ELIZABETHTOWN — There are three political campaign signs on the front lawn of the Deer’s Head Inn in the heart of this hamlet. But not one is for any of the three primary candidates seeking the U.S. Congressional seat Democrat Aaron Woolf fell short of capturing two years ago.
Woolf is the man who helped spearhead the reopening of this historic tavern this summer. Rather than displaying the message of the candidate he’s supporting, Democrat Mike Derrick, or the message of the Green candidate he took on two years ago, Matt Funiciello, or the message of the Republican he lost to, Elise Stefanik, the lawn features Woolf’s political heroes of yesteryear.
There’s the sign for President Dwight Eisenhower, complete with green letters that tout the World War II general’s “strength through infrastructure.” To Woolf, the bipartisan work that it took to construct the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways is something he feels is sorely lacking in today’s policy-making landscape.
Then there is the red, white and blue sign for Henry Clay, the mid-19th century politician who Woolf admires for his “American System,” an economic philosophy that shaped American policy fewer than 100 years into the country’s founding.
And then there is a sign that asks to elect a New Yorker and avid outdoorsman who would eventually become the 26th president of the United States, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt. In red and white lettering, the sign asks, “What’s more conservative than conservation?”
As he sits at a corner table at the revamped Deer’s Head Inn, which opened last month, the documentary filmmaker Woolf acknowledges that, yes, maybe the placement of the three signs is a form of “conceptual political art.”
However passers-by view it, or however they view Woolf, the 52-year-old has settled into life in Elizabethtown post political campaigning. Raising his 5-year-old daughter Eloise at the second home here in town that he partially grew up in decades ago, Woolf has had some time to reflect on 2014.
And he has a lot to say.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Woolf said Thursday.
“One of the best things that came out of (the 2014 U.S. Congressional District 21) political campaign was a kind of grounding,” he continued. “For me, I did as a candidate what I always had done as a filmmaker, which is, whatever kind of values and experience I bring, the most important thing to do first is listen.”
So just what has Woolf done since he lost to Stefanik? After scribbling thank-you notes to those he came across on the campaign trail, he dove back into film making. He began work producing a documentary to look at how mass energy-sourcing in the U.S. was similar to mass production of food. It’s “farm-to-socket,” if you will.
The idea led Woolf to David Hallquist, a Vermont utility executive who was taking on the country’s electrical grid. During production, the film took an unexpected turn and resulted in “Denial.” Woolf said the film touches on the denial of collective issues, such as climate and infrastructure, and personal issues, such as personal gender identity. The film debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival this summer.
Woolf also continued work on producing “To be a Miss,” a documentary about the culture and psyche behind Venezuela’s multi-billion dollar beauty pageant industry. Woolf said the film will have a regional premiere at the Lake Champlain International Film Festival in Plattsburgh in November.
Back in Elizabethtown, Woolf has made a personal and professional investment in the town of roughly 1,100 after critics of his 2014 campaign painted him as a carpetbagger of sorts. In one advertisement, the National Republican Congressional Committee dubbed him “Brooklyn’s Upstate Democrat.”
But the Baltimore-born Woolf has lifelong ties to Elizabethtown. His 153-acre property on U.S. Route 9 was a “foothold” in the states for his family when they lived abroad, he said. They acquired it in 1968 and it burnt down when he was in high school. After graduating from Middlebury College, he returned to dig out the ashes. He rebuilt the house with trees cut from the property.
So the Woolfs live there now. Eloise attends Lakeside School in Essex. Woolf’s wife Carolyn works as a psychologist and serves on a local ambulance squad, and Woolf, himself, is all-in on the tavern.
Like other locals, it’s a place that provokes memories for him, such as when he and tavern co-owner Dr. Rob DeMuro replaced the tavern’s old touch-tone payphone. He had flashbacks to walking to the tavern after school, dialing the payphone to call his mother.
To re-open the tavern, Woolf, DeMuro and their wives, who are also co-owners, went back to the future. Woolf said it’s the oldest tavern in the Adirondacks. Its roots trace back to 1808 when travelers of the North Country used the Inn as a place to eat supper — organic, of course — to stay the night and to purchase market supplies for the next leg of their journey.
For policy-junkie Woolf, 1808 also has some interesting political parallels with this year.
“It was a presidential election year.” he said. “The country didn’t know which direction to go, and there was an ambitious secretary of state (James Madison) who wanted to be next the president.
“It sounds a little familiar,” Woolf said with a smile, alluding to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s current pursuit of the presidency as a Democrat.
So this latest incarnation of the tavern, previously closed since January of 2015, pays homage to its roots while serving as an example of the kind of local-level investment and collaboration Woolf thinks is key to quality of life in America in 2016. He insists the eating area isn’t a “restaurant,” rather a tavern complete with a pool table and a bar where patrons can sip on local suds and liquor.
The food is locally sourced as well, coming from farming staples such as Sugarhouse Creamery, Asgard Farm and Juniper Hill Farm. But Woolf is even more proud of how herbs and produce for dishes, such as “lunchbox” peppers served with fish and steak, come via a collaboration with Mountain Lake Services. Their garden is tended to by people with developmental disabilities.
Woolf feels it’d be “trite” to say the tavern has created jobs. But it has — more than 20 full- and part-time gigs. In all, he sees the tavern as a living, breathing “anchor on Main Street,” and representation of what he preached during the election.
“Even in the smallest towns in the Adirondacks, communities have an urban core,” Woolf said. “It’s funny to talk about Elizabethtown like that, but these towns were built in the pre-automobile days.
For now, Woolf’s home is here at the Deer’s Head, though he doesn’t rule out running for office in the future.
He says his eyes are wider now, after a 2014 race that was “disenchanting” at times. And, if he were to run again, he says he knows a lot more about how he’d do it.
“Whether it’s in film, or in this business or in politics, the values are consistent — you don’t let it defeat you,” he said. “It’s about how policy affects ordinary people. My films and that motivation to do something about it, to me — to tell those stories on the floor of Congress or here — it hasn’t changed at all. It’s just found a different expression.”