Lake Placid, New York: John Brown’s Farm

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When my boyfriend and I were first planning this road trip, I decided I wanted to go up to the Adirondacks both to see Almanzo Wilder‘s childhood home, which is about 40 miles north of Lake Placid, and to see the old TB sanitariums in Saranac Lake.  Unfortunately, both these plans fell through thanks to a combination of poor planning on my part (the TB Museum was closed on the one day we were there), and the rather infrequently updated and unhelpful website of the Wilder House (it had the opening hours for the summer season listed, but it never stated when the summer season ended, and then, in mid-October, well after we’d booked our hotels, they posted they were closed for the season.  It would be great if they had just listed the end of the season in the first place!).  So after enjoying a superb waffle and mimosa from the Breakfast Club in Lake Placid, wandering in a few souvenir shops, and grabbing a soft serve from the local ice creamery, we needed to find something else to do.  I’d noticed signs pointing to John Brown’s Farm when we drove into Lake Placid, and was intrigued.  (Just to be clear, this is John Brown the abolitionist I’m talking about, not John Brown, servant and confidant of Queen Victoria.)

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The town I’m from in Ohio is actually quite near to some John Brown sites; his father owned a tannery in Hudson (there’s an Owen Brown Road running through Hudson’s rather posh shopping district), and John Brown also lived in Kent and Akron.  There’s even still a John Brown House standing in Akron, though I’ve never visited it (which is strange, since I went to a university right by it for four years), but the Summit County Historical Society has odd opening hours, and they don’t really advertise their properties.  I remembered reading about a farm in New York in Tony Horwitz’s excellent Midnight Rising (recommended if you want to learn more about John Brown’s life and the events leading up to Harper’s Ferry), but the town it was in was called North Elba, so I never made the connection with Lake Placid (apparently Lake Placid is a village within the larger town of North Elba).  John Brown was a peripatetic man, spending time in Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, and of course Kansas and Virginia, so he only lived at the New York farm for two years, having moved there to support a social experiment wherein land grants were given to poor black families to encourage them to become self-sufficient (which ultimately failed due to a combination of the bigotry of local residents and a lack of farming experience on the part of the settlers).  However, he is buried there, so has taken up a more permanent residence in death.

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We were greeted by the rather paternalistic statue above, having parked some ways down the road, as it wasn’t clear whether we could park in front of the property.  It is run by the National Park Service, who charge a modest $2 entry fee to the site.  After checking out Brown’s grave, which is under a massive rock, per his request, and the graves of a few other men who were killed as a result of the raid on Harpers Ferry, including two of his sons, we headed into the cabin, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic ranger.  He gave us a detailed history of the farm and the cabin, and pointed out objects of interest in the house.

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These included a daguerreotype of Brown’s son Oliver (who was killed during the raid) and his wife, and a shaving cup made from a piece of the scaffold Brown was hanged from (Oliver seems like he might have been a bit of a looker, but I might just like his facial hair).  The cabin is pretty tiny, only four rooms, especially considering Brown had twenty children, though only half of them lived to adulthood, and some of them were grown men by the time he was living there, so probably weren’t under the same roof anymore.  I’m sure the ranger explained exactly who was living there, as he mentioned how one of Brown’s sons had the cabin built on his behalf to John Brown’s specifications, but the details escape me; not because they weren’t interesting, but because it was a lot to take in.

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I have to mention how nice the ranger was – I didn’t catch his name, but you could tell he was really passionate about John Brown, and wanted to know everything he could about him, which is really great to see .  I love fellow history nerds (we talked for a bit after he finished his presentation, and he seemed genuinely interested in my background in history as well).   I was so impressed with the staff of the National Park Service on this trip, especially relative to the much more reserved (dare I say, occasionally snobby) employees you get at National Trust properties.  Anyway, after finishing exploring the cabin, we headed down to the barn, which had a video about slavery and the Underground Railroad inside.

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John Brown’s Farm is a small site with a fascinating history, and I’m glad we stopped by.  It makes a nice change if you’re tired of all the Olympic and touristy stuff in Lake Placid (although you can see some of the ski jumps from the property, as pictured above, so you won’t be escaping entirely), but bear in mind that it is only open from May-October.  It won’t take you very long to look around, but I think it’s well worth seeing the final resting place of a man who played such a pivotal role in American history due to engineering a link in the chain of events that would ultimately trigger the Civil War.  3/5

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One comment

  1. That looks like a great museum to visit. It’s definitely on my list when I’m in upstate NY next (which isn’t often). I believe the John Brown house in Akron is used as storage for the Summit County Historical Society. At least it was when I was volunteering there. Thanks for the book tip as well.

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