Born: December 29, 1882
Married: Clara Brown
Winchester MacDowell, Sr. was an artist, photographer and sign painter who lived at 35 Charles Street and at 36 Franklin Avenue. He developed a method of painting ice for skating in the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival that was adopted by the touring International Ice Follies. This led to work painting sets for the movie, Ice Follies of 1939, starring James Stewart and Joan Crawford.
The Adirondack Museum has fifteen photographs by MacDowell in their collection.
LIFE OF WINCHESTER MacDOWELL
Born a city boy in Brooklyn N.Y., Jan. 30, 1882 to Fredrick and Marilla Hart MacDowell, Winchester H. MacDowell died a dedicated mountain man at the age of 74 on Dec. 28, 1958. Fredrick MacDowell, his father was a civil engineer who helped design the Brooklyn Bridge. At the age of 28, Karilla MacDowell, Winchester's mother, died during childbirth, leaving "Wynn" age 6, and baby Fredricka. At this time Frederick Mac-MacDowell was traveling extensively surveying the Adirondacks for a mining company, and doing quadrangles of the Tupper Lake area. Circumstances insisting, Wynn (Winchester) and Fredricka moved to New Jersey to live with relatives on a farm.
When Wynn turned sixteen he joined the Army and was sent to Pratt Institute for a year where he studied commercial art. He was also stationed in the Plattsburgh area. This is where he earned a distinguished service award for saving a comrade who had fallen through the crystal clear ice and had been taken away with the current. Wynn, also nicknamed "Mac", eventually bought his way out of the Army.
At this time he was encouraged by the father to travel through the Adirondacks as there was plenty of work in logging camps. Finally persuaded, Mac left traveling on logging wagons among the logging camps. Money was earned by photographing the lumbering crews. The equipment necessary for this adventure was extensive and therefore cumbersome at times. He moved by snow shoes from time to time so he gave up on photography, but never sold his equipment. His next enterprise was traveling from logging camp to logging camp bringing rolls of French recordings which he played on an old Victrola. The Canadian Crewmen loved these, and would sing along. In order to keep the men in camp they weren't paid till the end of the season, so Mac would collect 250 pledges from each man and stay just so long in each camp and play music at night. At the end of his stay he would collect the pledges from the paymaster. Mac recounted stories of the filthy logging camps, where lumbermen returning from work would see how far they could throw their axes across the rooms, letting them implant where ever they landed. The camps were seamy and lice ridden. This is where Mac probably acquired his knowledge of storytelling, jokes, and drinking.
While traveling around the Old Forge area (1900) he met Edna Brown. Mac asked Edna to marry him but unfortunately one week before the wedding Edna died. Eventually Mac married Edna's older cousin Clara Brown.
Clara Brown lived with a younger sister, Hope, and her father, Fred, who owned "Brown Camp". Brown Camp was a boarding house which was maintained by the Brown family. Fred was a pilot on the mail boat for the chain lakes and operated the post office in Old Forge. They also maintained by selling balsam pillows, and Fred was the leader of the local band in which various members of the family were a part. The band provided income during the summer months and entertainment during the long winter months.
Clara studied voice and piano in NYC and had aspirations as a vocalist when at the age of twenty-seven had to return to Old Forge to care for Hope after her mother died giving birth. Clara was six years Mac's senior, their marriage was based mostly on friendship rather than love, and Mac agreed to care for Hope upon her father's death.
Mac and Clara moved to Saranac Lake where Mac worked as a sign painter. He worked for Tony Anderson, proprietor to the Pontiac Theatre on Broadway. As part payment Mac received a free pass for his family. His painting studio was under the theatre, which was also the local billiard hall, and housed ten billiard tables. He also worked to Bill Kollecker in the "Photo Shop" and also for E.L. Gray. Mac designed letter heads and picture advertisements for local businessmen. He did the original designs for the Blue Gentian Restaurant and the ceiling and wall murals in the Hotel Saranac. His specialty was gold leaf on office windows. A story told by Poker Ryan was that Mac did a gold leaf sign on a liquor store window for Mr. Tousley; after the sign was finished Mac stated his price and the man protested. “Well,” Mac replied, “pay me what you feel it’s worth.” The price he paid happened to be half of Mac’s original price. Mac accepted the money and proceeded to his truck and returned with a razor blade and commenced to scrap[e] off half of the sign. Needless to say Mac received the remainder of the money owed to him.
Mac traveled for two years throughout the U.S. with the Ice Follies as Ice Follies Artist and Designer. One of his projects is enclosed. Another ice painting represented a mammoth garden pond, with a huge lily pad in the center, gold fish and bull-frogs around it, and four rushing fountains in each corner of the ice sheet. Summer and winter, each major ice show was advertised by a large, originally-designed, hand-painted marquee above the arena doors. A whole chapter is dedicated to his ice designs in Lake Placid, the Olympic Years, 1932 – 1980, by George C. Ortloff and Stephen L. Ortloff, 1976.
