photograph by Carrie Marie Burr
A million-dollar renovation transforms a Piseco Lake inn
The Irondequoit Inn sits on a small rise at Piseco Lake’s northern end. Eight wooden steps lead from hillside to front porch. When I arrive for my first visit on a fall afternoon, I’m behind schedule. I hit the stairs at speed, my footfalls staccato on wooden planks.
Halfway up, a broad panorama registers in my peripheral vision, and I halt mid-step. The porch overlooks the 2,873-acre lake, carved and filled by receding glaciers more than 15,000 years ago, today set beneath a humble coronet of Adirondack foothills. This wild landscape is found within Hamilton County, the least populated county in New York State, with 4,700 residents dispersed over 1,808 square miles. A breeze rises off the lake, crosses a sandy beach and sloping lawn, and ripples through scarlet maples, bronze oaks and golden aspens. I promptly forget the Gregorian calendar and give myself over to geologic time.
I’m not the first awestruck visitor. In 1877, an 18-year-old Albert Doubleday arrived here on foot, hiking with his father from Montclair, New Jersey, to Montreal. They trailed by 60 years the Shakers who had settled Piseco, named for a Six Nations Native American who lived on the lake. Doubleday headed to college after his trek, but returned often with classmates in tow. Five of those friends pooled funds, in 1892, to buy land as the Piseco Company. They built the structure I visit today, 125 years later.
After $1.4 million in renovations over the last five years, the founders’ descendants have transformed that clubhouse into a country inn that pairs historical character with modern amenities. That means six of the seven lodge rooms include en suite bathrooms—but the only TV resides in a basement rec room where a VHS collection salvages rainy days. “We used to joke that to describe the inn we need a word that was two steps below rustic,” says Kurt Holstein, president of the Piseco Company’s board. “Well, now we’re two steps above rustic.”
That’s a modest take on the most significant update to the 600-acre property in 50 years. But when I step through the front door, I find Stickley chairs, a Victorian piano and a secretary desk atop the lobby’s wide-plank floors. A living room holds a plush couch and rockers with woven seats, all circling a brick hearth. On the mantel, an artist’s conk displays an etching of the inn dated 1988. These personal artifacts hint at the deep connection between a place and the people charged with its care.
This group has expanded well beyond the five original families. That’s partly due to financial realities: historically, the Irondequoit has raised money for maintenance and improvements by selling shares to friends and new generations. “People become very attached,” says Judy Damkoehler, the 90-year-old granddaughter of co-founder Starr Murphy, who now lives next door. “It’s survived on sentiment.” Today, there are more than 250 shareholders.
The Irondequoit experience has not changed remarkably over the years. In the 1930s, when Damkoehler first visited, the trip from Montclair to Piseco still took three days by boat, train and wagon. “It was so hard to get here, that once you did, you stayed,” she says. And often for weeks at a time. Fishing, boating and hiking were interrupted for meals served in the lodge. These were prepared by a cook, who worked under a manager and oversaw the staff—often teenage or college-age children of Irondequoit families. The chore boys chopped wood, tended fires and hauled guest luggage; girls were food servers and housekeepers.
Cabins were added in the 1960s to generate income for the property’s upkeep. The five structures, which nestle into the hill between the inn and the lakeshore, were also updated as part of the recent improvements. Each sleeps six, with a kitchen and a porch. Tamara Brister’s parents, Dean and Betty Lane, were the managers who oversaw construction of the cabins. “People go back every summer, so it’s become a tight-knit group from all over,” she says. Cabins book well in advance for all seasons: summers bring family reunions; winter summons snowmobilers who prize access to a 600-mile trail network. Closer to the lake, a handful of campsites welcome thru-hikers from the nearby Northville-Placid Trail.
The 1970s brought another effort to raise capital. This time, the Irondequoit board subdivided a shoreline zone east of the inn and leased 23 lots. Some 40 years later, they sold some of those lots to tenants—a decision that helped raise funds for the renovation project. The goal? Achieve financial stability for the beloved property. And make the Irondequoit more welcoming to all. “It’s actually the original founders’ idea,” says Holstein. “That’s why they built the inn—to share the property with others. It was never intended as a private club.”
