Dead man’s chest, Part I

“There is something singularly enticing in the idea of going rent-free, into a ready-made house.”

“The Silverado Squatters,” Robert Louis Stevenson

When rumors were spreading throughout the village in the fall of 1980 that Jack Delahant’s youngest son, Mike, was back in town from God knows where and that he had broken into the Robert Louis Stevenson Cottage on Stevenson Lane and was squatting there with impunity, the populace was aghast that nothing was being done to stop it, or so it seemed.

If truth isn’t truth, a false argument recently brought back into use for political ends, one might prefer to believe an alternative version, that the alleged intruder had been given the key to the Stevenson Cottage by his father who was president of the Stevenson Society of America, the historical society which owns said property. The pretense for this gesture would have been the father’s apparent fear for the safety of the “shrine,” that is the Stevenson Cottage, alone and unoccupied at a time when vandalism was on the rise. Story has it that President Delahant confided that he would sleep better if he knew that someone he knew was living at the Cottage to guard it. It’s a believable tale but there are no survivors to confirm it.

Mike Delahant was 29 when he entered the Stevenson Cottage with or without a key and plopped his duffel bag on the kitchen floor which had long been the domain of his grandmother, Mrs. Maude Hotaling Delahant. It was Labor Day Weekend, 1980. By then he had only totaled two cars that weren’t his, one without a license; had been arrested twice for disorderly conduct but only convicted on one and he had an outstanding arrest warrant in San Bernadino County, California, for impersonating a pedestrian on the freeway. There is more, but it doesn’t matter when your father is the president of the club that owns the house you are using. When President Jack told the board of directors that his wayward son had occupied the Stevenson Cottage, he got the customary approval, “Whatever you say, Jack, is fine with us.”

So began the surprise curatorship of yours truly, arriving on the scene with no museum experience and little knowledge of literature along with no appetite for the mandatory responsibility of being the occupant of such a place. In fact, when Jack’s son moved into the famous shrine to guard it, he was already wondering where he would be going next. He warned his father that this was just a temporary thing. In the meantime, he explored the place out of curiosity and learned a few things about this invalid author from Scotland that made him decide to extend his guardianship.

Deciding to stay meant reconsideration of the terms of occupation. Mike had been appointed per verbal agreement with the president to protect the property, period. That being the case, any of his activities that could be interpreted by outsiders as the work of a professional staff are purely coincidental. It is all voluntary. This also accounts for his less formal attire and overall appearance. On the other hand, people don’t go there to look at the curator who might be seen mowing the lawn by Mr. John Doe and family as they drive up the lane to see the place but can’t find the undesignated parking area because there isn’t one, not anymore. It is what it is.

This occupation of the residential part of the Stevenson Cottage in late 1980 was a step into the unknown at a bad time of the year. Delahant was still single which was a good thing because the apartment was a wreck with a broken bathroom. The “Hunter’s Home” was just a wooden cave with no heat source. At a Halloween party, two local citizens offered to help out, almost free of charge.

Using materials paid for with private donations, Mr. Ronald Kunath gutted and rebuilt the bathroom from the ground to the roof, all carpentry and plumbing and was the first to put insulation into this old house. His continued assistance was invaluable to the new caretaker, and by extension, to the Stevenson Society.

Mr. Robert Shaw, an expert on steam boilers, resurrected the long-neglected coal boiler in the root cellar basement and got super hot water circulating through some of the rooms again. A leftover pile of coal was put to good use until some brittle old cast iron pipes broke on a sub-zero January night. Hot water poured out of the crawl space and into the ground which was a good thing. It could be heard from the street and steam fogged all the windows. At 1a.m. and -20 degrees, the team of Kunath and Shaw showed up to shut the system down, indefinitely, ushering in the period known as the “Deep Freeze” in curator annals. The generous service these gentlemen provided is now part of the record at “Baker’s–emphatically Baker’s!” (RLS)

Four years went by and the new caretaker adapted to the routine of spending summers there keeping the flag flying and the door open at the appointed times to the little museum inside. Mike D. had grown up exposed to the provincial myth that reduced Robert Louis Stevenson to a stuck-up snob who hated Saranac Lake with its backwoods ignorance. This fabrication seems to have justified snubbing him in return. “Why do they bother with that place?” was a stock phrase used by the local intelligentsia if the subject came up at all.

Having grown up in this atmosphere, the new caretaker could only wonder if his father was on a fool’s errand at the Stevenson Cottage and making himself complicit. He needed a sign from beyond the Tri-Lakes, where there was no sign, that the initials R.L.S. still radiated, that his father’s efforts were justified.

A sign did come late in the day on Aug. 11, 1984. The Cottage museum had closed and the caretaker was about to get away from it all with a bike ride when a foreigner knocked on the door. He said he was in town to get material for a book about the famous man who once lived in this house.

“That’s great,” I said, “but it’s late. Can you come back tomorrow and what will be the title of your book?” The stranger said, “Dead Man’s Chest–Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson.”


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