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At Home in the Adirondacks 2016

Back to the Future

A time capsule from the 1964 World's Fair becomes a family camp

Photograph by Kyle Ford

Photograph by Kyle Ford

In the spring of 1964 a portal into the future opened in Flushing Meadows, Queens. For two six-month seasons, the World’s Fair enthralled millions of visitors with an optimistic vision of better living through science and technology. The space race was in its early days—the Soviet Union had sent the first man into orbit in 1961, an achievement soon matched by the United States—and exhibits like General Motors’ Futurama II promised equally amazing feats of human ingenuity here on Earth: Underwater hotels! Deserts transformed into fertile fields! Road-building robots that would rip through the jungle with laser beams! The home of tomorrow featured appliances that “automatically emerge from bare walls, floors, ceilings as they are needed by the housewife.” (Apparently, evolving gender roles were beyond the scope of imagination.)

Among the crowds that flocked to the international exposition were Carlos and Geraldine Stafford with their three children—Cindy, 17; Deb, 13; and Chuck, 11—on vacation from their home in Black River, near Watertown. Carlos, an engineer for a machinery manufacturer, had once moved the family to Mexico City for a year while helping to set up a paper mill there. But other than visits to Carlos’s parents in Peru, on the northeastern edge of the Adirondack Park, and the odd camping trip at Fish Creek, the Staffords rarely traveled, making the World’s Fair outing especially notable for the kids. “It was the only time I remember being allowed to miss school,” recalls Deb, now 63.

For several days the Staffords toured the fair, snapping photographs of life-size dinosaurs and a giant tire-shape Ferris wheel. But their best memento didn’t arrive until long after they had returned home.

A few months after the fair closed, Carlos got a flyer about the Department of Defense selling a fiberglass-reinforced plastic dome structure that had been used as the Coast Guard pavilion at the World’s Fair. Thirty-eight feet in diameter, with four walls of windows capped with soaring white arched overhangs, it looked like a cross between the Flying Nun’s cornette and a UFO. The architect, Peter Schladermundt, though not as famous as the designers of some of the other fair exhibits—including Eero Saarinen and Philip Johnson—employed a similar futuristic aesthetic with smooth, curving lines.

The Staffords had recently acquired a waterfront parcel on Carry Falls Reservoir, north of Cranberry Lake, as part of their membership in the Little Kildare Club, a 3,800-acre preserve purchased by a group of Watertown professionals in 1962. They had been considering building an A-frame cabin as a family camp, but when Carlos saw the groovy Coast Guard pavilion his plans changed. With a bid of less than $2,000, the structure was his.

For the next several summers the disassembled building sat in storage while the Staffords prepared the homesite. Carlos hired a logger to clear a path to their 11-acre plot, then used a bulldozer to build a gravel road with a small bridge over a brook that he designed himself. Chuck helped his father build the foundation and, after the shell was reassembled, the interior of the camp. The split-level design, which Carlos plotted out on graph paper, incorporated three small bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, dining area and living room in 1,100 square feet. “The paneling was tricky, because nothing is square,” Chuck says.

Meanwhile, Geraldine applied her artistic eye to decorating. including hanging several of her own paintings. She designed a curved table for the kitchen to fit in with the shape of the walls, and chose earth tones for the carpet and furnishings.

In keeping with their repurposed house, Carlos upcycled a cast-iron dryer head from a paper mill as the base of a circular fireplace. He covered it with stones the family scavenged from the property; the hood was fabricated from galvanized steel and then painted copper (real copper was too expensive). Another beach find—a gnarled hunk of driftwood—formed the base of a glass coffee table. And, since the camp was off the grid, Carlos used some Western Union telegraph batteries and a generator to provide electricity. (He later added a windmill and, in 2004, his children installed solar panels.)

When they were finished, the Staffords had an Adirondack camp like no other. “It was like [we were] the Jetsons,” says Deb, and when a neighboring family put up a log cabin, “they were like the Flintstones.”

Nearly every weekend from Mother’s Day to Columbus Day the Staffords drove the two-plus hours to the Glass Camp, as they called it. Their stays took on a familiar rhythm: fishing for bass, walleye and perch in the reservoir or heritage brook trout in Kildare Pond; catching crayfish in the “crick”; or picking blueberries on Radio Island, a few hundred feet across the shallow water from their sandy beach. As the summer wore on, the water level would gradually lower until, by September, they could walk nearly all the way to the island.

The reservoir had been formed in the 1950s, when Niagara Mohawk Power Company dammed the Raquette River for hydroelectric power and flooded the town of Hollywood. The Staffords occasionally found bits from bridles and other remnants of the old settlement washed ashore.

At night they’d have bonfires and watch the stars or play Monopoly or spades at the dining table. There was no television, just a radio with an eight-track cassette player. Wildlife visits were frequent. One memorable encounter had a black bear standing on its hind legs and looking in the window. Geraldine walked right over and knocked on the glass, scaring it away.

As the kids became adults and started families of their own, the camp remained a constant in their lives. “We had a lot of discussions growing up that this was a part of us and that whoever we married would have to love it too,” says Deb.

Geraldine passed away in 2002; Carlos followed two years later. The three siblings inherited the property, along with its upkeep. They take turns using the camp and arrange work weekends when everyone pitches in on needed maintenance. “The roof is fiberglass, making it very temperature sensitive,” says Chuck. “It’s constantly moving. You can hear it in the morning and at night. Every year we have roof repairs.”

Despite the work involved in maintaining their unusual camp, the siblings recognize what a gift their parents gave them. “I was reflecting on how families disperse and grow apart when older generations pass on,” says Deb. “I saw it in our family when my grandparents died. We no longer made our regular visits to aunts, uncles and cousins. This might have happened with the three of us after we lost our parents had we not had the camp. The camp is the glue that keeps us together and close. Priceless.” 

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