I have always been fascinated by the Book Case Boat. I first saw a photo of it in Kenneth and Helen Durant’s The Adirondack Guideboat. Here it is minus books:
It is obviously a very old boat and I would claim that it is one the the very first Adirondack guideboats. Evidence that it is a guideboat is plain to see; an elliptical flat bottom board, roots form the ribs, it is rowed using thole pins, and it was carried using a yoke.
I became obsessed with learning all I could about this ancient craft. Who made it? Where was it used and how? At one point Hallie Bond, former Curator at the Museum, and I planned a trip to Brandreth Park to view the boat. I hoped to obtain as much information as I could including some critical measurements that would allow it to be reproduced. Our visit was cancelled at the last minute. So my quest to learn all I could about the Book Case boat was stymied, for the moment. But my interest in the book case boat only grew stronger. It became a family joke. When ever I mentioned the boat, which was quite often, my wife Fran would laugh and say “Are you on that book case boat thing again?”
Fortunately, two recent publications have shed new light on the book Case Boat. Stephen Sulavik’s book, page 44 reads, ” A very old boat, possibly built by William Austin, was discovered, its stern submerged in mud on the shore of Brandreth Lake, west of Long Lake. The name B. Brandreth is stamped inside on a plank near the bow. At a much later date the year “1848” was painted on its bow deck, not unlikely by the artist Paulene Brandreth. The stern has long since been removed and the upright boat fitted with shelves for books. It is obvious that the boat was carried by one person: There are rounded notches on the tops of both gunwales, worn down by the ends of a carrying yoke. The boat was relatively short, 12 to 14 feet in length, and estimated to weigh about 120 pounds. It was rowed using thole pins rather than metal oarlocks. (editor’s note- there are two rowing stations just as in later guideboats). Its most striking feature is that its construction-a flat elliptical bottom board with ribs sawn from natural crooks-is similar to that of the Adirondack guideboat”
The caption on figure 1-11 of Sulavik’s book (the figure is a photo of the bookcase boat), reads, “The hull is made of four strakes on each side. There is a prominent stem post, a straight deck, placed between the sheer planks, a clapboard-lapstrake outer hull, a smooth lapstrake inner hull, and a flat elliptical bottom board made from two lengthwise pieces.
And from Brandreth, written by D. and O. Potter, page 252 reads, “In the early days at Brandreth, large guideboats-wide and heavily built freighters-were loaded with people and baggage and rowed up the full length of the lake. One of these, the oldest boat at Brandreth Lake ( and perhaps one of the oldest in the Adirondacks) has been pressed into service as a book case at Camp Good Enough. ”
So what do we now know about the book case boat? Surely it was obtained by Benjamin Brandreth at the very opening of Brandreth Park to shuttle family and visitors up and down Brandreth Lake from the point of entry to the various camps. It was one of the Brandreth family’s “freighter” guideboats. I assume this from Sulavik’s description of the boat (B. Brandreth stamped on a plank, and that the boat was found at Brandreth Lake). That would put the boat at the same age as the camp, about 170 years.
Well, who built the book case boat? A clue comes from the unlikely partnership of guide Honest John Plumley and James Blandford, business associate of Benjamin Brandreth. If you read my last post you would remember that the the two were sent by Benjamin to scout out Adirondack lands for sale by the State of New York. Brandreth had heard of these and wished to obtain some portion of them. Plumley and Blandford apparently found Township 39 that enclosed Brandreth Lake quite appealing and decided to recommend its purchase to Benjamin.
While on the site of Township 39 discussions between Plumley and Blandford probably included where to site camps (living quarters). That would lead to how to transport people and goods up and down the lake. The discussions may have gone as follows; James- “So Benjamin will need some sort of watercraft in order to make these lands habitable?” John- “Indeed, small wooden row boats are indispensable for getting around up here. There are no roads worthy of the term. Every settler has a boat and we often share them. We sometimes borrow boats by dropping off our boat at one end of a carry (portage) and pick up a neighbor’s boat at the other end.” James- “So where do these boats come from?” John- “Some settlers know how to build boats and the make their own.” James-“Are there any boat builders who might build several for a new camp? John- “William Austin is a neighbor of mine on Long Lake. He builds sturdy rowboats that are well made and last long time. He builds about one boat every two weeks and sells them for $50.” James-“Good! How many of these boats would be needed to run the new camp?” John- “I would start with about a half dozen.” James- “All right, if Benjamin agrees to purchase Township 39 we will have Austin build six of his boats for us.”
So now the book case boat, spared from rotting away because it became a piece of furniture, resides in Camp Good Enough in Brandreth Park. The boat represents a sort of time capsule, It was built by an early settler who arrived from Vermont and found his talents as a boat builder to be in demand. His talent, as well as guides Reuben Cary and John Plumley were crucial to the building of the Adirondack Great Camps. There was no culture clash been the native Adirondackers and the very wealthy. In fact the life style of guides and other settlers was envied by the “city folk”. They represented a kind of free spirit not to be found in the crowded and polluted cities.
So what is to become of the book case boat? Of course it can continue to reside at Camp Good Enough at Brandreth Park. There are two main reasons for not continuing housing it there; safety and its status as an artifact of immense value to lovers of the Adirondacks. The first point, safety, is quite obvious, the danger of fire. Other physical threats like vandalism are not as likely.
The second point, that the book case boat has great worth as a cultural icon is more important. It represents the entrepreneurial spirit of the Adirondack people that has survived to this day. They are hands-on people who, confronted with a problem, jump in to solve it.
This may e something of a stretch but I see the book case boat in a similar light as the Wright Brother’s plane or Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. Shouldn’t the book case boat be on display in a museum for all to admire? I certainly think so.