December 2009

From the Archives: Ambushed

Did hero worship trump history at Lake Placid’s John Brown Farm?

Circa 1859 lithograph from the Library of Congress

The proof is in the pudding, and by 1977 Orin Lehman, New York’s Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, had seen enough to prove his point. Not every historic site could tell its story. Some needed help. More signs, more interpretation, context. When historic sites like painter Frederic Church’s Hudson Valley estate, or the family home of Revolutionary War hero Nicholas Herkimer or George Washington’s headquarters at Newburgh got better visitors’ facilities with more interpretation, attendance perked right up. And wasn’t this the point? To get more people interested? To deepen their appreciation of the vivid, living history in their own backyard?

The farmhouse of the fabled abolitionist John Brown had been a state historic site since 1896. Various agencies had managed it. Lehman’s outfit (henceforth known as Parks) inherited it from the state Department of Education in 1966. The Bureau of Historic Sites, which oversaw the 34 historic sites under Parks’ wide wing, considered it a plum. Alone among Parks’ many places, Brown’s home in the Adirondack hamlet of North Elba, near Lake Placid, hewed to its original 244-acre footprint. And more than any other state-run museum, it offered a singular and vivid opportunity to explain the origins of the Civil War.

A quick refresher: In 1859, Brown, a militant abolitionist, tried to capture a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. He hoped to provoke a general uprising among blacks. He wanted to liberate slaves with an interracial guerrilla army. It was a holy war; he was God’s man. His gambit failed, and after a stepped-up trial on charges of treason, Brown was hanged. Yet a victory of sorts emerged from his defeat: Brown’s trial and execution so en­grossed and polarized the nation some historians credit him with hastening the coming of the Civil War, which resulted in universal emancipation in 1865.

All this should have made his farm one of the most compelling, charismatic historic sites in New York. Yet the plum remained out of reach and in some ways out of sight. Parks historians firmly felt that Brown’s key role in this struggle—and indeed, the antislavery struggle itself—was insufficiently ex­plained. The signage was regarded as woefully inadequate. By preservationist standards a century of changes to the place was mostly for the worse. Visitors could admire the farmhouse, the barn and a fine statue of a towering John Brown standing beside a black youth clad in rags of bronze, along with the plain gray headstone that bore the name of Brown’s grandfather, Brown himself and three of his sons, Frederick, Oliver and Watson. But that, along with several other lesser-known memorials, was pretty much it.

Caretaker Ed Cotter had been amassing information on Brown’s North Elba residency for decades and gave a solid and respectful house tour, but the historians at Parks envisioned a fuller, more inclusive, rich-in-context reading of Brown’s life than Cotter’s personalist take. As it stood, a visitor could leave John Brown’s farm with some knowledge of Harpers Ferry, but much more wasn’t coming through. A graveyard, a farmhouse and a statue comprised a shrine; the John Brown Farm billed itself as a historic site. Taxpayer dollars supported it as a historic site. Visitors had a right to expect it to live up to that. Did it deliver history as well as hagiography, illumination along with aura?

In 1977 Parks decided that New York owed more to visitors than a grassy stroll, a stirring view, a martyr’s sacred shrine. People deserved to know about Brown’s life: why Brown moved here, and where this North Elba sojourn fit in the arc of his ca­reer. Visitors might have learned from the caretaker that Brown came to help black farmers who had been given land by an up­state white philanthropist, Gerrit Smith. But who was this Smith? Why did he donate land? Where was the land, and who were the grantees? Who came, who stayed and what had any of this to do with John Brown? For Parks, these missing pieces were an affront. In the inclusive spirit of the ’76 Bicentennial with its emphasis on people’s history, Parks aimed to unpack the links between Brown’s time in the Adirondacks and the struggle for black rights in antebellum New York—to spell out what the radical reformer Gerrit Smith was up to when he gave 120,000 acres of his Adirondack property to 3,000 African-American New Yorkers in 1846. Back then a black New Yorker who hoped to vote had to prove he owned $250 in real property (white voters faced no such requirement). Smith’s land giveaway aspired to make landholders out of impoverished blacks, voters out of landholders and self-sufficient farmers out of an urban underclass toiling in paralyzing poverty. While the great majority of Smith’s grantees (as they were called) never moved north, some did. And among the fledgling settlements they formed was a colony in North Elba, known locally as Timbucto.

