What might Lake George have looked like 265 years ago, on the eve of the French attack on Fort William Henry?
That’s the focus of the display in the entryway to the Fort museum and historical attraction. It includes three figures – an American provincial, a British regular and a ranger, all created by the late Jack Binder for the reconstructed fort, which opened to the public in 1955.
More evocative of mid-century, roadside attractions than a venerable, 18th century past, those mannequins introduce visitors to another aspect of Fort William Henry’s history – its legacy as one of the nation’s oldest and most popular heritage tourism destinations.
After the American Revolution, the site was a stop on “the Great Northern Tour,” which led visitors up the Hudson River to Lake George and Lake Champlain and scenes of the French and Indian War as well as the Revolution.
In the two centuries that followed the French destruction of Fort William Henry in 1757, the only visible reminder of the fort was the old well on the grounds of the hotel, which local photographer and tour guide author Seneca Ray Stoddard urged every traveler to visit.
“The French,” wrote Stoddard in his 1873 guide to Lake George, “burned whatever they could not carry off. They could not steal or burn the ‘Old Fort Well,’ however, and it still remains, partially filled with stones and rubbish.”
It was rumored that the British hid their gold and silver in the well during the siege of 1757. After the surrender of the fort to the Marquis de Montcalm, the officers’ wives who had been told that they would be granted safe passage to Fort Edward threw their jewelry into the well “having a premonition of disaster,” according to one account.
After a 1909 fire, a year-round hotel was built on the property approximately 150 years after the destruction of the fort.
“Honeymoon couples would walk by the well and throw silver coins into it, believing that this offering to the legends of the ghosts which have been said to inhabit the walls of the old fort, would bring them good luck, and future happiness,” the Lake George Mirror recounted in 1955.
The well was most recently excavated in 1997, under the supervision of the late archeologist David Starbuck.
“Since 1960, the well had been the center of attention for every school child who visited the fort,” Starbuck wrote in his 2002 book, Massacre at Fort William Henry (Univ. Press of New England, 2002). “They left us with a forty-year legacy of tourist memorabilia.”
Starbuck and his assistants found toys, sunglasses – and a lot of bubblegum.
According to Lindsay Doyle, the Fort William Henry Museum’s director, it is not certain how the Fort William Henry Corporation, whose president, E. J. McEnaney, was largely responsible for reconstructing the fort, came to hire Jack Binder.
His skills, though, perfectly matched the needs of the museum and attraction.
According to Anna Arkins, the museum’s collections manager, Binder was at the site during the first archaeological excavations, conducted between 1952 and 1954.
“He drew a lot of the artifacts that were found here,” said Arkins. “In fact, he drew them being used actively by the soldiers, so our visitors could see how a metal axe head, for instance, would have been handled. He has quite a history here.”
Binder’s skills as a draftsman were not the only ones employed by Fort William Henry. He was also in demand as a sculptor and fabricator.
In his 2014 book, The Legacy of Fort William Henry: Resurrecting the Past, David Starbuck wrote, “What made the exhibits in the 1950s the strongest were the many colorful dioramas and mannequins that were the creation of Jack Binder, a prominent commercial artist.”
(Many of Binder’s creations were lost in September, 1967, when an arsonist set fire to the fort’s West Barracks, Anna Arkins said.)
According to Arkins, Binder called his three-dimensional figures “carnival art.”
“He experimented with new materials – polyester resins – and old techniques such as glass fibers, beads and sawdust to create figures of historical and fantasy characters,” she said.
Although the historical characters and dioramas that Binder made for Fort William Henry comprised his largest commission, his work found homes throughout the Lake George region at places that included Ghost Town, Story Town, Canada Street, the community’s miniature golf courses.
A giant Viking lured motorists off Route 9N and into Norge Village, a cabin colony composed of kit cottages imported from Norway. (According to Craig Clesceri, whose family turned Norge Village into today’s Horicon Heights, the Viking’s ignominious end came after serving as a standing target for too many hunters over too many years.)
One of Binder’s most prominent signs is still intact on the Bolton Road: made for Canoe Island Lodge, it features a 3- dimensional canoe paddled by a Mohawk.
In retrospect, no less interesting is Jack Binder’s career in New York, which he left behind when he moved to Warren County in 1945.
Binder, born Yanos John Ronaldo Binder in Austria in 1902, was part of the generation of Jewish artists who created the comic book industry in the 1930s and sustained it through much of the 1940s.
According to author and graphic novelist Arie Kaplan, who delivered a virtual lecture titled “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews, Justice, and Comic Books” earlier this year at Manhattan’s Workers Circle, daily newspapers rejected submissions from Jewish artists; as a consequence they sought new outlets.
“In 1938, the Jewish creators of Superman, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, had been rejected from the higher-paying advertising field and were still living at their parents’ homes,” Kaplan said. “So, it was comic books for them.”
Jack Binder moved from Chicago to New York in 1936 to work at the studio of Harry “A” Chesler, one of that era’s “packagers” who provided content for publishers hoping to profit from the new medium.
By 1943, 95% of pre-teen children were regular comic book readers, and in that year, Binder created and began to draw Mary Marvel from stories, or scripts, written by his brother Otto Binder.
Otto Binder also wrote Superman scripts.
Scholars continue to study the relationship between the civilization-saving powers of the early comic book heroes and the struggles against fascism during the Second World War, between the Old Testament and Superman – or Kal- El in Hebrew, meaning “all of God.”
Jack Binder began attending ComicCon gatherings in New York in the 1960s, where he was greeted “as something of a hero,” he told the Warrensburg-Lake George News in 1966.
“Some of these youngsters were able to identify my unsigned work. They knew which drawings were mine and which were done by assistants,” he said.
Anna Arkins has written an essay about Jack Binder’s contributions to Fort William Henry, which hangs opposite the display in the entryway.
She notes that among other things, Binder created the banner for The Warrensburg-Lake George News that featured a view of the Three Sisters mountains and quotes Robert F. Hall, the publisher of that newspaper as well as the Lake George Mirror.
“I’m not sure why Jack Binder came to Warrensburg,” Hall said. “but I’m very glad he did and proud to say I knew him. He was a wonderful artist and a fine human being.”
Jack Binder died at the age of 84 on March 6, 1986.
Illustrations, from above: two figures created by Jack Binder have been installed in an exhibit that greets visitors to the museum; the Fort’s well; Lindsay Doyle, Fort William Henry Museum director, and Anna Arkins, collections manager; Marvel family characters in the 1940s created by Jack Binder courtesy Fort William Henry; Jack Binder at work in his studio courtesy Fort William Henry; Captain Midnight No. 1 cover dated September 1942 drawn by Jack Binder and Joe Millard; and a sketch of Warrensburg, in Warren County, NY, by Binder.
A version of this article first appeared on the Lake George Mirror, America’s oldest resort paper, covering Lake George and its surrounding environs. You can subscribe to the Mirror HERE.
Rev. John Renolfe Binder, Jr. says
Somehow someone who wrote an article about my father some time ago mistakenly stated that his middle name was “Ronald” which your article changed to “Ronaldo”. in fact his middle name is “Renolfe.” And, for the sake of accuracy, my father was baptized in the Lutheran Church in Harkau, Hungary (now written Harka) as were his father and mother and all of his siblings (except Otto who was born in Bessemer, Michigan). He was a worshipping member of the Lutheran Church throughout his life. All of his children were Baptized in the Lutheran Church and I am a retired Pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).