In the small Adirondack town of Long Lake there are certain revered folks; you might call them town fathers. Over the years they have earned their respect. They have served in our country’s wars, Korea and Vietnam. Their attachment to the Adirondacks is deep and goes back at least several generations. They are the receptacles of the town’s history. This is especially valued by the town’s people since they love to recall their history and go to great lengths to preserve it.
Of course these men have their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. These traits make them even more beloved to the town people who are fond of retelling the legends about their town fathers. One of these men is Tom Bissell.
I have known Tom for many years and am privileged to call him friend. Our relationship with Tom and the town of Long Lake began 30 years ago on a rainy, chilly fourth of July weekend. We were camped at Forked (pronounced fork-ed) Lake and decided to jump in the car and at least get warm and dry. We left the boys to fish and headed to the nearest town, Long Lake. While driving along Fran spotted a sign saying “waterfront lots for sale”. She said, “Let’s go look at them”. It was against my better judgement but I agreed and we turned onto Endion Road ( we learned later that Endion means “home” in the Native American language). We met Tom who showed us 5 lots that he had just finished preparing for sale. We fell in love with one lot in particular but figured we should look at others to get an idea of what was available. We found nothing that was even close to what Tom had shown us. So a couple of days later found us back at Tom’s home.
Tom invited us in and a long discussion ensued with him and his wife Jane. The discussion ranged over our families and the five generations that Tom’s family had been in Long Lake. I eventually told Tom that we wanted to purchase a lot from him. He said “Fine.” I asked if he wanted some sort of payment to hold the lot. He said “No, you’ll get some papers in the mail in a week or two”. Sure enough that’s what happened. So this is how business is transacted in Long Lake, by a handshake.
It turns out that Tom loves Adirondack guideboats. He once built one where the plank laps were glued together rather than sealed with clinched tacks in the traditional fashion. The prevailing wisdom was that tacks had to be used otherwise the plank laps would crack. He was right, when glued the planks didn’t crack.
When he showed his creation to others one of the town folk who was familiar with guideboats exclaimed “That’s no guideboat!” I can still hear Tom’s staccato chuckle as he recalled the scene.
When I first had the urge to build a guideboat I told Tom of my intention but that I didn’t know how to go about doing it. He invited me to sit down with him and he would show me how. I’ll never forget his tutelage. He had made a scrapbook that had photos of each step in the construction. It was an enormous help and set me off on the right track.
Tom has also built two models of guideboats. The craftsmanship displayed in these models is extraordinary and they are executed with exquisite detail. Here is a photo of Tom holding one of his models.
The model is complete with carrying yoke, “caned” seats and oars. Tom used extremely small copper tacks to seal the planks. He got the tacks from guideboat builder Wallace Emerson’s son who built several guideboat models. Here are additional photos of Tom’s model.
Tom said that it took as long to build one of these models as it did to build a full-sized guideboat! I can only imagine the patience it took to create this model.
We will visit again with Tom down the road.
Next time: Seneca Ray Stoddard.