Mystery Man: Unpacking an Adirondack Life

by | At Home in the Adirondacks 2022, History

Illustration by Gwen Jamison Vogel

 

Bids at 30, now 30, would you go for 40, I hear 40!” Numbers were rattled off in a mesmerizing chant. The crowd listened, huddled in an unheated warehouse beneath a domed wooden roof. “Now 40, would you give me 50? Now 50, would you go to 60? Come on folks, chance of a lifetime. Trunk’s never been opened, key lost, might be treasure in this here trunk, 60, 60?”

No one else bid.

“Going once, going twice … going … going … gone!” Down came the gavel. “Sold for 50 to the man in the blue wool hat!”

The man in the blue wool hat was my son Christopher. It was 1998. My husband and I stood with him and his family in the drafty storage shed, at one time a well-loved curling rink in Saranac Lake. Christopher, always up for a little adventure, gave a big grin as he claimed his win.

Bill Madden III, whose family owns Madden’s Transfer and Storage, where the auction was held, strolled over to say, “Chris, you just might have gotten the best deal here today.” And what was that deal? It was a black, flat-topped trunk, left for storage many years ago. Nobody had returned to claim it. Who knew what might be inside? It was fastened shut with tarnished brass clasps and a large lock.

Once home, Christopher went at it with a hammer and chisel. The lock gave way. Lifting the lid, he discovered a packed wardrobe trunk. Stood on its end, it revealed a miniature closet with clothes hanging on one side and a set of drawers on the other. I hadn’t seen anything like it since I was a teenager, when my belongings had been shipped off to boarding school in a similar one. My husband, Will, Christopher’s wife, Jennifer, and I gathered around to begin unpacking the trunk owner’s life.

First, a gun leaning against the back, wrapped in unbleached muslin and held in place with string. We carefully uncovered it to discover what we thought was an old sawed-off shotgun. Bootlegger? This was, after all, an area known for that trade. Clothes hangers sagged under the weight of a couple of yellowed, extra-large wool union suits with trap doors. Their shape was odd: extremely wide at the waist with very short legs and sleeves that had been shortened by turning up the extra lengths and roughly stitching the folds in place. The owner must have been a stocky man. There was a worn dark wool coat as well, also wide and short. 

Next, we found a long, narrow parcel, also wrapped in unbleached muslin. When we loosened the string, several sections of a bamboo fly rod fell out.

In the top drawer was a moldy blue-and-orange case that held an Antar box camera. The remaining drawers were filled with papers and notebooks, some held together with straight pins. Jennifer was silently thumbing through a pile of papers in her lap when she said she had found his name. It was on a W-2 from 1944—Nelson Blanchet.

Who was Nelson Blanchet and why had he not returned to claim his trunk? Soon after, Christopher found an eight-by-11 black-and-white photograph of a lovely dark-haired young woman, posed in profile. On the back, in faded ink, was scripted Soeurette, a French term of endearment for sister. Nelson might have been bilingual and most likely French-Canadian.

Further rummaging produced gas rations from World War II, one issued to Nelson in Florida in 1943, but listing Lake Placid, New York, as his home. There was a budget book of people who had paid him between 1937 and 1957—mostly women, but some men—and how much he earned. The amounts were paltry by today’s standards, ranging from $8.75 to $90. Here and there, next to the names, were cities such as Rochester, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida. What was Nelson being paid for?

Will then found a handwritten note, dated April 1955, from Dr. C. Bradley Sageman. It stated that Nelson Blanchet “has had no pains and has improved to the extent that he can return to his work as a chauffeur.”

The only state income tax record was filed in 1945, with Nelson listed as Arthur Nelson Blanchet. On the return, under the question, “Have you filed in two previous years?” Nelson checked off “no.” Reason given? He hadn’t made enough money. In 1945, he earned $628.10 and had to pay $6.78 in taxes.

His tax return listed the places he’d worked, including the Lake Placid Club and the Ruisseaumont hotel, also in Lake Placid. On his income statement his occupation was listed as “painter.”

The trunk was talking. But we had to tear ourselves away from this man’s past life and attend to the present life of our grandchildren, who had just awakened from their naps.

A couple of days later, we returned to the trunk and combed through more of Nelson’s papers. The dates on the documents ranged from 1928 to 1961. There were budget books, bank savings books, accident insurance policies, and even an advertisement clipped from the newspaper “to discover what Formula 9 can do for your hair.” (Was he going bald?)

