'Queen of the Lakes' Souvenirs

6/21/2014 7:00 AM
By Paul Post N.Y. Correspondent

GLENS FALLS, N.Y. — Henry Caldwell’s prize antiques include an 1825 blue porcelain platter, made in England, and the brass bow cannon from a yacht that once belonged to a famous Lake George resort owner. Lake George, a longtime tourist destination in upstate New York, is a large lake located at the base of the Adirondack Mountains.

Caldwell won’t part with either one of his high-priced items, which says quite a lot about their sentimental value, considering that Caldwell is currently putting two kids through college.

These pieces were among the dozens of antiques that fascinated attentive listeners during Caldwell’s presentation, “185 Years of Lake George Souvenirs,” at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls, N.Y., recently.

Caldwell, originally from Kentucky, spent boyhood summers at Lake George during the 1950s and now owns Black Bass Antiques in Bolton, N.Y., about 10 miles north of Lake George Village. Lake George. The so-called “Queen of American Lakes” is a playground for metropolitan New York vacationers and has attracted prominent visitors since early American times. Thomas Jefferson once described it as the most beautiful body of water he’d ever seen.

So it’s only natural that antique souvenirs, some dating back nearly 200 years, are part of this resort destination’s history. Souvenirs, by their very nature, are meant to remind people about the fun, relaxing times they’ve had.

“Everything up here is about memories,” Caldwell said. “People think about their Lake George vacation all year. Earlier Lake George antiques were from Scotland, Britain, France and Germany. In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, they were made in America. Now, most things come from China and Korea.”

His “show-and-tell” presentation was held in conjunction with a current exhibit, “Collecting Lake George,” featuring maps, prints, postcards and other memorabilia that’s now on display in the library’s Folklife Center through July 17.

In some ways, the stories behind the items are as interesting as the antique itself. For example, one can’t help pondering about the English shop that produced Caldwell’s favorite blue platter, the hands that made it and how it crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

“This came over on a tall ship,” Caldwell said. “Lake George was a tourist resort in 1825.”

The platter, in perfect condition, is worth about $2,500, although it has a small crack in it.

The brass bow cannon (circa 1890s) came from the yacht “Fanita,” owned by Sagamore Resort founder John Boulton Simpson. At the presentation, Caldwell took listeners back in time, explaining how late-19th-century visitors would have reached Lake George by train. From there, Simpson’s guests were met in Lake George Village by the “Fanita,” which carried them north to Bolton Landing.

“It must have been fantastic,” he said.

Decorative plates, sterling silver spoons and a tiny cobalt blue china flower basket, made in Bavaria, also captivated the audience. Each one had its own story.

Caldwell showed rare books by Seneca Ray Stoddard (1843-1917). Although best known for his photographs of the Adirondack Mountains, he was also a cartographer, writer, poet, artist and traveler. His early books were illustrated; later ones contained photos.

Caldwell held up 1920s’ handsomely framed front-and-back brochure covers of Lake George steamboat schedules, when such vessels were owned by the D&H Railroad.

“It has all the boats on Lake George and Lake Champlain and all the ferry schedules,” he said.

A fully intact brochure, when opened up, reveals “one of the best maps of Lake George ever made,” Caldwell said. Its colored, intricate details shows the whole length of the 32-mile “Queen of American Lakes.”

“I like to collect the older souvenirs,” he said.

However, like many antiques dealers, he’s found that most young people aren’t interested in them. The industry trend today is “mid-century” antiques from the 1950s.

Of course, Caldwell has many items from the post-World War II era when people started visiting Lake George in large numbers by automobile. Storytown USA, forerunner of today’s Six Flags Great Escape, near Lake George, was America’s first theme park. It opened in 1954, one year before Disneyland.

“I’ve always been able to sell Storytown stuff because so many people went there,” he said.

Caldwell’s collection includes old cardboard bumper cards promoting this and other former North Country attractions such as Gaslight Village and Frontier Town. Unlike bumper stickers, the cards were attached to a car’s bumper with small wires. Felt pennants promoting places such as Howe Caverns and Bolton Landing were also popular with tourists.

A 1960s’ travel guide tells all the places that people could visit in the Lake George region. “It kind of freezes in time that whole period,” Caldwell said.

Other antique collectibles include matchbook covers, old birch bark post cards and miniature wooden canoe paddles with Indian decals on them. Medals and patches also make good souvenirs. Caldwell has one from the Hague Regatta in 1912 and another from American Henley Regatta held on Lake George in 1971.

As a shop owner, Caldwell never knows what unique item might catch a person’s fancy. That’s why he tries to find and provide as many things as possible. Most things, despite their sentimental value, are for sale if customers offer the right price.

“With two kids in college, you’ve got to sell them,” he said.

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