Home in the Woods

by Niki Kourofsky | August 2018, Travel

More than a century of family and fun at The Waldheim on Big Moose Lake

Big Moose Lake
was nowhere near the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse. But the group that gathered at the Waldheim during 2017’s touchstone event surely wouldn’t have traded places with any of the milling crowds trailing from Oregon to South Carolina. They had their own natural wonder to enjoy: a sparkly August day with just the wisp of a breeze from an Adirondack lake. There was no ignoring the phenomenon that fascinated a nation, but this bunch opted to pass homemade devices from hand to hand rather than swap Instagram images in cyberspace. Along with a pair of those worth-their-weight-in-gold cardboard shades, they traded a soot-smeared piece of glass, a colander and—the crowd favorite—a Frosted Flakes cereal box conscripted as an indirect viewing contraption. It was the kind of low-tech, high-companionship moment that perfectly fits the spirit of this place.

That spirit has been kept alive by the same family since the Waldheim opened more than a hundred years ago. The retreat was built log by log, stone by stone, generation by generation. Everywhere you look, you can see its past woven into its present. Instead of fronting the road, the office remains at the lakeside, a throwback from an era when guests arrived by boat. Accommodations were added gradually, so a walk along the shore doubles as a tour through the decades. Inside the cabins you’ll find original hardware, wavy-glass windows, plaster walls, maybe even an antique phone. Sure, the dining room that was revamped in 2016 is modern Adirondack rustic—vaulted ceiling, peeled timber beams, window after window framing a million-dollar view—but guests are served on the same Syracuse china that’s been in service since the early days. The menu for the midweek group hike hasn’t varied in a century (bacon, potatoes and steaks carted in packbaskets and cooked over an open flame, with maple-drowned pancakes for dessert), and you’ll hear no complaints.

“Nothing much changes around here,” said Jenni Blumenthal, who first discovered the resort in 1979. “We came with our kids, and now with our grandchildren. And we’ll be back next year.” (Guests will take notice—and sometimes umbrage—if something does change in their favorite cabins; a split opinion over the replacement of a claw-foot tub with a shower caused open warfare between one couple.) It’s often that promise of consistency—employees tiptoeing into cabins to start the morning’s fire, the dinner bell ringing over the lake every evening, children scrambling up the same trees as their parents—that makes families return again and again. The current record holder, the Folts tribe, started vacationing at the Waldheim in 1908. “This is as close to heaven as you’re ever going to get,” said Ken Johnson, who’s more of a newbie. His first berth at the Waldheim was his mother’s belly, only 50 or so years ago.

Edward Joseph (E. J.) Martin and his brother, Charlie, came to Big Moose Lake in the early 1890s to build camps for wealthy landowners. By 1901, 29-year-old E. J. had saved enough to buy his own stake—almost 100 acres on the north side of the lake—from railroad baron William Seward Webb. He raised a one-room cabin and, the following winter, married a local teacher and waitress, Harriet “Hattie” Brown. While
E. J. continued his building business around the lake, he whittled away on his dream, finishing what would become known as the Main House—boasting five bedrooms and a newfangled bathroom—in 1904. He and Hattie named their getaway the Waldheim, German for “home in the woods.” (Initially, the inn was a family affair, but E. J. bought out Charlie’s share in 1906.) Their first guests were the wife and grown children of Panama’s governor general, most of whom stayed all summer.

From that auspicious start, the resort grew steadily. The first cabin, June Cottage, went up in 1905, and a roomy dining room and summer kitchen were added to the Main House in 1909. By 1929 there was a neat row of cottages dotting the shore, with inviting porches and native-stone fireplaces. Each had at least two bedrooms; until mid-century, they were often shared by more than one family at a time. In the 1930s, the Martins absorbed property to the east, adding a converted woodshed, boathouse and playhouse to their cottage lineup. And on it went, as E. J. and Hattie passed the torch to their son and daughter-in-law, Howard and Wanda, who passed it to their daughter and her husband, Nancy and Roger Pratt. Now the elder Pratts are easing into retirement, turning management over to their successors, son and daughter-in-law Jason and Kelly Pratt and niece and nephew-in-law Keriann and Andrew Kaercher.

