September 11, 2011

Don't have to travel far to follow Stevenson's footsteps

Local landmark revisits Stevenson's legacy


---- — Consider this assignment for your advanced literature class: Write an Adirondack story.

Include the taking of a few scalps. Add a Scottish castle. Maybe some pirates and people walking the plank. Oh, yes, be sure to have a historical person, perhaps someone like William Johnson, the British administrator famed for his good relationship with native peoples.

Impossible to include all these elements in a single tale? Even Robert Louis Stevenson wouldn't be up to the task.

Or would he? In "The Master of Ballantrae," Stevenson managed to cram in all that and more.

Maybe the challenge would feel less heroic if you could follow his footsteps to the place where he began that story. It's not that hard to do; just head west on Route 3 into Saranac Lake.


Stevenson, himself, took a different route. Suffering from lifelong respiratory ailments, he came from his homeland of Scotland to America, planning to spend the winter of 1887 in Colorado to regain his health. Already well-known for "Treasure Island" and "Kidnapped," he had just completed "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." It was time for a rest.

Upon arrival in the port of New York, Stevenson found himself a celebrity. Publishers beseeched him with offers to write for them. The public clamored to see the author of such newly popular works.

Stevenson, however, found his illness worsening. Uncertain about his ability to take the train to Colorado, he and his family searched for alternatives. He heard about the work of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau and his pioneering sanitarium in Saranac Lake. The Stevenson entourage — including his wife, mother, stepson and a Swiss servant — bought rail passage north.

The search for appropriate quarters led to a small farmhouse at which Mary and Andrew Baker had welcomed hunters over the years. One of Saranac Lake's first families, the Bakers had more than 600 acres, including the nearby mountain that still bears their name. Stevenson agreed to pay $50 a month for four rooms, with the Bakers keeping the rest of the cottage. The shared kitchen served as a dividing line.


Trudeau made regular house calls on his famous client. He unsuccessfully urged his patient to give up smoking, at one point telling Stevenson that since he took residence at the cottage, the bedroom had become fit only for hams and bacon.

Publishers visited Stevenson in Saranac Lake. They offered huge sums for writing assignments, amazing the writer, who marveled but reportedly "didn't try to talk them down." He contracted to do a series of 12 essays for Charles Scribner.

When Samuel McClure came, Stevenson confided a desire for ocean travel if he survived his winter in the Adirondacks. In return for publication rights, McClure agreed to underwrite the trip. Stevenson left the Baker cottage in April 1888 against Trudeau's advice.

Readers wanted to see Stevenson, too. Congenial and personable by nature, the writer wrestled with his growing celebrity. One observer described him as "stupefied" by the American fascination with him. He compromised by allowing the general public to visit on Saturdays.


The home is a modest one, with white clapboard construction and green porch. From one corner of that porch, Stevenson looked out onto the surrounding hills, reflected on his native Scotland and conjured up a plot for "The Master of Ballantrae." The nearby relief casting of the writer was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum, later to become famous for Mount Rushmore.

Curator Mike Delahant showed a remarkable ability to bring the place alive as he toured me through the premises. We began with Stevenson's small study and his bedroom, then worked our way into the dining room and Stevenson's mother's quarters.

Most furnishings date to Stevenson's day. Expect to see his writing desk, a green-painted headboard with matching dresser and washstand and a pewter inkwell. On a smaller portable desk, made in Saranac Lake, Stevenson wrote most mornings, leaving work to be typed later in the day by his stepson. A picture over the bed depicts the author, a pen in one hand, cigarette in the other.

The dining room fireplace always had a blaze going. Atop the mantle, one can still see where Stevenson's cigarettes charred the wood. On a table sits a bust done of Stevenson in 1893.

Artifacts testify to activities during the writer's stay. He played the penny whistle on display in the study, used the ice skates on nearby Moody Pond and bathed in the tin tub. He also wrote letters, more than 140 of them. Many emphasized the cold — how water froze before the floor could be mopped and problems with ink freezing before it hit the paper.

Actually, this cottage represents the largest collection of Stevensoniana in America. A velvet riding coat and cap, a blood-stained handkerchief and scrapbooks kept by his mother are among the items on exhibit.


A few canvases show Stevenson's work as an artist, including a self-portrait showing a full head of curls, which he never had. Impressive wood cuts made during a stay in Switzerland demonstrate another skill.

Displays cover family genealogy and his trips to Hawaii and the South Pacific, where he was known as Tusitala, "teller of tales." By a picture of the Casco, the boat that took him to the South Seas, I read his quote: "Wealth is only useful for two things — a yacht and a string quartette."

His final days on the island of Samoa are represented by a gourd drinking cup and a tray woven of grass. Stevenson died there of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 44. His stepdaughter's painting of his grave graces the living room.

Missing is the piano Stevenson purchased in New York City and shipped to Saranac Lake.

"When his fingers got too cold to write," Delahant told me, "he'd limber them up by playing the piano."


The largest artifact, of course, is the cottage. Friends and acquaintances formed the Stevenson Society of America to honor the writer. The group rented two rooms as a public memorial as early as 1916, even while the Bakers were still in residence. When the Bakers died in 1924 — outliving all five of their children — the Stevenson Society purchased the property.

Subsequent history of the Stevenson Society has sometimes resembled a roller-coaster ride. With the Great Depression and the gradual loss of original members, the home was offered to the state as a historic site. New York demurred, and Saranac Lake managed the cottage as a tourist attraction from 1952 through 1972.

In time, the village gave up that enterprise. Efforts to rejuvenate the Stevenson Society, erratic at first, finally solidified under new bylaws and a recommitment to preserving this piece of Adirondack heritage.

When Delahant came on board in 1988, he represented the third generation of his family to fulfill the curator role, a succession dating back to 1952. It comes as little surprise that Delahant's knowledge of Stevenson is encyclopedic.

Stevenson's presence lives on locally in other ways. A comprehensive collection of his books, many of them first editions, fill a handsome leaded-glass bookcase at Saranac Lake Free Library. The Robert Louis Stevenson Tea House on Church Street offers lunch, high tea and dinner, by reservation, in a home once occupied by Dr. Hugh Kinghorn, last surviving founder of the Stevenson Society. And Rabbi Rita Leonard, who first became immersed in Stevenson lore while living in Hawaii, has written and recorded music to accompany selections from "A Child's Garden of Verses."

Stevenson may have spent only a few months in Saranac Lake, but it proved sufficient to establish a certain immortality within the Adirondacks.

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