In fact, it’s been open to the public for more than 100 years. The hamlet of Piseco sits within the town of Arietta, and town historian Bryan Rudes recalls annual trips to the Irondequoit over the decades for Christmas-tree bonfires. “The Irondequoit’s younger generations knew that to keep the place viable they had to do some improvements and modernize a little bit,” he says. “And they’ve made it more attractive to people to go there.” Now Rudes drops in regularly for Lions Club meetings in the dining room.
When I peek into this space at the rear of the lodge, the mess hall of days past has been redone with ivory walls, sage green drapes, timber trim work, a riverstone fireplace and hardwood furniture. Here, guests dine each morning on a breakfast menu that features omelettes, flapjacks and hearty plates of eggs, potatoes and bacon or sausage, then retrieve prepared lunches. For dinner, the kitchen turns out classic fare—steak, pork tenderloin, salmon—and more adventurous dishes, such as a spanakopita appetizer or mixed greens topped with strawberries, feta, candied walnuts and an apple-cider vinaigrette. During summer, the dining room opens to the public as well as guests.
Originally, on the second floor, a low-ceilinged roof sheltered tiny bedrooms that offered little privacy. “There was such a family atmosphere that people didn’t mind staying in a lodge where there were no locks on the doors and you had to share bathrooms,” says Brister. Guests returned to the same room for many summers. And Damkoehler tells me they were known by the names of the residents with the longest tenure, such as a widow named Mrs. Hodges. She preferred the bustling inn to staying alone in her family vacation home down the lakefront.
Those close quarters share little in common with what I find upstairs today. The entire roof was jacked up; the lake-view rooms, suffused with natural light, feature lofty ceilings. Each room feels rooted firmly in place: wood and rawhide snowshoes decorate the walls, I hang my clothes on hooks mounted on a canoe paddle, photos offer a peek at local history. Natural stone in the shower and timber accents bring subtle hints of the wilderness indoors. Holstein points out the technical up–grades, too: double-paned windows for energy efficiency, fire-safe doors in the stairwells, improved structural stability.
After a quick hike to Echo Cliffs on nearby Panther Mountain—a 1.8-mile round trip—I climb the porch steps and say hello to three women relaxing with a bottle of malbec and truffle noire gouda. I met Carolyn Bushy, Catherine Davidson and her daughter, Sarah, earlier; an exchange at the front desk revealed they are related to longtime visitor Mrs. Hodges. This quick discovery of deep bonds is a common event at the Irondequoit. “Within the first three minutes, people tell me how they’re connected to this place,” says innkeeper Mimi Fyffe. She and her husband, Dan, live in a house on the property, built as the first step in the renovation project.
Joining the women on the porch, I marvel at the gourmet flavors they’ve packed along. Carolyn and Catherine—sisters who have lost count of their visits here over the years—say they’ve perfected the shopping list for Piseco trips. “I remember Mom stuffing cans of food in every spare nook in the car,” says Catherine.
As the sun tracks west, a bald eagle glides into a spiral above a small island’s tall pines, a place the sisters remember well from treasure hunts before the habitat was protected. (The island is now owned by the Iron-dequoit Conservation Society and is not open to the public.) They recount boating adventures on the lake’s long waters, pulling around the curved shoreline to spot the basecamp where we now sit.
“The Irondequoit anchors the lake,” says Sarah, and I can see she’s right. For paddlers, the red metal roof marks the lake’s northern terminus. It’s a cardinal point that’s remained constant for more than a century, even as building dimensions change. And when Holstein tells me the plan to extend the porch to include a screened section, it’s clear that each change is made with guest comfort in mind. I can picture the expanded views, and taste a cocktail made more refreshing by a protective barrier to hold off the blackflies.
As darkness falls, we retreat inside to hear Dan Fyffe play guitar and sing a catalog of hit songs that spans the last 50 years. I tell Mimi I don’t want my stay to end. “You never totally leave. You’re just waiting until the next visit,” she says. “Once you get Piseco in you, it never truly leaves you.” Months later, miles away, I can tell you she speaks the truth.
The Irondequoit Inn (844-322-5500, www.irondequoitinn.com, 471 Old Piseco Road) is open from June to September; cabins can also be rented during the winter.