Literary pilgrims

Andrew Baker greets a literary pilgrim at his gate. (Photo provided)

Andrew and Mary Baker were used to having people around their house because their livelihood depended on it. They ran a sort of bed and breakfast operation, tent style, with a frontier theme that featured hunting and fishing, the main attraction for the “sports” who escaped here from the big east coast cities. This explains the origin of the “Hunter’s Home,” one of the nicknames that Robert Louis Stevenson applied to “Baker’s–emphatically Baker’s” when he was renting their house for the winter of 1887-88.

However, to hunt and fish was not a requirement for renting tent space on Baker’s farm. As long as you paid your way and behaved, the Bakers didn’t care what you did. Besides the sports there were all kinds of people who came to these mountains responding to their own personal call of the wild. Fugitives liked them, too. The “Philosopher’s Camp” is an illustrious example. That title was supplied by one of the many guides hired by the most intense group of intellectuals to ever sleep together in the Adirondack woods, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz and William James Stillman, who painted a nice picture of them all in their wild setting. There were ten of them, in all. In his book, The Autobiography of a Journalist, Stillman provides an insider’s look at their camp life. They usually stayed at “Baker’s Tavern” before going into camp. Their first gathering in July, 1858, was at Follansbee Pond.

Andrew and Mary Baker got to meet quite a cross-section of people comprising their generation for at least forty years while running their business; but Robert Louis Stevenson was the most unusual tenant the Bakers ever registered. First of all, he was among the earliest of the health seekers. According to Bertha Baker, one of his landlord’s twin daughters, “At that time few came in search of health but rather to hunt, fish, etc.” Nor did RLS show up in the usual way, by pre-arrangement. Nor did he come in the summer but instead he wanted to use their house for the entire winter.

Fanny Stevenson, the author’s wife, handled all the business particulars before her husband, his mother and their servant arrived from N.Y.C. Fanny probably seemed like a pretty demanding customer but she backed it all up in an offer of fifty dollars a month to rent the house, which would include furnishings. Fifty dollars doesn’t seem like much now but in 1887, this would rank as a surprise windfall profit for the Baker family. When they accepted Mrs. Stevenson’s offer, the Bakers unwittingly made a choice that would affect the rest of their lives.

Robert Louis Stevenson was at the peak of his fame when he detoured all of a sudden, to Saranac Lake, even though Colorado had been his destination. Everybody knew who he was considering the public’s infatuation with his recent little gothic horror story, the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was bound to be an exceptional winter for the Bakers who temporarily occupied rooms connected to the main house while both families shared one kitchen.

The Bakers got to see what it’s like to exist next door to a celebrity. Strange people came and went all winter but there were a few familiar faces too, like Dr. Trudeau and Mrs. Estella Martin, a local friend of Stevenson’s mother, Margaret; also, local hunters would come by to sell freshly killed game to the Stevenson expedition, like partridge, rabbits, deer and fish. One of the Baker twin daughters, Bertha, provides a glimpse of the situation in her essay, Robert Louis Stevenson, a student project at Normal School, now SUNY Plattsburgh, 1892: “The author cared little for company and made few acquaintances. Many hearing of the presence of the distinguished novelist would call upon him but Mr. Stevenson always declined seeing them, giving stress of work as his reason. Even well-known people would be turned away without an interview.”

Unfortunately, it was this reclusive aspect of Stevenson’s one and only arctic experience, that made him out to be a misunderstood former resident in this village he said was his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks.” Louis was new to fame when he came here and he didn’t like it and could see through it. In his first letter from Baker’s to his old friend, Sir Walter (Bart) Simpson, in Scotland: “I have had a very curious experience here (America), being very much made of and called upon, and all that; quite the famous party in fact. It is not so nice as people try to make out…There are nice bits of course…but the thing at large is a bore and a fraud; and I am much happier up here (Saranac Lake) where I see no one and live my own life.”

As the years passed, this seemingly unsociable aspect of Robert Louis Stevenson took root in local lore and combined with his colorful language about the weather here, so that the poet behind A Child’s Garden of Verses morphed into a conceited celebrity who hated Saranac Lake and was rarely seen because he was stuck up and thought himself too good to mingle with the commoners; plus, he couldn’t wait to get out of here. Here is an example of misinformation that makes sure that some one or some thing is misunderstood, sometimes out of malice, in this case, ignorance. Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s stepson, actually addressed this concern in a talk he gave at the Saranac Lake Free Library in 1917.

Spring 1888 finally arrived after a harsh, strange and profitable winter for the Bakers. On April 16, they waved good-bye to the Stevenson expedition who were supposed to return in a few weeks but they never did return. That’s another story. In the meantime, spring operations slipped into gear at the Baker farm, including getting the tents and poles out of winter storage to get ready for a new season of sports. The family took back their private quarters and right away Mary found the black scar on her fireplace mantel, from a burning cigarette left by you know who. She harped about that for the 36 years she had left.

It eventually became clear to the Bakers that they would never really be rid of Robert Louis Stevenson. A new strain of sport began to infiltrate the scene who just wanted to look at the place and hound the owners with questions about RLS, if possible. Fortunately, for posterity, Andrew and Mary were receptive and would even let them in the house. After some time of this, Andrew built a new door, just for pilgrims, at the south end of his house. In 1916, it became the official entrance into the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage.

Someone called these newcomers “literary pilgrims” and it stuck, for a little while. Generally speaking, they were civil, inquisitive, sometimes interesting people with wide-ranging intellects. Their modern-day counterparts still read real books and are grounded in reality and still practice critical thinking which would make them preferred customers if you have to have company.

One of the more interesting pilgrims also became the most persistent to return, again and again, to ring Baker’s bell with a brand-new pilgrim or two to see the rooms where the Stevenson expedition camped for the winter of 1887-88. He is Stephen Chalmers and with him the story of the “Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage” begins.


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