The Roots of a Classic Adirondack Guide Joke

Did you hear the one about the guide who took his wealthy client out trolling for lake trout? His customer paid more attention to his bottle of whiskey than his fishing line, finishing off the quart while sharing not a drop with the guide. Looking at his empty bottle, the gentleman remarked to his guide, “I am sorry not to have offered you any, but I never let my guide drink on a trip.” To which the guide retorted, “You are quite right sir; one drunk in a boat is enough.”

It is rare that one can trace a joke back to its origins, but in this case, my family is the butt of the joke. Harold K. Hochschild, the founder of the Adirondack Museum, wrote the following in his 1962 book Township 34:

The genial Mayor John Boyd Thacher, 1st, of Albany used to tell a story on himself… The mayor came up one April in the 1870’s to fish for lake trout. He engaged Mike McGuire as his guide. One bitter cold windy morning, Mike was rowing his patron around Blue Mountain Lake. Thacher, seated in the stern, swathed in a heavy overcoat and rug, pulled out a flask of whiskey and took a swig.

“I’m sorry not to pass this to you, Mike,” he observed as he replaced the flask in his pocket, “but I never let my guide drink on a trip like this.” Mike rowed on in silence. An hour later, Thacher again helped himself to his flask. “You’ll have to excuse me for not offering you any, Mike,” he said apologetically, “but you know how I feel about it.” “Ye’re quite right Mr. Thacher,” rejoined Mike quickly, “one drunken man in a boat is quite enough.

When I first came upon this story, I thought it quite funny. However, something did not seem quite right. In the 1870’s, John Boyd Thacher was still a strong young man in his twenties. Wouldn’t he be quite capable of rowing himself around while trolling for lake trout? My research of him also lacks any evidence that he was particularly fond of fishing. And while not a teetotaler, there also is no indication he was a heavy drinker.

Hochschild did not come by his knowledge directly from JBT, who died in 1909. However, the author did personally know John Boyd Thacher 2nd, who summered on Thacher Island on Blue Mountain Lake. Undoubtedly, the story was told to Hochschild by JBT2, who had heard it as part of our family’s oral history.

Like the childhood game of telephone, family oral history is susceptible to the warping of fact caused by the passing of hearsay. I thought perhaps JBT1 was not the true protagonist of this humorous story. His father George Hornell Thacher, who often fished on Raquette Lake, is a more probable suspect.

GHT portrait

George Hornell Thacher Sr. circa 1870s

My first clue was a letter written from the Thacher Camp on Raquette Lake on June 1st, 1878. George Hornell Thacher, writing to his other son George Jr., commented:

 I adhere to my rations of whisky and cigars the same as before I left.

GHT wrote of his lake trout fishing in each letter we have from Thacher Camp. In this excerpt from June 30, 1883, he either caught a trophy fish or tells a heck of a fish tale:

GHT 23 lb trout

“I caught a 23 pound lake trout on Monday last, one yard and half an inch long and 20 inches in girth.”

I would suspect a tall tale if not for the wilderness writer Nessmuk’s attesting that the largest trout recorded in GHT’s logbook came in at 28 pounds.

To ferret out whether my suspicion was correct, I sought to learn what I could about the guide Mike McGuire. My first discovery agreed with Hochschild’s tale, as the earliest directory of the Adirondack Guide Association in the 1890s identified McGuire as a guide for Blue Mountain Lake.

However, two clues point to his operating on Raquette Lake in earlier years. In Aber and King’s History of Hamilton County, a description of Alvah Dunning states

Now it was time to withdraw from any semblance of civilization and Alvah had selected the wilds of Raquette Lake. It was just one year before ‘Adirondack’ Murray began frequenting the locality during summers. Alvah later told that, at the time of his arrival [circa 1865], Mike McGuire and Bill Nash were at hand, making a living by providing deer and trout to the fashionable hotels at Saratoga Springs.

The diaries of Dr. A. G. Gerster speak of Mike McGuire serving as a guide for the family on Raquette Lake. McGuire is seen on the far right of this 1888 photo with the Gerster family and fellow guide Jerome Wood on the far left.

Mike McGuire with Gersters

Photo Courtesy of the Adirondack Museum

 

Clearly, McGuire did work as a guide on Raquette Lake during GHT’s occupation of the Thacher Camp from 1878 to 1885. Can we know if it was GHT in that fateful boat with the quart of whisky?

My intuition was proven correct when I discovered the origin of the story in “Notes on the Adirondacks” published on August 25, 1881 in Forest and Stream magazine.

082581 Forest and Stream p 66

 

George Hornell Thacher would have been an “old gentleman” of 63, whereas his son John was only 34 in 1881.   The author’s choice to not publish the Thacher name was probably out of respect for the four-time Mayor of Albany. John Boyd Thacher was not yet a known, respected public figure in a way that would justify anonymity.

John Boyd Thacher 2nd likely told Hochschild a story of Mayor Thacher, and as both GHT and JBT1 had been Albany mayors, Hochschild simply assumed the wrong protagonist.

I graciously accept on behalf of my great-great-grandfather his rightful place in this humorous heritage.

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