Within a state that can boast of the Manhattan skyline, Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty and the Finger Lakes, the Adirondack Mountains stand out as New York’s most powerful landmark. It’s not just some six million acres of the Adirondack Forest Preserve declared by the State Constitution in 1894 to be “Forever Wild”, or the 3,000 lakes within the largest park in the continental United States. It’s the sheer expanse across the map of the North Country and the breathtaking vistas that seem to never end that makes the Adirondacks overwhelming. The story of one “mountain man” who dwelled in the Adirondack wilderness for more than thirty years partakes of that sense of awesomeness.
“Foxey Brown: A Story of an Adirondack Outlaw, Hermit and Guide as He Might Have Told It” is a historical novel — it might also be termed a memoir — that covers one man’s life as well as an important chapter in the history of New York State and the movement for environmental protection. Foxey’s real name was David Brennan. He was born in a Catholic community in the State of Maine, attended college for a time but was also a heavy drinker and a brawler. One night at a tavern in Boston he pummled a man with a pool cue and left him for dead. Fleeing town on a westbound train he got off in upstate New York and, hearing that there was work in the logging camps he headed into the Adirondacks, giving his name as David Brown. An incident during a poker game led someone to call him “Foxey” and the nickname stuck. He settled down around 1890 in an abandoned logging camp in the woods about five miles north of Piseco (click on + three times and Piseco Lake will be at the bottom of the map. Foxey’s territory was about where the map says West Canada Lake Wilderness). As a hunter, fisherman, guide and “wild man of the woods”, David Brennan a/k/a Foxey, became an Adirondack legend.
Charles Yaple’s research into the life of this obscure and reclusive character involved both exploration for any remains in the wilderness of the “Brownsville” hermitage, conversation with those who might have heard facts or folklore, and examination of the scant written records. Dr. Yaple is Profesor Emeritus of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Studies at the SUNY College at Cortland. He is also a founder and Executive Director of the Coalition for Education in the Outdoors and editor of its journal, Taproot. “Foxy Brown” is his first novel, and though he opens the book with his own adventure in search of Foxey, chapter 1 begins the account of his life in Foxey ‘s fictionalized words. A few characters were invented but as much as possible the cast and plot are real.
Once a week or so supplies arrived from the nearest village and, with them, word (newspaper) about what was happening outside the forest. This week we learned some fellow in Saratoga County had killed a panther — supposedly the last one in these mountains. Another sign of changing times was the Governor’s order for the state Forest Commission to map out official Adirondack wilderness areas. While having any sort of law regulate my potential home on Fall Stream made me uneasy, even more discomforting news came from reading about an electric chair being installed at Clinton Prison. Seemed some poor guy named Joseph Chapleau was going to be the first guest to try it out!
— from “Foxy Brown”
Foxey Brown might have seemed to be an uncivilized hermit, but as channeled by Charles Yaple we know him as a man scornful of the “Sports” who came in from the city to spend a few days, but devoted to his few friends, with a special affection for his dog Spook and for Carlton Banker, a railroad executive from Gloversville with whom Foxey enjoyed long and meaningful conversations and who kept him supplied with books to read. Carlton Banker’s illness and sudden disappearance in 1916 as part of a hunting party at “Brownsville” was devastating to Foxey and led to the biggest search operation in the history of the Adrondack Preserve. This section of the historical novel is accurately documented, including notions spread at the time that Foxey may have killed his dear friend, whose body was not found for several years.
“Foxey Brown” takes place during an era when the Adirondacks gained a unique official status, when the reform administration of Theodore Roosevelt made Americans aware of conservation issues, and when telephones and automobiles began to penetrate even the villages in the Adirondacks.
Charles Yaple joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the natural world as Foxey Brown experienced it and of his own exploration of the Adirondacks and of Foxey’s life.