"Having a broad variety of skills makes it easier to get by," said George Stearns, speaking about how he and his wife, Sue, have managed all these years. With a combination of luck, flexibility and careful planning, they have created a lifestyle that is active, generous and rewarding. When asked how they got through the rough times, they said a willingness to work hard was the answer.
Both are Saranac Lake natives who have lived elsewhere. The lure of the Tri-Lakes eventually drew them back here to stay.
Sue (Tyrell) Stearns was 6 years old when her family moved to the Utica area; however, she often spent summers with her grandparents, Richard A. "Hike" and Valeda Tyrell, who resided from 1928 to 1984 in the now-abandoned house that stands by the Ray Brook golf course. Her grandfather was the pro and supervisor there, her grandmother the bookkeeper.
George and Sue Stearns
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)
On the urging of her brother Rick, Sue moved back to the area in 1981 after graduating from high school and the Mohawk Valley Business School in Utica. Her first job was at the Lake Placid Club, after which she went to work for six years in the office at Hyde Fuel Co.
George grew up in Saranac Lake and graduated from Adirondack Community College in 1976 with a degree in heating, air conditioning and refrigeration. His father, his uncle Andrew and Sue's father were all bobsledders. Another uncle was the Olympic gold medalist speed skater Jack Shea. In keeping with family tradition, George continued in the winter sports field by working, at various times, for the Olympic Regional Development Authority. He started out mopping floors, eventually working up to a position in the refrigeration plant for the bob run. In the early 1970s, he moved to Clifton Park for a higher-paying job with a walk-in cooler manufacturing company.
George's father, who owned a liquor store (at 141 River St., where Forest Home Furnishings is today), urged his son to open a deli next door. George took his advice and returned to Saranac Lake , establishing the Lakeview Deli in 1981. He ran it successfully until 1986. Not liking the 24/7 demands of the food business, he then sold it to John and Buffy VanAnden.
George married Sue (the sister of his good friend Rick Tyrell) in 1982 and decided to buy a house.
"It needs to be a place in the country because I'm getting another horse," announced his animal-loving wife. They bought a rural home on state Route 3, outside the village toward Bloomingdale.
In her teen years, Sue had devoted weekends and summers to waitressing and babysitting, all for the love of a horse that she purchased, trained and cared for. Now, once again, she was able to have a horse. However, their land was hilly and not especially good for pasture. In 1991, their widowed farm neighbor Mrs. Cassavaugh said, "Why isn't your horse across the road at my place?"
And so "it was the purchase of an old gray mare that began the process which brought us to where we are today," said George. They moved the "old gray mare" across to the Cassavaugh pasture, repaired the fences, cleaned up debris and began restoring her lovely old but long-neglected barn.
Kind neighbors both, Mrs. Cassavaugh and the Stearns were a winning team. They improved her property and helped her with chores. She appreciated the loving attention they bestowed on the land and what were, by now, several horses. They were happy to have her as a friend and to lease such a beautiful place.
One day, Mrs. Cassavaugh, standing on her porch watching Sue and George work on the barn, said to them, "Criminy! You are over here all the time anyway; why don't you just build a dang house over here?"
And so, in 1995, she sold them 8-and-a-half acres that included the barn, pasture land and a floodplain by the Saranac River - all for a very fair price. Free time for the next two years was devoted to building a Hamilton Home (a customized package product) while continuing to help Mrs. Cassavaugh with lawn mowing, house repairs and other chores.
"We kind of fell into it," said George. Or perhaps it all happened because of their kindness.
In earlier years, Mrs. Cassavaugh's husband had farmed the fields and logged the land across the Saranac River. At one time, a bridge had carried not only his Belgian work horses but also cars over to the far side so summer folks could access their camps on Moose Pond. Today the road is gone and much of the river and Moose Pond land which borders their property is wooded state property, excellent for trail riding.
George and Sue have built five horse stalls on the lower downhill level of the barn and replaced floor and wall boards upstairs where their own field hay is stored. Both are riders. However, George's form of riding took a new direction back in 2003 when he got into motorcycling. He is now a member of Star Tour Riding, a national association which promotes safe and courteous biking.
Sue worked at the Lakeview Deli until it was sold, followed with another short stint at Hyde Fuel Co., then opened her own dog-grooming business. To her great disappointment, she had to close it down four years later when she developed allergies to the dogs. Since 1991, she has been a receptionist and human services clerk at St. Joseph's Rehabilitation Center - "a really good place to work," she says.
George worked a variety of jobs before finding well-paid work at the heating plant for the State University of New York, Plattsburgh. Shortly thereafter, he found a job closer to home as plant utility assistant at the Adirondack Correctional Facility in Ray Brook. In 1997, he was promoted to engineer at Camp Gabriels, where he still works today.
When Sue first moved back to the area, she "thought it was going to be cool." She found it just the opposite. Though beautiful, she says, "It's hard to make a living here. Unless you grow your own hay, the nearest source for hay (or good shopping) is Malone or Plattsburgh." She takes care of the horses' medical needs herself. "We don't call a vet unless our horses have a dire emergency," she explains, as the nearest large-animal veterinarian is over an hour's drive away in Westport. But with the Stearns' many and varied skills, they have survived well, feel fortunate to have all they do, and take particular pleasure in giving back to the community.
George is helping the Star Tour Riding club support and assist with a fundraiser motorcycle ride for High Peaks Hospice. His group also supports a Feed the Children mission.
Sue, remembering how much she once wanted her own horse, has, for several years now, been freely giving of her time, assisting area youngsters with their riding and teaching them how to care for horses. On weekends, she frequently takes horses and young riders to compete in shows. She looks for no other reward than the satisfaction of being able to offer such opportunities.
"We have worked so many jobs out of necessity," says George. "These days, people give up too easily on relationships, on jobs, on life. They just move on without trying harder."
It is clear that trying harder has paid off for the Stearns. Their attitude is a model for us all.
For comments or questions, Caperton Tissot can be reached at tissot@SnowyOwlPress.com.