It’s July 1st, 1971. Nelson Rockefeller is governor of New York State, “It’s too Late” by Carole King is number one on the music charts, and gas is 40 cents a gallon. In the eastern part of the state, just shy of the Vermont border, a new state park opens in Rensselaer County, welcoming swimmers onto a monumental 1,000-foot beach.
Michael Hogan is an 18-year-old lifeguard at the new Grafton Lakes State Park, earning $1.76 an hour to keep watch over that beach with two other lifeguards, Sandy Town from Pittstown and Paul R. Jones, who everyone called “Buzz.”
Recalling the day 50 years later for the Grafton Lakes State Park’s new oral history project, Hogan remembers that his team performed a simulated rescue that aired that evening on an Albany television station covering the park opening, which was attended by State Parks Commissioner Dr. Sal J. Prezioso and other dignitaries.
Located in the heart of the Rensselaer Plateau, the new park included five lakes, 1,850 acres, a concession stand, and a park office. Hogan worked at Grafton for seven years, and now is retired and living in Rensselaer County.
This dawning of a new park was followed shortly by the end of another era at Grafton, when the Dickinson Fire Tower was shut down in 1972 after 48 years in service. One of the tower’s observers, who looked out from atop the 60-foot tower for signs of fire, was Grafton resident Helen Ellett. She was one of a handful of state female fire observers and was assigned to Dickinson from 1943 to 1965 to call in signs of fire in that heavily forested region.
According to Linda Laveway, Ellett’s granddaughter and another participant in Grafton’s oral history project, Ellett was a staunchly independent woman. Long days in the tower were no deterrent for Helen who felt pride every time she raised the American flag, knowing that through her work, she would be helping to save people’s livelihoods and possibly their very lives.
Helen Ellett was one of five women hired to be fire observers at Grafton between 1942 and its closing in 1972. When Ellett was hired in 1943 at age 29, she earned $100 a month, and was a young mother with a daughter. She usually rode one of her horses eight miles to work from where she lived in Grafton. At the tower, she was kept company by her dog, Tippy, and for a short time, her pet raccoon, Soggy.
In 1965, she wrote about her experiences in an article titled “Sitting on Top of the World,” in which she described her initial training by a ranger to use spotting equipment to estimate the location of a potential fire. When she returned to the tower the next day alone and began to climb, she had to “admit the 81 steps seemed like Jacob’s ladder going to heaven … I finally reached the top and tried to open the lock with one hand to hang on with the other; I have never looked but I would not be surprised if my fingers left imprints on the steel railing. That was a long time ago. After a few trips up and down, I didn’t mind at all.”
In her last year of service in the tower in 1965, Ellett reported nine fires and 209 visitors to the towers. At that time, she was earning $122.09 bi-weekly.
After being shuttered for years, the Dickinson Fire Tower was restored by the Friends of Grafton Lakes State Park and reopened in 2012, giving visitors the sweeping vistas that Ellett and other fire observers had. Now a popular hike at the park, the tower was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2011 and is the last remaining fire tower in the county.
How quickly 50 years have passed since opening day of the beach and park! Grafton Lakes park has now expanded to include more than 2,500 acres, 25 miles of trails, and six lakes, along with a new Welcome Center. The park spans both sides of Route 2 and is a favored place for kayakers, canoeists, and those who like to fish.
Amenities also include biking, boat launches and rentals, equestrian trails, fishing, hunting, pavilions and shelter rentals, playgrounds, and showers, During winter months, there is snowmobiling, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
Over the last decade, about a quarter-million people a year annually have visited the park, so over five decades, totaling many millions of visits since 1971.
There is something for everyone at Grafton Lakes, no matter the season. Check out this slideshow below for some ideas…
With so many visitors and so many memories, Parks staff at Grafton is encouraging those who want to participate to come forward and share these tales for posterity in a mini-movie that will debut on the park’s beach the evening July 1st to mark the 50th anniversary. The event that day will also include an art gallery, historical walks, a photo scrapbook, and interpretive panels.
Those who want to visit the Dickinson fire tower will have a chance to meet Linda Laveway, take in the dramatic view, and learn more about her grandmother and the days of the fire observers. Retired, Linda still resides in Grafton and is an active member of the community.
Park staff will hold video interviews for anyone with Grafton memories during April and May. To participate in the oral history project or any 50th anniversary activity, contact the park by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or phone: 518-279-1155.
You can follow Grafton Lakes State Park on Facebook here. Hope to see you there July 1st as we look back over the last 50 years and make new memories for the years to come!
Cover shot – Kayakers paddle past the beach at Grafton Lakes State Park. All photos by NYS Parks.
Post by Tamara Beal, Environmental Educator, Grafton Lakes State Park
Grafton Lake State Park is holding an event May 1 for I Love My Park Day. Find details here.
Learn more about the history of the Dickinson Fire Tower at Grafton Lakes State Park here..