To recover from the deadly TB, folks like my great aunt Edie would sit in bitter cold winter breathing fresh air. Many died; Aunt Edie lived to be 85.
Building Bird Camp 1910
Family gathered at Bird Camp about 1910
Going “upstate to the camp” has been a way of life in our family for more than 100 years.
My family’s connection with the Adirondacks goes back to 1905 when my great-aunt Edie Bird --- then a teenager living in Port Washington, Long Island --- became sick with TB. At that time, the Adirondack wilderness had acquired a reputation for its health giving properties, and people were convinced that the fresh air, isolation, and plenty of rest and wholesome food would help people infected with TB. So my great-grandparents sent their daughter Edie here to North River where she “took the cure” by boarding at the nearby Cedarwood Farm on School House Road where she sat outside all winter with the other boarders, bundled under quilts on the porch, and in summer months, walking the roads and wildflower meadows. Happily, my great-aunt Edie Bird recovered from the dreaded TB (the owners of the farm were not so lucky -- they contracted and died of TB themselves).
In 1910, my great-grandparents, Tim and Ida Bird, bought eight acres of beautiful property on “Christian Hill” (as it was once known) in North River. (I have since then bought an additional abutting 40 acres).
They then built a small “shingle style” camp in the rustic Adirondack style --- siting the small rustic dwelling to capitalize on dramatic southward views across the Gore Mountain range and (at that time) the Hudson River two miles below. They brought up by train beautiful leaded glass windows and other building materials from a demolished Guggenheim estate on Long Island. The rest of the building materials were all locally acquired --- cedar shingles, stone, milled lumber nearby North Creek where intensive amounts of logging was being done.
The second camp on the property (the white one where I live) was built in 1922 by my grandfather, Charles Mullon, a builder from New York City. He bought a quarter acre of land in the center of the 8 acre parcel from his in-laws, Ida and Timothy Bird who owned the Bird Camp. He brought up leaded glass windows (like the Bird Camp ones), window sash, doors and his crew of carpenters and built a small simple camp -- Mullon Camp. In the next two decades, he enlarged and improved the camp, adding stone retaining walls, adding a porch, expanding the living room. The camp was then left alone until about 1958 when his widow, Ethel Mullon, added the kitchen and master bedroom. Mullon Camp has a bungalow cottage feel to it, and retains original windows, sash, flooring, fireplace and fir trim.
Traditionally, the women and children stayed all summer while the men traveled back and forth. Life was leisurely. Visiting, and having visitors, was an important part of life. Cooking was done with a hand pump and wood cook stove. It was a four day long trip from Port Washington, Long Island.
Families who built camps altered how the Adirondacks were experienced. For one thing, families didn’t move well; the shift from home to camp and back again was undertaken after an effort that resembled mobilizing an army unit. The result was that families got attached to their camp for practical as well as emotional reasons, so they took a proprietary view of the mountains in the distance; pointing and naming each to visitors on the porch. In time, a family’s knowledge of the Adirondacks was limited to the locality --- to local people, favorite views and summer neighbors --- and to little beyond it.
Even when they were well into their 80’s, the original three daughters of the Birds came to the Adirondacks and stayed all summer. They still pumped water by hand and cheerfully used the “privy” out back. Electricity wasn’t brought in until the 1950’s. After that time various members of the family “claimed” the right to use Bird Camp over time. In the 1960’s, my mother’s cousin used to arrive in spring with numerous cats and cases of whiskey. There were various uncles who made repairs to the siding, mowed the fields and brought in gravel for the driveway.
I was told many times that my great-grandparents wanted the camps to “stay in the family so that there would always be a place to gather”. Unfortunately, by the 1970’s, it became apparent that the system wasn’t working --- too many family members owned the property but none of us could agree on how to share it, maintain it or pay for it. Bird Camp in particular went into terrible disrepair --- porch sagging, roof leaking, siding peeling away. It sat for decades while the family bickered about it, nearly reaching the point of having to be demolished.
Fortunately, after years of negotiation, I was able to buy out the other family members. As a builder/broker/developer, I have negotiated hundreds of real estate deals, but truly buying out my relatives was the most exhausting and complicated deal I’ve ever done! Glad it is over! Never own real estate with multiple partners!
In 2005 after the dual heart breaks of a divorce the collapse of my building business, I decided to leave western Massachusetts and move fulltime to the family property in the Adirondacks. While my daughters were in school, I worked alone to restore my great-grandparents summer camp, known as Bird Camp. Month after month, fixing porch beams, scraping and painting trim, sorting through and organizing a hundred years of family “stuff”, hauling old mattresses and broken chairs to the dump, mowing, planting … and doing a lot of thinking … about my marriage, my life, my children, my future. As the camp repairs were being completed, and the rooms came back to life with new and old treasures, I became better too! And as at last Bird Camp was beautiful enough to rent (completely with running water after 100 years!), it was like a garden harvest to reap the benefit of warm reviews and compliments from our vacation guests.
The walls and ceilings had never been finished with plaster or drywall, and after wiring and insulating, I spent two long winters cutting and hand-nailing narrow “beadboard” wainscotting which I discovered at a local lumber yard which was decades old and had a beautiful natural patina after aging outside under cover all those years. I finished the walls with amber shellac to pull out the gorgeous coloring of the wood. The cedar shingle siding on the south side had worn down to about a sixteenth of an inch after a hundred years of exposure to Adirondack winters. I pulled them all off, and nailed up new cedar shingles, going up ten feet high, then hired friends to help complete it. (I tell folks that I built, painted or fixed everything under ten feet. Although I was a daredevil union carpenter in my twenties, I don’t go any higher than ten feet anymore!) The original 100 year old oriental rugs have been cleaned and repaired, beams added in the living room to strengthen for the weight of the new bathroom above and a glass front fireplace insert installed into the stone fireplace. Rosa rugosa shrub roses and perennial flower beds were tucked into place after siding completion.
Although I have supplied virtually all the physical labor to pleasurably and tirelessly restore, build, maintain and beautify the property, bringing life back to the camps as well as healing my broken heart, I would not have been able to do any of this important work if not for financial generosity of my father Dick Clement and brother Tom Clement. Dad and Tom: thank you so much for your support, your love, the money you provided. The camps go forward into the future --- restored, refreshed, rejuvenated --- as do I!
My great-grandparents on snowshoe in 1906. I like to think they were out looking at the land to buy to build their camp.
Great-grandfather Tim Bird with his granddaughter Anita holding a black cat. Chopping firewood for the cookstove.
Bird family at 13th Lake at Elizabeth Point
Bird family at 13th Lake at Elizabeth Point