Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child.” This story is not of small children or new families. No, it’s a story of a relic of an older time that has recently been brought back to life, raised up from disassembled pieces to once again grace the Adirondack landscape.
On September 1, 2022, the Makomis Mountain fire tower was opened in the village of Speculator, NY. This tower is not fresh-from-the-factory new. For 62 years this fire tower stood tall on Makomis Mountain, neighboring Hamilton County in nearby Essex County. When forest fire detection began to take a different route in the 1970s (when physical towers and the humans that staffed them were no longer the most efficient detection method, and telephone communication and aerial surveillance took priority), New York began the process of decommissioning the fire towers that stood around the state. Some were torn down; some are still standing. But they all served an important role in protecting Adirondack forests from the ever-present threat of fire during the 1900s.
The Makomis fire tower was taken off the mountain in 1978 after closing earlier in the decade. How did we get to 2022? That’s where the village comes in.
From 1978 to 1990
When Oscar Messenger left his post at Makomis Mountain at the end of the fire season in the early 1970s, the tower saw its last staffed fire tower observer. A few years later, in 1978, the tower was removed from the mountain. From there, the tower was eventually acquired by a man named Bruce Vowles. In exchange for survey work, Vowels gave the disassembled tower to George Barber, who stored the tower on his property just north of the Adirondack Park boundary for over 30 years. Barber always wanted to see the tower standing again and had plans to reassemble it in his backyard, on a hill with sweeping views across Lake Champlain to Vermont.
In the mid-1990s, there was a plan to assemble a different tower at the Sacandaga Community Park in Speculator. Unfortunately, that plan never came to fruition; the tower in question needed a lot of repairs, realistically too many repairs. The man who was the driving force behind that vision was Dean Lane. Lane had strong ties to the community, and worked every day to help the area shine brighter. Although he never got to see a fire tower in town, some of the institutions Lane developed are the Irondequoit Inn, Charlie Johns, and the Speculator Department Store, among others.
Lane and Barber both shared a dream, albeit in different locations, of seeing a fire tower stand tall once again. The structures would have new homes and a new purpose, continuing their legacy into a new era.
From 1990 to 2019
When Lane passed away in 2013, his dream lingered, always a possibility in the community for which he deeply cared. Then, as luck would have it, Mike Vilegi of Excelsior Towers purchased the Makomis tower from the Barber family in 2019. Reconstruction was next on the list!
From 2019 to 2022
The Makomis Mountain fire tower was not just picked up and moved from location to location. It was entirely disassembled. The roof? Blown away and gone. The nuts and bolts? Accounted for, but, again, just carefully stored and not connected to any pieces of metal.
The tower was transported from Clinton County to Speculator by Hamilton County DPW supervisor Tracy Eldridge, and all the pieces were laid out. From here, it was like a giant 3D jigsaw puzzle.
What does all this mean? For starters, the Makomis tower is a tangible connection to Adirondack wild lands. No one has to trek deep into the wilderness to experience this tower. It's also serves as a connection between the Hamilton County Fire Tower Challenge and the communities which surround the wilderness. For over two decades it has been a dream to see an accessible tower in Speculator. Now, it's a reality.
A labor of love
Erecting a fire tower does not happen overnight, especially when the world was thrown into a pandemic in 2020. Nothing is as simple as it seems. There was no blueprint for the inner stair tower because there was a fire at the Aeromotor company, which manufactured the steel fire towers used in the Adirondacks in the mid-1900s, destroying all papers and files. Success for this project was not based on someone's ability to read IKEA-like instructions. C&R Excavation and Mike Vilegi et al. were successful because of hard work and dedication, driven by a love for creating a way to easily access Adirondack history.
* Fun fact * The Makomis fire tower is an Aeromotor LL25. Ten of this model tower were constructed in New York between 1916 and 1917, before the state switched to the larger model towers. Hamilton County was/is home to 5 of those towers … and Makomis makes 6!
