Rewind: January 1, 2022
When Owls Landed at Lake Luzerne
by David Waite
Ancient order or outlandish costume party?
It was an evening like no other at Lake Luzerne’s Wayside Inn when the Ancient and Noble Order of the Owls descended for their annual dinner. We are fortunate to have a very detailed report in the September 12, 1909, Albany Argus that provides many details about this extraordinary event.
What was this group? In this newspaper article, the group’s spokesperson, Black Owl, willingly gave their history:
The order was originally a subtribe of Indians whose totem or coat of arms was the owl. This sub-tribe with its nation used annually to come to the borders of Lake Luzerne and there have a great feast and talk over matters of importance. Gradually the Indians were swept away, and the Owls became a white man’s society. Eminent men for the last sixty years have belonged to it. Among a few that can be recalled was General Frederick Townsend, the late General Meredith Read, whose little grandson is the only child ever made an Owl; Colonel Butler, “the gallant Butler,” as he was called during the Civil War; Mr. James Clapp, a well-known millionaire, and man of fashion, etc.
The Owls met for this event in a clubhouse that they had built years before on the grounds of the Wayside Inn. This gathering was both their annual meeting as well as their society procession and banquet. Presiding over it all was the Grand Owl, Honorable Howard Conkling, garbed in his royal robe, brandishing a sword and seated on a throne at the front of the room. At his side were two of the chief officers of the order, Major H. P. Read, with the title of the Grand Talking Stick, and the Grand Wistiti, Captain E. G. Schermerhorn. Placed on a table directly in front of these three were crossed swords, there to remind the owls that at that moment Conkling had the power of life or death over each one of them. There was little chance of bloodshed, however, as it was noted that the swords were sitting on a glass mirror, which if broken the Grand Owl was required to pay to replace.
With the attending owls seated before them, the society leaders then led the group through their annual meeting, ending with the election of the officers for the following year. The organizational portion of the gathering was concluded with the tradition of calling upon their patron saint and Indian beauty, Falling Star, for luck throughout the coming year.
With this part of the gathering concluded, the next order of business was the introduction of a potential new member. Wearing a black gown emblazoned with a large white owl, the initiate, Mr. Smith, was brought out and bound with chains by the group’s Lord High Executioner and his attendants armed with battle-axes. He was then led as part of an elaborate procession to the shore of nearby Lake Luzerne where the spirit of Chevalier de la Luzerne having returned from Hades, and attended by an Indian Queen and two princesses, was making their way across the lake. When the procession arrived at the shore, they found that the borders of the lake were illuminated by bonfires and the landing place lit up with fireworks.
The Chevalier, played by Marquis Guy I’Ollone, was dressed as an officer of the King of France at the time of the Revolutionary War with a wig, sword, and epaulets. Miss Durlaker was the Indian Queen, and her princesses were the Curry sisters. All three were gowned in Indian dresses, beads, and native gems adorning their feathered crowns.
Once the procession escorted their new guests back to the owl’s clubhouse, they found an elaborate banquet prepared and waiting for their arrival. At the request of the Grand Owl, Rev. Clement Whipple said grace, and those attending the banquet were seated. The first toast of the night was by the Grand Whistiti, followed by many more toasts and short speeches. In a speech by Captain Schermerhorn, the Grand Walking Stick, the members were introduced to a cannibal king, dressed mostly in feathers and an oval shield, who was said to be a representative of President Roosevelt. In his excitement at seeing America for the first time, the cannibal knocked over the Grand Owl, much to the amusement of all attending. Next, to be introduced was someone said to be Andrew Carnegie, who stated that he hoped to establish a library devoted to the owl society if the group paid all the expenses, and it was named for him.
Bringing the gathering back to a more somber tone, Mr. Conkling announced that the initiation of the newest owl member would begin. Still chained and in his black robe, Mr. Smith was brought out and set before the Grand Whistiti, whose duty was also that of the society’s public prosecutor. It was loudly pronounced that the crime of “not having a silk hat,” had been committed by the new initiate, with the sentence given having to purchase a bottle of champagne for the order. With this act, Smith was now the newest member of this ancient and noble order. After numerous speeches and toasts, the banquet was concluded with a song by Mr. Herschel Roberts, beginning with this verse:
The Owls never want to go to bed,
But it is whispered and not said
They sometimes arise with a big head—God Save the Owls! ! !
The night of festivities ended with a dance, with all who were staying that night at Wayside Inn invited to attend. There is little doubt that the night would be often talked of for years afterward by those who attended and those who lived within sight of this spectacle on the lake.
The Order of Owls, a secret fraternal organization was organized in 1904, and is unlikely that the Ancient and Noble Order of Owls in this story was affiliated with them in any way. There is no other mention of this order or their gathering at Lake Luzerne beyond the newspaper article from which this story is taken. Illustrations for this article were taken from the September 12, 1910, edition of the Albany Argus obtained from the online newspaper archive nyshistoricnewspapers.org.
Article prepared by David Waite for the Warren County Historical Society.