Though running an Adirondack resort can be the greatest gig in the world—just ask Nancy about the view from her office—it’s not exactly the life of Reilly. A lot of elbow grease goes into making wilderness fantasies come true. The modern spread stands at 300 acres, with 17 cabins welcoming as many as 88 guests a week. That can add up to more than 1,800 meals cooked up and cleaned up per week, dozens of sheets and linen tablecloths washed every Saturday—the old-fashioned way, dried on a line and pressed in a mangler—loads of towels and soap delivered daily, woodpiles stocked and garbage toted away. “To keep something like this alive, it’s a job,” said Kelly. “You have to be able to fill in everywhere.”

The real work starts weeks before the season opens. There are about 100 cords of wood to be stockpiled, cabins opened and trails cleared, plus painting, raking and never-ending maintenance. The new water treatment system that went in last year—during an especially wet spring—guaranteed head-to-toe mud for days. Finishing the dining room in time for its big reveal meant 12-hour workdays, just about seven days a week, for more than a month. (Jason said he’d let the crew knock off at five p.m. on Sundays, “to give the guys a break.”) And, inevitably, there’s mission creep. When one cabin’s leaky porch needed attention, Jason said, “We thought, If we’re doing that, we might as well.…” A new bathroom followed, then a fireplace fix, then they finished the interior in board-and-batten. Like E. J. and Howard before them, Roger and Jason do much of the carpentry, masonry, plumbing and electrical work themselves—Roger can even point to the exact rock in June Cottage that gave him his hernia.

Still, the family couldn’t keep such a sprawling heirloom afloat without the help of a crackerjack team, 25-plus strong at high season. “Year after year we get such amazing staff,” said Kelly. “I think it’s this place. Being a part of this. We’re just really lucky.” Many are local kids who come back every summer, some from families that have worked here for generations. The boys live above the kitchen, the girls above the laundry. And they all—extended family and employees alike—gather for dinner in the resort’s original dining room, in the Main House, at five p.m. (Despite the name, the Main House no longer serves as the family roost; Keriann and Andrew now live in Wanda and Howard’s old home, which was added to the row of cottages after World War II, while the rest of the clan settled on adjacent land.)

Although Roger and Nancy are “re-tiring,” they’ll still be on hand to field a phone call or swing a hammer. Half-hearted retirement is a family tradition dating back to E. J., who spent his later years building furniture for the resort and, according to his daughter-in-law Wanda, offering “all the advice he deemed necessary.” He was a fixture until 1973, when he died at the age of 101.

Jason’s sister, Gail, who opted for civilian life near Saratoga Springs, pitches in toward the end of the summer, when the college kids start trickling off to school. “It’s just part of who we are,” she said. After all, she grew up here—just like her mother, and her brother, and her cousin—doing “every job there was to do” around camp. Sometimes Gail brings along her husband, Dave, who “fits right in.”

The Martin spouses may not have been born into this lifestyle, but they seem to take to it naturally. “This is really the place I belong,” said Roger. “You can see, day to day, the effect you’re having on people’s lives.”

That bond between hosts and guests is deeply rooted. “The people who come are wonderful,” said Nancy. “On Saturday mornings we’re sad our friends are leaving. On Saturday afternoon, the next set of friends arrive.” And the feeling is mutual. Guest Ken Johnson has been “blessed to know every generation” of the Martins. He remembers E. J. greeting incoming campers and Howard and Wanda visiting cabins for evening chats. “You can see the love the family has for this place,” he said. “It’s so nice to see the next generation coming up. With luck, I’ll get to see one more.”

There are promising signs. Waiting in the wings is another generation of cousins, including Jason and Kelly’s sons, Jameson, 14, and Liam, 12; Gail and Dave’s son, Charlie, 13; and Keriann and Andrew’s daughter, Adelaide, two. Like their parents and their parents’ parents, they’ll have summers overflowing with goodbyes and hellos, with work and with play. Whether these kids will embrace or reject their inheritance remains to be seen. But the day of the eclipse, while squealing kids were hauled around the lake on a water-ski float, Jameson opted to lend a hand on the mail boat, a chore dating back to his great-grandfather’s day.

If You Go
The Waldheim (315-357-2353, www.thewaldheim.com), on Big Moose Lake in Eagle Bay, operates from late June until Columbus Day. Cottages can be rented, all meals included, by the week. 


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