History of Sunset Arboretum

By Alice Wareham  (Originally published as “From swamp to arboretum” on April 13, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the Adirondack Daily Enterprise )

SunsetParkSign2SARANAC LAKE – “Small open spaces … scattered about a village … furnish the opportunity for people to rest outdoors. … Such small bits of park are very real and important elements in making for civic beauty and the joy of living,” the Olmsted Plan notes.

“There are always certain areas of land or water of special geological formation or landscape interest which have added value due to the fact that, once destroyed, they cannot be replaced. Such geographical units are often … associated with the town or particular locality, and so have a distinctive and memorial value which surely should not be lost, for it is by preserving such features for public use and enjoyment that you avoid the commonplace in civic development and accent the individuality of your community.”

In 1924, the Jenkins family gave the Village Improvement Society property on Olive Street, which was left undeveloped until the 1960s when Philip G. Wolff, a landscape architect who was impressed by the numbers of different tree species, drew up a plan for an arboretum. It was later named Sunset Park Adirondack Arboretum. Located in the heart of a busy urban neighborhood, it is a small, triangular lot bounded by Olive Street and Sunset and Fairview avenues.

In 1965, Olive Street resident Kenneth Bailey complained to VIS Vice President Alice Bouton about swarms of blackflies from the swampy triangle.

Mrs. Bouton consulted Wolff, who hacked his way through the tangle of underbrush one chilly January day. Amazed by the variety of Adirondack trees identified in such a small area, Mr. Wolff advised creating an arboretum, submitting a six-step plan. His topographical sketch outlined two paths, one starting at Fairview and Sunset and one starting at Olive and Fairview, both high points on the property, to wander down natural contours, join and exit near the tip of the triangle at Olive and Sunset.

Work on the Arboretum started in 1968 under Mrs. Bouton’s chairmanship. First, over a two-year period, the heavily wooded property was cleared of dead trees, fallen trees, a tangle of undergrowth and litter. This was accomplished with the cooperation of neighborhood residents, the 4-H Club (which dragged out seven large bags or litter), Boy Scouts (who cut and stacked brush at the roadside) and several foresters employed by VIS. The village chipped the brush for the paths to come, and in the fall of 1969 work stopped for the winter.

That September, Donald Fasking, an experienced forester employed by VIS, reported that as the park became light and airy, birds were returning to nest, and he listed sightings of eight species.

 In the spring of 1970, one of the major problems became the regrowth of underbrush on the live stumps of trees previously cleared. Frank Houck provided a non-poisonous, selective hormone safe for humans and animals which would kill only broad-leaved trees and not touch evergreens, spraying four times the first day and giving the final application three weeks later.

After the first spraying, Fasking returned to lay a definite ditch to guide water from swampy areas to the culvert which he had discovered the previous fall at the junction of Olive and Sunset. The forgotten culvert had been stopped up with a car motor and other debris which, when removed, drained the bog in three hours.

Next, Fasking began building the Arboretum paths, first laying rocks in the low swampy sections, then adding four loads of sand purchased by VIS and, finally, the wood chips. He built two sturdy footbridges from wood donated by James Latour. In August of 1970, VIS opened the Arboretum to nature lovers.

 In 1971, Mayor John Brewster dedicated the Sunset Park Adirondack Arboretum in formal ceremonies and VIS President Gertrude Woodruff conferred the society’s highest honor on Mr. Wolff, making him an honorary member of the then-all-female organization. Although his honorary status continues, VIS rewrote its bylaws in the 1970s to admit men. Wolff became a full-fledged member and now enjoys voting privileges.

Problems continued with storm runoff from Fairview Avenue bringing sand down the bank into the Arboretum’s Sunset Avenue side. A group of members planted several ground covers, hoping to retain the bank. More effective, however, was the deflective curbing the village laid in 1972.

The Park has been used for guided nature tours and private enjoyment, and by Paul Smith’s College students in forestry maintenance. Advised by Randall Swanson, VIS applied to the National Institute of Urban Wildlife, which designated Sunset Park an Urban Wildlife Sanctuary in 1992.

The Arboretum requires constant tree and brush removal, and repair of its paths and bridges, with which many nearby residents and local groups continue to assist.

VIS Park Map