That’s what got John Brown to these woods. He wanted to participate in what Gerrit Smith called “a scheme of justice and benevolence.” He liked its bold agrarian agenda. And if he could use a secluded Adirondack farm as incubator for refining his longtime plan to organize his “Subterranean Passage-Way” for mountain-based-runaways-turned-guerrilla-fighters-against-slavery, so much the better.

Parks argued this back story was invisible. People had no way to glean it from what they saw on site. Missing: Brown’s alliances with black abolitionists and his commitment to an interracial farm community. Missing: an explication of how his stay in North Elba fit in with his long-term antislavery career. Brown waged war on racism and slavery on many fronts before he hijacked an arsenal. He tried to organize an army of black “minute men” in Springfield, Massachusetts, after the 1850 passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. He battled bloodily with proslavery border ruffians in Kansas. He helped numberless fugitives to freedom. These were all struggles in his larger war on slavery, and when he claimed a role in Gerrit Smith’s innovative effort to make antislavery voters out of black New Yorkers by gifting them with land, he fought slavery again. This was the context Parks aimed to introduce.

And something else about the place needed work. As that rarity in northern New York, a perfectly intact antebellum farmstead, the site was an ideal place to explore the daily workings of local subsistence agriculture. Thanks to the Brown family’s prolific letter writing, Parks could mine a mountain of ar­chival data about farm life at this time. (Henry Thompson to John Brown Jr.: “May 7th. Ground frozen hard. Rooster froze to death last night. Ice still on Lake Placid.” Ruth Brown Thompson to John Brown Jr.: “Very dry here. The fire … has burned all of the grain and nearly all of 44 bushels that Henry sowed on the new land by the river.”) Could the farm’s working profile be restored? Could more of the original features—fields, fences, garden, outbuildings, woodpile and, perhaps, most of all, that sense of isolation Brown so cherished—be revived?

In the mid-1970s the Bureau of Historic Sites made its pitch to Parks Commissioner Lehman, giving stress to Lake Placid’s role as a tourist destination for the 1980 Winter Olympics and the uptick of interest in the farm that would surely follow. Lehman learned about the skimpy interpretation there and its distinction as the one state-managed historic site whose story boasted a close connection to the antebellum fight for racial justice. “We wanted to put it in the framework of the national struggle against slavery,” Mark Lawton, a retired historic sites administrator, recalled. “We were trying to get away from these [expletive] dollhouses.” The next year Lehman vested an elated historic sites division with a whopping $650,000 line item to craft an interpretive center worthy of John Brown’s story, to bring the grounds back to something closer to the original look and feel of the place, to deal with an anticipated increase in visitors and beef up staffing so it would not fall to one overburdened soul to serve as caretaker, school-bus greeter, presenter, leaf raker, snow shoveler and keeper of the flame.

With financing in place Parks got cracking. Researchers, geographers, exhibit developers and archaeologists teamed up at Peebles Island, historic sites’ administrative headquarters north of Albany. Landscape historians explored the site to determine which parts of it were ripe for recovery. (Return a pond to a working meadow? Restore the cobbed-up barn?) Primary sources were mined for news of the Brown family’s daily doings and the black settlement that attracted the Browns to North Elba in the first place. Exhibit planners brainstormed uses for the learning center. (Could it hold a research library? Host classes or symposia?) An Albany architecture firm designed a low, woodsy building to be placed near the entrance and sketched footpaths winding toward the house. In October 1977 historic sites director Ed Lynch wrote a Parks administrator, “There has been no discussion or direction as to if it will be done. It shall be done!”

The bluntest summary of what followed was Lawton’s. “We got clobbered. Blindsided like you wouldn’t believe.” “Sabotaged,” recalled Kris Gibbons, a researcher on the project. “Of all the projects I was involved in,” said Lynch, “none came close to the ugliness of this one. Nothing made me more bitter.”

That the memories of these long-retired Parks employees re­main so pungent three decades after the debacle is stunning, but not more so than how quickly it all came tumbling down. From May to July—that’s all it took. Plans, revisions, research monographs, field trips and interagency meetings representing long seasons of teamwork—reviled, challenged, dumped and buried. At Peebles Island the paper rubble fills drawers of file cabinets, consigned to oblivion.

