General Stories

by Christopher Shaw | From the Archives

Iconic Adirondack trading posts

The four corners in Stony Creek
meet at the crossing of two roads to nowhere. One peters out among the hunting camps and logging roads past boggy Lens Lake; the other segues into a four-wheel drive roller coaster through the climax white pines on the way from Harrisburg to Wilcox Lake, fourteen long lonely miles west.

The corners are the hub of whatever commerce takes place here, which is precious little: two general stores facing two taverns in a pattern like a swastika. Little Roaring Branch bisects the quadrangle before debouching into Stony Creek proper 100 yards downstream, where a century ago tanneries supported a population of 1200, three times the present one. For the newcomer, arriving here can be like stepping into a Conan Doyle or Edgar Rice Burroughs fever dream: a Lost Valley where every living creature refutes Darwin and the laws of physics as we know them do not apply.

Winslow’s Store commands the northeast corner of the quadrangle, in the shadows of Baldhead and Moose moun­tains, an impressive structure of cornices and filigrees de­spite a decaying and timeworn facade. Except for the Salada Tea signs painted on the doors, you might not be able to find your way inside, past the stack of worn tires and the venerable handcranked kerosene pump. It seems cavelike, a little dangerous maybe. You wouldn’t go in there if you weren’t desperate for gas, ice cream, Genesee, or any of the oddball items it seems unlikely the place would carry, but does.

Floyd Winslow has guarded the till for 30 years by his count, not the most reliable of indicators necessarily. How long have there been Winslows in Stony Creek?

“Let’s see. There was Schuyler Winslow, and Mel Wins­low. Quite a while. At least as long as I can remember.”

Floyd isn’t known for loquacity and that answer stands as one of his longest speeches on record. The Winslows have been in Stony Creek since at least the 1840’s. How long has the store stood there? “At least since the horse and buggy days.” That’s about as specific as Floyd is likely to get about anything.

The spirit of change passes over Winslow’s usually, except when it can’t possibly be avoided. Floyd replaced the old hand cranked gas pumps only back in the mid-70’s when prices jumped over three digits, one too many for the an­tiques to compute. There was a flurry of excitement some years back when a stack of Wrangler jeans was discovered in the sepulchural back room, marked at under five dollars at a time when it was hard to find anything under ten. They disappeared into the closets of denim speculators over­night. Floyd will still repair your tire for two dollars. When I asked him why he was one of the few general stores left that didn’t carry video cassettes, he paused in thought and said, “I don’t know.”

A racier store has opened on the opposite corner, carrying such indispensibles as dental floss and wine coolers, and forcing Floyd to concede to a digital cash register and raise the price of a chocolate bar to 46 cents. One day, a var­nished landlocked salmon appeared mounted on the wall behind the counter, a ten-pounder Floyd had caught on an outing to Lake George with his son-in-law. Nobody could figure out when Floyd had been gone long enough to fish, but there it was. (Did he actually leave town? Such a thing wasn’t heard of.) It reminded me that my first conversation with Floyd 20 years ago concerned a survey of trout varieties in the two creeks. “Brook trout in Roaring Branch,” he said, “browns in the big crick,” an analysis which proved out. Fishing is one of the few topics that always raises a gleam in his eye. One June when I lived in Stony Creek thunderstorms turned the creeks brown and tumid over-night. The following afternoon I stopped in for a small purchase and was surprised when Floyd indicated he had something of interest to show me. I waited while he emerged from behind the counter and walked to the beer cooler, where he reached deep and produced a mysterious parcel wrapped in butcher’s paper. “They come up from the Hud­son in high water,” he said, opening the package under my nose and revealing a half dozen brown trout between 12 and 16 inches that he had derricked out of the Branch from the bank behind the store. Their interior flesh was the color of wild roses and they glistened with cold brilliance in the light of his smile.

