In the 1990s I would visit Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks (AfPA) vice president and archivist Paul Schaefer (1908-1996) at his home in Niskayuna to learn as much as I could from him about wilderness preservation.
After he died, Paul was named one of the 100 top conservationists in the United States by Audubon magazine. I was the executive director of the AfPA and learned a great deal from Paul during the last decade of his life.
From an apprentice carpenter in the 1920s Paul went on to build hundreds of homes, including his own – many in the distinctive Dutch revival style for which he became known. They had big beams, plank floors, lintels over the doors, and slate roofs (he preferred Granville slate, he told me). He also built Adirondack camps, simple or elaborate. Some of the beams he used came from Dutch barns or Dutch homes being torn down near Albany.
As a young man plying his trade and raising a family with his wife Carolyn during the Great Depression and the Second World War, Paul Schaefer faced many challenges. After I left one of his regular story-telling sessions, I tried to capture what he told me with a small tape recorder – so I could get the details right. This story is from January, 1991.
Paul was reminiscing about the Depression years and the Second World War, years when the bank withheld his assets from his construction company and then closed and would not allow any withdrawals, forcing him to do odd jobs to survive. During the War, there were restrictions on the use of some building materials and limits were set on the cost of housing. This kept his construction business limited.
Paul read the Schenectady newspaper that Schenectady County’s airport in Scotia, quite small at the time, was scheduled by the federal government for a big expansion to include a bombing range and military airfield. Trees had to be cleared immediately, and pretty big trees at that.
Paul put down the newspaper immediately proceeded to the airfield. He took one look and discovered about ten state and county workers clipping goldenrod by hand. “My gosh, that’s the quality of their labor,” Paul said to himself and went to speak with the person in charge.
“You want someone to cut trees for you, don’t you?”
“Yes,” came the reply.
“What are they cutting goldenrod for?”
“They don’t have the skills to cut trees,” they responded.
“Well, you’ve got your man here,” Paul said, and they did.
Paul contacted someone he knew pretty well, George Morehouse in Bakers Mills, up in the Adirondacks in northwestern Warren County. George was “handy.” Paul asked him to come south and give him a hand felling the airfield trees. Each week, Paul would drive up Route 9 to Bakers Mills (a 2-3 hour trip one way in those days), pick George up and drive him down to Scotia where they would cut for days at a time. George would stay at Paul’s home in Niskayuna. There were no chain saws available, so they a two-man cross-cut saw. “We worked together real smooth,” Paul remembered.
They cut and cut. At one point they got a saw wedged in a tree, and left it there. Many months later, he returned to find it rusted except that portion of the blade within the bole of the tree which was still gleaming steel. Paul passed along this tip – if ever you want a cross-cut blade to remain nice and shiny, keep it in a piece of oak. That blade was a part of Paul’s memorabilia lost when his barn burned years later.
While driving along what would become the runway, Paul would take a certain route back and forth between his tree-cutting job and the county road. One time he decided to take a different route. That decision was a fortunate one for at that very moment a fixed wing military aircraft came down and landed right in the strip Paul would typically drive along.
The plane landed at a high rate of speed and headed straight for a big pile of dirt. It hit the soft dirt and tipped tail up and nose down. Paul quickly drove over to the plane.
“Two fellas with cuts and bruises cursing a blue streak got out,” Paul said. Their plane was loaded up with ammunition headed for England for the war effort, the men said. With such an important cargo, the two were worried that they would be “run out of this man’s army” and “had missed their big chance.” They were cursing and swearing and Paul never forgot the episode.
One Friday afternoon after cutting trees George said “Paul, I have to get home.” Paul offered to let him stay overnight and drive him home the next day.
“I’ve got to get home today,” George told him. “Dead tired,” Paul drove George to Bakers Mills and then drove himself back to Schenectady County. Back in Scotia, Paul was so tired that he didn’t notice the railroad tracks just ahead of him. He put on the brakes just before a train roared past.
So that’s one of the ways Paul Schaefer, wilderness advocate, guide, and home builder, got by. By selling some of the wood from the airport job as lumber and firewood, and helping to turn the little airfield in Scotia, into a military facility.
Photos, from above: Paul Schaefer shouldering an axe photographer unknown; Paul Schaefer, front, with John Apperson in 1947 courtesy Howard Zahniser; and Paul Schaefer standing outside his home and the archive of the Association for the Protection of the Adirondacks in 1963 courtesy the Schenectady Gazette.