William ‘Jay’ O’Hern is all about the Adirondacks.
It started more than 60 years ago, when his family camped each summer around Nick’s Lake, Eighth Lake and Brown Tract Pond in the Adirondack lake country.
His love affair with the mountains accelerated in his 20s, when he began backpacking and bushwhacking through the wilderness, and climbing the High Peaks of Essex County. He’s been at it for the nearly a half-century since. He has indeed walked the walk, and he’s also talked the talk, producing a variety of books about the Adirondacks and the people who live there, with a special emphasis on the famed hermit, Noah John Rondeau and his friends.
‘I’m definitely interested in the social history,’ said O’Hern, a Camillus, native and retired Camden schools social studies, English and reading teacher. ‘It’s not just about someone like Noah John Rondeau, but so many of the original and native Adirondack families that I met. I feel privileged that they have shared information with me. I feel a real obligation to the history of the mountains. It’s going to disappear if we don’t record it.’
And record it he does, sharing his passion at the Town of Webb Historical Society, in Inlet, at the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain, and until recently at Great Camp Sagamore.
O’Hern’s interest in regional history and lore of the North Country led him to seek out area natives and long-time residents and relatives of local guides, loggers, woodsmen and woodswomen. Vintage family photos and stories gained from hundreds of interviews are finding their way into O’Hern’s non-fiction Adirondack history books. At present count twelve books have been released but more are in the works. Retirement is now allowing him the leisure time needed to complete his goal.
Now, O’Hern has three new books for those who appreciate the mountains, their people and their history.
“Adirondack Memories and Campfire Stories: Honoring the Mountains and Their History,” “Adirondack Wilds: Exploring the Haunts of Noah John Rondeau,” and “The Hermit and Us: Our Adirondack Adventures with Noah John Rondeau” are new volumes from O’Hern. They are packed with history, stories and adventures that lovers of the mountains should enjoy, and they are full of vintage photos, as well.
‘I’ve been trying to document it so maybe 50 years from now somebody will say, ‘I’m glad this guy did this,” O’Hern said.
O’Hern interviewed a great many people who made their lives in the mountains, and, in Rondeau’s case, spoke to quite a lot of who knew the famous hermit.
‘I’m interested in people’s personal histories as well as social history,’ he said.
And in Rondeau’s case? This was a character who lived a very idiosyncratic life for decades in his own little shanty town in the Cold River country, far from the comforts of civilization, although he did spend more and more of his winters in more comfortable citified circumstances as he grew older.
‘I think the fascination with Rondeau has to do, more than anything, with the freedom and independence his lifestyle projects,’ O’Hern said, although he allows that that lifestyle meant months of tolerating heat and cold and blackflies and only the company of woodland creatures, while relying on subsistence hunting-gathering and the kindness of acquaintances to fill the pot.
“Adirondack Memories and Campfire Stories” is an anthology of first-hand stories from the little quarterly magazines George Glyndon Cole published from 1946 through 1974. There are many colorful tales included, from fireside legends to tall tales to weird beliefs of early North Country folks.
“Adirondack Wilds” is based on O’Hern’s adventures and conversations with Richard Smith, who had been a close friend of Rondeau’s. When O’Hern and his wife backpacked though the Cold River country, they trekked to many of the places that Smith and Rondeau had frequented many years before, reliving many of the unique experiences of an earlier time. O’Hern also interviewed many others who knew Rondeau and who had spent time at his ‘Town Hall’ on the river – Clarence Petty, Adolph Dittmar, Helen Colyer Menz, Mary Colyer Dittmar, Clarence and Stacia Whiteman, Charlie and Polly Russ and many others.
“The Hermit and Us” invites readers to travel the trails with a myriad of backpackers, close friends, and relatives of the so-called ‘Hermit-Mayor’ who mountain-hiked to the hermitage that Rondeau labeled ‘Wig Wam City – Population One.’ It is full of memories and great stories that have never before been published such as those of Ted and Eleanor Hillman of Saranac Lake, Wilmington’s Madeline Dodge, and former columnist Billy Burger from Westport, along with other familiar and not-so-familiar Adirondack natives.
The books are available at The Old Forge Hardware and The Adirondack Reader in Inlet, and other Adirondack bookstores throughout the mountains, at his website: www.adkwilds.com.
O’Hern is available for book signings and interviews at [email protected] Jay’s current book signing dates appear on www.northcountryauthors.org.