By BILL ACKERBAUER
PECK'S LAKE - Over the last two centuries, this small community in the Adirondacks has been a summer destination for hundreds of families and a year-round home for several more.
Alice Peck holds a copy of her new book Thursday at her home at Peck’s Lake. The author, 96, has lived for 78 years in the old Peck homestead, which was built by John Francis Peck in the 1840s. (Photo by Bill Ackerbauer/The Leader-Herald)
One family in particular, however, has played the most important role in the development of the lake that bears its name. Now, about 170 years after John Francis Peck bought hundreds of acres and established a homestead, sawmills and tanneries here, Peck's Lake's oldest living resident has penned a book detailing the history of the lake community.
"I hope more people will realize [Peck's Lake is] here and they will have more interest in it," she said of her goals for the book. "I think it's good for the family, too, because these stories float around and around, but nobody bothered to write them down before."
Alice Wendell Peck was born in 1916 and raised in Gloversville, where her father was a cashier at City National Bank. She said her family lived on Highland Terrace, about a mile from where she went to school.
"I walked about four miles a day, back and forth to lunch," she said. "It probably helped me live to 96."
She worked as the secretary for the chamber of commerce before marrying Albert T. Peck II in 1935. For the last 78 years, she has lived in the old Peck home, which stands next to the concrete dam that maintains the lake's water level.
In the 1990s, after her husband's death, Peck and others founded the Peck's Park Historical Society, and she led the volunteer effort to turn the tiny Peck's Park Schoolhouse into a museum. So she is, perhaps, more qualified than anyone to write the definitive history of the community.
Don Williams of Gloversville, author of several books of Adirondack history, said Peck's book is very local in its focus, but it is an important part of the overall patchwork of Adirondack lore.
"[Her book] is a limited edition and a story not often repeated in the Adirondacks," Williams wrote in a recent newspaper column. "Thanks to Alice Peck's work, it is now a part of the Adirondacks' recorded history."
The 118-page, soft-cover book is filled with photos and narrative details covering the known history of Peck's Lake, with chapters discussing Native American artifacts found on the lake bottom, the lumber and tannery operations of the mid-19th century, the establishment of Peck's Park as a woodsy retreat in the late 1800s and the early-1900s construction of the two dams that made the present-day lake.
Peck's Lake, five miles long and crossing the Johnstown-Bleecker town line, was formed with the flooding of three smaller existing bodies of water - Peck's Pond, East Lake and Helen Gould (or West) Lake. The state's Mohawk Hydro-Electric Company worked out a deal with Albert Taylor Peck, a son of the settlement's founder, to erect dams to supply power to the downstream Ephratah power plant. The power company took title to the land but gave Peck a 999-year lease, allowing the family to maintain and develop its resort.
Alice Peck's book contains a thick chapter about the construction of the dams, with dozens of photos showing various stages of the massive project. It also shares anecdotes about the work and the workers, including a 1910 newspaper clipping about a riot that ensued when some of the laborers became drunk and disorderly during their Christmas holiday in December of that year. The "mob of gesticulating and gibbering foreigners" attacked the camp cook, brandishing knives and revolvers, The?Gloversville Leader reported. When the dust settled, 38 men were fired from the dam project.
Since those early days, the atmosphere along the shores of Peck's Lake has been tranquil and family-friendly, according to Peck. She said many generations of visitors and residents have developed close relationships.
"The people who came here, you'd get to know them just like your family, almost, because they'd come year after year," she said. "Some families had five generations that would come here. Everybody got to know everybody else ... it was like a little village."
In her research for the book, Peck said, she set out to either prove or disprove several tales handed down about the history of the lake community.
"Some of the stories I heard as a young woman turned out to be true," she said, but others turned out to be false.
The book tells the real story behind the Helen Gould Dam - the earthen dike on the Bleecker end of the lake.
"Up until recently, most of us in the family had always been told and heard that [Helen Gould] was a famous actress," Peck said. "Well, that wasn't true at all."
Helen Miller Gould Shepard (1868-1938) was, in fact, the philanthropist daughter of Jay Gould, one of the leading American railroad barons of the 19th century.
"She was a millionaire, and she gave I-don't-know-how-many dollars away," Peck said. "The story is that she once visited Peck's Park and Bleecker," she writes in the book.
Changes over the years
Peck said the lake has changed since she first came to live there in the 1930s. Until the 1950s, the lake property was privately owned and maintained entirely by the family. But with rising property taxes, the family decided to develop the land and start selling lots to others.
"Today's Peck's Lake community is estimated to consist of 174 home owners, 27 lot owners who do not also own a home, and as many as 76 campsite renters," according to a description on the website of the Peck's Lake Protective Association.
Peck said the human population isn't the only thing that's changed.
"If you look at some of the pictures of the fish that they caught back in the old days - that's long gone," she said. "In those days, there was no limit on what you could keep."
The lake was once well-known for its large northern pike, according the PLPA website.
"Although the pike population has declined, the clear waters of Peck's Lake still offer great opportunities for the sport fisherman," it says. "In addition to pike, the lake hosts rainbow trout, chain pickerel, largemouth, smallmouth and rock bass, black crappie, perch and bullheads."
Peck said she hopes the publication of her book might get more people interested in the lake's history and perhaps motivate more people to support the operation of the schoolhouse museum.
"People just don't seem to care about that sort of thing anymore," she said. Proceeds from sales of the book will benefit the museum.
Her next project
Now that her volume on Peck's Lake is in print, the author is considering a new project - a history of Sacandaga Park, a resort in the town of Northampton that was a popular summer destination for city dwellers. The resort has been mostly underwater since the flooding of the Great Sacandaga Lake reservoir in 1930.
Peck said she and her family spent a lot of time at Sacandaga Park when she was a girl.
"My aunt and uncle had a cottage up there," she said. "I was just the right age for a park like that, just before they flooded everything."
Peck said she would be happy to hear from anyone who has old photos, documents or stories from Sacandaga Park that would help with her research.
"Peck's Lake in the Adirondacks" is available at Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market in Gloversville and Mysteries on Main Street in Johnstown. It sells for $25.
Peck also will be on hand to sell and sign copies of the book at the Eighth Annual Adirondack Outdoorsman Show, scheduled for 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17 at the Johnstown Moose Lodge.
For more information, or to buy a copy directly from the author, call her at 725-6236.
Features Editor Bill Ackerbauer can be reached by email at email@example.com.