And good riddance to bad rubbish said its foes, North Elbans, environmentalists and summer residents. They worked fast, this grassroots army of self-styled Adirondack Davids, and they worked well, taking on what they deemed a Goliath of an un­comprehending bureaucracy. “Democracy in action,” claimed this army’s fervent, persuasive general, the late North Elba historian Mary MacKenzie. She had reason to be proud. The detonation of a $650,000 locomotive (worth more than $2 million today) was no small derailment. Anti-redevelopment petitions flooded Governor Hugh Carey’s office and the Adirondack Park Agency. Notes of protest packed letter columns in newspapers. Scores of local schoolchildren penned plaintive postcards. Contacted by its friends in North Elba, the John Brown Memorial Association, a national African-American group that organized pilgrimages to North Elba on Brown’s birthday, called the plan to redevelop the farm a “desecration.” Even the New York Times took a swing at Parks and what it called the “overkill” of “historic-site circuses” in general. (“Let’s Leave John Brown’s Body Alone.”) A John Brown descendant in California was “horrified at the idea of chopping up my great-great-grandfather’s farm. Please do everything you can to leave it intact.”

Why the outcry? “Desecration?” What did people think was going to happen? What had they been led to expect?

Massive crowds, to start with. Litter. Six packs. Picnickers. Buses by the mile. Parking lots—“a concrete jungle,” moaned one downstate foe. And why so many toilets? Did the learning center have to be so much bigger than Brown’s home? The farmhouse would be upstaged by its own interpreter. As for plans to add more staff, didn’t longtime superintendent Ed Cotter know as much about John Brown as anyone? Would Cotter lose his job? Cotter, no happy ally of the Parks plan, said farm attendance was in decline and more staff was a waste of money. To him, and to his close friend Mary MacKenzie, the whole thing seemed out of whack, an insult to the spirit of simplicity, frugality and vigilance that characterized Brown’s style. One prominent summer resident fretted over “visitors who have no understanding of the fragile ecology of the High Peaks region.” Worse than the dreaded moss-and-lichen-trompers were visitors who might descend upon the site with an insufficiently respectful attitude—people who came just because they happened to hear the place had “playgrounds, rest rooms and exhibits with popping lights and sound effects, especially mothers and fathers with four screaming children in the back of the car.” These, pronounced MacKenzie in a speech about Parks’ plan to the Lake Placid Garden Club, “are not the kind of people we want at the John Brown Farm.”

How meaningful—how legitimate—were these concerns?

The sense of ownership in John Brown’s home expressed by the town historian was impressive, but the place was a state historic site, not just a local treasure. Parks’ mission was to serve the people of New York, and indeed, all visitors without favor. Public interest in the history of civil rights, abolitionism and the ideological roots of the Civil War was growing. Visits would swell accordingly. Wasn’t this to be encouraged? More visitors would obviously have need of more than two crude outhouses—“overkill” or just good planning? The learning center some claimed would loom so monstrously over the farmhouse would, in fact, be nestled in the trees at the entrance, so far from the farm you couldn’t even see it. As for environmental havoc: nothing in the landscape plan encouraged visitors to camp or wander freely about the property (the same paths that led from learning center to house and graveyard and barn led back again). As for the charge of “desecration”: the 1922 caretaker’s cottage on the east side of the farmhouse already blotted out a good chunk of the vista Brown so loved. Parks would move that cottage closer to the entrance and restore Brown’s view. Crushed stone, not as­phalt, would line the paths leading from the interpretive center to the farmhouse. House, barn, graveyard and the statue were not to be disturbed. “Everything would be pulled back,” a landscape architect recalled. “All we wanted to do—you tell me if this is so bad—was shorten the road. The visitors’ center and the caretaker’s house would be screened by woods.”

But these assurances in meetings, letters and public forums changed no minds. Suspicion only raged, and many bitterly in­voked the new Olympic ski jumps off Route 73. In 1977 the Olympic Games commission erected 70- and 90-meter concrete-and-steel ski jumps to the east of Brown’s farm. “We were promised the towers would be pleasing in appearance, would shade into the environment and would not de­tract from the beauty of the landscape. Now look what we’re stuck with,” MacKenzie reminded the garden club. There was no stopping the construction of those sky-bound extrusions. The ski jumps were a done deal. But if the unsightly towers couldn’t be effaced, something could be done about the next big-ticket state-favored notion that came lurching down the pike. It was Parks’ remarkably bad fortune that its plans for the historic farm so neatly fit that bill.