Black and white photographs of the guide Alvah Dunning decorate the big lakefront windows of the Raquette Lake Supply Company. The solid redbrick building occupies the site of Dunning’s first cabin on the lake. When W.W. Durant’s railroad arrived at the spot with its cargo of urban bourgeoisie, Dunning pulled up stakes and settled on one of the lake’s many islands to escape the encroachments of the proliferating leisure class. The effort was futile. After appearing at a sportsman’s show in New York City, Dunning was staying alone in a Utica hotel before taking the train back to Raquette Lake. Insidious technology overtook him there at last, when the uninitiated guide blew out a gas wall jet inadvertently, like the more familiar oil lamp, be­fore settling down for his last long rest.

Raquette Lake Supply has been owned by the Dillon family since its founding in the 1890’s. After fire razed the village in 1927, the present fortress-like structure replaced the original. The wide front stoop descends almost to the water’s edge and surveys a wide view of Raquette’s radiating arms and inlets, with Blue Mountain prominent in the east. Next door at the railhead and steamboat landing, the ar­rivals and departures of the private rail cars and launches of hotel guests and plutocrats en route to their various demesnes provided a vigorous commerce in the salad years of tourism before the Depression. These days store business is more plebeian, heavy on souvenirs and convenience items, and geared toward sportsmen and summer customers from the Golden Beach state campsite. On busy weekends aluminum canoe armadas of camps and scouting groups debark in hordes to stock up on last minute necessaries like Twinkies, jalapeno dip, Dr. Pepper, Pikie Minnows, River Runt Spooks, and Invisible Dogs.

But Raquette Lake Supply is more like a conglomerate than a mere general store. The store itself includes a butcher, deli and old-fashioned soda counter, and other nooks house the Tap Room, bakery, laundromat, and the Raquette Lake post office, presided over by Mildred Dillon, mother of Raquette Lake Supply’s proprietor, Jim. The Pe­gasus on the creaking sign over the gas pumps attests to their 75 years distributing Mobil Oil products.

The oil business, Tap Room and post office operate all year, and they still cut ice for refrigeration in the winter, but the store and bakery are strictly a Memorial Day to Labor Day enterprise. Things tend to wind down after that. As Leslie DeShaw said from behind the bar of the Tap Room the day we visited, “Let’s put it this way: we make our own fun around here most of the year. We have to.”

Roger Daby wears a cordless telephone on his belt. While he dashes around the hamlet of Brant Lake, and from one end of Daby’s General Store to another, it keeps him in touch with his growing clientele, and his wife Jane, who minds the cash register. Things have been hopping at Daby’s for about five years now, evidenced by the new swimming pool and treated lumber deck in the back, and Jane’s spar­kling red 280 ZX Datsun convertible.

“The activity level here is really a lot higher than most people think,” Roger said, taking time to squeeze me in between a hardware delivery and the afternoon rush. We sat at a table on the front porch looking out over the Mill Pond across Route 8. “I’m not really one for looking into things far enough, but this business certainly has mush­roomed a lot more than I thought it would.”

He pointed across the pond toward Barton Mountain. “I made the decision on the back side of that mountain one day while I was hunting eight years ago. I thought, ‘Well, I guess I’ll buy that store.’ It’s a good thing it was so slow at first since I didn’t have the slightest idea how to run a general store.”

The first store was built on the site in 1867, but it became too small for the growing business, and was moved intact across the road while the present building was constructed. When one of the local hotels bought it to add on for kitchen space, the building was carted up the lake to be sledged across on the ice. The project folded when the ice buckled and sent the store straight to the bottom.

Daby’s commands a picture-postcard view of the library, North Warren Elementary School, two churches, the fire station and an assortment of houses ringing the Mill Pond. “It’s quite a unique little setting,” says Roger. The inside reveals a characteristic hodge-podge of general merchandise and memorabilia. Mixed in with convenience items and the video display is a collection of outdated stock left over from when the Daby’s bought the store, a glass case of antique dolls, a handsome display of collectors’ knives—Roger’s way of financing his own knife habit—barking spuds, corn stabbers, a folding assortment of patterns for guide-boat ribs, antique oil portraits and a particularly fine nickel plated .32 caliber ’73 Winchester. Services are avail­able too. The store depends on bread and beer, but if you need a pane of glass or a thread turned, Roger says, “I’ll do just about anything.”

