10/22/2012 02:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Eggs and Entrepreneurship in the North Woods

The history of Prospect Point Cottages in the Central Adirondacks is one of ambition, neglect, almost foolish optimism, dogged determination, and the power of love. Set on a hill in the shadow of Blue Mountain, Prospect Point has welcomed visitors looking for a North Woods escape for over a century. Although there are many long-standing vacation colonies in the area, few have seen the changes Prospect Point Cottages have, and even fewer have risked becoming a twelve-month business in a place known for its two-month tourist season and little else by way of economic activity.

After purchasing the land that housed a small inn in 1879, Frederick Durant, nephew of the railroad tycoon, Thomas C. Durant began the process of building a "palace in the wilderness." Through the help of Thomas Edison, The Prospect House became the first hotel in the world with an electric light bulb in each room. Although the trip from New York City took twenty-six hours and required taking a train, steamboat, and coach, notable guests from Louis Tiffany to Henry Ford were lured to The Prospect House by the idea of finding luxury in the wilderness. There they were greeted by a house orchestra and could look forward to enjoying the finest cuisine, billiards, a bowling alley built over the water, and a fleet of pleasure boats.

The dream was, however, not sustainable. The vacation season was a little over two months long, and even the fashionable food of the time was brought in by a journey as arduous and costly as that of the guests themselves. Similar luxury lodges sprung up closer to the railroad, and the inn was closed in 1903 when it was erroneously believed to be at the root of an outbreak of typhoid fever. The grand old inn was dismantled in 1916 and several small cottages were built shortly thereafter, two of which still remain. The rest were built in the early 1950's.

When the property was sold to the current owners in 1998, it had fallen into a state of disrepair. The cabins that felt taped together in the 1980s had walls that needed to be chained to keep them from caving in and trees growing through them. The Oestreichers, a family of five who had vacationed at Prospect Point for decades, brought skills in law, anthropology, music, and sculpture but could safely say they knew nothing about resort management. They did, however, love Prospect Point and came in with a dream of creating a vacation spot that other families could enjoy as they had.

The Oestreicher family imagined a six-month renovation period and dreamed of the possibility of inviting back the old guests, even without an old guest list. As Paul Oestreicher, one of the family's sons, shared with me, "When my folks purchased the property it really wasn't a business decision. They did it mainly to try to save the land from development, and to try to bring back the old friends we'd come to know renting together over the years. Of course we desperately wanted to succeed, but there was so much going against us in those early years that there were times we wondered what would become of our venture, and whether we weren't more than a little crazy."

The renovation took well over six months. The Oestreichers continue to pour their profits into additional renovations. Certainly, the natural beauty of the location and the careful renovation of the cabins have contributed greatly to its high - almost impenetrable - summer occupancy rates. The success of Prospect Point Cottages, however, comes down to the way love makes one willing to take risks, willing to see beauty in surprising places, and willing to make changes. The following are several examples of the leaps of faith and love that have helped Prospect Point Cottages thrive in difficult times:

Willingness to hire someone who couldn't get a job at PetSmart

Carol Dougherty, the property manager, has a passion for gardening, growing native plants, and upstate New York. At the time she was hired, she had no hotel or resort management experience. She was also sorely out of work and had been for some time. After her application to PetSmart was rejected, she learned of a part-time position at Prospect Point. In what sounds almost like an afterthought, she brought an album of her garden designs along on her interview. She spoke about her vision for the land, the plants that could be grown, the caretaker's cottage she wanted to see built, the organic herb garden she would plant for guests to use. She never mentioned wanting to raise chickens, and no one could have predicted that she would move a mannequin named Perry from cabin to cabin to "surprise" guests ... She was hired. This year, she got her chicken coop. This fall, guests are enjoying fresh egg omlettes on Sunday mornings. Most recently, Perry the mannequin was found peering into the window of the main lodge.

Willingness to respond to guest feedback
This past summer, I asked David, Paul's brother, about one about a few of the weekly summer traditions. I was particularly curious about the weekly talent show. The talent show was first put on in the lodge by a group of guests who just felt like having a talent show. The other guests enjoyed it - and the tradition stuck. One week, David cancelled it. The guests were bereft, so David put it back into the schedule and has not messed with it since! Weekly guests develop their own traditions around the show such as serving homemade ice cream at intermission.

Paul recently shared another example with me: "Carol approached some of our long-time guests, and asked how we could make their stay more special. The family loved the place but had a wish: the parking area extended in front of their cottage, and they wished they could enjoy the lake and mountains from their porch without cars blocking the view.

Within minutes Carol scoured the property for a better parking location. The spot she found was ideal - an out of the way place which wouldn't block anyone's view of anything. She pitched the idea to us and we loved it. Who wouldn't? It was an elegant solution to a problem no one knew we even had. But Carol realized our guests would know better than anyone how to improve the place and asked them directly what they'd like to see. Because of that kind of attitude the property is so much nicer today than it was even four or five years ago."

Willingness to let staff take risks
Paul and his family encourage their staff to write their own job descriptions and attribute much of their success to the insight and creativity of their staff. As Paul shared, "Alene Husson, our bookings manager, told me once how much she and the rest of our staff appreciated our taking their suggestions seriously. I replied that we'd be foolish not to, since they routinely come up with the best ideas for improving the Point. Who better understands the every-day workings of a business than the people who actually run it? Of course, all of this is predicated on having a truly dedicated, caring group of people working with you. My family and I know how fortunate we are in that regard. Both we and our guests love our staff; if our business succeeds, it is because of their devotion and boundless creativity."

Willingness to take a loss
When the original renovations took longer than expected, the Oestreichers had a summer's worth of bookings lined up. Rather than disappoint their first lot of guests, they made the radical move of offering a free week to each guest the following summer. They took a massive loss and gained a very loyal following.

While staying open year-round is decidedly good for the Blue Mountain Lake community, it also was a loss leader for many years. Off-season travel to Prospect Point is becoming more popular, largely due to the staff's efforts to build programming around the weekend. David, an anthropologist who lived with the Lenape people to study their language and record their stories, offers a program on local history along with Thanksgiving dinner largely made of locally sourced food with as much from their own gardens as possible. Paul shared, "Our decision to remain open during the winter is risky. Blue Mountain Lake is so remote that in the off-season there aren't a whole lot of places to eat in the immediate vicinity. So we've been offering our own homemade gourmet brunches every day from October through mid-June to make up for it. They're all-you-can-eat, and truly gourmet meals - with fresh eggs from our own naturally raised chickens and vegetables from our organic heirloom gardens."

This past summer, part of a film was shot on the premises. Just after sunset, guests met on the dock to watch a bit of Hollywood in action. This was a first for Prospect Point, one that probably caused a bit of a financial loss. Still, David shared that they felt that this was good for the community overall. While its distribution may not be wide in the end, its production brought a crew of no fewer than 50 people into Blue Mountain Lake for three days. As Paul later wrote, "If we can introduce people -- many of whom come from New York City or other urban areas -- to the wonders of this incredible place, we can't help but feel that like us they'll come to love the Adirondacks and want to preserve our priceless wilderness."