BEAVERSPRITE SANCTUARY, N. Y. — A cottage with a stone chimney is the only tangible evidence of Dorothy Richards' 50-year affair with the once-rare beavers of the southwestern Adirondack Mountains, and the legacy she left behind is threatened.
Richards came to be known as the Beaver Woman, and before her death in 1985, beavers trundled about her cottage. Some of the animals lived indoors and gnawed on the doors and furniture.
During the Depression, Richards and her husband, Al Richards, moved to a cottage on what was then a 30-acre tract, about 65 miles west of Albany. In 1935, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released two beavers on a creek that ran through her land. The creek soon became a lake, and the beavers multiplied.
No Scientific Training
That's when Richards, who had no scientific training, found her calling and began to develop the 900-acre sanctuary she called Beaversprite.
Today Richards' former neighbors and colleagues say her legacy is in a shambles because of mismanagement, profiteering and exploitation by one man who turned the sanctuary into his personal empire. They blame a group of Philadelphia bankers they say protects him.
Richards' supporters, who have formed a group called Friends of Beaversprite, point to the sanctuary manager, Larry Watkins, 44, a tall, slim, intense man they say inspires fear. Watkins is said to be an avid hunter and trapper who maintains large taxidermy and gun collections. His opponents say his life style and actions are incongruous with what Richards intended for Beaversprite.
The state attorney general's Charities Bureau is investigating a 150-page complaint filed by Friends of Beaversprite. It describes a stream of abuses allegedly committed by Watkins and overseers of the $1-million Florence Waring Erdman Trust created by the Philadelphia animal lover to sponsor wildlife sanctuaries.
Richards donated her own land to the trust in 1965, in hopes the trust would continue her husbandry there.
Deer Hunting Guide
United Press International found that Watkins, author of a deer hunting guide, used the sanctuary as a base from which to launch hunts and poaching raids.
"Me, my dad and my brothers helped Larry load a 10-point buck he'd shot right on the sanctuary," said Charles (Sonny) Johnson, 44, a neighbor Watkins once employed.
Affidavits claim Watkins forced workers on the sanctuary payroll to act as his personal construction crew and build him a house off sanctuary property.
Former employee Jeff Davis wrote the trust about the forced construction work. In his letter, Davis pleaded for confidentiality, saying: "I feel my life would be in danger."
Davis said the trustees ignored the allegations but did tell Watkins about them.
"Watkins found out about the letter and he made my life unbearable; I had to quit," Davis said.
Profit on Land Sale
Fulton County land records in the hands of the attorney general's office show that in June, 1983, Watkins bought about 90 acres adjoining the sanctuary for $15,000. He sold it to the trust three years later, for more than $42,000.
Watkins' critics contend their reward for pointing out abuses has been years of harassment.
Johnson said that in January, 1987, an anonymous caller phoned a child-abuse tip line and said he had beaten his two boys. "Whoever called said I beat them with a log out by George's Lumber Yard," he said.
Fulton County social worker Miriam Trendell, who investigated the call, said the charge was unfounded.
Johnson said Town Justice Scott DeNino later told him Watkins knew details of the social worker's confidential report.
Case Under Review
Louis Miller, an officer with Mellon Bank and president of the Erdman Trust, would not comment on most of the allegations because, he said, the case is under review.
Michael Clarke of the Philadelphia-based Natural Lands Trust, which has managed the land for the Erdman Trust since 1983, said he had been instructed not to comment. Watkins also has been told not to comment.
Clarke did say, however: "We feel (the sanctuary) is being properly managed."
Sharon Brown, president of Friends of Beaversprite, said it was not only Richards' goals that the Philadelphia-based trustees ignored. "Against Richards' wishes," she said, "they took away the Beaversprite name."
Today the name applies only to the land around Richards' old cottage. In 1977, most of the 900 acres she donated, plus 400 acres since purchased, were renamed for Erdman's mother, Florence Jones Reineman. Brown said the trustees have used an ambiguous passage in Erdman's will to insult Richards' spirit and unravel her legacy.
Controlled by Bank
When Richards donated her sanctuary, the trust was controlled by the Girard Bank of Philadelphia, which later merged with the Mellon Bank. Because of changes in the players, facts are often obscured by contradictory claims.
For instance, the trust claims that Richards sold her land, but Friends of Beaversprite say documents show the land was donated.