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‘Dack Doodles: Exploring Adirondack Illustrations, The Artist and The Blizzard

As anyone who has lived in or visited the Adirondack Mountains in the wintertime knows, snowy and cold weather conditions are a fact of daily life here. The Adirondack Experience Library is full of personal accounts of brave souls grappling with gusty winds and subzero temperatures in hopes of reaching a cozy fire back home. Among these is a narrative from an unusual source – the painter Thomas Hart Benton, who in 1927 described his ordeal battling an Adirondack blizzard.

Not typically associated with the Adirondacks, Benton is known for his stylized murals vividly depicting the lives and struggles of everyday Americans from the rural Midwest. In the 1920s he was living in New York and teaching at the Art Students League there. A visit to a friend with a farm in the Adirondacks, identified as Dr. Raabe, prompted Benton’s wintertime sojourn into the mountains. In a letter to his nephew Nat Briggs, Benton describes – with illustrations – his harrowing journey:

“It was a long ride on the train. I left New York in the afternoon when it was just beginning to snow. By the time I got to the station where Dr. Raabe was to meet me a great blizzard was on and the snow was piling into enormous piles much higher than your Paw’s head.”

Benton goes on to describe Raabe’s sleigh, laden with heavy blankets for warmth, and the four-mile journey the two would undergo to get to Raabe’s estate.

“We hadn’t gone a half mile before I had to get out of the sleigh and try to tie my ears with my muffler. Every time we turned a corner so that the wind hit us in the face we felt as if some lady was rubbing rough ice against our skin. Cold!!! … My ears were already frozen and my toes and fingers, even through shoes and gloves, were on the way. If something had hit my ears they would have broken off like glass. We were mighty worried.”

As they finally approach Raabe’s homestead through whiteout snowfall and bracing winds, the doctor steers their sleigh into the relative calm of an apple orchard, only to get lost among the trees. They eventually catch sight of a fence that will lead them to Raabe’s house, but a stump hidden under snowdrift breaks their sleigh’s harness. They would have to complete the journey on foot, pulling their horse behind them:

“Well to make the story short we got there. But you should have seen us. Our eyes were closed with the snow and ice. Icicles, inches long, hung from our moustaches and we were white as the frost kings. It took a long time to thaw us out but after a while we began to melt and then we had hot soup and got all warmed up and went to bed and slept like we were dead.”

Benton’s accompanying sketches, pictured here, comically capture the duo’s misadventure. To look at these and thousands of other items in-depth, contact Library Director Ivy Gocker at igocker@theADKX.org, or visit our online catalog at http://adirondack.pastperfectonline.com.