The Twin Lakes have few defining features more prominent than O’Hara’s Landing. That is largely due to the O’Hara family’s 133-year history in the area and its stewardship of the old-school marina. We examine Twin Lakes Legacies from time to time. For this issue, C. Durning spoke with The Landing’s long-time owner, John O’Hara. We welcome suggestions and submissions for future “Legacies” articles.
There are more new houses, fewer cabins, more pontoons, fewer fishing boats. But the lake is still pristine, the mountains still sublime, the hills still lush, and O’Hara’s Landing still vintage. John O’Hara, 92, is an important part of all that. Family lore holds that for a fee his grandfather served in another man’s place during the civil war. Grandad used the money to buy a parcel near Twin Lakes and Taconic roads in 1888, and the family has stayed in the area ever since.
The O’Hara family gradually expanded its joint holdings to 300 acres including the marina, a farm, horse-powered sawmill, ice cutting equipment, the O’Hara Lodge and seven guest houses. The original O’Hara Lodge where John and his wife, Sally, live today was built in 1888. The big green cottage, called the Idle Hour, was once a hotel and has been rented to the same handful of families for four generations.
Actors, writers, photographers, and politicians, including many from New York, have vacationed at Twin Lakes in rented quarters from the O’Hara family. All the houses have names: The Green Lodge, The White Lodge, The O’Hara Lodge, The Idle Hour, The Mary Elizabeth, The Upper House, and The Lower House. Many have seven, eight or nine bedrooms and still stand as built. “That’s part of their charm,” John says. “But these days people aren’t as interested in renting houses that are old style.” John still has a 1966 Rambler that used to belong to Aunt Marge and a real-ice icebox that was his grandmother’s. “All these (houses) still have a lot of that kind of stuff.”
John’s Uncle Steve introduced many activities at the marina (originally called O’Hara’s Trading Post) beyond boat rentals. He brought in pinball machines, a miniature golf course, a place to eat called the Canteen, a swimming beach, changing rooms and horseback riding. In 1936, the boat house at the marina caught fire and burned to the ground. A tent took its place until Uncle Steve, after returning from the Navy, rebuilt the marina with wood harvested from the O’Hara sawmill. That wood is still part of the building.
John was born July 15, 1929, in Torrington, Connecticut but grew up at Twin Lakes. As a child, he worked at the marina and earned a dime for every boat he bailed out. Among his memories as a young marina hand: Getting sick after drinking too much soda and eating too much candy at the Canteen. He cut grass during World War II with a horse-drawn mower. His favorite short cut to Canaan took him across the railroad trestle off Weatogue Road. One time he encountered an oncoming train that he could avoid only by hanging from the platform.
John recalls the storied hurricanes of 1938 and 1955, especially the latter when his father’s car got mired in the mud and he sat freezing in the pouring rain as they waited for a neighbor to arrive with horses to pull them out. He also remembers when a cottage on Twin Lakes Road slid into the lake and a woman was rescued floating on a mattress. Looking for adventure, he and some buddies explored the caves on West Twin and found themselves on their stomachs crammed between the cave ceiling and floor unsure if they’d ever get out. John never told his parents about the scare. “It was wet and lousy,” he said. “My family would have been after me if they knew I did that.”
Due to a shortage of workers during the war, all O’Hara house guests were served meals at one location: the Idle Hour. John’s mother served as many as 100 meals a day. John’s job was to collect the garbage and bury it out back. “If you had a bad cook, boy you had a lot more garbage,” he said. “I hated that job.” The help that was available typically arrived by train and got paid $1 a day. Two workers that John recalls had the quaint nicknames “One-Eyed Bill” and “Old Top.” In the 1930s, it cost $5 a night to stay at the Idle Hour.
At a young age, John decided he wanted to be a lawyer on Wall Street. A top student and basketball player, he graduated with distinction from Housatonic High School, where he held the record for most points in a game. “That was when all you got was two points for a basket,” John was quick to note. He attended Citadel for two years and later completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia.
John served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War unloading ammunition as a member of a duck-boat company in Incheon Harbor. “We had fifty ducks and made 400 plus trips a day handling different types of ammunition,” he said. When he returned from Korea, John enrolled in University of Virginia Law School. He achieved his childhood dream and upon graduating number one in his class went to work for the Wall Street law firm Royall, Harris, Cahill and Caskey. He worked for the firm for 10 years before moving to Michigan.
Fate brought him back to Twin Lakes. He had four uncles and two aunts. His uncles and father all passed in the war or from tragic accidents around their farm. Aunts Marge and Jo took over the O’Hara properties on the lakes. Their pictures still hang on the wall at the marina. The aunts sought help and hired a man that John knew only as “Joe Boats” who had his children and grandchildren run the place. Joe’s lease expired in 1968 and it was around this time that John crossed paths with Dave Haab and the seeds of their relationship took root. John met with Dave at his fledgling boat business on Skunks Misery Road in Millerton, New York and purchased a new 14-foot Glastron. John named his new boat the Five-O’s for the two O’Hara parents and their three kids. Once the Joe Boats lease expired Aunts Marge and Jo found a laundry truck driver named Ed Roberts, who “made a mess of the place,” John recalls. John persuaded Marge to fire Roberts and locals wondered what would become of the properties.
During the summer of 1973, with Robert’s lease due to expire, John and Dave Haab met on the O’Hara beach and discussed whether Dave might manage the marina. Dave, a Cornell graduate, was running his family’s dairy farm, but was willing to make a go of it. John told Dave, “what the hell, it can’t be any worse than it is now.” They struck a deal and the rest was all upside.
Neither John nor Dave had much money but they invested what they could, moving the main building, putting in a new foundation, building two boat bays and a bathroom. When Dave took over, the marina had 53 wooden boats. The wooden boats have been replaced with pontoon boats. “Best thing I ever did was find Dave,” John said.
John says his years at the lake have been highly rewarding. If he hadn’t ended up with the O’Hara property, he might have bought a small ranch in Arizona, he said. “I had to take care of the aunts,” he added. “They were always good to me.” John and his wife, Sally, still find magic at Twin Lakes. “I still like it here,” he said. Just the way it is.