GLOVERSVILLE - Though Donald R. Williams retired as a school principal in 1989, he's never stopped educating people about the history and folklore of the Adirondacks.
This week, he's retired again, having penned the final installment of his long-running newspaper column "Inside the Blue Line." The weekly column, which has appeared in four upstate New York newspapers, was first published in The Leader-Herald the same year he retired as principal of Gloversville's Kingsborough Elementary School.
Williams' association with The Leader-Herald goes back to the 1950s, when he was its Speculator correspondent. That's when he first started writing about Adirondack history and developing a local following, but he began gathering material for his columns and books as a child growing up near Northville.
Don Williams holds a specimen from his
collection of more than 200 varnished wood burls. “I call them ‘Nature’s sculptures,’” Williams said. “They’re all different shapes and sizes. I take my jackknife and I work months getting every last bit of black and bark out of them, and then a coat of varnish brings out the look of the wood, the way it’s intertwined with itself.”
(Photo — Bill Ackerbauer, The Leader-Herald)
"Over the years, I've always collected Adirondack stories," Williams said. "I grew up with people who lived them and knew them - my Dad, and people like that - so, I had a strong Adirondack background."
His career as a historian and folklorist went hand-in-hand with his work as a school teacher and principal.
"The overriding factor was that I was an educator, and I was concerned we were losing our roots," Williams said. "In the schools where I was a principal, the emphasis on local history and even some state history had diminished. People were so concerned with math and science and English that local history was getting pushed aside ... So I began writing stories about local history, and I used Nick Stoner as a vehicle to tell the stories so they'd be interesting to the kids."
For many years, he entertained and educated schoolchildren with stories about Stoner - the Revolutionary War hero and pioneer whose stomping grounds centered around what is now northern Fulton County and southern Hamilton County. Williams spun his Nick Stoner yarns from a mixed fabric of recorded history, oral tradition and his own imagination.
"By the time I was 33 years old, I had 33 stories, and I said, 'I should get these written down.'"
Willard Press published Williams' collected tales under the title "The Saga of Nicholas Stoner, or, a Tale of the Adirondacks." That book, which North Country Books reissued in paperback in 2004, was followed by several others. In recent years, in addition to writing "Inside the Blue Line," Williams has authored six books of Adirondack photos and lore in Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series. The latest title, "Adirondack People and Places," was published last year.
"We've sold upwards of 20,000 copies of his books," said Katie W. Kellett, Arcadia's director of sales for the North and Mid-Atlantic regions. "We expect they will continue to be in demand for many, many years to come."
Erin L. Vosgien, who edited Williams' most recent Arcadia book, said she and her colleagues affectionately refer to him as "Mr. Adirondack."
"Part of what has made Don's books so successful is his passion for the topic," Vosgien said. "He loves what he's writing about. ... He really cares about the communities, and wants to showcase what makes them unique. He gives the best of himself in his work and provides readers with amazing tales from generations past. He's also always been excited to meet readers and talk with them about not only the books but their own stories. He's always looking to learn more about the area and its incredible history."
Though he's written his last "Inside the Blue Line" column, Williams says he still has at least two more books in the works. And stories aren't the only things Williams has collected and preserved for posterity. He and his wife, Beverly, live in a large house in Gloversville that once served as a state-operated home for girls. And it's a good thing they have lots of space - he has amassed vast, impressive collections of Adirondack artifacts including rare pieces of rustic furniture and sculpture, books, minerals, photographs, milk bottles and vintage tools.
Williams says his next book will document his tool collection, which goes far beyond the run-of-the-mill hammer, chisel and saw and into far more obscure and exotic territory. If his portable outhouse heater doesn't pique one's interest, he also can demonstrate the use of the cherry-pitter, the bung-starter, the lard-squeezer, the snow-knocker, the pig-scraper or the hemlock spud, to name just a few.
"They tell the story of the people who came before us," Williams said. "A tool became an extension of the person."
He estimates about 90 percent of the tools in his collection were made, owned and/or used by Adirondackers, and they all predate the age of electronics. Batteries were not included because they hadn't been invented yet.
"A whole generation of people survived using these tools, and all the energy came from right here," he says, flexing his biceps.
"The generation of people who used these tools are fast disappearing," Williams said. And at the age of 78, he wants to make sure the value and significance of his collections are not lost on the generations that follow him.
"I've either got to sell all these tools and things, or I've got to get them in a museum," he said. This spring, the Fulton County Museum, in Gloversville, will host an exhibit of Williams' antique tools, but he has set his sights on a more permanent home for all of his Adirondack memorabilia. He has put together a proposal for an "Adirondack Gateway Museum" and hopes to secure grant funding to establish the facility along the Route 30 corridor near Northville.
No matter what happens to his collected objects in the years to come, there is no doubt that Williams has made his mark as a torchbearer for Adirondack history and culture.
"Don Williams has served us all as a major chronicler of Adirondack history and preservationist of its pictorial heritage," said Fulton County Historian Peter Betz, who predicts Williams' published work will "enlighten and inform generations to come."
Filmmaker Tom Simon, whose documentary "The Adirondacks" appeared on public television in 2008, said Williams was a memorable contributor to the film.
"We talked to scores of folks in the course of researching 'The Adirondacks,'" Simon said. "Scientists, loggers, historians, shopkeepers, just plain folks - you name it. Most had interesting things to say, but very few could combine the depth of knowledge with the natural storytelling talent that Don Williams could. Don has that rare gift of being able to bring characters from the past alive. When he talks about Paul Smith or Adirondack Murray, he does it with so much enthusiasm and intimate detail that you'd swear that he knew them personally. And on top of all that, he looks exactly the way you'd expect a folksy, knowledgeable Adirondack icon to look!"
Williams said in 23 years of writing his newspaper column, he never had to worry about running out of material, partly because of his readers' enthusiasm.
"There's so much Adirondack material out there that you could go on forever," he said. "And I appreciate the people who've shared it with me."
Bill Ackerbauer is features editor for The Leader-Herald, the Enterprise's sister newspaper in Gloversville.