HM - Feb. 2016 - Sheets

NEH Summer Institute


A Case for the Adirondacks:
"Forever Wild" in the Gilded Age and Progessive Era

By Kevin Sheets and Randi Storch
SUNY Cortland History Department
Co-Directors of "Forever Wild":
The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era

Thumb through a pile of American history textbooks, and you are not likely to find a single mention of the Adirondacks.  Even in chapters dealing with the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (1880s through World War I) this is surprisingly true despite the prominence of the Adirondack region in the period’s debates, discussions, and dreams.  United States history chapters covering the period tell a familiar set of related and rueful stories: of displaced Native Americans; of fortune-thirsty migrants chipping rock to unearth veins of gold, silver, and copper; of ranchers and cowboys driving longhorns across the plains; of boomtowns and their busts, dotting the vast landscape with “Wild West” justice and racial and gender conflict. These stories are crowded into chapters on “The West” which are typically followed by chapters on “The City.” Then we’re off to the races: urbanization, industrialization, and immigration, followed by chapters peopled with well-intentioned progressives shocked by the crime, dirt, and inefficiencies of the era. Brooms in hand, these reformers get to work.

Such an omission of the Adirondack region may have made sense a century ago. After all, as late as the early nineteenth century, American cartographers referred to the vast region of upstate New York now comprising the Adirondack Park the same way fifteenth century European mapmakers described the Americas: terra incognito. Surprisingly little was known about the area’s hundreds of streams and rivers, mountain peaks, diverse wildlife, rich stores of minerals, and the immense canopy of deciduous and conifer trees greening a landscape of six million acres. Except to those Mohawk, Iroquoian and Algonquin-speaking communities who used the region seasonally for hunting, the Adirondacks remained a blank spot on the map.

Detroit Photographic Co., 1902.
An Adirondack Mountain Stream 
Image Courtesy of Library of Congress

But in 2016 a strong case exists to integrate the Adirondacks into our history textbooks and our teaching. Especially for the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, the Adirondacks is a key historical actor. Its past enables our students to understand a crucial point often glossed over in traditional textbook accounts: regional integration and reciprocity is essential in understanding the complicated development of modern America. Traditional narratives tend to treat regions in isolation despite a growing pile of first-rate books and articles emphasizing interconnections, integration, and reciprocity. William Cronin’s now classic Nature’s Metropolis brilliantly describes the interdependence of Chicago and the prairies, which fed its threshers and slaughterhouses. Kristin Hoganson’s more recent work bridging borderlands studies and the history of place emphasizes transborder interdependencies and demonstrates how the study of commodity chains can uncover how people in one region came to understand and think about the people in another. The Adirondacks region in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era offers an ideal model to study this type of history, which is why we are running a National Endowment for the Humanities “Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop” for K-12 teachers this summer.
“Forever Wild: The Adirondacks in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era” provides a unique opportunity for educators to study the period from a wilderness perspective. What is most striking is a dawning perception one gets when spending time in the region: the Adirondacks, though remote and beautiful, was as much a site of industrialization as any of the cities typically profiled in American history textbooks. Its vast forest fueled the fires of iron forges and its timber framed the buildings of cities. Its network of mines yielded the ore that became the wire rigging holding up the Brooklyn Bridge. Paradoxically, nineteenth century industrialists whose fortunes derived from the extractive Adirondack industries also retreated to its forest for the quiet relaxation of a summer on the lake. They created exclusive “camps” with rustic touches but equipped with the creature comforts of their urban lives.  These paradoxes played out in the politics of the era. Progressives like Gifford Pinchot saw the Adirondacks as a site to practice scientific forestry to demonstrate the value of expertise. Lumber barons, by contrast, preferred clear-cutting the forest for quick profits. In 1894, New Yorkers rejected both Pinchot and profits by ratifying the state’s constitution with Article 7 protecting the Adirondack forest as a “forever wild” landscape. That was a victory for those who saw the Adirondacks the way John Muir and Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it: as a spiritual space for humankind’s restoration and communion with nature. To the locals who lived and worked those woods, the restriction on land use created hardships. That nineteenth century debate persists to this day.
These are some of the key themes defining the “Forever Wild” workshop, which runs from July 10-16 and July 17-23, 2016.  Two cohorts of thirty-six K-12 teachers will have the opportunity to study these themes while living in the first of the Adirondack “Great Camps.” Camp Huntington, once owned by railroad magnate Collis Huntington (he actually died while at the camp in 1900) serves as the base for the workshop. Participants will live, sleep, and eat in the camp, which sits on beautiful Raquette Lake. Educators will also spend a day at neighboring Camp Sagamore (once owned by Alfred Vanderbilt) and J. P. Morgan’s Camp Uncas (now privately owned). We will spend one day at the remarkable Adirondack Museum on Blue Lake whose exhibits detail the region’s industrialization, recreation, and social history.
A previous summer scholar said, “The Forever Wild seminar has affected me like no other. I am a stronger teacher of the Gilded Age because of this week.” Another commented: “The activities were sublime—from touring the great camps to the excellent Adirondack Museum to kayaking and swimming in Raquette Lake before breakfast—sublime!”
Interested teachers should visit theForever Wildwebsite for additional program information and for links to apply. You can also check out our Facebook page.

Applications are due March 1, 2016.

Questions? Email us at