Uncle Fitz

by Neal Burdick | History, October 2021

photographs by by Tara Freeman

The story behind a cherished family heirloom

he first thing I notice
about the watch is its weight—it seems heavy for a timepiece, maybe more than a pound. Made of solid gold, roughly 125 years old, it’s about two inches across. Under its sturdy glass cover can be discerned, in delicate, exuberant Victorian script, “Elgin Nat’l Watch Co.” The hours, traced by thin black hands, are displayed as Roman numerals; a smaller dial where the “VI” would be shows the seconds in Arabic digits. From the top protrude a fat stem for winding and a thick loop, slightly bent, to attach a gold chain.

But it’s the back of the watch that’s even more intriguing, rendering it a piece of Adirondack history. There’s an etching of a cabin among tall pines, with a man tending a fire in front, and the logo of William Seward Webb’s sprawling estate “NE-HA-SA-NE” imposed over a symbol resembling the fleur-de-lis of France and Quebec.

The artwork on the back is partly worn away, indicating that the watch was held in someone’s hand many times. That someone was Fitz-Green Hallock, longtime personal guide to Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau, gamekeeper to Webb, and my maternal great-times-three uncle. Uncle Fitz had been dead 40 years by the time I was old enough to understand that I had a relative who was famous in certain circles within the forests and the mountains.

Fitz-Green Hallock
—what a marvelous name for a backwoods guide who served such exemplars of Adirondack aristocracy—was born into a family with Quaker roots near Keeseville in 1840, one of nine children of Joshua and Elizabeth Stafford Hallock. His birth year coincided with the bicentennial of the first Hallock’s arrival on the shores of Long Island, from England in 1640. During a childhood straddling the boundary between rugged Adirondack upland forests and flat Champlain Valley farmland, in a vicinity still called Hallock Hill, he was put off by the dour behavior of his Quaker community. (It bears disclosing here that much of the accompanying material comes from oral tradition for which there is little if any documentation aside from a fragile, disintegrating booklet, “Hallock Ancestry,” privately published around the time of the Civil War.) The freedom represented by the big woods was more to his liking, and he spent his youth rambling there, honing the skills that would support his career as an adult.

Uncle Fitz was wounded in the Civil War; when and where is unknown—a yellowing photograph in the family archives shows him with crutches, a handsome young man with curly hair and a mustache. Sometime after the war, he made his way to Paul Smith’s hotel, where he signed on as a guide. This was a prestigious position to hold in guiding circles; rather than having to find clients on his own, he was an employee of the affable, sometimes irascible Smith. He had steady work—which included repair of gear and similar indoor chores in winter—along with a secure income. According to histories of the establishment, the hotel’s guides would assemble on the veranda early each morning, awaiting parties that needed someone to row them in guideboats to popular fishing spots, or lead them by foot to a nearby mountain with a view or a sandy beach for a picnic, or, in season, to a promising deer run.

It was in connection with the latter pursuit that Hallock likely became acquainted with Trudeau. The doctor came to the hotel in 1873 prepared to die within months from tuberculosis and lived for 43 more years, developing a successful treatment—not a cure, he was always careful to point out—for the horrific disease. He founded Saranac Lake’s Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium, ancestor of today’s Trudeau Institute. Trudeau loved to hunt, and Hallock soon became his guide of choice.

In his 1916 memoir, Trudeau wrote often and fondly of Hallock, whose name he spelled Fitz Greene, one of three ways family records preserve it. The renowned doctor said of the backwoodsman, “A good guide was first of all a truthful man whose word could be relied upon; he was a skilled oarsman, and often carried his boat on his back for miles from one lake to another; a thorough woodsman, with all that implies of fishing, hunting and wood-lore; a good cook, resourceful in emergencies, and an excellent companion. … Fitz Greene Hallock … besides possessing all these qualities to the full, [has] been for a lifetime the best and truest of personal friends to me.”

Trudeau recounted times when Hallock led him, so ill he had to be carried in a rocking chair tied to long poles, rustic palanquin-fashion, to spots where Hallock knew Trudeau could kill a buck, something the doctor did many times, and with great relish. Fox and rabbit hunting were also favorite winter pastimes for the two. “Many good days did Fitz and I spend hunting rabbits in the long winter months,” Trudeau wrote; he detailed how “Fitz” helped him win a “biggest rabbit” contest in 1880. Hallock and the other guides collected funds to purchase the site of Trudeau’s first sanitarium, the iconic “Little Red” cottage; Hallock was even consulted on the location and gave it his blessing, even though, Trudeau wrote, he complained that it ruined a perfectly good fox run.

As evidence of Trudeau’s high regard for Hallock, in 1889 the doctor named his loyal guide one of the founding incorporators, or trustees, of the Adirondack Cottage Sanitarium. Hallock served alongside what Mary Hotaling in A Rare Romance in Medicine identifies as “a mix of wealthy, prestigious campers … along with local business and medical men.”

Trudeau and William Seward Webb were acquaintances, and Trudeau was often a guest at Little Rapids, Webb’s hunting preserve a short distance up the Beaver River from Nehasane (modern spelling eliminates all those hyphens). Trudeau brought Hallock with him, and that is undoubtedly how Hallock and Webb met. At some point Hallock hired on as Webb’s gamekeeper, a position Trudeau coyly reported “was lucrative [but] there were many things about it that were trying to him,” without adding that Webb could be a very difficult person. Whether or for how long Hallock continued as Trudeau’s personal guide is unclear, but since Nehasane and Saranac Lake were a short train ride apart, it is feasible that he held the two positions simultaneously.

In 1899, Trudeau, Hallock and two friends of Trudeau’s became co-owners of Little Rapids when they purchased 1,140 acres from Webb, who had initially offered it—for a price—to Hallock as a retirement retreat. Hallock did indeed settle in, perhaps glad to be free of Webb. Trudeau continued to visit often. He wrote, “Some of the happiest days of my life have been spent there with my wife, my sons, who loved the place as much as I did, our friends and my old friend Fitz Hallock, amid the quiet stillness and beauty of the great forest.”

When his health began to fail, Fitz-Green Hallock—married twice, apparently childless—returned to Keeseville, his place of origin, where he died in 1919. He was interred in Saranac Lake.

I turn Uncle Fitz-Green’s
pocket watch over carefully in my hand. I picture Webb presenting it to him, when and precisely why I will never know. I imagine it tethered to a sparkling gold chain swinging jauntily toward his vest pocket. I imagine him lifting it out of that pocket and cradling it in his palm to check whether he is early for an appointment with Webb, or whether the train from New York, now clattering and smoking into view at the Saranac Lake station with medical dignitaries who he has been asked to convey by carriage to Dr. Trudeau’s lab, is “on the advertised.”

The watch may no longer tell the time, except at 2:54 a.m. and p.m., but it does tell of the passage of time. It symbolizes a different era, a more elegant period, when a plain-mannered Adirondack guide could dress in a three-piece suit accessorized with gold jewelry. It tells of days when life was slower, when time perhaps passed more deliberately. I wonder at the stories it could tell, of the people it saw and the adventures it experienced in its years with Uncle Fitz.

My great-great-great uncle’s pocket watch reposes, oblivious now to time, in a plush gold box, likely the one in which it was given by Webb, marked “Giovanni, by Longcraft.” Its work is done.    

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