The Heeswijk and the Hermit
History Articles written originally for the Sacandaga Express – by L.L. Decker
W.C. Fields said “A rich man is just a poor man with money”. This is a story about a wooded place just south of the Adirondack Inn in Sacandaga Park that was chosen by a man of humble means. And also by man of great wealth.
In 1899 J. Ledlie Hees was a man of power and position, president of the F.J.&G. railroad and director of the Fonda bank. Stewart Wilson was a man of meager means and had acquired two small plots of land in Sacandaga Park before the railroad had finished the line to Northville in 1875. Wilson neither leased nor rented from the F.J.&G. He was the only one who didn’t.
The beginning of Stewart Wilson’s life are sketchy. His arrival to utilize the plots he owned in the park may not have been until 1895. Though another date is 1908: or it may have been somewhere between those span of years. Wilson’s parents owned a farm in Mayfield. Wilson apparently held no fondness for the hard work involved in farming and so became a photographer. His business started in Gloversville at a studio, but then at some point moved to Sacandaga Park.
Wilson operated his photography business in a rustic hut within walking distance of the railroad station during the summer. Visitors could pose for a photo and receive a tin type as a remembrance of their day spent at the park. He also produced stereopticon cards that could be viewed through special 3-D lenses.
Wilson owned two plots of land in the park. Wilson’s first hut was 75 yards east of the first railroad station ( the one previous to the one that still exists today). One summer he moved his hut just south of the train station to the second plot. This was fairly easy to do as Wilson’s humble dwelling was constructed of scrap metal that could be dismantled then moved. In this location he also fenced area around the hut for chickens to live in the summer. Winters, for a number of years, were spent in a shanty in Gloversville.
The shanty in Gloversville eventually was razed as he did not own the property it stood on. Befriending the watchman at the Sacandaga Park railroad station Wilson gained a warm place to live in the winter- with the permission of the park superintendent. Tending the train station wood stove Wilson, from time to time, cooked light suppers for himself and the watchman. A story is told of a fire that broke out in a cottage in the park one evening. While the night watchman went for help, Wilson rang the fire bell to alert the railroad employees who brought a small hose fire truck and put it out; thereby thwarting a possible disaster. Sacandaga Parks biggest plague was fire, and to help stop one was a big deal.
Wilson was referred to as a hermit, although recluse would be more appropriate as he associated with people mostly for the living he made providing tin type images. The hermit reference may have evolved due to his appearance. He wore shabby clothes and had a long beard.
Wilson was not uneducated, nor criminal, and took part from time to time in public meetings concerning the area. He was also an avid reader. It’s told in references that his retreat to this lifestyle may have come from a relationship in which he discovered his object of affection was unfaithful to him. Wilson was deathly afraid of fire, hence the metal hut, and kept asbestos in his pockets.
Wilson was not without competition for tintype images. The railroad leased or rented a building to what was known as the Mann Studios which was located in the area of the Midway. Now visitors who were reluctant to venture down the wooded path to Wilson’s rustic studio could be accommodated by a studio nearer to the activity of the Midway rides and vendors. Tintype photos became the working mans way to afford a portrait as they were inexpensive and could be processed within a short amount of time. Wilson, however, remained a novelty to most people and continued to do business.
J. Ledlie Hees also favored the same wooded location the property that bordered Wilson hut south of the Adirondack Inn and in 1899 built a modest summer cottage there. In 1909 Hees expanded on the existing unpretentious two story dutch colonial cottage and the mansion Heeswijk (pronounced Hees-wick) emerged at a cost of $200,000.00. A playhouse for the Hees only daughter echoed the same grandeur as the mansion on a smaller scale with stained glass windows and the like and came in with a cost of $10,000.00 in 1914. In comparison the Adirondack Inn, built in 1899, would accommodate over 200 people cost a mere $20,000.00.
Architecture of Hee’s first cottage and the massive expansion was done by Marcus T Reynolds of Albany. The first cottage was 55 feet long and at the kitchen wings widest point 60 feet wide. When the cottage became the mansion Heeswijk it measured 95 feet long and maintained the kitchen wing which was still the widest point of 60 feet.
