Follensby Pond: Site of 1858 Philosophers' Camp

Local pond is the site of an important intellectual gathering attended by Ralph Waldo Emerson

One hundred and fifty years ago a group of prominent philosophers, scientists, doctors, and artists ventured to an area in the heart of the Adirondacks called Follensby Pond. This recreational gathering holds a significance that is deep rooted in the history of our nation, and the area itself has a future that's just as promising.

Follensby Pond

Beautiful Follensby Pond will continue to be breathtaking, thanks to preservation efforts.

Courtesy of Carl Heilman II/Wild Visions, Inc.

Follensby Pond, located between Tupper Lake and Harrietstown, is the site of the 1858 "Philosophers' Camp". Attendees included some of the 19th century's most eminent minds, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and scientist Louis Agassiz. Organized by James Stillman, a Schenectady native, ten scholars in all (accompanied by a number of Adirondack guides) spent August of that year exploring the area around the pond and enjoying their time outdoors. Most importantly, these distinguished thinkers were observing and enjoying nature

Bill McKibben, an established author and professor at Middlebury College, recognizes the importance of this expedition. "It was one of the early moments when we began to think about nature in other than utilitarian terms, when the finest minds in the country suddenly decided it would be kind of neat to be camped out of doors for a month in the summer." Although the participants were enjoying a seemingly recreational vacation in the Adirondacks, their perception and appreciation of their surroundings would be forever changed. "Nature was for a long time something intellectuals escaped from, not to.  This began to change in America, and this was one of the first instances," McKibben says. The Philosopher's Camp helped to lead to the Transcendentalism movement, which transformed America's relationship with nature.

Adirondack Guideboat

The philosphers' would have been taken through Follensby in a guideboat similar to this.

"Nature was for a long time something intellectuals escaped from, not to."

According to James Stillman's book, "Autobiography of a Journalist", the seven other men were James Lowell, Dr. Estes Howe, Professor Jeffries Wyman, John Holmes, Judge E.R Hoar, Horatio Woodman, and Dr. Amos Binney. An excerpt from the autobiography details some of the events that went on: "In the main, our occupations were those of a vacation, to kill time and escape from the daily groove. Some took their guides and made exploration, by land or water." He also describes activities such as target shooting, hunting, and fishing.

Besides Stillman's descriptions of the event in his writings, we are also left with other documentations of the Camp now revered as important works of art and literature. Following their return, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem entitled "The Adirondacs". The poem documents the occurrences of the trip as well as gives insight into Emerson's appreciation of the beauty of Follensby Pond and its surroundings. "We were made freemen of the forest laws, all dressed, like Nature, fit for her own ends, Adirondac lakes, essaying nothing she cannot perform" writes Emerson.

Map of Follensby Pond

The yellow portion of this map represents the location of Follensby Pond.

Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy

"This is one of the last remaining places on the planet with this type of habitat."

Stillman also captured the essence of the gathering in a painting, entitled "The Philosophers' Camp in the Adirondacks". The painting now hangs in the Concord Free Public Library in Massachusetts. Leslie Wilson is the Curator of the Special Collections at the museum. "People come from across the country to see this painting," says Wilson. She also mentions that Stillman was not just a painter, but a photographer, diplomat, and editor. "This painting is the consonance of an important literary figure and the modern trend of environmentalism" adds Wilson. She also points out that in the painting, Emerson is standing alone in the middle, neither shooting a rifle nor helping to gut a fish. Stillman's depiction of Emerson is in contrast to the other campers, and seems to be responding to nature in a more sacred way than the others.

For the past 56 years a family from Vermont privately owned Follensby Pond. However, the Nature Conservancy recently purchased the 1,000-acre pond and a surrounding 14,600 acres of woodlands and waterways for conservation purposes. Connie Prickett, the Communications Director at the Nature Conservancy says that the organization buys land to prevent development, so the ecosystems will be protected. The purchase of the land is very significant. "This is one of the last remaining places on the planet with this type of habitat," she mentions. Prickett also said that since the Conservancy is focusing on another major acquisition, Follensby Pond will not be immediately opened to the public.

Follensby Pond

This point is believed to be where the philosphers' camp was located.

Courtesy of Carl Heilman II/Wild Visions, Inc.

Mike Wilson, a professor of Adirondack Studies at SUNY Potsdam is aware of the importance of both the Philosopher's Camp itself, and its preservation. "Follensby Pond has the literal importance of a crucial recovered landscape, as well as a symbolic importance for its historic significance." Now that it is protected indefinitely, it can be enjoyed by many future generations. 

Today, the notion of conservation is considered to be imperative. Without occurrences such as the Philosopher's Camp, ideas like preservation and conservation may not be held to such a high regard. So when the most influential intellects of the nineteenth century were enjoying some peace and quiet in the serenity of the Adirondacks, little did they know they would help to ensure the continuance of that pastime for years to come.

Would you be interested in visiting Follensby Pond in the future?