Remains of the Days

by Niki Kourofsky | October 2017

Saving our history one scrap at a time

A hand-scrawled sign
for “Shapiro’s  Junk Shoppe,” curated by “Marcel Le Junkologist.” A certificate from the 1954 All-American Soap Box Derby with a card of congratulations, addressed simply to “Glenn White, Town.” A space heater from the New Brunswick Hotel. The sash of a long-gone “Miss Tupper High,” its lettering carefully cut from red electrical tape.

You can find those treasures and more at the Tupper Lake Heritage Museum, a storage depot for the town’s collective memory. This place is the brainchild of the late Art Richer, who prodded the community into creating a common space for all the unsung snippets of their everyday lives.

Richer laid out his dream for a mini-museum in a 2003 letter to the Tupper Lake Free Press editor: “This is … small potatoes compared to the Museum of Natural History or the ‘Next Stop’ Tupper Lake undertaking. [But] if we all, as hometown residents, stop and think of years past and how nice it would be to establish some of that memorabilia in a permanent setting, it doesn’t seem like such small potatoes.” His wish was realized when the heritage museum opened the following year, as a stand-alone display at the “Old Barry Homestead” of what the Free Press cataloged as “rustic implements … hotel and tourist particulars, furniture and sporting elements.” 

These days the collection—which has grown considerably, thanks to steady donations from area attics and storage sheds—is currently housed in the old fire station on Pine Street. (Since the building is up for sale, the museum’s future remains unclear.) Granted, its alphabet-soup atmosphere can be a bit overwhelming. There’s no timeline, no steady progression of decades and themes to leisurely explore. Instead of a curated experience thoughtfully designed for a generation with the attention span of a pack of excitable puppies, it’s an all-in stockpile of artifacts that requires a little time and effort.

Hoffmeister, in Hamilton County, has its own small-fry museum, as do Olmstedville, Johnsburg and Caroga Lake. There are about as many of these tiny repositories as there are tiny towns in the North Country, hushed spaces kept open by an army of retirees. And is it worth it, all that sifting through of donations, dusting and arranging of yearbooks and uniforms and appliances?

A recent write-up from nextavenue—a public media blog for aging Americans—would say no. The article, “Sorry, Nobody Wants Your Parents’ Stuff,” counsels Boomers and Gen Xers that the best way to dispose of their forebears’ possessions is to do just that—dispose of them. It’s a different world, we’re told, and if we think our children will be interested in our old stuff, we should “prepare for disappointment.”

Every life has a backdrop, a jumbled set of one (hopefully) long, often very dull movie. That film might never be a box-office draw, but I’d argue that the importance of its nickel-and-dime props transcends the original plot—and that the cost of wholesale dumping after the final credits is high.

The Tupper Lake Free Press paid a visit to Richer’s heritage museum in its inaugural season, recording one woman’s reaction to an old icebox: “Remember that! We used to have a card that said ‘ice’ and we’d put it in our window to let Mr. Forkey know we needed some. He delivered in the Junction for so many years!” The takeaway? Now you know how families in a little Adirondack town acquired ice in the misty years before it magically poured out of refrigerator doors. You’re welcome.

You might be saying to yourself, sure, I like artifacts as much as the next guy, but safeguarding our history is the task of orderly, accredited museums. The thing is, professional curators don’t—and shouldn’t—save everything. They carefully choose items to preserve and interpret based on their institution’s mission and the individual strands of history they are charged with following. Where does that leave the other strands? It’s these crowd-sourced assemblages of everything and the kitchen sink that can catch up the remnants.

I have a friend
who bought into the scrapbooking fad back in the early 2000s, when evenings of cutting and pasting began to replace Tupperware burping sessions on suburban social calendars. In her rounds of workshops, she’d been instructed to preserve only the best of the best photographs—or, rather, the best of the best that matched the color scheme and vibe of the page she was currently creating. The results were a precursor to Instagram, perfectly filtered snapshots of her life.

But my defense of historical hoarding extends to snapshots. I save every picture, no matter how unattractive or blurry or off topic. When I look back at stacks of forgotten scenes, I often see something I never knew to look for. There’s that photo I took with my very first camera—my uncle is missing half of his head (just above the 1970s mustache), but the laundry scattered on the grass around him is evidence that folks in Lyon Mountain relied on the sun and not Clorox to brighten their whites. The perfectly hideous picture of my parents socializing decades ago—our yellow daisy wallpaper reflected in my mother’s coaster-size glasses—proves that flannel has always been an acceptable fashion choice in the Adirondacks. And then there’s that dimly lit picture of teenage me crouched in a stairwell, red eyes glaring, with a receiver glued to my ear and the phone cord stretching out of the frame. The takeaway? Now my grandchildren will know that teens once lived like chained animals in the misty years before communication became a movable feast. You’re welcome, kids.

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