Photograph by Johnathan Esper
“Homey” is how Ana Walker describes Garnet Hill Lodge, in North River, where she’s the front desk clerk. “People feel comfortable enough to come downstairs in their flannel jammies and sit by the fireplace,” she says.
That cozy vibe is part of what keeps some guests returning each year, like swifts to a favorite chimney—a few going back as much as half a century. Some of the staff have worked here for years, too, through multiple changes in ownership. Before she passed away last year, “pie lady” Mary Jane Freebern had been baking for the lodge since the 1970s (you can find the recipe for her famous onion pie in the December 2018 issue of Adirondack Life).
Whether they’ve worked, gotten married or learned to ski there, says Jim Rucker, the current owner, “everyone in the community has a story about Garnet Hill Lodge.”
Jim and Frances Rucker came to New York in the 1990s from their native England for what was supposed to be a three-year stint with Jim’s banking job. That first summer of what ended up being a permanent relocation, they toured around the Northeast in a camper van and were awestruck by the vastness and beauty of the Adirondacks. They bought a vacation house in the Garnet Hill community, where the lodge had long been the centerpiece, with popular cross-country-ski trails and the only restaurant or bar open for miles. The Ruckers, like many of their neighbors, frequently availed themselves of Garnet Hill Lodge’s amenities, and watched its fortunes, and the buildings’ condition, fluctuate through the years.
In 2016 the lodge went on the market again. Jim, who was contemplating retirement from his finance career, made an inquiry—mostly out of curiosity, at first. But he and Frances recalled how much livelier the lodge had once been, and they were motivated to return some of the property’s former sparkle. In addition to some badly needed infrastructure repairs, they have upgraded the guest rooms, remodeled the kitchen, built a wedding pavilion, and added the Bobcat Bar and Grill to the Outdoor Center.
The 16-room lodge was built in 1936 by garnet-mining impresario Frank C. Hooper. It was inspired by classic Adirondack Camp architecture, with wavy-edged brainstorm siding, log beams and a grand stone fireplace studded with the garnets that were once extracted from the property.
Hooper was born in Ticonderoga, where his father had owned a graphite mine. Though his operation didn’t last as long as his competitor Henry Barton’s, Hooper made his mark on both the industry and the region. At its peak, Hooper’s North River Garnet Company produced 5,000 tons of crushed garnet per year—used to make sandpaper—with miners working around the clock in 12-hour shifts and living in bunkhouses. A bustling community grew up around the mine, with a store, schoolhouse, homes and a bowling alley and tennis courts Hooper built for the enjoyment of the miners and their families.
Hooper invented and patented the vanning jig, which mechanically separated the garnet from the surrounding rock. When the garnet ore ran out at Hooper’s mine, in 1929, he sold the technology to Barton and went to work for the competition. A few years later he built the Log House for his daughter and son-in-law, Alice and Charles Tibbits, to run as a guesthouse. The lodge hosted banquets and square dances, and an annual race on the property’s ski trails. Charles served as the president of the Gore Mountain Ski Club and advocated for state development of the resort there.
In 1967, the lodge hosted its most famous guests—US Senator Robert Kennedy and his family, who were participating in North Creek’s annual White Water Derby. Photographs of a smiling Bobby, his wife, Ethel, and his young niece Caroline now hang near the lodge entrance.
In 1970 Paul and Nancy Cormack bought the lodge, plus 600 acres that they developed into the Garnet Hill community, with a few dozen home lots and access to the beach on Thirteenth Lake, which is otherwise undeveloped. They also further expanded the ski trails, as well as making the resort the year-round destination it is today.
Several owners later, the Ruckers have maintained the ski-lodge atmosphere while refreshing the look. Many of the new furnishings, including rustic log furniture and botanical lampshades, were sourced from Hudson River Trading Company, a few miles away in North Creek. Paintings by Athol artist George Searing, who worked for the previous owners, grace many of the walls.
They’ve also invested in improvements to the property’s recreation offerings, including buying a grooming machine for their 50 kilometers of ski trails and building five miles of new mountain-bike trails. They’ve worked to involve the local community, with a popular Friday happy hour, a bike race in fall and snowshoe and ski races in winter. They host a work weekend in fall, where those who help get a half-price season ticket. “It’s become a thing people look forward to,” Jim says.
One thing the Ruckers didn’t need to improve on was the setting. The grounds, dining room and balcony rooms overlook Thirteenth Lake and the surrounding mountains. “Six years and I haven’t gotten tired of that view yet,” says Jim.
If You Go
Garnet Hill Lodge is open year-round at 39 Garnet Hill Road, North River. Call (518) 251-2444 or go to www.garnet-hill.com for more information.