North of the Catskills and west of Vermont, in northeastern New York State, lie the Adirondack Mountains. Their rugged forests and sparkling lakes have a special wilderness beauty. This was a popular vacation spot and health retreat in the early nineteenth century. Home region of Lake Placid and and the headwaters of the Hudson River, this are was also the birthplace of an American classic, the Adirondack chair.
The term "Adirondack" refers to a region of the upper Appalachian Mountains
Cloaked in deep green forest, these ancient mountains between the Great Lakes and the Atlantic coast were home to countless generations of Native Americans. Iroquois people fished the clear lakes, hunted, and cultivated small gardens. As early (in our 21st century perspective) as the 1600s, brave French outdoorsmen made forays into the area. Plentiful fur animals and huge timber forests kept them there; as forests in the more accessible valleys were cut, white farmers settled in. British colonists in turn took an interest in the region, scuffling with the French in the 1700s. But even after British, and then new American colonists, declared "ownership" of the area, the rugged interior of the Adirondacks was left untamed. White colonists inherited a European view of wilderness. They saw it as dangerous, leaving remote areas to those wishing to exploit the fur, logging or mineral resources within. In the 1800s, Americans like author James Fenimore Cooper, philosopher Henry David Thoreau, and artist Frederick Remington began changing how "white men" thought about the wilderness.
What was once feared as dangerous was increasingly seen as simply natural and pure, benignly untamed and ruggedly beautiful.
Adirondack; or, Life in the Woods was published in 1849. This writing and others spurred tourism in the Adirondacks. Rustic camps were opened, expanded, and then quickly morphed into luxury resort destinations of the late 1800s. Within decades, there were hundreds of hotels in the region, served by railroad lines. Well-to-do families built increasingly lavish woodland and lakeside retreats. Some of these rusticly grand properties, modestly referred to as "great camps," are preserved and now listed as National Historic Landmarks.
The area was very comfortable by 1903 except, apparently, for the lack of a good chair.
Vacationing doctor Thomas Lee was in Westport in 1903, so the story goes. Needing a comfortable chair for his convalescing mother, he built some in a simple design. He used one large plank, cut it into eleven pieces, and assembled a comfortable chair with wide armrests. Little did he know a classic piece of furniture had just been born. After making chairs to fill his family's needs, Lee gave his design to a friend, a financially-strapped hunting buddy and permanent Adirondack resident. Carpenter Harry Bunnell saw an opportunity for income, patented the design, and began producing "Westport plank chairs." The original Westport plank chair design has a back and seat of solid wood plank, unlike today's slatted "Adirondack" chair designs. History doesn't record whether Lee knew about or approved or Bunnell's patent of the chair design. (I'd like to think Lee was happy to help a friend.) Bunnell produced plank chairs for decades, stamping them with his patent number, amd making some modifications to the design. Those "Westport" chairs were sold within a limited region centered on Westport, New York.
Locally crafted and produced, the quintessential outdoor chair evolved into today's Adirondack chair.
Sturdy, stable, simple, built to recline and view the sunset, that's the Adirondack chair as we now know it. The seat has a noticeable backward leaning slant. This serves to counteract the sometimes sloping ground of campsites in mountainous retreats, as well as make the chair better for "sitting in and staying in." Some say that the secret to a comfortable Adirondack chair lies in the correct angle of the seat, back and armrests relative to each other. There's one more thing — a true Adirondack chair must have wide flat armrests. These serve perfectly as side tables for your lunch plate, favorite gardening book, or large, cold beverage of choice.
Thomas Lee and Harry Bunnell would (I hope) feel honored. Adirondack chairs are now available in multiple materials and styles. There are rocking Adirondack chairs, slatted coordinating footrests, and plastic Adirondack chairs that stack. There are bamboo and cedar chairs, in natural wood finishes or brightly painted. DIY instructions for chairs are all over the Web. If Google images are to be believed, Adirondack chairs are now found from Québec to New Orleans. But wherever they are found, these chairs signify "outdoors relaxation and summer fun." I can personally attest that research for this article has caused me to suffer waves of nostalgia for northeast summer camp experiences that I never had. Adirondack chairs: an American original, and, as Martha Stewart might say, "a good thing."
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Image of Adirondack chair courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under GNU licenising
I liked this video from a maker of Adirondack chairs: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVVL17gD5PU
About Sally G. Miller
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.