A 22’ by 22’ foyer entryway greeted visitors and off the expanded kitchen was a servants dining area, butlers pantry, kitchen, and a 24×14 laundry room. The rooms mentioned previously were the size of the original cottage. Then the thee bedrooms downstairs for the butler and chauffeurs which included a bathroom. The dining room was turned into a library and the new dining room was completed with a semi-circular piazza. The living room included hand painted murals of windmills and tree-lined Dutch canals. There was also a billiard room with a half -bath. Fireplaces graced the living room, dining room, and library. The upstairs was completed with nine guests suites all with private bathrooms.
The Heeswijk had the family initial custom crafted into it’s stained glass windows imported from Italy. Wood panels of ebony, walnut, and mahogany were used in it’s interior imported from the Netherlands. On the exterior: white semi-circular porches, gable roofs and Tuscan columns led to expansive gardens. Twenty servants kept the house and grounds. References’ note that president Warren Harding stayed overnight there in the 1920‘s.
Hee’s daughter Elizabeth was married on the grounds of the Heeswyck in 1931 by Northville Presbyterian minister George K. Frasier to Jesse Arthur Mason of Chicago, IL.
Wilson had acquired two plots of land before the railroad had completed the line to Sacandaga Park in 1875. J. Ledlie Hees had also favored a plot very near the place Wilson had built his metal makeshift home and studio and built a cottage in 1899. In 1909 Hee’s expanded the cottage into the opulent mansion Heeswijk (pronounced HEES-WICK). The conclusion of the Heeswijk and the Hermit will be followed by some information about the bear at Sacandaga Park.
The wealth of Hees was a stark comparison to his neighbor Stewart Wilson. Being the president of the F J & G, Hees had his own private railroad car which could be coupled and transport him to Fonda for his position at the bank. If the train wasn’t running at the time when he needed to get somewhere, a special one was summoned.
Hee’s horses and coaches were among the finest in the area. Many judged wealth of another by the team of horses they drove; much like we do today with automobiles. Image was important. The horses were perfectly matched in color and form. Along with the highest quality coach and of course a driver.
A past historian recalled seeing the Hee’s sleigh out for a drive in the winter. The black two- seater sleigh was carrying the second Mrs. Hees attired in a white fur hat, coat, and matching lap robe. The black horses had their harnesses trimmed in red, with their bridles sporting red tassels. Both the driver and the footman were garbed in scarlet livery. The cottage expansion probably came about do to Hee’s second marriage after divorcing his first wife. His second wife’s past was a little more mysterious then society preferred. But due to the prominence of Hee’s many guests, of what was considered the areas finest society, attended events at the Heeswijk.
At first J. Ledlie Hees and Stewart Wilson lived harmoniously. The thick pines provided privacy and blocked the view of the neighbors . But as the grounds of Heeswijk expanded, the tree line thinned Wilson’s ramshackle shed, with it’s fenced in chicken yard, became part of the view of the grand mansion.
Hees unable to bear the view of the shack and chicken coop any longer, made a monetary offer to Wilson which was enough to provide Wilson the means to move on. By then the Old Orchard Inn had been built in Sacandaga Park. The Sacandaga Park superintendent who had given permission for Wilson to stay at the park’s train station during the winter months had been hired to manage it.
After forty years in Sacandaga Park, the latter twenty spent as a photographer, Wilson lost his winter home at the station. Taking his recently acquired money, he relocated buying a farmhouse in 1901 at Osborn’s Bridge two miles from the park. Wilson died at an unknown age in February 1922 from exposure due to a heating failure at his residence. Wilson was found in his home, still alive, efforts were made to save his life but failed.
J. Ledlie Hees continued to use the Heeswijk strictly as a summer home during the 1920’s and 30s’. After his death in the early 1940’s the FJ & G railroad gained control of the house and sold it’s contents at auction.
The Heeswijk was left abandoned until 1952 and then sold (along with the property holdings of the F J & G) and used as accommodations for actors who traveled the park to perform at the Rustic Theatre and after the Rustic Theatre burned in 1955 it was used for performers at the newly built Sacandaga Summer Theatre . When the Summer Theatre closed in 1962 the Heeswijk was again sold. Renovations began to convert the mansion into a ski resort. But it was not to be, as in March of 1963 the mansion was leveled by fire.
by L.L. Decker