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Book details settlement history of Adirondack Park's 92 towns

The two-volume work With An Ax and a Rifle: Settler and Onomastic History of the Adirondacks by Erik Schlimmer
Jim Levulis

In his latest foray detailing the stories behind the names of landmarks in eastern New York, author Erik Schlimmer revisits the Adirondacks. His ninth book, “With An Ax and a Rifle: Settler and Onomastic History of the Adirondacks,” details how the Adirondack Park’s 92 towns came to be. And as he told WAMC's Jim Levulis during a recent interview, Schlimmer says he’s not done.

Schlimmer: So, I'm kind of known as the “toponym guy.” So toponyms are the names of natural features out there. And so as you hike Mount Marcy the highest peak in the state, and next to Mount Marcy is Lake Tear of The Clouds. And maybe you go down to Lake Colden. I’m the guy who figures out how all these features got their names. And the original intention with this book was to keep it very short, maybe 50 to 100 pages. And I was really just interested in how each of the Adirondack Park’s 92 towns, got their names. We have the town of Plattsburgh, and the town of Schroon and the town of Chester, I originally just said, “Well, how did these things get their names” How do people name towns?” But I started doing the research. And what really caught my attention was the settlement stories. So it switched from how did this town get its name to who showed up made all the improvements basically how anyone got each individual town up and running.

Levulis: And that led you to 1,200 pages and two volumes?

Schlimmer: Yeah, 1,200 pages, two volumes. And I anticipated it being maybe 10% of that, 120 pages. But I came across the settlement stories. And even the naming of the town itself is very interesting. And I said, “Man, these stories are too good, too tragic, too unique, too bold to go untold.

Levulis: Was there a particular story involving the settlement of one of the 92 towns within the Adirondack Park that made you change course so to say or now, having, you know, looked at all of them is most interesting to you personally?

Schlimmer: Well, they're all pretty good, but I'm partial to the settlement of the town of Plattsburgh. Now, the majority of the town is actually outside of the Park. But I counted any town even if they had a little corner inside the current Adirondack Park boundary. Why I was partial to Plattsburgh is I went to school there, and I lived there for about six or seven years. So as I'm reading the settlement stories, and maybe they're talking about a bend in the Saranac River, of course, they're going to settle the actual city of Plattsburgh, why the streets are named so, who is laying out the streets, I knew exactly where these places were, I could imagine them in my mind. And then a lot of names I started to recognize maybe on a street I used to live on, or something like that. The town of Plattsburgh itself was the first town formed in the Adirondack Park. It was formed before the Revolutionary War. So it's also a very old story. And it was also well-organized settlement. And we, you know, the original settlers, the Platts, were from Poughkeepsie, which is the town that I was actually born in. So I just found all these many connections to my life in Plattsburgh, and just really enjoyed the story.

Levulis: So we've mentioned your work in the region before. your research in the region into the history, was there a particular mystery I'll call it, that you finally were able to solve in the research for this book?

Schlimmer: There were quite a few. So when I write the same books, history books, toponym books, I spend about 10% to 15% of my time correcting mistakes from the past. And a lot of the mistakes revolve around who was where at what time. And the who stems from a lot of last names being spelled incorrectly. So for example, you'll have a town in the interior of the Adirondacks. And people will say, “Well, we really don't know who settled it. You know, maybe their name was Homestead.” And this was an actual example. And I'm trying to do a lot of research on this Homestead family, but I don't know I've never heard of a last name Homestead. Well, it turns out to be Olmstead. So that opens up an entirely new family, entirely new settlers. So it's kind of funny a lot of times historians in the past got the last names really close but since they're incorrect, nobody could do additional research.

Levulis: Any place names that you've kind of just said “OK, yeah, still up for debate?”

Schlimmer: Not the towns themselves. Those have been pretty well solved though a couple, there's a little ambiguity. I like toponyms that remain mysteries. Let's say you’re at a town, and you have a high mountain range or a big lake, and no one's been able to figure it out. Those are actually my favorite. I like the mystery. And I have this belief where every part of history maybe doesn't have to be solved. And that's OK.

Levulis: Now, since you've researched place names throughout eastern New York, including street names in Albany we should mention, what's your opinion on efforts to change place names that are seen by some to maybe celebrate historical figures that have complicated pasts? You know, what comes to mind, behaviors now deemed racist or out of touch with contemporary standards.

Schlimmer: That's a really good question. I like your term, complicated history. I'm of the more conservative side. So when I look at a name of a mountain of a street, something like that. And let's say it's portraying someone who by 2022 standards, is not a great guy or not a great woman, I keep two things in mind. And one is, we may be applying moral standards to an era we did not live in. And then also, that name still portrays accurate history. If it's something egregious, I'm totally on board with changing that name. But it's also a slippery slope to go down. And then you'll have names that actually have no negative connotation to it. But since people didn't do their research, they just automatically assume it's offensive or automatically assume something bad about it. So if somebody wants to change a name, that's fine. But they have to do their due diligence first. They have to find out what the name actually means.

Levulis: And have you uncovered any differences in the approach of naming places? Like for instance, in a city like Albany versus you know, rural regions like the Adirondacks?

Schlimmer: Right, so when you look at cities, every city possesses what they call clusters of street names, for example. So I know Albany has a cluster of Ivy League school names, they have a cluster of Dutch settler names, they have a cluster of presidential names. Out in the wilderness, it's kind of like if you took all those names threw them in a hat, and just spilled them onto a coffee table, there's really no pattern left anymore. So you could have a ridge with a certain name, the pond below it, totally unrelated. So for example, the ridge might be named for a person, the pond right below it, you would think you could carry that name down to the pond. But instead, they named it after a moose or a bear or something like that. I like that because it demands that I do better research because I can't often detect a pattern. Of course in the mountains, you're gonna have a lot more names that carry the names of flora and fauna, which I'm always a fan of. I like the natural names best.

Levulis: Now we last spoke in 2021. That was about your book from “Northville to Placid.” At the time, you mentioned the book we've been speaking about “With an Ax and a Rifle” was in the works, but also one decoding all 389 toponyms of Lake Champlain. Now, what's the status of that work?

Schlimmer: Well, right before I picked up the phone, I was actually reading the final version of the manuscript. So that book is completely written. It's completely laid out. I'm doing just one last review before it goes to the printer. That will be called Deep History. And you got to decoding the 382 toponyms of Lake Champlain. Again, I'm partial to Lake Champlain. I grew up about 20 minutes from the shore and then got my undergrad in Plattsburgh. I especially like Lake Champlain because I'm not very intimate with it. The Adirondack Mountains, it’s kind where I grew up and where I worked and all this other stuff, I have a great relationship with that range. Lake Champlain was a little bit more mysterious for me. I mean, most of the toponyms I had never even heard of, never even seen so far. And so it was fresh ground or fresh body of water for me to cover.

Levulis: And because you've referred to yourself as a binge writer, I'll ask anything else in the works then?

Schlimmer: I am a binge writer and I'm fooling nobody, including myself. So every time I finish a book after three, four years of research, I say, “oh my goodness, I'm totally exhausted.” There's always something in the works. Deep History will be my 10th book. And I was thinking, oh can nice, easy number, but wouldn't you know it I’m already starting another manuscript, it's probably going to be chronology of events in the Adirondack Mountains, more of a research tool than lay person reading.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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