A Few of Our Favorite Things
A collection of stories. All about our favorite place. All contributed by USLA members. Enjoy!
The Packard Camp
By Will Biddle
Tuberculosis was the Covid-19 pandemic of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It ran rampant in large cities, whose air quality compromised all who lived in them, even the wealthy. Although not highly contagious, doctors of the time suspected it was carried in the spittle of the coughs of the sick. Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau proved it at his laboratory in the village of Saranac Lake.
George R. Packard’s mother-in-law and one of his sister-in-laws were diagnosed with tuberculosis. Sometime in 1901 or ‘02, the two women took the train from Philadelphia to Saranac Lake and became patients of Dr. Trudeau at the Trudeau Sanitarium in Saranac Lake. In the summer of 1903, George and Elizabeth Packard rented a home in Lake Placid so they could visit them.
In 1904, the Upper Saranac Lake Association (USLA) leased and then sold them a property on the north end of Upper Saranac Lake, nestled between Camp Hoioken, owned by George Runkle, one of the owners of the USLA (The Saranac Inn), and Camp Sandanona, owned by the Chandlers. There were probably two buildings on the property: a one story boat house and an ice house. At first the Packards with their children and their staff of Irish maids lived in platform tents. These tents were common throughout the country at the time. They consisted of a level, raised, wood frame platform with the framework of a structure built on top of the platform. There was no sheathing on the walls or on the roof. In the early summer, canvas was pulled tight over the framework and nailed to the framing. After the summer residents went home, the canvas was removed and stored in the boathouse for use the next year.
Despite these primitive sounding conditions, the Packards dressed in formal attire every day and had their meals prepared for them by their staff, who cooked them outside and drew water from the lake.
In the summer of 1905, the Irish maids announced that they would not be returning with their employers the following summer because they heard wild animals outside their tent at night, and they were too afraid to sleep.
George and Elizabeth, therefore, purchased slightly less than two acres from the USLA, between the Chandlers and the Runkles, hired an architect and had a modest camp built. The camp consisted of six bedrooms and a great room: two bedrooms in the Main Cabin along with the great room, two in a separate Sleeping Cabin, plus a two bedroom Maids Cabin. This latter building was to be the first building constructed so that the maids would return with them to the Adirondacks.
According to my first-cousin-once-removed, Mamie Packard Billings Blagden, George and his family (Mamie was their third child) arrived in the summer of 1906 with the construction still underway, but the Maids Cabin was almost completed. Unfortunately, the Packards had only been there a day or two when the Maids Cabin caught fire. As there were more than a dozen adults at camp, including the carpenters, the Packards, and their domestic staff, they formed a bucket brigade and after a short time put out the fire and saved the Maids Cabin.
To remove the odor of burnt wood, its interior walls and ceiling were painted. The staff stayed. There was, of course, no running water or electricity. There were old fashioned china bidets (china bowls in which one could relieve oneself during the night or during inclement weather) and a commode (a chair with the a china bowl under the seat). Food preparation continued to be done outside. Laundry probably was sent out. Kerosine lanterns provided light in the evenings, and every Packard bedroom had a cast iron parlor stove except the livingroom, which had a large masonry fireplace. The windows in the Maids Cabin were ordinary, double-hung with rectangular panes, but the windows in the Main Cabin and the Sleeping Cabin all had triangular and/or hexagonal panes, commonly referred to as diamond-pane windows. The doors lites matched the diamond-pane windows, and there were lots of windows, twenty-five casement windows in the great room alone, and each bedroom in the Sleeping Cabin had eight casement windows. Every Packard bedroom had an exterior door that opened onto a porch. The great room had two gigantic Dutch doors with diamond-panes on the upper half that also opened onto porches. Like most camps of the time, the walls as well as the roofs were shingled in eastern white cedar. The three new buildings were supported on masonry piers about eighteen inches above the ground.
The two buildings for the Packards were completed during the summer of 1906. Earlier, a prefabricated one-room building was erected for the carpenters to sleep in. It probably housed eight carpenters on bunk beds. Like the Maids Cabin it had a simple box stove, but none of the box stoves matched and they varied in quality, indicating they were probably purchased used.
