What My Adirondack Family Taught Me About Survival

by Meagan McGovern | April 2022, History

Photograph of the author’s great-grandmothers courtesy of the author

“Adirondackers are made of sterner stuff,” my mother would say as we passed Glens Falls, heading up to visit family. “They just keep going, no matter what the mountains throw at them.”

My sisters and I would lean forward, waiting for the story that was sure to follow. Her family was from these mountains, and Witherbee, Mineville, Indian Lake, Fagan’s Flats and Bloody Pond were in the background of our childhood, though we grew up far away.

My mother retold our favorite tales when we visited, and the stories came to life. As the cast of colorful characters got through tragedy and heartbreak, one thing was clear: anyone from the Adirondacks was a survivor.

Our great-great-uncle, William Wood, had a story that was the stuff of fairy tales. William and his brother Josiah were two of the first settlers at Raquette Lake, and one winter, when checking his traps in the snow, William got such severe frostbite that his feet were amputated. But in true Adirondack fashion, he simply kept going—he put snowshoes on his knees in winter, switched to leather pads in summer, and off he went to check miles of traps, using his knees as feet. It didn’t slow him down—when he was 51, he married 15-year-old Celia Whitman, and they had five children. Celia was also a true survivor, raising the family in a remote cabin accessible only by water.

However, most of my mom’s stories were about her two grandmothers, Maggie and Nellie, who lived next door to each other in Moriah. Maggie’s son grew up to marry Nellie’s daughter in true “girl-next-door” fashion, and they had my mother.

Maggie Smith was tall and thin, one of 14 children born on the Fagan Farm near Indian Lake.

Nellie Golembesky was from a different world—when she was 11, she had come from Lithuania, a country without any mountains.

By the 1920s, Maggie and Nellie were both married to miners, and as neighbors and friends, in a triplex at 19 Wasson Street, they faced the challenges of mountain life head-on.

When we visited, first we’d go to Port Henry for a Michigan Hot, and then we’d head to see Maggie and Nellie’s house, though the families had long since moved away. Nellie and her family lived on one end, with Maggie’s family in the middle. On the far end, Maggie ran a boardinghouse—in four small bedrooms, 16 miners from all over the world made a home.

By the time Nellie was 21, she and her husband had lost all three of their babies to Adirondack winters. When their fourth baby was born, in another cold winter, they sent for the doctor, even though they couldn’t afford him. In Polish, they told him about their babies: Joseph, born when Nellie was 16, who lived four months, and Alina and Felice, who never made it to their first birthday. Nellie asked how to keep this baby safe.

The doctor said, “Where I come from in Poland, this has never failed. If you lose children, when the next one is born, you start over. If it’s a boy, you name him Adam. If it’s a girl, her name is Eve. And the child will live, and so will all the others.”

And so my grandmother, Eva, was born to miners, to a family made of sterner stuff.

My sisters and I grew up far away from the Adirondacks, but my mother taught us to hear the mountains calling. We couldn’t buy just any pencils for school—they had to be from Ticonderoga, which was always yelled, “Tiiiiiiiiii con der OOOOOOOO gaaaaaa,” because that’s the way the train conductor announced the stop every summer when she was a child.

Adirondack tales became reminders of perseverance whenever my sisters and I faced hardship. We’d come in scraped up, crying, and to distract us, my mother would tell us stories as she got out the Band-Aids.

“Maggie Smith nursed her boys through polio,” my mother would say. “She took care of one son in an iron lung while she watched my father’s foot shrivel up and twist backward! I know this cut hurts, but it could be worse.” She was gently teasing, but knew how to put things in perspective. “Think about William Wood! You have a skinned knee. He had no feet!”

Despite the loss, Maggie and Nellie’s lives always sounded like an adventure, lives well-lived. We heard about Maggie Smith’s 10 babies and how she buried all of her girls, but we also heard happy stories about the six tall, handsome young men who survived.

We learned about how brutal mining was, and about the women who tried to soften it. Maggie sent the men off each morning with a tin lunchbox and a thermos full of coffee after she and a hired girl rose early to bake bread and to make small fruit pies, wrapping the pies in newspaper to keep warm until lunch.

In the winter, the miners didn’t see sunlight—they descended into the tunnel before the sun rose and came up the elevator long after it was dark again. But in the summers, the light lasted longer than the mining did, and there was a garden to help with the food bill, fresh blueberries from the mountain behind them, and if it was a good year, honey from a bear tree.

There were no bathrooms until World War II, so there could be quite a line for the outhouse the boarders shared. But there was a shower at the mines for the men to use, and once a week, the women were allowed to use it. In the summer there was a big tub on the lawn for kids—in the winter the tub was in the living room.

Moriah had two sections where the miners lived and worked—Mineville and Witherbee, named for Silas Witherbee, the owner of the mines and the villain of every story. Witherbee was a company town—the outfit owned the houses, the tools, the grocery store. They charged too much for rent, for food and for tools, and in a house down the street, Witherbee turned off the electricity when the family fell behind. The newborn twins in an incubator didn’t survive the night without heat. Witherbee was a force the miners dealt with like cold and snow, one more obstacle to overcome.

Despite the hardships, the mines were an opportunity. Russia required every man in Lithuania to serve 30 years in the tsar’s army. Instead, Nellie’s family came to the mountains of New York, and into the shafts in the earth: her father, her brother, her husband, her husband’s brother. The mountains were strange, cold, isolated and harsh. Mining was better than Siberia, though, and better than the Russian Army. At least you could quit mining.

But the mines took a toll.

The alarms signaled accidents or death, and Nellie and Maggie often stood side-by-side on the porch, wondering if the bell rang for one of their own. At 19, Nellie’s brother-in-law spent three months and all of his money to escape from Lithuania. Two weeks after arriving, he fell down a shaft, and the bell rang for him.

It rang for Nellie’s husband when she was 37, with four children under 16. He’d reached out to grab his lunch pail and touched a live wire.

But Maggie and Nellie had pies to make, miners to feed, linens to change, and coffee to brew, and so they got on with it, just like William Wood got back to trapping. And slowly, things got better, their children grew up and decided not to become miners, and their families went off to other towns and jobs.

When I heard these stories as a child, of disease and death spreading through communities, of severe weather that left people in ruin, of families who overcame tragedy, they seemed far removed from modern life, firmly rooted in a distant past.

But now, as things change and illness surrounds us and weather takes on a life of its own, the stories resonate and seem real. I have a farm in Washington State, and when things seem overwhelming, we tell the stories to gain perspective.

My daughter, named after Eva, asks if we will get through this, and she grins when I say, “Let me tell you about William Wood, and about Nellie and Maggie. You could be off trapping in freezing weather with snowshoes on your stumps! If they could get through those years, we’ll make it through this.”

She laughs. “I know the stories, Mom,” she says. “I know. We’re from the Adirondacks, and we’re made of sterner stuff.”

Meagan McGovern writes commentary about clean food, dirty politics, thoughtful parenting, homeschooling and travel. Follow her on Facebook and Medium at @meaganmcgovern.

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