SARANAC LAKE — Mike Delahant speaks eloquently of Robert Louis Stevenson, often times stopping to apologize for digressions into the eccentricities and habits of the legendary author.
He revives the historic Stevenson Society meeting of 1928 as if he were among the more than 400 people in attendance. He recalls meetings between original society members Dr. Hugh Kinghorn, Will Low, Gutzon Borglum and many others so clearly, one would think he sat in on them.
He has compiled several scrapbooks in remembrance of Stevenson, the man who spent a winter in the house Delahant calls home; they are featured atop a display case near the fireplace. They are compelling to flip through; however, to have Delahant himself recollect the history as though reminiscing of his own past is an experience.
Delahant has been living in the old Baker family cottage for nearly 28 years and, until recently, it has been a peaceful inhabitancy.
Opening in 1915, the cottage is home to the first Stevenson museum in the world, and is a memorial to the renowned author who stayed in the cabin during the 1887-1888 winter months.
As reported by the Enterprise on May 23, Delahant is at odds with the Stevenson Society of America’s board of directors, many of whom he appointed himself.
According to the most recent deed, the Society is the rightful and lawful owner of the cottage. However, since 1953 it has been three generations of Delahants who have lived in and cared for the cottage, with no interference from the Society, according to both Delahant and the board of directors.
“There is a long history of the family being involved,” Stevenson Society Secretary Susan Tehon said in May. “His parents and grandparents were extremely conscientious of taking care of the residence.”
However, after disputes regarding maintenance and museum displays, the board and Delahant began what would become years of divisive arguments.
Under claims that Delahant has taken the museum hostage, the board has taken action to have Delahant evicted from the property.
In response to the board’s efforts to kick him out, Delahant is suing for ownership of the cottage by claiming adverse possession — more commonly known as squatter’s rights. Adverse possession is a principle that has its roots in English common law. Lake Placid real estate lawyer John Wilkins, who is not involved with the case on either side, has handled numerous adverse possession claims throughout his career. Wilkins said that in order to prove a claim of adverse possession “one must have occupied the property openly, notoriously, exclusively and continuously under a claim of right (ownership) for 10 years or more.”
Delahant maintains this applies to him, as he has lived in the cottage and maintained the museum since 1980. To make his case, he has gathered together dozens of checks he wrote over the years to pay for work on the building, with receipts and photographs of the work as further proof.
“The evidence, as I’ve been told, makes it a slam dunk,” Delahant said. “Under New York state law, I cannot lose this case.”
However, Wilkins said it sounds as though Delahant is most likely not fulfilling one necessary component — a claim of right.
Delahant makes no historic claim to ownership of the cottage, as is contingent in an adverse possession case.
“I never thought I owned this place,” Delahant said. “For years I have referred to it as ‘us.’ I always felt as though I was representing the ghosts of the original Stevenson Society members.”
“It was always the Stevenson Society,” Delahant said. “But whenever I did anything nobody would say anything about it. I just did what I pleased.”
Although Wilkins did note that it is extremely difficult to predict the outcome of adverse possession cases, and that there are several provocative aspects to this case, he said, “If I had to choose one side or the other, I would side with the society because that sounds like the winner to me.”
History of ownership
The Society however, has not always been the rightful owners of the cottage.
In 1924, the Society was able to purchase the deed from the Baker’s estate executor after they died.
Local doctor Hugh Kinghorn maintained the museum during much of this time and carried it through the depression, where there were few if any visitors.
It was in 1951 that Kinghorn was relieved of his duties when Tony Anderson, mayor of Saranac Lake, agreed to purchase the cottage for a token fee of one dollar. Anderson and Kinghorn agreed a live-in custodian would be beneficial, and after a series of interviews, the men agreed to hire Delahant’s grandfather, John F. Delahant Sr. in 1953.
“My grandfather heard about the opening and went in to interview. Kinghorn was so impressed by him that he was hired on the spot,” Delahant said.
Delahant Sr. served as society president, curator and live-in custodian until he died in 1958, leaving the duties to his wife Maude. She lived in the cottage until 1978 when she suffered a broken hip and chose to live with her son John “Jack” F. Delahant Jr. Between 1978 and 1980, although the cottage was uninhabited, it still functioned as a museum.
