Around 1880, after trapping the area with a couple of men from
Newton Corners, he decided to quit logging and build a cabin at West
Canada Lake, about 12 miles back from the old wagon road north of the
Corners. It would have been difficult to find a more remote section.
In the surrounding woods, Louis set about making a series of trap line
camps – around a dozen, all told – for which he became famous. Some
of them were log lean-tos, usually built within a foot or two of a large
flat rock to reflect heat and light into the structure. His more elaborate
camps had split plank floors and “scoops” for roofs. These were halves
of logs that were hewed out in a trough fashion and placed overlapping
on the roof to drain rain and snowmelt. One overnight camp on Otter
Brook consisted of a large, hollow yellow birch log with a door on the
front. According to an account in the book Adirondack French Louie
by Harvey Dunham, if Louie didn’t want someone around one of his
camps he’d warn them, “Ah got trap set for bear.”
Despite the remote location, Louie always seemed to keep his
larder well stocked. His garden, well composted with fish and trap
line leavings, was said to grow rhubarb as thick as a person’s arm.
My father, Charlie Wharton, stayed in Louie’s camp with Ed Brooks,
a lumberman from Speculator, when they were cruising timber for
Union Bag and Paper Company. Brooks recalled that one Sunday
he’d stopped to visit with Louie to see if the old hermit could point
him toward a good place to catch a couple trout. Brooks had found
a few holes in the ice, but the fish weren’t biting. Louie threw open a
side door to the cabin, and Ed saw frozen brook trout and lake trout
stacked up chest high against one wall. “Help yourself,” said Louie.
This story was later recounted in Tales from an Adirondack County,
by Ted Aber and Stella King.
Shallow and weedy Mud Lake was a favorite place for jacking
deer, which Louis did from his guide boat equipped with a Ferguson jack light. He
also ran deer with dogs for “sports” from the city. Around this time, state officials were
enacting the first fish and game laws in the region. The first bag limit, three deer per
season, was enacted in 1896; jacking was outlawed a year later. The old ways died hard
in the backwoods, and Louis was arrested for illegal venison on one occasion and had
to make the long hike out of the woods to court, but a jury of his peers – old-timers
like himself – found him not guilty.
Louis made a twice-annual pilgrimage to town, and people at Newton Corners
knew that he’d returned by the owl hoots and wolf calls he made as he entered the
village. Kids would follow along and try to get him to mimic animal calls, and he’d
oblige; he also tossed small coins out to them. He would then proceed to indulge
himself in drowning his six-month thirst at local barrooms. He wouldn’t touch a bottle
in the woods, though, knowing very well that you want all your wits about you when
handling an axe or bear trap.
Louie died in 1915, the same year the State of New York made
it illegal to squat on state land. To honor the local legend, kids in
Newton Corners were let out of school and each child placed a small
balsam bough in the casket as they passed by. Even today, visitors will
occasionally toss a whiskey bottle and a few coins down next to the old
hermit’s headstone. It reads, “Erected by Admirers.”
Clockwise from top left: French Louie was reclusive, but became something of a folk hero to
locals who eagerly awaited his twice-a-year trips into town. Foxey Brown came from Boston but
must have felt more at home in the woods of the Adirondacks, where he spent 25 years living as
a hermit. Brown was guiding railroad executive Carleton Banker (center, in light-colored suit) on a
hunting trip when Banker disappeared. Accusations of murder soon followed.