Underpinning John Bird Burnham’s legacy as a conservationist was his interest in local Adirondack enterprise. From logging and sawmilling to manufacturing log homes and maple sugar candy, Burnham’s business interests were diverse and his influence widespread. At the leading edge of the 21st century the most enduring memorial to Burnham’s entrepreneurial ambitions is The Crater Club in Essex, New York.
John Bird Burnham’s Crater Club
[The Crater Club is a] seasonal enclave nestled along the shore of Lake Champlain between downtown Essex and Whallons Bay… founded and developed in the early 1900s by naturalist John Bird Burnham as a summer retreat… [for] outdoorsy families who swam, sailed, hiked, played tennis, etc. in order to recharge and refresh themselves. Unlike the decadent Great Camps often found deep in the Adirondacks, early members favored modest, understated cottages. (Essex on Lake Champlain)
Although the scale and style of The Crater Club cottages may have been modest, John Bird Burnham’s ambitions were not. He absorbed an important lesson about financing and leveraging real estate from John and Philip Traynor who constructed and rented homes. Build good credit, borrow judiciously, operate on a shoestring, control the supply chain, complete each project quickly, and then start another project.
This was the way the Crater Club began. Wilson & Sherman [the leading general store in Essex, owned by Wes Wilson and Fred Sherman] received 6% interest on their loans and also increased sales for their store from the more than 500 people who eventually made Essex their summer home… And so Burnham built cottage after cottage, only pausing between times until the papers were made out to warrant the next venture. (De Sormo, Maitland C.. John Bird Burnham: Klondiker, Adirondacker, Eminent Conservationist. Saranac Lake: New York Adirondack Yesteryears Inc., 1978. p. 116)
The restorative powers of living and playing in “rustic simplicity” (Adirondack Architectural Heritage Newsletter) fueled Burnham’s enthusiasm and early success. Apparently Burnham initiated construction of the rental cottage community 1899 before he even owned the land! (Adirondack History Center Museum: Essex County Historical Society).
By 1903 he had produced over 70 cabins and cottages, common club buildings, and hundreds of simply-made pieces of furniture for the buildings (Adirondack Architectural Heritage Newsletter). Early cottages were built near the southern end of Whallons Bay, but Burnham continued to purchase land from Stephen Decatur Derby permitting the community to grow further and further northward.
“The club continues today as an association of 42 homeowners whose camps are spread over 600 acres with common recreational facilities including 4 clay tennis courts; a stony beach with a swimming dock and float in the water, a boat dock, a youth group, a childrens playground and an athletic field, nature trails, a wonderful historic clubhouse, and Burnhams Landing, a lakeside shelter.” (Adirondack By Owner)
John Bird Burnham’s Log Cabins
In the process of developing The Crater Club, John Bird Burnham had become the first large-scale producer of pre-cut log cabins and log buildings in the United States.
By pre-cutting and pre-fiting logs which he felled and milled on his own property, he was able to effect economies not possible for the average builder. His three basic cabin models… became popular for homes, vacation use and real estate offices throughout the Northeast. (De Sormo, Maitland C.. John Bird Burnham: Klondiker, Adirondacker, Eminent Conservationist. Saranac Lake: New York Adirondack Yesteryears Inc., 1978. p. 127)
Marketed as REALOG CABIN, Burnham designed all of the cabin models himself and fabricated the log house kits for easy transport and installation.
Many may still stand unrecognized in the Adirondacks. Burnham advertised that “for every tree logged two more are planted.” (Adirondack Architectural Heritage Newsletter)
From writer to editor to conservationist to entrepreneur, John Bird Burnham’s ambitious, entrepreneurial energy transformed Essex during the the early decades of the 2oth century. And for a while he even transformed many American’s appetites for sweet delicacies… But you’ll have to wait for that story!