Mohonk and the Smileys chronicles 150 years of stewardship

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

For this lifelong New Paltz resident and former teenaged Mohonk employee, the one acute, gasp-worthy revelation delivered in Larry E. Burgess’ Mohonk and the Smileys is how early the historic Mohonk began to look like my Mohonk: the rambling, anachronistic lakeside resort that becomes a fixture in the imaginations and dreams of pretty much anyone who visits. Archival photographs from the very earliest years of the 20th century describe a Mohonk distinguishable from the present mostly by advancements in photography, rather than by advancements at Mohonk itself.

The conscious and cautious pace of change and development at Mohonk is a recurrent theme throughout Burgess’ official history, recently published by Black Dome Press on the occasion of Mohonk’s 150th anniversary under the full title: Mohonk and the Smileys: A National Historic Landmark and the Family that Created It. Conservatism – in the old sense of the word – and progressivism are entangled in Burgess’ account of Smiley family values. The author depicts the founding Smiley twins, Albert and Alfred, and their descendants as sober, hardworking Quakers, educators and temperance advocates, but also as visionary political and environmental activists who believed connection with nature to be a precursor and agent of humanistic social change. Under the leadership of Albert Smiley and his much-younger half-brother Daniel, Mohonk used its indescribably beautiful property to effect personal and social transformation.

Not only alcohol but also cards and dancing were prohibited at the original Mohonk (quite a change from the tavern of John Stokes, from whom the Smileys bought the original chunk of property, and who was known to chain unruly drunks to a tree). But the resort also served as the site of numerous conferences and social initiatives that were, by the standards of the time, progressive if not downright incendiary.

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The most lasting and influential of these were the Lake Mohonk Conferences on International Arbitration, which began in 1895 and were suspended during the First World War. Unbeknownst to this writer, that famous conference series was preceded by 1883’s Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian. This was followed in 1890 by the first Lake Mohonk Conference on the Negro Question, which featured a controversial (at the time) appearance by Albion W. Tourgée, a novelist, lawyer and Civil War veteran whose piercing critique of the underlying issues of race foreshadowed modern critical understandings. Tourgée, Burgess writes, “condemned the South’s ‘slaveholder mentality,’ and Northern ‘do-gooders’ for their blindness to injustice in their midst, for their paternalism and for their assumptions that blacks would be better off becoming ‘white at heart.’”

Graced liberally not only with images of the founders but with their words and accounts, Mohonk and the Smileys is of course a chronological narrative. Still, Burgess finds artful ways of driving it thematically as well, creating thematic clusters out of environmental science and aesthetics, social awareness and philanthropy, honors and designations (of which there have been many) and the evolution of facilities and services as Mohonk made necessary concessions to the modern world without compromising the eccentric Old World charm that its stewards correctly understood to be their very drawing card. Sidebars, and in some cases entire chapters, focus on the individual players in the story. And of course, the book is a feast of period fashion, as the reader wonders, again and again, how women could hike the Labyrinth in dresses like that.

A good deal of page space is devoted to architecture, landscape design and gardening; and how could it be otherwise, as Mohonk is a sui generis marvel of all three? Burgess captures the internal family dynamics regarding change, progress and fiscal sensibilities. One of the most charming anecdotes has to do with Mohonk’s famous gardens: Albert Smiley’s beloved project and a rare instance of extravagance in a business otherwise characterized by prudence and accountability. Burgess writes, “The entire family came to appreciate, and even indulge [Albert’s] development of gardens. ‘Thee may charge it to the flower garden’ became the byword among the family. Other departments were held closely accountable for expenses, but the Mohonk gardens were and are evaluated along the lines of pleasure, satisfaction, good health and beauty – but not in dollars.”

It is not as if our region needed any convincing that Mohonk is an extremely special place, as much for its curatorial character and traditions as for its eminently accessible natural beauty, its iconic gazebos and its aesthetically rich latticework of carriage roads and trails. Has there ever been an “I Love New York” commercial in which an aerial shot of the house and the lake was not the payoff? Mohonk elevates New Paltz and the entire mid-Hudson Valley with its singularity. Still, Burgess’ book is essential reading for anyone who would understand the full arc of the story, and for anyone who wants to appreciate a lively, well-written case study in the paradoxes of progress and preservation.

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