Empowered by the success of their demands, the maids expressed a dissatisfaction with preparing food outside. So by 1909, a kitchen had been added to the back (The front faced the lake.) of the Main Cabin. It has rectangular-pane double-hung windows like the Maids Cabin. One of the bedrooms in the Main Cabin was converted to a diningroom, and a bedroom was added to the far side of the Sleeping Cabin. Also a second floor pagoda was added to the top of the boathouse.
In 1909, George and Elizabeth either rented or allowed George’s older brother Francis to use the camp. Dr. Francis (Frank) and his wife Margaret(Rita), whom he married in 1904, their two girls under the age of three, and their nanny visited Upper Saranac Lake for the first time. Judging from the photographs they took, Frank and Rita very much enjoyed their stay. As George and Elizabeth wanted a larger camp than Camp Hasanoanda, this may have been a subtle, but effective, way of selling their camp. Indeed their photos suggest that George and Elizabeth may have been renting the Runkle camp next door at the time.
Whatever the case, in 1916 Frank and Rita purchased Camp Hasanoanda from George and Elizabeth, who had purchased Camp Hoioken from George Runkle. Sometime, early in the 20th century, one of the Packards named their camp Hasanoanda, after Eli Parker, whose Seneca Indian name was Hasanoanda. Parker was the first Native American appointed to a cabinet post. He was Head of Indian Affairs under President Grant. Parker also was on General Grant’s staff throughout the Civil War. Among Grant’s many aides de camp, Hasanoanda stands head and shoulders above the others in all the pictures.
By 1920, Frank and Rita had four daughters. When in 1926 the Chandler Camp was sold to the Newbolds (Mike Ritchie’s grandparents), Frank and Rita purchased an additional 48-foot-wide strip of land from the Newbolds with the intention of building a separate cabin for themselves. Frank was now 56 and the veteran of not just the Spanish American War, but also of the Great War, where he served as ear, nose and throat surgeon at Pennsylvania Base Hospital No. 10 of the United States (formerly British Hospital No. 16) located on the plateau (falaises) near the French fishing town and seashore resort of Le Treport, France. He had survived multiple bombings of the hospital by the Germans and the more dangerous Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1919, which struck down primarily people in the 25 to 35 age range, frequently killing them within twenty-four hours of showing the first symptoms. More than half the deaths at Le Treport were from the Spanish Flu. Dr. Packard returned home to his practice in Philadelphia just shy of his 49th birthday, and my mother, Frances (Patsy), their fourth daughter, was born nine months later.
In 1926, Frank and Rita embarked on a major remodeling of the original camp.
A pump house was built to house a three-point driven well and the camp received indoor plumbing, consisting of 4½ baths.
The camp was electrified, receiving its first electric refrigerator, which my grandmother always referred to as the icebox.
The Main Cabin was connected to the Sleeping Cabin. The connecting piece housed a bath and a half.
The Maids’ had a small addition housing a bathroom.
A laundry building was added near the kitchen with a huge soapstone triple sink and laundry stove to warm irons. Because this building would be hot and steamy, the one-room building had nine windows! It also contained a bathroom, intended to be used by the caretaker, Charles Plumley, and by other workmen. Charles spent so many nights, sleeping in the prefabricated one-room cabin that the carpenters had slept in, that it became known as the Guides Cabin.
The Launch House was built next to the Boathouse to house their new Cape Code launch.
The Little Cabin, containing a large bedroom and a bathroom was built close to the water, using twelve diamond-pane windows and a large Dutch door with the top half comprised of diamond panes. This cabin also had a fireplace, which has never failed to smoke up the cabin.
A single-car garage was built, utilizing two diamond pane windows removed from the Master bedroom. The windows were replaced with French doors adjacent to the new bathroom in what was now the bedroom wing.
My mother recalls these improvements being made in 1929, so I suspect that it took several years for them to be completed. Sometime before this, the caretaker had built a toolshed for himself next to the ice house. These changes would be the last changes my grandparents made to the camp. Dr. Packard died in 1950, when I was two years old. My grandmother died in 1960.
