project by communication studies professor Timothy Clukey, these voices from the past are easily accessible. Anyone can tune in to the restored and digitized recordings at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Feinberg Library Special Collections just by wandering in the door during regular hours and taking a seat at the archive’s audio station. There you can sample folk songs from pioneer Grandma Delorme or tales from early lumber camps, tanneries and mines.
I took a turn at the station last week and spent an hour with a handful of colorful North Country characters, some born before the Civil War. Amos Blood, an octogenarian from Ticonderoga, recounted Revolutionary War stories and a song passed down from his grandfather, who served with Ethan Allen. Stagecoach driver Albert Lewis complained of the punishing treatment horses endured on early trips through rugged terrain. And Gay Richardson, born to the back country, spoke of snagging 160 trout in one day in 1892.
The most entertaining track I came across was the 1945 back-and-forth between surveyor Lem Merrill and Judge Brewster, of Essex County. In it they mock Verplanck Colvin as a “pretender”—a PR man who was “more or less a failure” as a scientist. They also take jabs at each other, bickering like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show‘s balcony, while giving us the skinny on decades of Adirondack history.
The Feinberg Library’s well indexed collection also includes boxes of manuscripts, notes, letters and photographs. It’s a goldmine for a researcher—and a pleasant romp through the hills and valleys of regional lore.