While we sat chatting on the porch a young woman strolled by in the sunlight and said, “That’s the life.” Taking the cue, Roger said, “Didn’t know I had such an easy job, did you?”

Pete Farrell nodded toward the Grand Union across the street from Ste. Marie’s General Store, at the junction of routes 28 and 30 in Indian Lake.

“They used to have a smaller store over there, next to the hardware store. We sold more meat than they did back then. Then they put the big store in.”

An Indian Lake native, Farrell has owned Ste. Marie’s for 23 years, but the store has stood on the comer since at least 1878. French Louie used to come out of his digs in the West Canada Lakes country to stock up on provisions and sell his furs there. Until recently, Ste. Marie’s carried a full line of goods for the sportsmen and woodsmen who frequent the village, but it became too hard to compete with discount department stores down the line on prices for rifles and ammunition.

You can still buy fishing tackle though, and inexpensive packbaskets are available for trappers and ice fishermen. Herman boots and Wigwam socks are a mainstay, and the store has distributed Johnson and Woolrich woolens for more than 50 years.

Meat accounts for a significant percentage of Ste. Marie’s receipts, and Pete is still the butcher. I chatted with him where he stood at his cutting block, beside a walk-in cooler of richly varnished wainscoting. Some of the restaurants and inns in the area buy meat and eggs from him, including Wilderness Lodge, where one of the whitewater outfits has its headquarters in the spring. Whitewater season doesn’t help him out that much otherwise. “There again, they got their bigger store over there, you see,” he said, pointing to the Grand Union. That and the adjacent Oak Barrel tavern concentrate most of that business across the street. So much depends on parking, it seems. “There was only parking for the two stores until they built the bigger lot. I had room for four or five cars to park perpendicular right out there, before they widened the road and took them away.” But at last, he shrugs if off with the comment, “I haven’t become independently wealthy, but I’ve made a good living.”

Bloomingdale is only slightly less off the beaten track than Stony Creek, and about the same size. But its central location in relation to many of the area’s most prosperous resorts has helped Norma and Art Niederbuhl thrive for more than a generation.

Norma’s grandfather built Norman’s General Store in 1902, when the stage from Franklin Falls stopped at the hotel and the local iron mine was a going concern. After the railroad passed Bloomingdale by, the business became dependent on the growing throngs of summer visitors to the Saint Regis Lakes and Loon Lake nearby. “We had three butchers working at one time. Summer people bought all their meat here in the good old days, before the chain stores,” says Art. To attract auto traffic between Saranac Lake and the other resorts, Norma’s father, John Curran, deployed an outdoor produce stand under the marquee on the side of the building. Its success led to the founding of Norman’s Wholesale Grocery Company, Inc.

Since Art joined on in 1949 the business has continued to grow. The wholesale warehouse occupies the big lot behind the store, a ramshackle assortment of buildings added to piece-by-piece over the years. What wholesale business they lost with the closing of the big hotels and the Lake Placid Club, they’ve made up for elsewhere, expanding in some cases as far as Plattsburgh.

The inside of the store reflects the scale of the enterprise: the dumbwaiters for carrying stock up from the basement or papers to the second-floor office, the tax stamp machine for the tobacco distributorship. Gold lettering on the var­nished drawers under the shelves indicates space for Wicks and Burners, Silks and Laces, Socks and Mittens. There are bulk barrels of coffee beans, dates, and coconut, a big block of store cheddar under glass, a coffee grinder. The Niederbuhls have left the store unchanged for the most part, relying on the wholesale income to support the retail. “It’s mostly convenience now,” says Art. “Too hard to compete with the chain stores.”

There is still a steady business off the road in the summer. Instead of the stagecoach, bicycle tours make the long climb from Franklin Falls, after crossing over Whiteface from Wilmington. They stumble into the store after cold drinks and ice cream, exhausted. Art says, “By the time they get here, they’ve about had it.”

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