Life at Baker’s: From Saranac to the Marquesas and beyond

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Being letters written by Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson, during 1887-88, to her sister, Jane Whyte Balfour, with a short introduction by George W. Balfour, M.D., L.L.D., F.R.S.E., also Physician in Ordinary to the King for Scotland. To RLS he was, “That wise youth, my Uncle…”

In his introduction, Uncle George says “it has been felt that some account should be given of this winter in the Adirondacks. It was the first step in the great journey that Mrs. Stevenson undertook at an age when most women are glad to renounce such things, a journey that went further and lasted longer than she foresaw, and that carried her to many strange and lovely places … It seems, indeed, from these letters that the Adirondacks did not serve so badly in the matter of her son’s health, since we hear of fewer colds and hemorrhages than are recorded in Tahiti or Hawaii; but it is possible that the bitter cold of Saranac urged the Stevensons to its proper antithesis in the tropics, and it is certain that it added to the intensity with which they enjoyed their life in the South Seas.”

In her own words — extracts of Maggie’s letters from Baker’s to her sister:

“The house is built of wooden boards, painted white with green shutters and a veranda around it. It belongs to a guide who takes parties into the woods for shooting and fishing excursions…Everything is of the plainest and simplest, but sufficiently comfortable. We are about ten minutes walk distant from the village and beautifully situated above the river, upon which we look down. The view from our window is best described as ‘very highland’ but the chief glory just now lies in the autumn colourings…Fortunately he (RLS) has been none the worse of the journey and the long drive in the rain, and says he already feels the air of Saranac doing him good, so I trust we have hit on a place that will really suit him … And the air is delicious, with a sweetness that again and again reminds me of the Highlands. We now go out for frequent drives…”

“I must give you some account of how we pass our days here. My stove is lit about 6:30 in the morning and warms the room very quickly, so that I can soon sit up to read or write … At 12:30 we all meet at lunch, and work is pretty well over for the day; at two the buggy arrives and two of us go for a drive. Louis always takes his walks quite alone and hates even to meet any one when he is out; so it is fortunate that we are some way from the village and that there is a private pine-wood close behind the house. When he comes in he generally goes to bed till dinner-time, at six o’clock. After dinner we talk and read aloud and play at cards till ten, when we are all ready for bed.”

“This morning (Nov. 11) we have had the heaviest fall of snow that we have yet seen and everything is white. Louis at once put on all his furs, buffalo coat, astrakhan cap and Indian boots and went out for a walk. He looks very picturesque in these garments and how delightful it is to see him able to go out in such weather!”

Nov. 19, “We have had more snow and very severe frost with the thermometer down to twenty-five degrees below zero, so you see we were fairly off on one of ‘Kane’s Artic Voyages.’ Water froze in our rooms with the stoves kept burning all night; the ink froze on the table beside my bed. Louis woke one night dreaming that a rat was biting his ear and the cause was a slight frost-bite; and Valentine found her handkerchief under her pillow, frozen into a ball in the morning. How would you like, too, to have your kitchen floor turned into a nice shining sheet of ice the moment you had washed it — with hot water, mind — and a good fire in the room?”

“Saranac has got terribly civilized since the railway was opened and is fast losing all its pleasant peculiarities.” When the Stevenson expedition came to town in the Fall of 1887, the first train service into these mountains was in the making. Starting in Plattsburgh, the Chateauguay RR had reached Loon Lake by Oct. 3. There the Stevensons found a horse and buggy waiting for them to complete the journey to Baker’s, about twenty-five miles. Construction on the rail line ignored the advent of winter and by Christmas the end of the line was reached at Saranac Lake. Among the lost “pleasant peculiarities” that Maggie blamed on the train were “the sign-boards, for instance; The shoemaker had a boot cut out of thin wood painted black, with his name on it in yellow, and nailed to the nearest telegraph post. On another telegraph post was a board with the following:

“WARM MEATS

COME AND SEE ME

AT THE OLD POST OFFICE”

I grieve to say this has already been removed, and a great common-place ‘Restaurant’ put up instead.”

Jan. 14, “I have a wonderful piece of news for you. Louis has got a pair of skates and has actually been out skating twice on the (Moody) pond at the back of our house, and last Sunday he went for a sleigh-ride on Saranac Lake. He came back delighted and none the worse of it; and really he is not only keeping well but is distinctly a little fatter.”

“I am thinking of going to New York for a few days… Louis is so well that he really will not miss me, and is so deep in his writing that he often quite forgets anyone’s presence…so you can realize what Saranac has done for him.”

The Stevenson expedition left Saranac Lake on April 16, 1888. “Louis is looking wonderfully well, and fatter than he has done for long, so we have much reason to be thankful for what Saranac has done for us. It certainly is a wonderful place,” where, “the air is delicious.”

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