SPECULATOR, N.Y. — Every U.S. state and 116 countries are represented among Cornell’s undergraduate population. Nearly a third come from New York State alone. But in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains — a green teardrop of virtually unbroken forest in northern New York — lies Hamilton County, the only county with no Cornellians.
Cornell currently enrolls students from Senegal, Madagascar and Lithuania, but no one from Hamilton County — just three hours away from campus — has attended Cornell in the last five years.
Even among upstate New York’s sparsely populated counties, Hamilton stands out. It is the third-biggest county and has the smallest population — just 4,778 people as of 2012. It is the least densely populated county on the Eastern half of the United States. Its entire citizenry could fit inside Cornell’s eight largest lecture halls. The county is nearly the size of Delaware, but has no traffic lights.
“The scale is so tiny it almost boggles the mind for anyone who hasn’t lived in a very, very rural area,” said Bill Waller ’77, who vacationed to Hamilton for more than 30 years before moving there in 2011. “The difference is, instead of having farms we have mountains and lakes and national beauty. There’s tourism, but the dynamics of small populations are still quite striking, and hard to imagine for anyone who hasn’t experienced it first-hand.”
November in the village of Speculator, population 302, is the quiet stasis of a tourist town in the off-season. In a few months, vacationers from the likes of Nassau, Westchester and New York City will reclaim their cabin-style vacation homes and jet around Lake Pleasant in powerboats.
Shannon Clancy, 37, serves up home-fries and bacon to the regulars of the Sunrise Diner, most of whom she greets by name. As in many counties in upstate New York, the clientele tends to be older and mostly white. Clancy and a cook run the diner as a duo, swapping stories from the gun range as they wait on customers.
Come summer, the population of Hamilton County will nearly quadruple with the influx of temporary residents. The Sunrise Diner will bring on two additional cooks and a dishwasher for the season, and Speculator’s tourism industry will roar back to life.
The source for Hamilton’s enduring popularity as a vacation destination, however, is also its greatest economic challenge. Since the end of the 19th century, large swaths of land in the Adirondacks, including about half of Hamilton’s considerable land area, have been closed to development. The protections ensure the survival of the area’s natural beauty and wildlife, but severely limit industry and opportunity.
Clancy, who grew up near Speculator, expects her daughter Alexis to leave Hamilton County after graduating from high school. Even if Alexis wanted to stay close to home, the closest college is SUNY Adirondack Community College, 40 minutes away in Warren County.
“She’s definitely going to go away to school,” Clancy said from behind the counter. “There’s not a whole lot around here. She’s adamant about that.”
David Snide said he’s not surprised that there are no Hamiltonians at Cornell. Snide took over as superintendent of Indian Lake Central School last year, one of three high schools in the county.
“I believe the key factor in no students attending Cornell from Hamilton County is simply a function of our numbers,” Snide wrote in an email. “Between Indian Lake, Long Lake and Wells, we probably have between 20 to 25 seniors. Between the workforce, trade school, military, and other schools, it is understandable that Cornell might just not be an option.”
Merrill Pine ’14 was 12 years old when she brought her sick horse, Nahani, to Cornell’s equine hospital. Six years later, in 2010, she was accepted to and enrolled at Cornell, something no Hamilton County resident has done since.
“It was actually a huge transition for me that was really difficult,” Pine recalled in a phone interview. “I was very used to being the smartest kid in my class and not having to work that hard. I basically had to re-learn how to study.”
Pine graduated with 16 other students at Indian Lake Central School, but she estimates that only four went on to college.
“I think there’s definitely other kids that are in schools in Hamilton County that don’t have the support system I had,” Pine said. “There’s a lot of other kids that are very talented and intelligent that could be great at Cornell but aren’t aware” it is an option.
A year before Pine came to Cornell, Cory Schoonmaker ’12 was the sole Hamilton County native on campus. Moving from a place that is over 95 percent white, Schoonmaker described being struck by the University’s diversity.
“My area is predominantly, and by predominantly I mean almost exclusively, white,” he said. “When I came to Cornell and there were all these different communities, all these different people mixing together in one community. It was really a vastly different experience.”
Before Schoonmaker, the last time Hamilton County’s Wells Central School sent a student to Cornell was in the waning days of the Reagan administration. Amy Maher ’92 hardly considered herself an athlete, but at a school that struggles to even field a full team in every sport, spots on the roster were there for the taking. Maher took advantage of the school’s comparatively small size, playing soccer, volleyball, basketball and softball.
“It was a fantastic, idyllic high school experience,” Maher said. “Because there were 35 kids in my class, we had every opportunity.”
“Some people might say there’s nothing to do there. I took it as an opportunity to do anything and everything,” she said.
Since Maher’s time at Wells Central School, class sizes have gotten even smaller, tracking with the overall trend of the county. From 2010 to 2017, Hamilton lost 7.4 percent of its population, according to U.S. census data.
Anne Weaver, the historian for the town of Lake Pleasant, lives a few miles from Speculator with her dog Noelle. Like many Hamilton residents interviewed, Weaver lamented the emigration of youth out of the county. With more retirees moving in and more students moving out, 30 percent of the population in Hamilton is over 65, double the percentage of New York State as a whole.
But Weaver, who has lived near Speculator since 1978, also outlined the benefits of a small community, even if the nearest hospital or grocery store is over an hour away.
“Wells right now is a big example of what small communities do,” she said of the Hamilton County town that has a population of about 700. “A family’s house got burned in Wells, and they’ve been giving away lots of stuff. They’re giving a benefit this Saturday, and you know everyone’s gonna be there and everything. That’s basically what each of the towns in Hamilton county are like.”
In early November, The Sun interviewed several students of Wells Central School’s Class of 2019. With college application deadlines fast approaching, the presumptive valedictorian — a quiet boy with frizzy blonde hair named Coby Stuart — was putting the finishing touches on his application to Syracuse University.
Stuart said he also plans on applying to Harvard. But not Cornell.
“I feel like it’s a good school, and it’s worth a shot, you know?” Stuart said of Harvard.
Jocelyn Scribner, a junior, is still a year away from her college search, but is interested in applying to SUNY Plattsburgh and pursuing obstetrics with a double major in Spanish.
“Most of the colleges I look at are the ones I get letters from, and I just haven’t gotten anything from them” Scribner said of Cornell. She said receiving letters from the University would “definitely” make her more interested in applying.
Sharon Parslow, Wells Central School’s counselor, said about 40 percent of students end up at Fulton-Montgomery Community College, which is about 50 miles from Speculator, and many others go to SUNY schools or join the workforce.
“Unfortunately, I don’t always have that kid that’ll meet [Cornell’s] admissions standards,” Parslow said. “Leaving this safety haven, your college is like a little city. You have red lights. And that’s a true thing, we don’t have a red light.”
All three admissions offices for Cornell’s state contract colleges — the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Human Ecology — declined to comment for this story.
Parslow said that with more contact from Cornell, perhaps more students would be willing to apply to Cornell in the future.
“Marketing is very expensive, but … you know, emails aren’t that expensive,” Parslow said. “Cornell might want to step up a little bit more info for us little people.”