Native Son

The making of an Adirondack man

Ross French, on left, in a log-sawing competition in the early 1970s

Last December, when it was time for our infant son to meet Santa Claus, there was no ques­­tion where my husband, Matt, and I would make the introductions: we drove an hour south from our High Peaks home to the Bolton Land­ing firehouse, where Matt had con­­­ferred with the man in red every year of his youth.

The only other time I had been in the firehouse was exactly three years earlier, on a more somber occasion—the post-funeral reception for Matt’s grandfather, Ross French, who died a few weeks after his 80th birthday.

This time, as we ascended to the holiday party, we lingered over the photographs lining the stairwell, searching out Ross’s—Pop’s—face, with its strong chin and soulful blue eyes. He served as a volunteer fireman here for 52 years, as chief for nine of them; he was also a member of the volunteer rescue squad for 47 years and a town councilman for 16. He even lived in this building, with his wife, Rita, and sons, Greg and Verne, from 1958 to 1968. (In the days before 911 dispatchers, someone had to man the building at all hours, ready to sound the alarm in a crisis.) In 2004, a granite bench commemorating his half a century of service was dedicated in Bolton’s Rogers Memorial Park.

The rest of Pop’s resumé reads like a punch list for the Adirondack man: Lum­­­­berjack? Check. Ice harvester? Check. Ice fisherman? Check. Hunter? Big time.

Ross was born in 1929 in a house on Federal Hill, one of eight children of Harry and Bertha French, whose Bolton roots went back to the early 1800s. Har­ry was on the crew that built the road over Tongue Mountain.

Ross was an athlete at Bolton Central School, but he dropped out in his junior year, indignant over the unequal treatment he—a “hill boy”—had re­ceived when he was caught smoking. He was kicked off the basketball team, while “town boys” caught committing the same offense were not. He joined the Army, serving four years in Japan and the Korean War.

He returned to Bolton in 1952 with a stubborn case of malaria and shrapnel in his leg. That same year he married a 19-year-old local girl, Rita Reichenbach. After job-hopping for a few years, he settled into a career with the Department of Transportation, where he be­came a foreman.

He often brought Rita little gifts he had found during his day—a daisy or a fragrant sprig of wildflowers. He took the family on picnics at the site of a great blue heron rookery near Tongue Mountain; on long early-even­ing drives looking for deer in the fields; and on summer bushwhacks through his fall hunting grounds. He taught his grandchildren how to look for landmarks that would help them find their way in the woods and how to spot where deer had rubbed their ant­lers on the trees. When someone toppled the headstones in the old Wardboro cemetery, he took Matt out to help right them.

Sadly, I only met Ross a few times be­fore a stroke, in 2006, left him wheelchair-bound and mostly mute. But I have come to understand that many of the things I love about Matt were inherited from his Pop: his knowledge of and res­pect for na­ture, his sense of responsibility to his family and community. His goodness.

On our second date, Matt took me on the same hike he had done with his grandfather. I was a California city girl, fresh from grad school in Manhattan, and I thought my stay in the foothills of the Adirondacks—and our relationship—would last the length of my summer internship at the local newspaper.

What I didn’t realize was that I was walking into my future—that these mountains would become my home, our home. That, here, we would have a son who would hike before he took his first steps.

There was no clear trail to follow that summer day in Bolton, but Matt knew the way. His Pop had shown him.

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