In the blunt pragmatism of their design and their harsh domination of the landscape, the ski jumps blazoned a painful truth—the historic dependency of Adirondackers on outside interests, and all the reasons, good or bad, local people despaired of that dependency, and fought it when they could. The ski jumps were simultaneously a necessity and a painful reminder of a problematic powerlessness. Nowhere was the view of those structures so stunningly intrusive as it was from John Brown’s front yard. Through the bleary lens of retroactive resentment, state agencies have a way of looking all the same. When Parks spoke of getting the farm back to how it was, locals rolled their eyes. Now? After the ski jumps? Are you kidding?

I never knew a town historian who brought more curiosity and passion to her subject than Mary MacKenzie. She loved research, and she always found her story. She was the first Adirondack historian to dig into the bios of North Elba’s black grantee homesteaders, and the first to put the lie to the stubborn racist insistence in regional histories and many Brown biographies that the North Elba grantees were inept or hopeless farmers. She resolved to claim their history for her community. They were North Elbans; for that alone she’d do them proud, and so she did in her posthumous town history, The Plains of Abraham. But there was something she loved more than history, and that was the public image of her hometown. When she had to choose be­tween honoring her mission as a public historian or protecting that good image against something that might trouble it she did not hesitate. Boosterism prevailed.

Bad enough for a public historian to prejudge the capacity of visitors to appreciate a historic site. Far worse to suggest that some historic sites need not concern themselves with history
at all. That’s what Mary MacKenzie told the garden club that combustible July. The fact was, she said, the life of John Brown had its “indigestible and unpalatable” chapters, and many people, like herself, found his bloody work in Kansas difficult. A history center by definition was bound to take up history. In­evitably, this portion of Brown’s career would be addressed. To what end? Why tell the history at all if it wreaked havoc with an icon? “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” intoned the worldly newsman at the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. MacKenzie was no less insistent. “Better that John Brown and the John Brown Farm remain symbolic.”

So Kansas would have one John Brown, and North Elba would have another.

The dust was still settling when MacKenzie wrote to historic sites director Lynch. It was a friendly note. He was, after all, a Placidian like herself. She realized he was unhappy Parks had killed the project, and she knew his team meant well. Lynch would “continue to believe that the reasons for all this flak are obscure, emotional and based on misunderstanding. And I will have to continue to believe that the State does not understand what this site is all about.” But it was over. She was glad to have met him. And though this was more implied than stated, she hoped they could move on.

As stony as Brown’s headstone was Ed Lynch’s stern response. For MacKenzie’s letter and a history booklet she sent with it, he was thankful. The peace pipe she could keep. “The cancellation of the John Brown Farm redevelopment program was not so much a disappointment as it was a shocking example of a misdirected concert of dissonance. Un­fortunately, the loss is to the New York State Historic Site itself. I fear greatly the reactions of the State Citizenry in the fu­ture when they realize too late the implications of having done nothing with John Brown Farm when the time was right.”


In 2001 Parks installed interpretive panels in the barn about Gerrit Smith and Timbucto. It’s a start. But the kind of cash for a fresh interpretive effort in the offing “when the time was right,” namely, be­tween the ’76 Bicentennial and the 1980 Olympics, is gone. Meantime, the freedom fighter whose face, even now, is too controversial to grace a United States postage stamp, has Americans more in­trigued than ever. Many know Brown through Russell Banks’s novel Cloudsplitter, or David Reynolds’s biography, John Brown, Abolitionist. Some have seen the PBS special on John Brown, or encountered recent scholarship that argues the interracial alliance inspired by Timbucto among Gerrit Smith, John Brown and the black abolitionists set a pioneering precedent for the Civil Rights Movement a hundred years later. This summer, the State University of New York at Potsdam launched an archaeological dig on land where Brown’s friend, the black farmer Lyman Eppes, made his longtime home. And let us not forget that 2009 is the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid.

Brendan Mills, the pleasant, forthright historic site assistant since 2001 (Ed Cotter retired in 1996) says about 65,000 people visit John Brown’s farm every year. And yes, he read the old reports about what almost happened here in 1978. $650,000! Wouldn’t that have been something.… Mills packs as much as he can into his 20-minute house tour but no way can he tell it all. No backward glances, however. The current budget crisis has Parks against a wall. And some sites are getting hammered. At least his is still open six days a week. He counts blessings where he can.

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