photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
The man behind Great Sacandaga Designs
Down Hadley way, past Lake Luzerne, through the witchy shade of big white pines, beyond the motels and cottages dotting Great Sacandaga Lake, past the ziplines, tourist traps and raft-laden school buses, up a small dirt drive off South Shore Road, there’s a kind of Shangri-la where you’ll find Jim Schreiner, rustic-furniture maker.
Jim lives and works in one of his family’s three octagonal log cabins on land overlooking the northeast tail of the lake. In the 1960s his parents packed up a convertible and left New York City for a quieter life in the country. What they eventually found was 175 acres in Day, buried in the woods, dripping with waterfalls and endowed with jaw-dropping views of the lake below. Here they raised livestock, grew vegetables and, along with their two young sons, Jim and Curtis, built the cabins the family still lives in today.
The boys learned self-reliance early on. While they worked on the first cabin, the family slept in tents year-round. The boys cracked ice on the pond to get water, stayed warm with just their sleeping bags, and nailed down subflooring while their parents did the heavier work of moving logs, mortaring chimneys and framing walls. Jim can recall days spent stripping bark from logs only to find his pants so sap-encrusted they could practically stand on their own.
Jim and Curtis spent winters snowshoeing and skiing, and summers kayaking and canoeing. They became world-class athletes: Curtis was a three-time Olympic biathlete and Jim was on the national kayak-racing team, winning two gold medals at the 1985 Pan-American championships. In 1991 he was the torch-bearer at the Pan-Am games in Cuba. He met Fidel Castro. In a photo of him carrying the torch he has a thatch of black hair and a big white smile.
The day I meet Jim, he comes ambling down the steps of his cabin using a ski pole as a cane. His smile is genuinely warm and inviting, if a little mischievous. He wears a T-shirt that says: “Pluto—Revolve in Peace—1930–2006.” When he shows me fossils that he uses as decorative focal points on some of his furniture, he tells me he makes them himself. “First I bury the fish,” he says, “then I wait three million years.”
His diagnosis came right after high school. A leg started dragging; a night spent in a hot tub left him useless the next day. The best thing about discovering he had multiple sclerosis, Jim says, was that at least he knew he wasn’t a hypochondriac. Switching from skiing to paddling, Jim was able to continue in competitive sports. When he found it too difficult to stay seated in the canoe, he switched to kayaking. In 1988 he narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic team, two hundredths of a second off.
Jim’s cabin, closer to the road than his brother’s or parents’, could be mistaken for some kind of space beaver’s crashed starship. Nestled in the woods, Jim’s octagon is camouflaged by bundles of twigs, teepees of branches, and random clusters of sylvan treasures. It looks like a monstrous dam-work.
Inside the home, which doubles as Jim’s workshop, it’s no different. “This is my chaos,” he says, moving aside some paperwork resting on a client’s table he’s building in the middle of the kitchen.
What’s rustic about Jim’s work isn’t just the look of his furniture, but the no-frills, lived-in approach of conception and execution. There are no CAD drawings, no sterile, well-ventilated workshop. The pieces get made in the knottiness of Jim’s lived life.
After talking with a client and visiting the home where the piece will ultimately live, Jim begins sketching. Though he is typically given free rein, he’ll often consult with the client as he designs, until a shared idea emerges.
The work that results is never a generic version of clichéd rusticity. In talking with his clients, Jim does the detective work of a sensitive biographer. When a fond memory of a beaver pond pops up in discussions, he hops in his kayak to collect beaver-chewed sticks to add to the piece. For a couple in Wyoming who lived near the National Elk Refuge, Jim carved an elk head into their entertainment center. And like some woodsy genealogist, Jim once carved a family tree into a set of doors for another client’s 10-foot-tall entertainment center, the parents’ names etched into the roots and the kids’ names leafing out in the branches.
Asked if there was some dream piece he had in mind, something he had yet to make but longed to see come to life in bird’s-eye maple or yellow pine, Jim says there’s no one piece really—no ideal bureau, or chest, or table—only the opportunity to go crazy with his materials.
A commission he received about four years ago perhaps comes the closest. A family on Great Sacandaga Lake wanted one of the rooms of their house transformed into an “Adirondack” room. As Jim worked on pieces and brought them over, more and more ideas sprang up and the project expanded. By the end he had created more than 120 feet of hand-carved mouldings, built a corner sink out of curly oak and bark, installed handmade wainscotting from wood sourced in the family’s yard, refinished a long-obscured wide-board pine floor, and built a cedar-post bed with long, deep drawers underneath for storage. It was as though the forest had come to live in the room.
Though slowed by his MS, Jim still works on furniture regularly. He also teaches woodworking at the Adirondack Folk School, in Lake Luzerne, and helps out on the family land with the biathlon course started by his father and continued by his brother, Curtis. The day I visited, Curtis and a friend were grooming the course on riding mowers, preparing for a summer race where the participants ride mountain bikes rather than ski.
Before I leave, Jim walks me over to the warming hut near the shooting range. Tacked to the side is a map of the course. Like a serpent snaking through the woods, the course covers five miles of ups and downs, switchbacks and gullies. It could have been a map of any number of things: a biathlete’s route, a winding waterway, a gnarled tree branch, a man’s life.
See more of Jim Schreiner’s work at www.greatsacandagadesigns.com.