I grew up in the northern Adirondack Mountains, so summers were about as perfect as any child could hope for. Within a two hour drive, there are over 60 lakes, the majority of them available for swimming or boating.
If you are changing the radio station in your car as you drive through the town of Caroga Lake, you might miss the shops, or should I say shop.
There’s one small convenience store where you can buy necessities and food, a laundromat, a gas station, a cafe where you can get breakfast, lunch and homemade rice pudding, a pizza joint, a bar with a restaurant attached, and a soft serve ice cream stand. On the left is the ‘other lake,’ the west side of Caroga Lake, which is attached to the ‘east side of the lake’ where I grew up, via a bridge.
When motor boats pass under the bridge to get to the ‘other lake,’ they have to slow down to a snail’s crawl and raise their motor since its so shallow, although my insane uncles and father skiied under the bridge as kids, ruining more than one engine along the way, something my grandfather was so furious about, the keys were taken away for half the summer.
Also on the west side of the lake was a very small amusement park called Shermans which has been sold twice since then and although its no longer a ‘real’ amusement park, the locals who have been around for generations still talk about the times Shermans was open for merry-go-round rides, games, dancing and dinners all summer.
My memories revolve around live music, stuffed animals, bumper cars and soft serve ice cream. The Frostee stand at the front of the park shown below, used to have a line day or night and although its offerings were pretty simple – vanilla or chocolate – the cones were creamy and delicious, and at the time, they used unprocessed dairy products.
“Big band” played in the large hall next to the frostee stand and they had family style dinners that were affordable for most families. I used to love to watch my grandparents waltz or jitterbug and they weren’t alone; most couples from that generation spent time kicking their heals up on the floor since dancing was such an integral part of their era.
Despite the fact that my memory included a lot of over indulging of martinis and manhattans, the dancing and laughter somehow diffused the drunkedness not to mention the smoke in the air that exuded from everyone’s cigarettes dangling from their right hand fingers.
Families hosted clam bakes at their camps — adults drank, smoke and chucked clams, and children swam, played tetherball and badminton. Joint activities included cards, croquet and skiing and afterwards, the women always retreated to the kitchen to wash up ‘together’ while the men lit up again while preparing the firepit for marshmallows in the evening.
In the seventies, I always felt that there was no better place to be during the summer. While Caroga Lake may have been the poor stepchild to some of the larger more upscale lakes like the Sacandaga or Lake George, which had many more year-round homes and expensive properties, it had its own charm that was hard to beat. It still does.
Sadly, it doesn’t draw the crowds it once did, some of which is the result of the economy, the amusement park no longer in operation and so many businesses shutting down.
Fireworks would be the draw on July 4 and us east side dwellers would venture over to the west side often by boat to see the fireworks go off, although the best memories were of the fireworks we fired off ourselves. Whatever we could afford was shot out over the lake from our docks and patios.
When you live on a lake, the water becomes the centerpoint. As kids, we used to bath in the lake every day. Not everyone had showers and most were on septic tanks. Often even before breakfast, we’d throw the plastic neon green Prell tube out 20 feet or so and swim out to greet it.
You’d wash your hair, swim for a bit and then return to a full breakfast you’d share outside. The lake took a beating in those days. Some people even drained the water from their sinks into the lake after washing dishes.
No one realized at the time the damage the soaps and conditioners were doing to the bottom of the lake, changing the ecosystem, creating ‘weeds’ and affecting the fish. As soon as the warnings were out, people stopped ‘soaping’ and started a committee to preserve the lake. My grandfather was a big part of this committee, which was set up through the “lake association” dedicated to ‘lake business.’
Part of ‘lake business’ included the festivities on the Fourth of July. We’d help my grandfather with his association duties, which on the Fourth, meant driving around in a station wagon with the windows down and a bull horn. Shouting as loud as we could through this thing, we let residents know about the boat parade that would take place that evening and that we had flares for sale….a buck a piece.
Flares were used for the front of your proprety when it got dark, which meant that the entire lake would light up in red, adding to the magic of Independence Day.
Flares were also used for those participating in the boat parade and placed on the back of the boat, so the line of boats too would light up as a red circle. Magic.
If you were in the boat parade, you’d talk to people in nearby boats and our voices would echo across the lake, so everyone heard what we were saying. In a small community, everyone knows everyone else’s business and this was part of learning about who was doing what. As it got darker and darker, you either made your way over to the other lake for the official fireworks or you headed back to your own camp to light up your own.
Usually we did both.
As I got older, we’d head to New Hampshire to buy fireworks, since it was pretty much illegal to purchase them everywhere else. Our neighbors always had some they’d shoot off from their docks as well yet the more expensive “splashy stars in the sky” were only part of the experience.
There were also sizzlers and firecrackers, to ensure no one slept, as light would illuminate the sky and sounds would echo across the lake all night long.
The thing that was most memorable aside from the shared firework experience between the camps, was the community that was created as a result.
The front of the camps were open (for the most part, they still are), so you could walk across the front of the properties visiting neighbors, borrow an egg or milk if you needed to, or take in the ‘coming of nightfall’ on another family’s front porch. Along Garlock Road, which was a dirt road for my entire childhood, the families have lived there for as long as I can remember….second and third generations are not uncommon.
So, today, I light a candle for my grandparents who gave me the best summer memories any child could hope for and one for the Caroga Lake community who gave me many years of red lit moments as we brought in the Fourth of July together star after star, year after year.
Photo Credits: housedreamsphoto and Caroga Lake site. All of my best photos of these precious moments were not taken digitally.