If you take a visit to Nine Corner Lake in the town of Caroga on any given summer day, you'll find a popular hiking and swimming spot for Fulton County residents and visitors alike.
Year-round, the trails leading up to and around the lake are enjoyed by nature lovers. It's a great example of all the county has to offer: close to the cities but far enough away to experience the beautiful outdoors at a place full of history. Growing up, I heard the tale of the Nine Corner Ghosts from my father. Horrified and deeply engrossed by the story, I passed it along to my friends. It was a story that thrilled us during sleepovers, but as we got older, the story was forgotten and replaced by other topics.
It wasn't until I was a teenager camping out with co-workers at the lake that I was reminded of the tale. As we sat around a pathetic but determined little fire, I hoped it didn't storm that night. It was said that's when the ghosts were seen.
To tell the events of this unusual paranormal story, we must first go back to the early years of Caroga. The abundant forests growing there made the area ripe for the timber industry. The trees were not only used for their lumber; the bark was very sought after as well, since it was needed in the tanneries for the production of the leather that would be fashioned into the world's most famous gloves. Tanneries were often built out in these wooded areas, where the bark was easily accessible. Once chemicals were introduced in the process, there was less reliance on the tree bark. In 1842, there were eight sawmills and one tannery in the small town of Caroga. The area around Nine Corner Lake was plentiful with good lumber and the necessary bark. Workers would spend their days gathering the bark for the tanneries, staying in the area until the job was done.
The "mystery" of Nine Corner Lake is one that has been passed down through several generations, at last written down by a Dolgeville man named Ray Hillabrandt. It was told to him by "an old fellow, an ex lumberman and semi-hermit, who clung to the region long after all activity in his vocation had left it." According to the source, there was a small shanty along the road leading to Pine Lake, kept by one Mr. Sweet. Sweet picked a perfect area for his small place. There was a spring just nearby. The proximity of the place was close to where the lumber and bark peeling work was done, and so the men hired for these tasks often boarded at Sweet's.
These workers came from all over the place. Men of many different nationalities found work in the woods there. A group of French Canadians had made their way south to do a "bark peeling job" at Nine Corner Lake. Hillabrandt describes them thus: "They were a jolly, good-natured lot, and the merriest of them all were two brothers, Jacques and Frank LaFeare." The men were out on the job on a day in June when a very strong thunder storm came whipping through the area, bringing a wind strong enough to take down several trees. The jolly group of French Canadians did not return to Sweet's place at their usual time, but no one was worried; they had probably built themselves a shelter to keep them safe from the storm and would show up once it passed. And it did pass later that evening. But the LaFeares and their mates did not appear. Concerned now, a search party headed out at dawn.
Hillabrandt describes the new day as "clear and bright." Today, the lake would have been busy with people enjoying the summer sun at the water's edge. But the search party was greeted with only the sounds of nature and their own footsteps stomping along the rough trail. Their calls of "hello" echoed hollowly around the woods and over the water. No responding shouts were heard, and the search party feared the worst. They began to move around the lake's edge. It did not take long for them to discover the workers' boat stuck in some rocks with a hole in the bottom.
A member of the group plugged the hole with his shirt and they set off on the water to continue their search. Having no paddles, they used poles to maneuver to the area they calculated the boat would have been when the storm hit. The water was calm and clear, and it was only a few silent minutes before one of the men shouted: "My God, there's one of 'em!" The group hauled the body of the first worker to shore. It wasn't much longer before they recovered the other 10. They figured the boat had capsized in the middle of the lake. Some of the men drowned immediately, but others had managed to grab on to a piece of the boat and float for some time before the storm-angry lake overtook them. The LaFeare brothers were found together, apparently clutching one another until the end.
Only a few months after the terrible tragedy, a couple of hunters were up around the lake when another summer storm came crashing through. It was useless trying to continue chasing their mark in the nasty weather. As they headed back toward the camp, lightning flashed and lit up the lake. There, in the middle of the water and in the white burst of light from the clouds, an overturned boat was seen. Around it were several men, trying to hang on to it for dear life. The hunters couldn't believe their eyes and fear rooted them to the spot. Another lightning flash revealed nothing but the churning black waters of the lake. The men tore down the trail, tripping over roots and themselves as they ran as fast as they could back to the small cabin, where they relayed their tale to the other surprised men. From that day on, unlucky was the person who found himself or herself at the lake after dark, for that was the home of the spirits of the Frenchmen.
This tale has been part of the fabric of Fulton County history since its occurrence. Legends like this are just as important to the story of our county as any other factual event. History - the account of true past events - teaches us how and why we are here. Local lore teaches us about the people who live here and the role they played in our history. The stories people tell can show you just as much about a person or a community as any other thing. Perhaps you might bring this one to your next campfire just make sure you're not at Nine Corner Lake after dark in a storm.
This article was written using source material published in "Fulton County: A Pictorial History," by former Fulton County Historian Lewis G. Decker. Ray Hillabrandt's written account can be read there in its entirety. Samantha Hall-Saladino is the Fulton County historian.