Colonel Walter Scott, Part I
“In the winter of 1924, the Stevenson Society of America was obliged, by order of the owners of the (Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial) Cottage, to remove the entire collection of Stevensoniana from the rooms. At a few hours notice, the relics were gotten to a place of safety — some in rooms in the Saranac Lake Free Library and the rest in the vaults of the Adirondack National Bank. On Jan. 7, the following telegram was received:
“Livingston Chapman, Secretary–Was shocked this morning to learn that sacred relics of Stevenson have been removed from the rooms that have become a shrine. As time advances, Stevenson is more beloved than ever and everything that had to do with him should be preserved. How can we be of further help? Quick action should be taken on securing the shrine. — Walter Scott.”
From the Stevenson Society of America, Inc., General Report for 1924. So began the first crisis in the meandering fortunes of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage, on Stevenson Lane, formerly the driveway to the Baker farmstead of Baker Mountain fame. Andrew and Mary Baker were the landlords of Stevenson for the winter of 1887-88, when the newly famous invalid author from Scotland rented most of the Bakers’ home for his family, for six and a half months; then he left in the spring and died six-and-a-half years later on the far side of the world and down under, too. There he rests in peace on top of his mountain “Vaea,” in Oceania, with his wife, Fanny, and no one else.
In 1916, the brand-new Stevenson Society approached the Bakers, who were then celebrating 50 years of marriage in their one and only house. It was the same one that Andrew had built himself when he was a 25-year-old professional guide starting up a farm on the hundreds of acres of fields and wood lots owned by his father, Col. Milote Baker. That was in 1866.
The people coming to call on the Bakers on that fall day in 1916 looked to be among the elite. They were desirous of renting two of the rooms used by RLS when he was their tenant, specifically the bedroom and study. The Bakers already knew one of these gentlemen, Stephen Chalmers, who has his own story in this series. These ambassadors from the Stevenson Society believed those chambers to be “where his genius burned most brightly” they said, thus fulfilling expectations as the first resident author in town.
By this time, Stevenson’s post-humous staying power was evident and not just because of his books. Behind the appearance of the typical house museum that this new Stevenson Society seemed to convey were the machinations of a personality cult for an obviously decent person. Robert Louis Stevenson was compassion on steroids who spoke truth to power without fear of consequence and there are examples. For example, he had predicted the consequences when he used his courage to publish his essay “On Robert Burns” when he was 25, still at the start of his writing career. The essay is a critical discussion about the moral vacuum in the man, especially in his relations with women. Burns was and still is Scotland’s beloved and deified national poet. RLS, the risk taker, deliberately offended an entire nation to simply point out the truth and took the heat for it with pride. These people who wanted to rent the “sacred” rooms knew that RLS the author was only a fraction of the man.
This uninvited embassy at Baker’s said they wanted to make the rooms public friendly, not for profit but for free! (Not anymore.) The Bakers went along with it and rent was set at $25 a month, effective Nov. 1, 1916. An important requirement in the contract is still enforced: “… said rooms to be furnished with the same furniture as was used by Robert Louis Stevenson.”
Andrew and Mary Baker were once again profiting off of RLS, without the slightest effort. Only one of their five children was living, Bertha, twin of Blanche, so they didn’t need the space. Bertha had married a certain Joseph H. Vincent along the way and then made him a widower in 1923, childless. For that occasion, Bertha’s parents wrote their last entry in their big family Bible which has not left the premises to this day: “Our last dear child is gone. How lonely we are.”
It wasn’t long before Andrew, then Mary, followed their daughter within a three week span before spring. They are all together today in Pine Ridge Cemetery, a few yards from Madden’s Transfer and Storage. Blanche and Ralph are there, too. Following the death of Bertha, age 47, her parents had made Vincent, their son-in-law, executor of their estate. He it was who had kicked out the Stevenson Society, resulting in the only closure of the Cottage in its 106 years of operation as a public memorial. It also resulted in moving the annual meeting for 1924 across the river to present day Denny Park. What was Vincent’s problem and who was this Walter Scott who rose to the occasion, offering to help and alerting the membership that “Quick action should be taken in securing the shrine.”
To begin, let’s get out this of the way. He has nothing to do with Sir Walter Scott, the other top-ranking Scottish author who imagined heroes like Ivanhoe; however, Col. Scott circulated real Scottish blood through his system and devoted much of his time and wealth to promoting and supporting Scottish institutions and causes. Among these, the Stevenson Society of America in Saranac Lake and their little “shrine” had a particular importance for this over-accomplished New York City businessman who had read everything in print by RLS. Scott would enrich the Saranac Lake collection with artifacts from his own collection, including several first editions and “Nights of Vailima,” music manuscript by RLS for his pennywhistle, the same instrument behind glass at Baker’s today. In 1924, Col. Scott’s priority was to make like Ivanhoe and go to the rescue of this Stevenson “shrine”/cult temple, from the likes of Vincent.