More hard times

John F. Delahant, Jr. — or “Jack” —former president of the Stevenson Society of America. (Photo provided)

“Following 20 years of operation by the Saranac Lake Village Board, ownership of the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage reverted to the Stevenson Society of America, Inc., upon abandonment of the Cottage by the village effective on May 31, 1972.”

— President’s Report, Stevenson Society of America

Annual meeting, Sept. 12, 1973

By 1973, John F. Delahant, Jr., or “Jack,” had been president of the Stevenson Society of America for 15 years, succeeding his father, John F. Delahant, Sr., when he died in 1958.

During those 20 years of VSL operation, the Stevenson Society maintained ownership of the museum collection and kept their annual meetings which was all they really had to do, since the village handled everything else except the duties of the resident director. In an article from the Watertown Daily Times, 1984, Jack Delahant describes being dumped by the VSL:

“In 1951, the Society turned the Cottage over to the Village, which operated it until 1972. Then they called me up and said ‘Mr. Delahant, we’re going to dump the Cottage–either close it or run it yourself.’ So the Stevenson Society, of which Mr. Delahant is president, again took over the Cottage museum’s operation.”

In 1972, the new village mayor John Brewster and his trustees had fiscal concerns that were rising like a tsunami when it hits shallow water. That was because the village had kept on spending after the money had left town with the advent of antibiotics.

Consider the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival. If you grew up here so long ago that you’re old, you should remember the extravagant, expensive and super entertaining Winter Carnivals of the 50s and 60s. They were a continuance of the tradition that began when this mountain valley village was a cosmopolitan community with a huge cash flow. (RLS called Saranac Lake his “little Switzerland in the Adirondacks” because it reminded him of Davos, Switzerland, another little town full of money and sick people in the Alps–Stevenson spent two winters there before he came to the Adirondacks. It is where he carved the woodcuts for Moral Emblems which are in the Saranac Lake collection. Davos in the early 1900s is the setting for Thomas Mann’s acclaimed novel, “The Magic Mountain.” Culturally, Saranac Lake was an American Magic Mountain in its day.)

The Winter Carnivals that the local baby boomers experienced were expensive for sure. The Rotary Shows were held in the Pontiac Theatre, a symbol itself of the wealth in town. Too bad it burned down in 1978. The parades were something else; four professional marching bands from as far away as Louisiana and Ottawa, Canada marching up Broadway past the Pontiac Theatre with brilliant uniforms and blaring horns hitting all the right notes. After these parades they had a battle of these bands at the town hall. The floats they made could have skipped unnoticed into any Pasadena Rose Bowl parade. They represented months of planning and execution. The Royalty back then, the Kings and Queens of the Carnival in succession, were celebrities for hire from stage, screen and finally TV. It remains to be seen if this retired American Magic Mountain will ever have the money or the will to throw parties like that again. Meanwhile, Davos is still swimming in euros while rich nations go there to have conventions about money.

To have continued spending like that from a well gone dry would have been like digging a sinkhole big enough for the whole town. The Brewster administration understood this and acted appropriately by whittling down the Winter Carnival and “dumping” a few other things, e.g., the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage. A sports-oriented community generally doesn’t take art that seriously, while in Monterey, California, the Robert Louis Stevenson Club thrives. It is the nature of the beast. The RLS Cottage in Saranac Lake lost its best support when all the money and culture that a disease brought here wilted away. Since then, the “Hunter’s Home” has been like a delicate plant trying to take root in the wrong soil.

The flaw in the VSL plan was the expectation that their new Stevenson Cottage attraction would be a profit-making venture depending on the new American fad of vacationing by car in the 1950s. They even put up a parking lot for it. It all made sense back then. With the closure of the sanatorium and hospitals, big and small, and the medical infrastructure that went with it, the village of Saranac Lake had to find a new source of income, like tourism. But after 20 years of toying with that idea at the Stevenson Cottage, they “dumped” it.

And so it was that President John F. Delahant, Jr., convened an emergency meeting to inform the B.O.D. of this latest development.

None of them were thrilled with the prospect of taking on more responsibility. That wasn’t part of the plan. The trustees even came up with an off-ramp that would give all material objects of Baker family origin in or on the property to the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake. To the new Robert Louis Stevenson House in Monterey, California, would go all things Stevenson; the house and property would then be auctioned off and the proceeds could even go to the Monterey people, along with the collection and that would have been the end of it.

“That’s no good!” said President Jack Delahant to his board of directors. They were a commendable collection of citizens, prestigious in the local context. It included a former mayor, the first director of the Trudeau Institute, the radio station owner of “WNBZ,” and the only bookstore owner in town and some other upright types. These people were all friends, at least friends of Jack. Jack’s wife, Mrs. Helen Trouve Delahant, played secretary and treasurer between 1972-1998. These B.O.D. meetings were usually held in the Delahants’ living room on Main Street and were well qualified with scotch whiskey and bourbon. For this reason, they chose not to disband, if only the president and his board could find a way to agree on the immediate future of the Stevenson Cottage, without just “dumping it” themselves.

A way was found. From the above quoted Annual Report for 1973: “At a meeting held in May 1972, the Society membership had agreed to resume operation of the Cottage.”

Exactly how they did that remains secret but from what is known it seems that President Delahant’s behavior around the Stevenson Cottage was astonishingly similar to the way Dr. Kinghorn had kept the ship barely afloat on his watch. Both presidents did the workload of the trustees and even reached into their own pockets for the place when it was crucial. Their time, money and whatever else was required to keep the Cottage a going thing, was a one-way gesture, expecting nothing and wanting nothing in return. They along with Col. Walter Scott before them and more recently, Mr. Lester G. Parker, Jr., of Gabriels, deserve recognition for their selfless contributions at critical times on behalf of the Stevenson Society of America.

And so the Stevenson Cottage was enabled to keep its summer doors open to the public. The Village’s curator, Mrs. John F. Delahant, Sr., “Maude,” Jack’s mother, said she would continue spending summers there playing hostess to the people who kept coming. She enjoyed it. Meanwhile, President Jack had pre-approval from the B.O.D. for anything he wanted to do. They trusted him through and through. They knew his integrity was like granite and he had to be smart enough because he had a degree in engineering from Yale University, class of ’34. The board’s watchword was simple: “Whatever you do, Jack, is fine with us.”

Henceforth, from 1972 until 1980, anyone who wanted to see what’s inside the little house museum on the hill was enabled by the devotion of only two people — John F. Delahant, Jr. and his mother, Maude Hotaling Delahant. On Aug. 25, 1976, the duo got a good review in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. It was a letter from the curator of the RLS “Silverado” museum in Napa Valley, California:

Loved Stevenson Cottage

Dear Editor:

Last month I made a special trip from California to Saranac Lake for the express purpose of visiting the Stevenson Cottage … I found the Cottage in beautiful condition, recently painted and lovingly cared for. It is an inspiration to visit it and I have nothing but praise for the devoted people who kept it going. All Saranac Lake has cause to be proud of such a landmark. My one disappointment was that I could not find a single postcard of the Cottage in any of your shops … Also I would like to say how much I enjoyed visiting your public library and seeing the Stevenson collection there. The library is most attractive — so warm and inviting, and the staff were most cordial and friendly … Saranac Lake is blessed with great natural beauty and I loved every minute I was there; the mountains and lakes are unforgettable — but my warmest, happiest memories will be of the Stevenson Cottage and your Public Library.

Yours sincerely,

Ellen Shaffer, Curator — Silverado museum, St. Helena, California.


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