In just over a month, a foundation was built and the tower erected. This was no small feat, building a foundation (essentially a solid bedrock foundation like the ones on mountain summits). By July 5, 2022, work was mostly complete. Of course, this work came at financial cost. Experienced contractors, transportation, supplies, concrete, etc. all were required. Seeing the immense benefit of this addition to the community, public and private investments made it all possible. Work was kickstarted with a $10,000 grant from the Adirondack Foundation and a $100,000 DEC Community Smart Growth Grant was also acquired with assistance from Allison Gaddy and the Lake Champlain/Lake George Regional Planning Board. As of August 10, 2022, private donors have contributed $58,600. Talented individuals have contributed goods, services, money, time, and, most importantly, a devotion to the community. Projects like this don’t get done unless people care an awful lot. There are plans to install plaques recognizing the donors and sponsors. Without them, this project would still just be a dream.
In their heyday, fire towers and their observers were interpreters of the Adirondack landscape, interacting with hikers on mountain summits while scanning for forest fire smoke. Those days are gone now; the last staffed fire tower closed in 1990 in the Adirondacks. But there is still a need for interpretation, to explain and help people appreciate the incredible and fascinating history of these landmarks. To assist with this, a kiosk is located next to the tower, and outlines fire tower history, the Speculator/Lake Pleasant community, and a “thank you” to all who donated to this project. A list of all who contributed can be found at the end of this page.
Jeannette Barrett, mayor of Speculator, could not be prouder of the community. "It has been both challenging and rewarding taking on this project. It was so much bigger than anyone really expected, and yet for every need or issue there was always someone who met it with a great idea, skills, tools, materials, and donations," Barrett said. "It has also been rewarding to see our community and visitors embrace this piece of Adirondack history at our ribbon cutting and our first 'Light Up The Night' commemorating fire tower observers who kept watch over our lands and homes, and whose efforts allow us to enjoy the majestic forests and wildlife within the Adirondacks."
Naturally, there is SO MUCH to do in Speculator and Hamilton County that you’re going to want to plan for a few days. Need a place to stay? There are comfortable motels. Need a place to stretch your legs? Experience all the wonders of the big outdoors by taking a walk, long or short. Dealers choice. Hungry? There are no bad meals in the area.
So, whenever your next trip to Speculator is, you can visit the Makomis Mountain fire tower and know your day can be full of excitement! The tower will be open from dawn to dusk, 7 days a week, 365 days a year (weather permitting). These days, fire towers in the Adirondacks require a hike to reach. The historic Makomis tower is right in town. Its story did not end disassembled on a remote mountaintop. The story continues today, and you can be part of the next chapter.
The generous support from the following people made the effort of erecting the Makomis fire tower in Speculator possible:
- CL Smith and Jake Smith, C&R Excavation
- DPW: Lee Page, Lynn Page, Josh Moorem and Roger Blanchard
- Waste Water Treatment Plant: JR Rust, Lenny Page, and Ed Scharpou
- Steve Jaquish
- Dave Abrahamsen
- Bob Thomson
- Steve Whiting
- Virginia Allen
- Jeannette Barrett
- New York State Forest Fire Lookout Association volunteers
- Laurie and Tom Rankin of NYSFFLA
Kiosk build and content
- Gwen Allen (designer)
- Larry Smith
- Bob Thomson
- Dave Abrahamsen
- Steve Whiting
- Rich Armstrong
- Mark Waltho
- Tim Buehner (art work and logo)
- Ryan Marshall
- Kathleen O’Connor
- Bev Hoffman
- Aaron Weaver
- Bill Starr
- Jeannette Barrett
Contributions of materials and services
- Todd Hodgson, East Branch Engineering
- CL Smith, C&R Excavation
- Bob Thomson, Thomson Construction
- Spencer Tracy, Tracy Lumber
- Dan Wilt, Wilt Industries
- Charlie Orr, ProCare
- TC Murphy
- Leah Towers
- Kate and Brian Eldridge; Eldridge Photo and Video
- Christy Wilt and RaChelle Martz, Hamilton County Tourism
- Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism
- Kate Eldridge, Adirondacks Speculator Region Chamber of Commerce
And many more!