The Whitney Family and The Sale of Camp Deerlands Estate

It is hard to conceptualize 36,000 acres of land. For reference, it is a few thousand acres larger than the City of Boston. Right now, 36,000 pristine acres in the heart of the Adirondack Park is for sale for $180,000,000. What is the story behind this large tract of land that has caught the attention of so many in the region and why is it currently for sale?

History of the Whitney’s Camp Deerlands 

Just how did one family end up with thousands of pristine acres in Adirondack Park? In 1897, former secretary of the Navy, William C. Whitney acquired an 80,000 acre tract for $1.50 an acre. Whitney named the property Camp Deerlands (also known as Whitney Park). The Whitney family operated a timber business on the land and were involved in other business ventures. Much of the land would be inherited by William’s son Cornelius. Today the Deerlands camp is the largest and the best preserved of the Gilded Age Adirondack Great Camps.

Mary Lou Whitney, “Queen of Saratoga”

Marylou Whitney was born in 1925 in Missouri and moved to New York where she met and later wed businessman Frank Hosford, heir to the John Deere Fortune. Later, Mary Lou wed Cornelius Vanderbilt “Sonny” Whitney who she met while participating in a film at Camp Deerlands. Mrs. Whitney quickly became enthralled in the world of horse racing and became a prominent socialite settling with her husband in Saratoga Springs. Whitney enjoyed a life of leisure and philanthropy, splitting her time between Camp Deerlands and the seven other homes she owned around the world. In 1997, having survived Sonny Whitney, at age 71, Marylou Whitney married John Hendrickson who was 39 years younger than she. It is shortly after their marriage that Whitney sold 15,000 acres of her family’s Great Camp to the State of New York after a failed attempt to develop a summer colony on the property. Whitney died in 2019.

The Mysterious Will

One of the most bizarre parts of this unfolding story at Camp Deerlands is Marylou Whitney’s will. Whitney left “only” $17,200,000 dollars to her children with each receiving a wildly different share. Her kid’s inheritance ranged from as much as $10,000,000 to as little as $200,000. Whitney also left two of her mansions to her longtime maids. Her husband, John Hendrickson, received all the rest of the Whitney money, several homes. Hendrickson also inherited Marylou’s greatest asset, Camp Deerlands, which he is now attempting to sell for $180,000,000. Why leave only $200,000 to one of your kids and $180,000,000 worth of real estate to your third husband? Did Hendrickson (who is also the will’s executor) try to unduly influence his wife (39 years his senior) when the will was written? Why would Hendrickson place the entire Whitney Camp (in the Whitney family for over 125 years) on the market so soon after his wife’s death? These are questions that have become apparent since media outlets first obtained a copy of the will. Perhaps the strangest part of the will is a clause stating that should any party (notably her kids) contest their inheritance or asset distribution, they could be cut out entirely. It is certainly possible that the sale of the Whitney camp could precipitate a legal battle over Marylou Whitney’s estate. 

Land With a Staggering Price Tag For a Very Specific Buyer

All questions of inheritance aside, John Hendrickson is attempting to sell the largest privately held tract in the Adirondacks for a staggering price. Hendrickson is also looking for a very specific buyer. He has publicly stated that he will not sell any land to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and is also unwilling to consider offers from developers. Hendrickson claims the decision is based on his desire to protect historic buildings on the property which he believes the state would demolish. However, Hendrickson has been a longtime vocal critic of the DEC and the State, claiming that they grossly mismanaged the 15,000 acres that he and his wife sold in the late 1990s. Hendrickson claims he has already turned down a half dozen offers from developers interested in the property. Unless he walks back his statements, Hendrickson appears only willing to sell the land in its entirety to a private entity. Very few individuals, corporations, or organizations have the capital to acquire the extremely large and pricey estate for private use. While many believe Hendrickson’s assertions, others believe that  his tough talk is a strategy to get top dollar in an eventual sale to DEC. There are some reasons not to trust Hendrickson’s word – he claimed only last year that “We don’t foresee this [land] being for sale in the near future.” Who knows where the Whitney Estate saga will end? Only one thing is certain – the sale of this property will have a significant impact on the park and region. 

Sources for Further Reading:

Adirondack Explorer: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/36000-acre-long-lake-estate?fbclid=IwAR3irEhyUUR5HXle9Dk1Bu2-d3pxAgKBl86QXuY9u0kZ-DoRk3ouCeSQk3k

Adirondack Explorer: https://www.adirondackexplorer.org/stories/marylouwhitney

Adirondack Life Magazine: http://www.adirondacklifemag.com/blogs/2019/07/22/reveries-camp-deerlands/

New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/19/sports/horse-racing/marylou-whitney-dead.html

Albany Times Union: https://www.timesunion.com/news/article/MaryLou-Whitney-s-will-leaves-17-2-million-to-14965361.php

1 thought on “The Whitney Family and The Sale of Camp Deerlands Estate

  1. I had no idea about the soap opera aspects of this story–the strange will, the husband’s possible gamesmanship, etc. This is going to be a big story in the ADKS for several years, I suspect. One good question is what would any person who could buy the park do with it? Keep it for themselves, or sell it in pieces for development?

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