Looking back

“Here you have this little shrine to commemorate Robert Louis Stevenson and to elevate and put idealization and beauty into the life of the town.”

— Edgar A. Alderman, president, University of Virginia, Aug. 25, 1923

Those are the words with which this series began, spoken by the guest speaker for the Stevenson Society of America at one of their annual meetings, which were held at the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage in Saranac Lake, which is “the little shrine” he mentions above. His audience was seated on the lawn and the long, winding veranda upon which he stood as he delivered his address over a century ago. As a memorial for public use, this old farmhouse is in its 107th year!

In his speech at the 1930 annual meeting, Col. Walter Scott, president of the Stevenson Society, said, “Many times the question is asked, ‘Why do you hold your meetings in the Adirondacks?’ And the reply is ‘We wish to retain and foster the interest of the public in this particular spot sacred to his memory, which measured a portion of his life, and creates a shrine where all may make contact with the same beautiful environment which inspired him.'”

When Robert Louis Stevenson came to town, toward evening on Oct. 3, 1887, Andrew Baker’s farm would have first come into view as his horse-drawn carriage descended the hill on Old Military Road that today converges with state Route 3 near Denny Park. The lower stretch of the road along the Saranac River as far as the Trudeau Road was yet to be.

“Saranac Lake village was but a backwoods hamlet. The first locomotive had not yet startled the buck and the bear. The community which is now the metropolis of the Adirondacks had in 1887 less than a handful of the thousands who have since followed the trail first blazed in that region by Dr. Edward L. Trudeau …” Stephen Chalmers, former president of the Stevenson Society of America.

In 1887, Saranac Lake was still a frontier town populated for the most part with trappers, lumberjacks and Adirondacks guides. Andrew Baker was one of the first guides, a professional from the age of fourteen, running his business from his father’s hotel. Alfred Donaldson, in his “History of the Adirondacks,” says that Andrew’s father, Colonel Milote Baker, was the “third pioneer of distinction” in this region, preceded by Jacob Moody and Captain Pliny Miller. Col. Baker, born in New Bedford, Massachussets, in 1806, died in 1874. His boarded-up but once famous “Baker’s Tavern” was already an eyesore by the time RLS arrived. Torn down in the 1920s, today the space is occupied by “Boushie and Associates.”

In 1866, following his marriage to Mary Scott of Michigan, Andrew Baker, age 25, built a home for Mary and their children to be. It was the centerpiece of his farm overlooking the Saranac River, the house destined to be pictured in books around the world, all because of the man who would some day desire to rent it for a winter. For the last time in this series, that irresistible quote by A. Donaldson:

“But so does fame become a thief. Your sturdy woodsman toils long and late to possess his little home, and a stranger with long hair and a velvet coat, passing that way, steals it from him by lodging in it for the night!”

It was Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, who had made the arrangements with the Bakers that enabled the so-called Stevenson expedition to call this farmhouse “home” from Oct. 3, 1887, to April 16, 1888. The house quite pleased the author which he nicknamed the “Hunter’s Home.” He wished to be alone and no place could be more so. Green pastures beyond with Mt. Baker looming up in the distance. Meadows at the rear and in front with the picturesque and lazy Saranac winding its way through the valley to Lake Champlain. Five days after checking into his new winter quarters, RLS wrote a letter to his friend, Will H. Low, in New York City, saying, “We are here at a first rate place. ‘Baker’s’ is the name of our house.”

That idyllic scene is long gone and so are the Bakers. “Last of clan dies” proclaims a 1929 newspaper headline, “but peak carries name.” When Mrs. Emma Hall died in 1929, a sister of A. Baker, this pioneer family passed into history as in extinct. No Bakers today can rightfully claim descent; however, the farmhouse known as the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage and the Bakers who once lived there, symbolize the first economic stage of this village, the period A. Donaldson calls the “Pre-Trudeau years.” The Stevenson Cottage is the only tangible remnant from those long-gone days, featuring the oldest fireplace in this section of the state. On its mantel, one can see the cigarette burns left by RLS, the careless chain-smoker.

It is fair to speculate if this pioneer homestead of the Baker family, would have survived to this day, if not for the unexpected presence of Robert Louis Stevenson, the “Penny Piper of Saranac,” for one historic winter. The question has been posed more than once. Of all the famous people who are known to have spent time in Saranac Lake, how is it that RLS has been so singled out as a memorial sensation, to leave behind such a footprint in a small mountain community as this old farmhouse, filled with rare artifacts and original furniture.

At least part of the answer is the dazzling personality of this thin man from Scotland who coughed up blood. He had such a positive effect on people, that many became devoted to him and the beautiful feature of the Stevenson Cottage is that these people from different countries and backgrounds, literally came together at Baker’s in the early 20th century, to celebrate his life with this memorial house museum. Family members and his most intimate friends who survived him were the nucleus of this first-of-its-kind organization as well as the source of most of the assemblage of memorabilia reputed to be “the world’s finest collection of Stevenson lore.” A single example of the Stevenson persona that pervades the archives of the society goes like this:

“Let me name one very singular thing. You cannot remain long in Robert Louis Stevenson’s company without feeling like a good man. You may not be good, mark you, any more than I am, but everything that is bad in you lies low, and every power that makes for kindness, tenderness, uprightness and charity seems as if it must begin to flourish.”

Tribute from a British Admiral in Samoa

The Stevenson Society of America is proud to give the last word to their British Representative, Nicholas Rankin, of Ramsgate, England:

“In 1984 I went around the world on the Stevenson Trail to write my first book, Dead Man’s Chest, going from Scotland to Samoa and many points in between. Of all those places, I can tell you that the warmth, eccentricity, courage and enduring charm of RLS linger best in his old home in Saranac Lake, upstate New York, U.S.A., where the author lived so productively from October 1887 to April 1888. Why do I think that? Because the cottage in the Adirondacks is ‘so full of a number of things’ donated by those who loved ‘Greatheart,’ Robert Louis Stevenson when he was alive, and the place has been so carefully preserved by people who also like and respect him. For me, the Stevenson Memorial Cottage is not just one of the best jewels in the RLS crown, but therein a true pilgrim can get close to the mystery, in the ‘Hunter’s Home.'”

End of series.


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