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Pathways to the past
September 29, 2017

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Lake Placid's economic engine wasn't always recreation and tourism; farming, mining and forestry preceded.

Lake Placid Central School fourth-graders explored these shifts this past year though selecting an object from the collection of the Lake Placid-North Elba History Society and using it as a stepping stone to the past and thoughts about the future. When you think of it, the shifts the town has made over time have been quite profound, and likely climate change will force another shift in emphasis.

The results of the students' work were showcased this past weekend at the society's annual Heritage Day Fair, held at the Lake Placid-North Elba Museum the society operates in the train station on Station Street. The museum is a gem. Along with exhibition of the students' work, the main gallery space features an exhibition based on former town historian Mary MacKenzie's book "The Plains of Abraham" on how the community has developed, from the earliest pioneers who settled here to about the 1920s.

A highlight is the evolution of the postal service in Lake Placid, which began in a storefront located near Mirror Lake. For the people living "downtown" around the Mill Pond, the then-industrial heart of the community, this was a bit of an insult, not to mention the challenge of walking up and down Mill Hill to get their mail.

Then as now, a few of the residents had some important connections, such as Anna Newman, who had been a childhood friend of the U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker in their native city of Philadelphia. Newman and the townspeople living around the Mill Pond developed a petition, which she presented to Wanamaker, and he agreed to allow them to have their own post office. An outcome of her effort was that the lower section of the village in time became known informally as Newman, honoring her efforts, not to mention her eccentric personality.

Newman, who lived out on Bear Cub Road in what is now Heaven Hill Farm, had a bit of a phobia about men. She refused to let any man touch her for any reason, an attitude that was put to the test when she fell off her horse and broke her leg. The doctor came, and she initially wouldn't let him set her leg. It wasn't until the pain became extremely severe would she give in.

Placid did have more than two post offices. There was one out at the Whiteface Inn, another across Mirror Lake at the Lake Placid Club and one, if not the earliest, at the Stage Coach Inn on Old Military Road, the now oldest building in Lake Placid.

Lording over this exhibit is a photo and profile of Mary MacKenzie, an image that no doubt gave the exhibition organizers a bit of the nerves as Mary was a fanatic about getting the facts correct and, ideally, corroborated from multiple sources. She was like a goose on a June bug when it came to attacking a false statement. Lake Placid News columnist Laura Viscome would get near-weekly rebuttals as letters to the editor from Mary, correcting some statement in her column, no matter how slight - corrections that included chapter, verse and great detail on the facts and circumstances of the comment made by Viscome.

Fortunately, Laura plunged on in good cheer, and to the entertainment of the readers, Mary's gleeful and at times sardonic responses continued apace. That said, Mary was a true advocate for the history of our community and was a real mentor to me in my youth. Any child or adult who showed the least interest in history, Mary would invite you to her home and make available the many books, articles and reams of research she'd compiled. Her passion was mirrored by the Lake Placid Central School social studies teachers and Ed Cotter, then site manager of John Brown Farm.

Along with a new exhibition and the presentation of the students' projects, completing the sweep, the historical society has a new president, Patty Clark, and a new director, Courtney Bastian.

"We have a great support structure supporting us with Parmelee Tolkan, Peter Roland and John Huttlinger, along with the other members of our board," said Patty Clark. "I've been on the board for six years. I love the history of Lake Placid and sharing our many programs and activities that involve the community. I believe the historical society matters because it preserves and shares the history of our community, which is unique and very special, and because it's very multi-dimensional as well."

To that end, the museum will again host its popular winter lecture series, its educational programs with the schools, exhibitions at the Lake Placid Public Library and its fall tour on Oct. 13, starting at 5 p.m. Led by Bill Borzilleri and the Adirondack Paranormal Society, this year's theme is ghosts and will include such stops as the Palace Theatre, Heaven Hill Farm and the Cellar at the Alpine Inn, site of the legendary Happy Jack's and, before that, Adams' Funeral Parlor. These tours are grand fun and include food and beverages at the featured establishments, as well as the opportunity to trolley from one locale to another.

"I've been fascinated to learn about the drastic changes Lake Placid's gone through over its history," said Courtney Bastian. "Going from a farming community to mining and then tourism is quite remarkable."

Keeping up is a collaborative process. The historical society works closely with the library, Lake Placid Olympic Museum and Wilmington Historical Society, to name a few.

"We worked jointly with the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society on the project with the school kids," said Guy Stephenson, Wilmington town historian, as he looked wistfully about the museum. "This museum is very nice, very informative, and someday we hope to have something similar in Wilmington."

While Guy contemplated the future, Lake Placid librarian Linda Blair remembered the past back when she worked as a telephone operator while in high school.

"Back then when you picked up the phone, the operator said, 'Number please.' My number was 354J. That was a party line. If you'd pick up the phone and someone else was talking, you had to wait. I worked summers for the phone company. It was a great place to work because the pay was better than any other place in Lake Placid. You learned that you had to be responsible. My worst experience was working relief nights, and I prayed there wouldn't be a fire. There was a couple. You had to go down the whole board, telling the firemen where the fire was. I'd be so scared. My heart was going so fast."

The museum is a great place to visit; best is not all this history is on the walls, as the exhibits spark so many emotions and stories. Go. You'll be glad you did.

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