The hunter home from the hill

The “Hunter’s Home” — Baker’s, Saranac Lake, 1887

Oct. 27, 1887, was partly spent by Margaret Stevenson writing another letter to her sister Jane Balfour in Scotland, keeping her up on the latest adventures in her new life of traveling with her celebrity son Robert Louis Stevenson, along with his wife Fanny plus her son Lloyd Osbourne and Valentine Roch the servant. Only a month had passed since these five people, still known in some circles as the Stevenson expedition, first heard of the Adirondack Mountains and a little hamlet somewhere in them called Saranac Lake. Now they were all here for an Arctic experience with a purpose, which was to keep their leader, the author of “Treasure Island,” alive to see the next spring and then to make new plans, depending on how things worked out.

Fortunately, things worked out. If Dr. E.L. Trudeau’s “illustrious patient” had died on his watch, it might have affected business at his sanitorium. Victims of TB who were planning to come here might have changed their minds after reading headlines like “Robert Louis Stevenson died in the mountains. Dr. E.L. Trudeau was his physician.” Dr. Trudeau surprised a few people, including his skinny new chain-smoking patient, by declaring that RLS did NOT have tuberculosis, though he believed there had been some but that it was in remission and could and probably would come back. So in his “Autobiography,” Edward L. Trudeau, M.D., wrote:

“Mr. Stevenson was my patient, but as he was not really ill while here, I had comparatively few professional calls to make on him.”

Thanks to Alfred L. Donaldson, we have an idea of what Trudeau saw when he did make a call. It’s from “A History of the Adirondacks, Vol. I”: “Stevenson invariably worked all the morning, usually in bed. Dr. Trudeau tells of often finding him there, his long legs drawn up for a table, his head propped forward by pillows; in one hand a pencil, in the other a cigarette; sheets of scribbled paper everywhere, the windows shut, the room stuffy with stove heat and tobacco smoke. So did genius take the cure.” Compare this word image to the contemporary bas-relief of RLS by Augustus St. Gaudens.

It is only 10 feet between the door of the author’s stuffy bedroom and the door of his mother’s room, with her own wood stove, where she wrote her letters to sister Jane: “You call your house the ‘Barracks’; well, ours is the ‘Hunter’s Home,’ and Louis will not allow anything to be done that interferes with that illusion. We have in the living-room a plain deal table covered with stains; I wanted to put a nice cloth on it, but he would not hear of it. ‘For what’ he cried, ‘have hunters to do with table-covers?’ There is not a foot-stool in the house and the drafts along the floor make my feet very cold; so as a special favor to me, a log of wood is to be sawn into suitable pieces to serve as stools and still be in keeping with the ‘Hunter’s Home.'” That table, with its stains, is still there, now kept in Maggie’s room. Next to it is the one surviving suitable footstool, cut from a log by Andrew Baker and the top of it is decorated with cigarette burns.

Since Dr. Trudeau couldn’t treat RLS for TB, because he didn’t have it, he just gave him some good advice: Stay in the Adirondacks, and quit smoking cigarettes, neither of which his patient did. By Nov. 1, everybody wondered if they were ready for Old Man Winter, who has a fierce reputation in these parts. Stevenson’s wife Fanny wrote letters, too, this one to their former neighbor in Bournemouth, England, Adelaide Boodle. The subject was readiness.

“We are high up in the Adirondack Mountains living in a guide’s cottage in the most primitive fashion. The maid does the cooking (we have little beyond venison and bread to cook) and the boy comes every morning to carry water from a distant spring for drinking purposes. It is already very cold, but we have calked the doors and windows as one calks a boat, and have laid in a store of extraordinary garments made by the Canadian Indians. I went to Montreal to buy these and came back laden with buffalo skins, snow shoes and fur caps. Louis wants to have his photograph taken in his, hoping to pass for a mighty hunter or sly trapper.”

“He is now more like the hardy mountaineers, taking long walks on hill tops in all seasons and weather. It is something like Davos here. Every afternoon a vehicle called a ‘buckboard’ is brought to our door, sometimes with one large horse attached, sometimes we have a pair of lovely spirited ponies. The buckboard is so light that when we meet a stagecoach on the narrow road, we simply drive our horse up the hillside and lift the buckboard out of the way. Very soon, however, we shall exchange it for a sleigh.”


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