ABOUT JAY WALLJASPER
A frequent visitor to BMC over the past twenty years, Walljasper edits the BMC Commons e-magazine and website. Editor of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, Walljasper has written widely on political, social and cultural subjects for publications ranging from The Christian Science Monitor and Washington Monthly to Mother Jones and Alternet. Former editor of the Utne Reader and Contributing Editor to National Geographic Traveler, he is also the author of The Great Neighborhood Book. He lives in Minneapolis.
For many residents and conference-goers, Blue Mountain Center stands apart from the rest of the world — a place whose scenic beauty, natural rhythms, possibilities for reflection and opportunities for deep conversation open new doors within.
But BMC is very much a part of the real world situated in Hamilton County, New York (pop. 4700). Although bigger than Rhode Island, this is the most sparsely settled county east of the Mississippi with 2.8 people per square mile. For comparison, Manhattan sports 72,000 people per square mile. Indian Lake (pop. 1350) is the biggest town and Lake Pleasant (pop. 780) is the county seat. There are no stoplights anywhere in the county.
Native Americans moved through these parts for 10,000 years but there are few signs that Mohawk or other Haudenosaunee people (also known as Iroquois) actually lived in the vicinity, reports Eliza Darling, the county’s official historian. White settlers first trickled in around the time of the American Revolution. Hamilton County was organized in 1816 and named for Alexander Hamilton but was not given official status until 1847 due to its meager population. Until the 1930s it existed under the threat of being dissolved into neighboring counties.
This is one of the wildest spots east of the Rocky Mountains. Nearly 90 percent of the county is covered with forest, says Peter Bauer, director of Protect the Adirondacks, with 2/3 of the land protected in forest preserves. The entire county lies within the boundaries of the Adirondack Park, six million acres encompassing 3,000 lakes and thousands of miles of river and streams set aside by the state of New York in 1892 to “to preserve the exceptional scenic, recreational and ecological value,” according to the New York State Constitution. Bigger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined, the Adirondack park includes both private and public property. (You know you’ve entered the park when traffic signs suddenly turn from white-on-green to yellow-on-brown.)
Adirondack Park remains one of America’s wild wonders, even though it is within a day’s drive for 84 million people stretching from northern Virginia to Nova Scotia to Cleveland.
Not surprisingly, tourism is central to Hamilton County’s economy along with health care and social services. “Tourist jobs for local residents are seasonal, low-paying and dependent on good weather and a strong economy,” explains Darling, who grew up in the Adirondacks, moved away to London, Washington and New York City for study and work before returning because she “missed the wilderness”. Darling, who holds a PhD in anthropology, patches together a livelihood working three jobs locally along with teaching online courses for John Jay College in New York City.
That’s not an option for most jobseekers here, especially younger people, which is why Hamilton County is losing population faster than any other in the state. (Overall, 44 of the 52 Upstate counties posted losses between 2010 and 2017.) The number of people under 19 in the county has declined 30 percent since 2000, which has led to two local schools closing. Only five public schools remain in the 1800 square-mile county, which deters young families from moving staying here.
Hamilton County is 97 percent white, with Irish and German as the largest ancestry groups. Latinos make up 1.1 percent of the population and African-Americans 0.7 percent. However the Adirondack Museum just outside Blue Mountain Lake highlights an unexpected element of the county’s African-American history with a set of luxury golf clubs handcrafted by Dewey Brown, who owned and was the golf pro at the still-existing Cedar River Golf Course and Hotel near Indian Lake from 1947 until his death in 1973. Famed as a golf teacher and designer (Warren G. Harding bought a set of his clubs while president), Brown started as a caddy in New Jersey and was the first African-American member of the PGA until 1934 when he was ejected from the organization, which had not realized he was African-American. He was readmitted in 1965, after the PGA scrapped its “Caucasian clause”. His son took over management of the course after his death.
A silver lining for most areas seeing population decline is cheaper housing, but not in Hamilton County, where the demand for vacation homes keeps real estate prices high. “It’s hard for people to find year-round rental housing,” notes Darling, whose PhD research examines how “rural gentrification” affects blue-collar residents in the Hamilton County town of Raquette Lake.
Despite unstable employment and high housing costs, Darling is struck by the numbers of people who don’t leave. “Many stay out of sheer love: love of home, love of land,” she wrote in Adirondack Life magazine to mark the county’s 200-year anniversary in 2016. “Hamilton County history suggests that its people have an uncanny way of flouting the habitual forecasts of our downfall. Observers have been predicting our community’s extinction for 200 years.”
“At Blue Mountain Center, we aspire to be integrated with our community and the greater Adirondack Park,” says BMC director Ben Strader, who helped create the Adirondack Nonprofit Network and is involved with the local volunteer fire department and the Indian Lake Theater. “We are inspired by the resiliency of our communities, and believe we are a stronger organization when we understand and appreciate this place and the people who live here.”