Dr. Kinghorn’s success

Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage, c. 1950. (Photo provided)

In the mail that arrived at Dr. Hugh Kinghorn’s home on Church Street on Aug. 25, 1951, was his signed copy of the much needed satisfactory biography with the title: “Voyage to Windward–The Life of Robert Louis Stevenson” by J.C. Furnas.

In the doctor’s thank you letter to the author, he said: “Dear Mr. Furnas, The Voyage to Windward came to hand two days ago, and I have looked it over with a great deal of pleasure. It represents an enormous amount of work but I have no doubt it was most interesting … You will be interested to learn that the Village of Saranac Lake has taken over the Stevenson Cottage, so that will be a worry off my hands.”

By 1951, Kinghorn, president of the Stevenson Society of America, had been performing like a one man band for fourteen years, playing all the parts needed to keep it altogether at the famous “shrine” on Stevenson Lane, the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage, owned and operated by said historical society. He had assumed responsibility from the time his predecessor, Dr. Lawrason Brown, died on Dec. 26, 1937. Both men were charter members of the Stevenson Society, formed on Oct. 30, 1915. By 1951, Kinghorn was the last man standing from the founders, following the passing of Carl Palmer, its first president, in 1949, age 93.

It was during the Great Depression, three months before he died, that Brown confessed openly that the Stevenson Society had fallen on “hard times,” he said. He introduced the notion that the society should look for a recognized and rich institution to take it under its wing like a parent organization. Kinghorn inherited that policy and ran with it, starting with New York state. A rejection by the state after an inspection by its inspectors, recommended that there is “no reason for the state’s taking over this building and assuming the perpetual financial burden involved.” That was that.

That was in 1940 and right away, Kinghorn set his sights on the village of Saranac Lake, a name that increasingly showed up in correspondence and annual reports signed by Kinghorn, year after year. In less than a year after the state’s refusal, Kinghorn would have us think “we feel, and have felt for a long time, that the Village of Saranac Lake should take over the Stevenson Cottage … No steps have as yet been taken to approach the village with this in view.”

For years to come, most annual reports presented a variation on that theme, like “We hope that some day in the near future, the Village of Saranac Lake will take over the land and property of the Stevenson Society and still maintain it as a shrine. It’s the show place of our village.” That particular annual meeting was in 1944, about the same time Paris was liberated in Hitler’s war. A side effect of World War II would be used in Kinghorn’s strategy to dump the Stevenson Cottage on the village of Saranac Lake (VSL).

In an indirect way, the second World War hastened the end of Saranac Lake’s “golden age,” when it was an internationally recognized symbol of disease control, a virtual mecca for sick people from everywhere. This stage of Saranac Lake’s career had been brought on by the vision and entrepreneurship of Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau.

Good for the world but bad for Saranac Lake was the acceleration in the use of antibiotic drugs to deal with the exponential rise in the number of patients on a global scale, brought about by the biggest war in human history. This universal adoption of life-saving drugs would take away Saranac Lake’s reason-to-be, ever since Dr. Trudeau’s Adirondack Sanitorium opened the door of “Little Red” to their first patient in 1884, heralding this town’s most prosperous period, the one that still provides Historic Saranac Lake with their seemingly endless supply of stories.

The end of Saranac Lake’s cosmopolitan lifestyle coincided with the closure of large sanitoriums, private sanitoriums, hospitals and everything connected with them. Saranac Lake had lost its income and the only skill it had, creating the circumstances for a turning point. At the time tourism seemed like the only way ahead but they would have to start out in the wake of Lake Placid’s well established monopoly on area recreation for fun, not just to stay alive.

This was the best time for Kinghorn to approach the village with a rationale for their involvement, that being the promotion of the Stevenson Cottage as part of its projected tourism portfolio, a smart move since RLS is a world figure as an author, translated into every language, just about; but Kinghorn had cast more than one line in his search for support. He had also approached L. Judson Morhouse, New York state assemblyman, chairman of the Joint Legislative Committee on Historic Sites, Buildings and Objects. He was turned down of course, but with bureaucratic sympathy:

“Thank you … unfortunately our committee on Historic Sites is not able to actually acquire and preserve property of historic interest … What we like to see is a local group that takes an interest in historic sites such as this. This is for two reasons. One is the fact that a community should be interested in drawing visitors to a spot such as the Stevenson Cottage because of the business that accrues to the Community as a result and secondly we find that local people are much better able to handle such a project with the proper degree of local pride in a place of such historic local significance. I think it would be very advisable if you could see that the Mayor of Saranac Lake gets a copy of this letter. L.J. Morhouse” March 14, 1950.

Coincidentally, the day before Morhouse wrote his letter, Kinghorn wrote one too: “Dear Mr. Anderson (Mayor Alton B. Anderson, VSL), I am writing with regard to the Stevenson Cottage, on Stevenson Lane, where Robert Louis Stevenson lived during the winter of 1887-88 …The Cottage is slowly disintegrating although it does not require a great deal of money to keep it in repair. We would respectfully request that the Village of Saranac Lake take over the Cottage by Deed of Gift, and that the Stevenson Society should still exist as such, and retain possession of the Stevenson relics.”

While this was going on, Kinghorn had resumed correspondence with Mr. Edwin J. Beinecke, a veteran member of the Stevenson Society of America and a collector of RLS memorabilia, in particular manuscripts, as many as he could locate and buy with the family fortune accumulated by their “Green Stamps,” a phenomenon only old people can recall.

By 1950, Beinecke was cataloguing his Stevenson letters and manuscripts into a total of five volumes. As each came off the press, he signed one to send to Kinghorn, who placed them in the bookcase part of the author’s desk at Baker’s, where they remain to this day. Today this Beinecke Collection, the largest by far, is kept with its own staff somewhere in the Yale University Library in New Haven, Connecticut.

Finally! On July 28, 1951, Kinghorn wrote to Beinecke to give him the good news that his efforts had at last been rewarded:

“I am writing to tell you about the Stevenson Society. I am sure you will be glad to know that the Village of Saranac Lake has taken over the property for the price of $1.00. The village will now have to keep up the property, and I will not have to ask my friends for financial support anymore.”

There was one hitch. The village wanted a reliable, full time, knowledgeable resident curator. This had been a headache for President Kinghorn since the departure of Mrs. C.H.E. Griffith in 1945, the previous curator. The village addressed the issue by sending out a call for applicants to be interviewed. The rest is history.


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