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The church benefit supper

The Episcopal Church of St. Luke the Beloved Physician is seen soon after its completion in 1879. At far left is the Cooper residence, where Robert Louis Stevenson met Mrs. “Libby” Custer. (Provided photo)

Mrs. Margaret Isabella Balfour Stevenson, or “Maggie,” was the daughter of a high-ranking official in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, the Rev. Dr. Lewis Balfour. Consequently, churchgoing was in Maggie’s blood, and in 1887, there was only one legitimate outlet in Saranac Lake to satisfy that urge — St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, established 1879.

And so it was that the mother of Robert Louis Stevenson joined that congregation for the duration of the layover in these mountains by the Stevenson expedition: a group of five travelers comprised of Maggie and her son with the newly famous initials RLS, his wife Mrs. Fanny Stevenson, her son Lloyd Osbourne and their maid Valentine Roch; and temporarily Sport, a good-natured, mixed-breed dog friend for Louis, a known admirer of the species who wrote an essay “On the Character of Dogs” of no scientific value. Sport was immortalized because you can still see him in the well-published group photo on Baker’s veranda in March 1888, between Mr. and Mrs. RLS.

Saranac Lake had to have been a shock to this preacher’s daughter, who at 58 had been pampered the whole way there in upper-middle-class style like they did it in 19th-century Scotland. The family residence, 17 Heriot Row in the affluent New Town of Edinburgh, was just recently vacated by Maggie following the death of her husband Thomas Stevenson. It was, and still is by all accounts, splendid, and a far cry from the “hat-box on a hill in the eye of all winds,” which was another one of her son’s nicknames for the clapboard farmhouse she was now calling home. But Margaret handled it all gracefully and seemed to enjoy the variety of novelties America had to offer, and she was on good terms with the landlords.

“We all liked Mrs. Stevenson, the mother of the author, very much,” recalled Bertha Baker, who was only 10 when the Stevensons shared her home. “She seemed more like an American than his wife,” who was American.

Needless to say, Maggie made friends easily in this very rustic village, which she saw transforming before her eyes with the advent of the Chateauguay Railroad. Starting in Plattsburgh — the first rail line to penetrate the Adirondack wilderness. Construction was completed by early December 1887 with the establishment of the Saranac Lake station, also the end of the line. Margaret mentioned this milestone event in the story of a frontier community to her sister Jane Balfour in one of her letters:

“Saranac has got terribly civilised since the railway was opened, and is fast losing all its pleasant peculiarities. The signboards, for instance: the shoemaker had a boot cut out of thin wood, painted black, with his name on it in yellow, and nailed it to the nearest telegraph-post. On another telegraph-post was a square 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.”

Christmas was fast approaching, and RLS could have been writing his last of 12 essays for Scribners magazine, called “A Christmas Sermon,” when Mrs. Estella Martin, a prominent local citizen and spokesperson for the congregation, came calling at Baker’s to see Margaret. The story has already been in print for over a century in “The Penny Piper of Saranac, An Episode in the Life of Robert Louis Stevenson” by Stephen Chalmers (1907). Here it is again.

“… so when Mrs. Estella Martin, a member of an old Adirondack family, drove up to the cottage to confer with Mrs. Stevenson about a proposed church supper, R.L.S. took refuge in his ‘cubbyhole’ study and firmly shut the door. His mother prepared tea for the guest and suddenly said, ‘I would like you to meet my son, Louis.’ Mrs. Martin, who had heard of the novelist’s pet aversion to hero-worshippers and lion hunters, especially of the more inquisitive sex, felt slightly nervous. Mrs. Stevenson went to the study door and there followed a whispered colloquy through a mere chink. Presently Stevenson came into the room, sat down by the stove, and, after a strained minute or two, asked Mrs. Martin if he might smoke. The moment his cigarette was alight the ice was broken and — ‘I had two hours of R.L.S.,’ says Mrs. Martin, ‘and he was the most interesting man I ever met.’

“Later, it was planned to give the church benefit supper at the old Berkeley Inn in the village. On the promise of Stevenson’s mother that she would induce her son — somehow — to be present, the church ladies sold every available seat, except one — that reserved for the lion of the occasion. Despite the elder Mrs. Stevenson’s assurances, up to the last moment Robert Louis refused to be a party to the party. ‘Good Heavens!’ he exclaimed. ‘They might ask me to make a speech!'”

“In the end the ladies had to kidnap him bodily. At first he was silent, even morose, when he took his seat at the supper table in the old inn; but suddenly the humor of the situation struck him and his chameleon-like mood changed color. He threw himself into the affair with a spirit that was more Stevensonian than churchlike. He not only proceeded to enjoy himself, but helped to make that church supper a memorable success; and before he escorted his mother home, he INSISTED upon making a speech!

“All record of that speech is lost — more’s the pity! Mrs. Martin does not remember just what he said, but — ‘It was … like him.’ No doubt it was!”

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