For volunteers, Lake Luzerne history is a present
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For volunteers, Lake Luzerne history is a present

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LAKE LUZERNE — At the back of the Rockwell-Harmon Cottage is a porch overlooking the spot where the Sacandaga and Hudson rivers converge, crashing together between the rocks.

It’s a sight many people in town don’t see, even though the cottage is the town’s official visitor center, because it is part of a chain of local historic sites that receives paltry traffic from townspeople.

For two years, area volunteers have been trying to change that.

About 20 volunteers have been manning four historical posts in Lake Luzerne as part of the town’s Summer History Ambassadors Program, which runs every Thursday through Sunday during July and August.

At least one ambassador, or docent, is stationed at each of the locations — the cottage, the Gaily Hill Schoolhouse, the Pulp Mill Museum and the Kinnear Museum of Local History — from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. to tell the story of their assigned spot and, more broadly, of Lake Luzerne.

Sue Wilder, the volunteer coordinator, said these ambassadors are keeping local history alive.

Community confidence

The goal of the ambassador program, according to Carol Maher, the docent at the Kinnear Museum that day, is “to create a sense of confidence in the community that you can go into the museums.”

Maher, an Iowa transplant, traces her family lineage to the Lake Luzerne area and moved here several years ago. Being an ambassador, she said, has given her a sense of belonging.

Surrounded by paintings, trophy heads, ornate wood fixtures and stained-glass windows, Maher talked about the history of Lake Luzerne and of the Kinnear Museum’s namesake, the granddaughter of one of the Garnar brothers who brought industry to Lake Luzerne in the 19th century.

“You don’t want to wallow in the past, but I think you want to keep in touch with it so you don’t take things for granted,” she said.

She usually lets guests absorb information by themselves.

“The wonder of this place is it feels alive,” she said. “You can step into another place in time.”

That place in time included damp, drafty houses, laboring in the stench and heat of leather work and — more inconvenient than dangerous — having a kitchen where the sink was in the pantry, not out by the stove.

“People didn’t have the insulated comforts we have today,” Maher said.

She likened immersing yourself in local history to paddling a canoe — a reference point is often useful to keep you on track.

“So that we don’t go too badly off course,” she said.

Living history

Ambassador Ted Wilming of Hadley was sitting on a bench outside the Pulp Mill Museum on Thursday. The museum is tucked away in Mill Park, mostly hidden from the roadway by trees.

A small brown building with a sheet-metal roof, it’s a 1932 replica of the 1870 original, which housed the first wood pulp grinder in the country and kick-started the modern paper industry.

The building was sweltering on this warm day, a reminder of the intense conditions mill workers faced decades ago.

“It’s just stifling,” Wilming said as he headed back inside, pausing to lament the graffiti and vandalism dotting the building’s facade.

Inside rests a replica of the original wood pulp grinder, manufactured in Watertown, with signs explaining its parts and how they functioned.

“Wood was placed in these pockets and forced against turning stone by mechanical screw action,” one reads.

Split logs were brought to the mill by horse-drawn wagon and ground into pulp, which was mixed with water, pressed into bricks and shipped elsewhere to make paper.

The site could be called the birthplace of the region’s paper industry.

Before the ambassador program took shape, Wilming said, the building was rarely, if ever, open.

“This place just sat here,” he said.

And despite seeing some visitors these days, Wilming said many people in town still don’t know the place exists. He said he has asked town officials to trim the trees that shield the museum from view, but to no avail.

Anyway, he finds value in his amateur-historian role and in the historical sites in Lake Luzerne.

“This is real, living history,” he said.

Justin Trombly is a news intern for The Post-Star. Follow him on Twitter @JustinTrombly.

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