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Mystery solved

Look no further than Saranac Inn for identity of chocolate cake maker

June 11, 2011
By HOWARD RILEY - local history columnist ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Now believe it or not, the award-winning Adirondack Daily Enterprise, the only daily paper published in the Adirondacks, is going to solve a mystery right here today before your very eyes: A mystery posed on February 27 by Amanda Hesser, culinary columnist for the New York Times Magazine.

Ms. Hesser is a humorous food writer. She tells about asking leading chefs to comment and dissect old recipes: "As it turned out, I quickly fell into a culinary San Andreas Fault."

On the cover page of the food column in that February Times story is a scrumptious looking chocolate cake with this tag line, "Recipe Redux: Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake, 1969." On page two, as the column continues, is this paragraph:

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This New York Times Magazine story poses the question of exactly who was Evelyn Sharpe of chocolate cake fame.

"And so, with your interests in mind, I present one last crowd-pleaser for my exit column: Evelyn Sharpe's French Chocolate Cake, all by itself, with no competition from a modern reimagining. (If anyone can tell me who this Evelyn Sharpe was - and she was not the early-20th-century aviatrix - we'll add this information, with credit, as an addendum to the online version of the column; my research hit a dead end.)"


A perspicacious reader

Charles A. Thomas, longtime Paul Smith's College student and Adirondack historian, read the Times piece and solved the mystery forthwith. He has a large collection of memorabilia, including pictures and documents about the Saranac Inn Hotel, the church and about the construction of the golf course.

Now, so no reader will believe I fudged a little on this story, here are the facts.

That Evelyn Sharpe (often spelled Sharp), of chocolate cake fame, was none other than the owner of Saranac Inn and President of Sharp Ltd. Hotels. The hotel group, in addition to Saranac Inn, owned the Gotham and Stanhope Hotels in New York City and the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, California.

How does Mr. Thomas know all of this about Ms. Sharp and her famous chocolate cake? He made his way to Paul Smith's College after World War II (a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge) and later went to work at Saranac Inn. He worked at the golf course and at the hotel where he got to know Ms. Sharp. Her chocolate cake was a featured dessert on the Inn's menu.

The Sharp group, after extensive and expensive renovations, kept the property for only three years, 1957 to 1961.

Ms. Sharp died in April 1997 at age 94. Sotheby's announced a sale of Ms. Sharp's collection of paintings and sculptures that were expected to add up to $60 million.

Mr. Thomas, a meticulous researcher, provided this history of Saranac Inn, entitled "History of Prospect House" (Saranac Inn). Mrs. Edward R. Derby (Norton to Derby, 1875) sold that property to Dr. Samuel B. Ward, president of the Upper Saranac Association in 1886.

"Quincy Riddle, esq. drew up the incorporation papers whereupon 26,880 acres were purchased, lying in Franklin County, the State of New York, known as Township 20, Macomb's Purchase, Great Tract 1.

"Christopher F. Norton, having lumbered the area for a period of 25 years divested himself of said property in the spring of 1879. A second growth, now owned by the Upper Saranac Association, prompted the damning of Big Clear Pond in order to establish a sawmill. The tree harvest, systematically and wisely carried out, provided lumber for the group's personal use as well as for marketing.

"Prospect House, now named Saranac Inn, was managed by D. W. Riddle, who joined his brother Quincy after having cured at Saranac Lake, the renowned tuberculosis center."


Mills buys the Inn

Harrington Mills purchased the property in 1912, developed it into a world-class resort hotel and managed the property until his death in 1935. It was then taken over by his son-in-law Lawrence Slaughter, who ran the Inn for 13 years, then sold to the Kirkeby Hotel chain and later sold to Sharp Ltd. Hotels.

Here is an excerpt from my Enterprise column about Saranac Inn, written February 2006 when I interviewed Mrs. Charles (Margaret) Mills Slaughter Wooters, granddaughter of Mr. Mills:

"The Inn became famous for its cuisine and the elegant social life that existed there. The Dunton Cabin was the residence of President Grover Cleveland. There were many famous people who stayed at the Inn over the years, which at one time could accommodate 1,000 guests. Bankers, lawyers and politicians were often in conference there.

"Mrs. Wooters remembers that the matriarch of the Kennedy family, Rose Kennedy, spent time there over many summers, and recalls her always being seated at the same table and sadly, always alone."


Vosburgh buys Inn

It then was sold at auction to Charles Vosburgh & Sons. Mr. Thomas' history of the Inn reveals that, "Vosburgh paid $100,000 down on a $400,000 plot, comprised of 3,500 acres which included frontage on Upper Saranac Lake, the Brown Cottages across from the golf course entrance and the shoreline of Church, Hoel and Green Ponds."

I and my Enterprise cohort at the time, Bill McLaughlin, got to know Mr. Vosburgh quite well. We did many stories on his real estate ventures (he had also purchased Lake Clear Inn and cottages). He was a big advertiser in the Enterprise and we spent time with him socially.

Earlier, I had covered for the Enterprise the convention at Saranac Inn of the New York State Attorneys General Association when Louis Lefkowitz was attorney general, serving for 22 years in that office, longer than anyone since the office was established. Roger Tubby, Enterprise publisher had me hand deliver a note to Mr. Lefkowitz.


(Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect the spelling of the Kirkeby hotel chain and that Charles Thomas was a student at Paul Smith's College.)



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