In the meantime, however, ownership changed hands once again. In 1972 the village notified Delahant Jr. that they were going to dump the cottage and stop funding the maintenance. At this point, Delahant said, “they dumped all the responsibility on my dad’s shoulders.”
Records indicate that the village did forfeit ownership in 1972; however, legally, the deed was not transferred until 1986.
An indenture between the Village of Saranac Lake and the Stevenson Society of America dated March 26, 1986 shows the land and cottage being bought back by the Stevenson Society of America for the same token amount it was sold to the Village — one dollar.
“Well, so as far as anybody knows, between 1972 and 1986 there weren’t any owners of the place, although my grandmother lived here until 1978, and I moved in in 1980,” Delahant said.
It was in 1980 that current curator Mike Delahant returned from a cross-country expedition to visit his parents. According to Delahant, it wasn’t five minutes until his father was asking him to move into the vacant cottage.
“Kids were breaking up the fence to have bon-fires and one guy broke the window and was spending nights in the cottage,” Delahant said. “I came to be known as the ‘watchdog.’”
Nevertheless, he was not an easy sell on carrying on his family’s legacy at the Stevenson Cottage.
“At first I was inclined to be transient,” he said. “Then one evening I discovered how wonderful it is to drink wine on the famous veranda. All on my own, I understood my obligations to my father and the public.”
Thus began Delahant’s tenure as resident curator and tour-guide of the Stevenson cottage. Delahant and his father ran the place together until Delahant Jr.’s death on Stevenson’s birthday in 1995, when Delahant took over all the responsibilities of the cottage.
Reinstating the Stevenson Society Board of Directors
It was after his father’s death that Delahant began to think of the future of the cottage and who would care for it after he no longer could.
“The (Society) board had done nothing for decades, and I started to wonder who would take care of this place when I die,” he said. “So, I appointed a few new members and it wasn’t 15 minutes later that I was president of the board.”
Delahant said he had hoped to revive the spirit of the original board members he deeply admired, 14 of whom knew Stevenson personally.
“I wanted them to help me, and I thought they would respect me and my experience and my knowledge and all the work my family has done.” Delahant said.
He said some of the new members he had appointed started having meetings without telling him and that “their attitude toward me was actually to cheat me out of here.”
According to him, Delahant was persuaded to step down as board president.
“In fact, it is inappropriate under the requirements of non-profit laws that you can’t serve on the board if you are receiving benefits from serving on that board,” Tehon said in May.
“The politics of it all. I didn’t understand the real purpose of the board anyway, so I went along with it because I was told I would still have the same voice and authority as before,” Delahant said. “Now they are trying to turn me into their whipping boy or just throw me out.”
As was reported in May, a series of events — including attempts by the board of directors to barricade Delahant out of the museum portion of the house, attempts of mediation ending with Delahant becoming volatile and storming out, and letters from board President Susan Allen ordering Delahant to stay out of the museum — have all culminated in what is now a legal case.
“He has done things that have really caused damage,” Tehon said in May. “He removed the original wooden windows and put in vinyl windows when he was told in writing that it was not acceptable under our guidelines as a historical building.”
If Delahant is forced to leave
“I’ve got nowhere to go and no money to go there with,” Delahant said. “I would probably just sit there and let them do it. I would say: Here’s my stuff, box it up.”
Delahant currently works as a shift supervisor for an assisted living facility operated by Northstar Industries.
“It is the only kind of job with flexible enough hours that I can still work the summer hours here,” Delahant said. “It has been a great job to earn a meager living and be able to run this place.”
Delahant admits he hasn’t thought much about the possibility of him being forced to leave his house.
“I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it,” Delahant said. “And then I would jump off of it, let’s just hope it’s high enough.”
Cynicism aside, Delahant is content to battle in court.
“We are just waiting to see what the board is going to do, they have been served with the claim and, as I understand it, they have 30 days to respond,” Delahant said. According to Delahant the claim was served to Tehon nearly two weeks ago.
According to Stevenson Society Board of Director’s Treasurer Marilyn Clement, members of the board have been advised by their attorney, Bill James of Willsboro, not to comment on the matter.
“We will have to wait and see, but when July first comes around, the museum doors will be open for business,” he said.