Freedom Summer

by Amy Godine | June 2020

Illustration by Nip Rogers

How life at Sacandaga Park shaped Robert Reich

he son of an Adirondack pack peddler
once told me his father knew the woods by memories of kindness, or its absence. From this farmhouse the young immigrant could hope for a seat at a kitchen table, maybe a plate of something warm. From that one, a pack of mean dogs snatching at his heels. And that was the map he went by, the one that showed the way. I know people who map the Adirondacks by their favorite vernal ponds, or swimming holes, or trails where they can run a dog off leash. Cyclist, barfly, bird lover, curator of epic views—they all have maps that don’t match anything in print. Nobody’s Adirondacks belongs to anybody else.

Political economist Robert Reich—Secretary of Labor for President Bill Clinton, part of the Ford and Carter administrations and advisor to Barack Obama’s presidential transition team—has a private Adirondacks, too. And though it’s been decades since he last crossed the Blue Line, he still recalls the old cartography. No mountains here, or campsites, lean-tos or foaming rapids, but ask him about the cabins and the porches and the wide view of the lake…

From toddlerdom to college, Reich spent part of every summer at a lakeside hotel and colony community called Sacandaga Park, just south of the Northville Bridge. Grandparents on both sides of his family bought cabins there as early as 1931, when the resort, then almost half a century strong, still owned a bright name as the “Coney Island of the Adirondacks.” His parents met there at the Adirondack Inn (his father cut in at a dance), and by the time young Bobby made the scene, friends and relatives were already thick as acorns on the ground. So the Reich kid had the run of the place. The social net was wide and strong enough to let him really bounce around. “There was just an enormous sense of freedom,” Reich reminisced from his California home, where he teaches public policy at the University of California Berkeley. “We went to the beach. We waterskied. I fell in love. It was rather boring, but great fun.”

Camping out? No need, Reich laughed. It would have been redundant: “Inside those cabins, it felt like camping.” Each room had two double beds and every bed was occupied, and so was every porch. A boy could hop from one porch to the next and never lack for listeners, a little nosh, a joke.

Less richly evident, perhaps, were signs of Sacandaga’s glory days. By the ’50s, when Reich was charting an Adirondack world of porches, tennis courts and picnics on the beach, the venerable resort was showing its old bones. The 250-room Adirondack Inn, once the biggest in the region, no longer sparkled with fresh paint. The reservoir had swallowed up and drowned the rickety rides on Sport Island, along with the old train tracks, and whatever gaunt remains of the 10 Adirondack hamlets slated for submersion that could not be hauled to higher ground. Also gone by Eisenhower’s era: the Shoot the Shute toboggan ride, the Texas burros, a miniature steam train, a Kinescope theater and the casino. Memories of command appearances by John Philip Sousa, Eddie Cantor and W. C. Fields were few. And nobody was taking tintype photos under the rusticated bent-twig arbor anymore. The arbor was long gone.

But Reich wouldn’t miss what was never his. And there remained the sunny waterfront, the new, upgraded summer theater, an expansive golf course, the bright scent of the pines, and, best, the thrill of hitching up each summer with relatives and friends.

One pal in particular Reich always liked to see. Stricken in his early youth with Fairbank’s Disease, a bone disorder that curtailed growth, the short-of-stature Reich was often targeted by bullies. At Sacandaga Park, a kid named Mickey, slightly older, kept an eye out for this unwelcome teasing, and to Reich’s great relief functioned as a kind of voluntary “personal protection racket.” Then college beckoned and the boys fell out of touch, and only after would Reich realize that his childhood protector was one and the same as the Michael Schwerner who went south to Mississippi in the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 to register black Southerners to vote, and who, with two other civil rights workers, was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.

The loss of his childhood defender grieved Reich, and got him thinking. The same instinct for justice that made his friend Mickey stick up for a kid at an Adirondack summer colony had just as surely, a few years on, fired this same man’s resolve to defend the voiceless, the disenfranchised. Michael Schwerner understood, reflected Reich, that a bully is a bully, and bullies, large and small, have to be resisted, however terrible the price. In recent decades especially, Reich has shared his Michael Schwerner story in speeches, interviews and lectures. The memory of his Sacandaga boyhood friend’s enduring courage gave the advisor to four presidents a hero and a lifelong goal as steep as any Adirondack peak.

Fight to be heard, and don’t give in. This would be, for Reich, the story that charted his Adirondack map, the one he holds close to his heart.    

Historian Amy Godine wrote “The Greening of Al Smith” in the February issue and “A Poor View,” about the legacy of Adirondack poverty, in the October 2019 issue. She’s been uncovering the history of the region for
Adirondack Life since 1989.

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