Mac belonged to the Odd Fellows Hall, which is now a parking lot next to The Saranac Hotel. Mac's act often included doing a chalk talk at the end of the evening's performance. These chalk talks often told a story of local flavor, as he told the tale he would sketch a picture slowly, sometimes as the picture progressed it would resemble something in the story, but suprisingly at the end of the story, with the finishing touches added, it would be the punch line or he would turn the drawing upside down and it would resemble the character or setting of the story.
Winchester, or "Mac", also belonged to the Christian Science Church. He participated in all levels of duties in the church, reader, first reader and usher. His wife Clara was very devoted to the church. During her long years of suffering from Cancer, she only called upon the Lord for comfort. She played the organ for many years at the Reading Room, located on Church St. Mac was a drinking man, of no doubt, but his book of poems, "Holdings", published by Soulcraft Chapels, depicts a true believer in Jesus Christ.
Mac's interest in boating and camping stemmed from his wife Clara, who as a child loved traveling along the Chain Lakes in her father's mail boat. Their decision to buy and settle on Duprey Street on the shore of Lake Flower was probably due to their interests in boating on Saranac Lake. Picnicing and camping were one of their greatest pleasures. During the long cold winter months they would build huge bonfires on the ice and skate until late at night. Many of Mac's paintings were of local scenery, unfortunately he never signed them, but his signs were often signed "Mac of Saranac". Before they settled on Duprey Street they spent one winter at 101 Lake Flower Avenue, (across from Stearns Liquor Store) living both in an apartment and in a beautiful houseboat built by Mr. Swain. The houseboat had a fireplace and all the conveniences of a house. They used the houseboat as bedrooms that winter, a cherished winter for the children. During the summer they would move the houseboat to Lower Saranac, Round Lake and Lake Flower, spending the entire summer on the water.
As neon signs, photography and printing techniques became more refined and less expensive, fewer sign painters were required, but still today it's a business for Donald Morgan of Lake Flower Avenue. Don was a protege of "Daddy Mac's" and still today has the books and boxes used by Mac. Don Morgan does most if not all the gold leaf windows in Saranac Lake. Naomi Martin, Mac's daughter, has done signs and auto/truck signs for old patrons, and for charities like the Humane Society, free of charge.
One of the most important characteristics that I inherited from my Grandfather was the appreciation of the beauty and the feelings of security that abound in these Adirondack woods and ponds.
Reading1 Eagle, April 23, 1939
Add Unusual Occupations
To Hollywood, land of extraordinary jobs, Winchester MacDowell brought a new one. He paints ice. MacDowell originally a sign painter hailing from Saranac Lake, N. Y., got the idea after watching ice carnivals staged by his son-in-law. Why not decorate the ice to enhance the color of the skating acts, he reasoned. So for more than eight years now he has been doing just that and during the past year has worked with the "International Ice Follies," painting the ice for their ballet numbers. When the troupe came to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for "The Ice Follies of 1939," starring Joan Crawford, and now at Loew's, MacDowell came with them. His painting is done free-hand in water colors which are frozen right into the ice. He works ambidextrously with a brush attached to a long rod in either hand. The size of the brush varies according to the decoration required. First he sprays on his background color, then fills in his designs. The colors take from six to eight hours to set, after which the ice is flooded and another quarter-inch coating frozen over the top.
Lake Placid News, March 10, 1939
ICE FOLLIES AT SARANAC HOUSE THIS WEEK-END Joan Crawford Starred in Extravagant that Combines "Story" with Figure Skating
Back to the type of role in which she rose to stardom comes Joan Crawford in "The Ice Follies of 1939," which opens at the Pontiac Theatre for a two-day stand.
A picture designed for the entire family, "The Ice Follies of 1939" has "everything." There are breath-taking beautiful Technicolor skating scenes for those who like pageantry in the films; a story with a Hollywood background and intimate glimpses into studio life; original songs destined to take first place on the popular poll lists of the country.
An interesting sidelight on the film is that the ice decorations for the skating scenes were painted by Winchester MacDowell of Saranac Lake, and father-in-law of Gus Lussi of this village.
"The Ice Follies of 1939," deals with the story of a team of fancy skaters, portrayed by James Stewart and Lew Ayres. When Stewart married Joan Crawford and adds her to the double act, trouble ensues. The loss of a job in a skating rink causes the girl to seek employment on her own and because of her unusual voice she lands a film contract and signs it before she notices the "no marriage" clause buried in the legal terms. The three finally drift apart, Stewart to seek backing for his dream of staging an Ice Follies, Ayres to one night stands in skating rinks, and Miss Crawford to film stardom…