Like a slowly developing negative, a hazy image of Nelson was beginning to form. Then the present again got in the way of the past. It was only long after I had retired, our children had also retired and our grandchildren were grown that I returned to Nelson’s trunk.

It was January 2021. The view out my window of the rugged snowy mountains reminded me that life for early Adirondackers had not been so easy as mine. For many, like Nelson, survival was challenging and chancy. I was drawn back to his story, and set out to see what more I could learn as I followed the trail of this enterprising blue-collar immigrant. 

A careful examination of his belongings led to new revelations. A 1942 Certificate of Register for a War Ration Book revealed a description of Nelson: 5′ 3″, 140 pounds, gray hair, age 59. That put his birth in the year 1883. (Because he filled in this information himself, I’m not entirely convinced he was accurate about his weight. The shape of his long johns told a different story.)

Next, I scattered his papers over the floor, putting them into chronological order. From this, I worked out a partial timeline of his life. Online research led to more discoveries, some that were noted in the “Personals” column of the Lake Placid News. I learned that Nelson came from Canada and went first to New York City, where in 1917 he registered for the draft from his address at 815 Park Avenue, Manhattan. In the late 1920s he spent some time in Lake Placid. In 1934, his sister, Lucette Blanchet, visited him in Lake Placid. 

Lucette’s name came up again on the second page of his savings account bank book, on which he had written, in 1954: “In case of death, please notify Miss Lucette Blanchet, 4863 Rue Parthenais, Montreal 34, Canada.”

In 1935, Nelson applied for American citizenship, and from then through the 1950s, he lived at several different addresses in the area.

I also found a title for a 1939 Packard, made out to him in Palm Beach, Florida, in May of 1951. For use it stated, “PTV,” meaning passenger transfer vehicle. Nelson was 68 when he purchased the vehicle; the number of chauffeuring trips in his budget book greatly increased after he purchased the Packard.

And now back to the mystery of the gun. Thanks to research by Sam Grimone and Chris Barney, of Woods and Waters sporting goods store, in Saranac Lake, I learned that it’s a 12-gauge shotgun, the barrel originally 26 or 28 inches long but shortened to 21 inches, the stock made of American walnut. At one point, this gun was refinished, wiping away all identifying marks. However, the barrel and action of the gun were made from one piece of metal, an unusual and difficult to manufacture feature, indicating that the maker was Kessler Arms in Silver Creek, New York, the only producers of this kind of shotgun, model 128FR. These particular guns were manufactured only between 1951 and 1953. The gun could have been shortened because the barrel was damaged. Or it could have been to make it a quicker piece for protection. It would have tucked nicely under a car seat.

Nelson was hired out as a chauffeur up until 1957, at which time he would have been 74. His budget book shows that he brought folks to a variety of places in the Adirondacks, but the only clearly decipherable record was taking a Mrs. William A. Drescher to her winter quarters in Rochester from her Lake Placid Great Camp in 1956. She was the wife of William A. Drescher, vice president of Bausch and Lomb. There was also an entry for a person by the name of Overton, whom he drove to Florida for a fare of $75 plus $8.75 tip.

In Nelson’s time, life in the Adirondacks was difficult. Logging, ice harvesting, care-taking and tourism drove the economy, such as it was. In Saranac Lake the care of tubercular patients also provided a living for many by, among other things, an increased need for drivers to transport patients and visitors.

Whatever the challenges, Nelson managed to scrounge a living, like so many Adirondackers then and now. A restless soul, he was constantly on the go. I lost his trail after 1961, the year he turned 78.

I had, until this point, overlooked an empty envelope from Kenwood’s Moving and Storage in Plattsburgh. On closer inspection I saw that it was dated 1961 and was addressed to Nelson Blanchet in Clearwater, Florida.

But where did our French Canadian friend go after 1961? I had become increasingly fond of Nelson. While he was an inconspicuous sort of fellow, there was, nevertheless, something compelling about him. And so, I went back to the internet, spending so much time searching that I began having nightmares about losing things.

Then, one morning, I finally punched in the right keys and up on my screen popped this notice in the Palm Beach Post, June 11, 1962: “Nelson Blanchet, 79 … died Friday night at a local hospital after a short illness.” At last, the end of the trail.

And so I leave Nelson resting, quietly below, secrets still with him. While many questions remain unanswered, we do know that he was resourceful enough, as a hard-working immigrant, to always find work, even through the Depression years when so many did not. That, and his fierce independence, are admirable qualities deserving of recognition.


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