John D MacDonald was so associated with the state of Florida that the casual reader of his fiction could be forgiven for believing that he and his family had always lived there. MacDonald was born in Pennsylvania and spent his first ten years there before his father moved the family to upstate New York, where he (John) would spend the next 23 years (minus three years overseas during the war). It wasn’t until 1949, when JDM was 33 years old, that he, Dorothy and Johnny moved to Florida permanently. And by then the three of them had deep roots in the Empire State.
The MacDonalds never really left New York. In 1944 John had sent wife Dorothy some poker winnings from Ceylon and she used the funds to purchase a lot on the southwestern shore of Piseco Lake, located in Hamilton County in the Adirondack Mountains. Dorothy knew the lake well: her father Roy had purchased a cabin there when she was young, which they called Wahnahoo, and she spent most of her summers there as a youth. When John returned from the war in 1945 and decided on a career in fiction, finances were tight and there was no money to develop the lot. It remained empty until 1950, when the MacDonalds designed a cabin (they called it a “camp”) and began construction. As the family was now living in Florida, the work was supervised by JDM’s brother-in-law Sam Prentiss, who lived in Albany. Beginning the following year they would follow an annual pattern of spending the summer at the camp and the rest of the year in Sarasota, a practice they continued -- with the exception of a seven year period from 1963 to 1970 -- every year of their lives.
Despite its remote location, the Piseco camp wasn’t all that removed from civilization. There was a small store and post office located a mile and a half away, and the town of Speculator was a 16 mile drive up Route 8. The MacDonalds made frequent trips to Speculator while living at the camp, for “serious grocery shopping” and to enjoy eating out at a restaurant and inn called Zeiser’s. The establishment was a great favorite of the family: they had their own table and were good friends with the owners, John And Genevieve Zeiser. Back in 2016 I posted a transcription of a newspaper article published in the local Hamilton County News following the death of John, where this strong relationship was clearly evidenced.
In 1980 Barbara Crossette, a travel writer for the New York Times, published a guide to America’s Wonderful Little Hotels and Inns (in fact that was the title of the book). It was a collection of over 300 individual pieces on various off-the-beaten-track establishments throughout the country, written by various travelers that included “doctors, authors, lawyers, musicians, people who travel on business, a couple of Jungian analysts in their seventies, two United States senators, two Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, the director of a film institute, distinguished professors, local historians -- and many people who did not identify themselves…” John D MacDonald was one of those authors, and his entry described Zeiser’s. Here is a transcription of his piece.
"I really believe you should include Zeiser's in Speculator, New York. It is owned and operated by John and Genevieve Zeiser (and Ludwig, the cat). The operation is housed in what used to be the Annex of the Sturges House, which was built in 1858 by David Sturges, back when the crossroads near the hotel was called Newton's Corners. The Zeisers have been in business here for twenty-three years. There is an attractive bar, lunch areas-including a long screened porch in season-and a handsome formal dining room, with lighting, napery, silverware and table settings beyond reproach. Every part of the operation is spotlessly clean. There is no American plan. You are expected to find your breakfast elsewhere in the village. There is no room service for drinks or food. The food is excellent, tending toward the German. The wine cellar is heavy on good Moselles. Mr. Z, a tidy and formal man, reigns at the bar. His no-nonsense attitude has given the bar the flavor of a good, small private club. Service is swift and courteous, and one would go a long, long way to find a better dry martini. Or more civilized conversation at a bar. Mr. Z is a host!
"Speculator, incidentally, is in Hamilton County, which is in the middle of the Adirondack Park Preserve and is the most sparsely settled county in New York State. It is reputed to have more black bears than people. The crossroads a couple of hundred feet from Zeiser's is the intersection of Route 8, which begins way down at Deposit, N.Y., on the Pennsylvania border and ends at Hague, N.Y., on the northwest shore of Lake George, and Route 30 which begins, or ends, down at Harvard and Shinhopple, N.Y., near the Pennsylvania border, and ends, or begins, at Trout River on the Quebec border.
“Lest this sound too obscure, let me say that Zeiser's is 42 miles from Gloversville, 61 from Utica, 75 from Schenectady, 90 from Albany, 94 from Troy and 109 from Syracuse. The most handsome way of driving up to Speculator is to exit the Thruway at exit 29, Canajoharie, and drive north on Route 10 to Route 8, and turn right on 8 to Speculator, twelve miles farther. The last seventeen miles of Route 10, before it intersects Route 8, is known locally as the Arietta Road. When it was repaved a few years ago, the Park Authority did not consent to the usual ‘straightening.' So there are sixty-five curves in those hilly miles, beautifully graded, a feast in autumn, but special at any time of year. Speculator is lakes and camping in summer, hunting in the fall, skiing in the winter.
“Room reservations are a must, and dinner reservations almost as necessary. This past year, the Zeisers had a Bavarian festival with tent, music, fantastic German food, superb beer on draft and the best zither player I have ever heard anywhere, an engaging chap named Toni Noichl.”
---John D. MacDonald
Open all year.
6 rooms, all with private bath.
Rates $9.50 single, $18.50 double.
Credit cards: American Express. Bar.
I’m not sure if Zeiser’s is still open for business. There are online reviews from as recently as 2018 and apparently Genevieve was still alive and running the place (John passed away), but some of the reviews seem to indicate a business on its last legs. They used to have a JDM display in the front lobby. I wonder if it is still there...