Of course, 1929 marked the beginning of the Great Depression and the end of the “Great Camp” era on the Lake. Not that Camp Hasanoanda was ever a great camp, but the values of properties on Upper Saranac, which had shown some signs of weakness in the 1920s, plunged in October 1929. Like the construction of the Rockefeller camp on Whitney Point and the John Dunlap Camp on Markham Point, this major remodeling occurred right before the market crashed.
Because my grandfather was a doctor, indeed a surgeon, he continued to make a very good living, probably better comparatively speaking than he had before the crash. Nevertheless, the crash greatly diminished the investments that my grandmother’s family had. Had it not been for the wise consul of my grandfather, his wife’s family would have lost everything, carried away by the exuberance of an overbought stock market. Nevertheless, I suspect that the remodeling done in the late ‘20s was intended by my grandparents to last the rest of their lives, and it did.
In 1960, my parents Peyton and Frances Biddle bought the camp from my grandmother’s estate for $12,000. None of my aunts were willing to pay that much for the camp. In the short run, they made a wise decision, for despite 31 years of decline, camps on Upper Saranac would continue to decline in value for another decade or more during which time the recently closed Saranac Inn’s 3,000 acres were subdivided and sold at auction by Charles Vosburg, and as the vacant buildings of the inn burned one-by-one, starting with the dormitories for the help located where the parking for the boat launch area is on Back Bay in 1964 and ending with the conflagration that consumed remnants of the six story inn itself in 1978.
My parents did not buy Camp Hasanoanda as an investment, however; they purchased it because they both loved it, loved the lake, and loved having cocktails with their many friends on the lake. Besides, my two brothers and I would have been crushed if they had not.
My mother did not believe in the expression that good things come to those that wait. They immediately had a small bedroom with a fireplace added to Dr. Packard’s one bedroom cabin. The cabin was insulated and had pine paneling put up in the interior and a small Pullman Kitchen was installed in what had been the closet. A Pullman Kitchen was a stove, refrigerator and kitchen sink combined into one appliance, about four feet wide. The former bedroom was made into a small livingroom.
My mother embarked on redecorating the camp. She replaced most of the furniture, hung curtains, painted doors red, and replaced most of the bedding. In 1973, my father’s health crashed, and he took early retirement. Since he needed a strong back and a pair of hands and I was teaching school, I became his carpenter. In 1975-76, we added an eat-in kitchen to the Little Cabin by the lake.
In 1993, my father gave the camp to my brothers and me because he could no longer make the trip up from Philadelphia. Although we had big plans for the camp, we soon discovered that we had three separate and very different plans for he camp. It didn’t matter much, however, because we didn’t have money for anything more than essential maintenance. The only significant improvements we did manage were burying the electric line under the drive, installing a modern septic tank, digging a deep well, replacing the concrete foundation of the Launch House, and changing the roof line where the Main Cabin and the Bedroom Wing joined so that water dams caused by warming winters stopped flooding the Master Bedroom and the big bathroom in the wing.
My wife and I purchased my brothers’ shares of the camp in 2015. Eighty squares (8,000 SF) of roofing, including new sheathing, had to be replaced ASAP; and the lead paint on the trim of the Main Cabin was alligatored and flaking off. After the roofs were repaired, the trim was stripped to bare wood and given four coats of paint. Seventy windows of the 100 plus in camp were removed, re-glazed, stripped, painted and reinstalled.
There is still a great deal that must be done, but at least the original two buildings, now one, are stabilized and will hopefully last a long time. Last year we began to make some of the changes I imagined in 1993. My wife and I removed the lattice, which my ancestors installed around the back porch so the help could sit out there and not be observed. Our caretaker re-framed it using lumber cut to pre-1954 dimensions to match the lumber used to build the original camp. Currently the caretaker and I are remodeling the kitchen, and the caretaker is rebuilding the Launch House, replacing the rectangular-pane windows with diamond-pane windows I found on eBay. The final phase of replacing the old wooden docks with their splinters will be accomplished after my wife and I pick up five aluminum dock sections in June, a project our caretaker suggested when we became full owners in 2015. The old pump house with its ten foot basement and dangerous, rickety staircase was razed last fall.
There’s much still to be done, but the list is shorter now, and the projects are more interesting.