These reflections on bringing touches of nature indoors all started with a hornet’s nest. While on daily bird-watching walks around our property over the summer, Jeff noticed a huge hornet nest hanging from a branch about 10’ high in a maple tree along our driveway.
A nest of Bald-faced Hornets (which are actually a species of yellowjacket wasps rather than true hornets) can be an unnerving presence over the summer, depending on its proximity to your house, garden, or relaxation and play spaces. But if the nest is far enough away to prevent unwanted encounters with its inhabitants, it can be safely ignored to allow the wasps to go about their business of enhancing their home, raising their young, eating other insects and pollinating wildflowers.
Then in late fall, after a few hard frosts kill the workers of the colony and spur the fertilized queen to decamp to a protected nook to overwinter, the beautiful product of the insects’ summer labors is easier to appreciate. Once the leaves fell from our maple tree (and after we had read up to make sure the nest wasn’t inhabited by hibernating insects, or that it would be reused the following year), we collected the nest and hung it temporarily in our garden shed.
The strong yet amazingly light ovoid nest is made of layer upon layer of gorgeous marbleized sheaves that the wasps produce from chewed wood fiber.
This object is compelling because of its simple beauty, but it holds an allure beyond its pleasing shape, color and texture. There is something about physical objects that are direct products of nature rather than representations of it (in the form of paintings, sculpture and the like) which is fundamentally soul satisfying. Anyone attracted to the rustic aesthetic is likely to understand this.
As the hornet nest, now appreciated as an unintentional gift of nature, rested in our garden shed, I began thinking about whether and where to place it in our home. As often happens when a non-pressing thought lingers in the background of more immediate preoccupations, my mind was primed for inspiration. So when I came across a new book presenting images of nature in home décor, I took more notice than I normally might have. The book provides design inspiration that is quite different from, yet complementary to, the Adirondack/rustic aesthetic. Its pages provide a satisfying excursion through beautiful images and thought-provoking text, so it is worth sharing a brief overview.
The Natural Eclectic: A Design Aesthetic Inspired by Nature
This book is a surprisingly refreshing entry into the pantheon of coffee-table books on home styling. The author, Heather Ross, is an artist, photographer, stylist and shop owner (in Vancouver, BC). She is not an interior designer, so does not claim to have a flexible repertoire for creating diverse looks that express various clients’ tastes. Rather, the book presents her personal aesthetic, which will resonate with anyone who appreciates having tangible reminders of their connection to the natural world within their home environs.
Native American ash splint baskets have long been appreciated for their utilitarian and decorative qualities. Back before it was easy to mail-order goods from afar, people relied on what was locally produced or available in their hometown stores. Families lucky enough to live in regions where Native Americans made and sold baskets typically had all sizes, shapes and types of baskets put to various uses in their homes.
In my (KH) childhood home in northern Maine we had many baskets made by local Maliseets and Mi’kmaqs, as well as some Penobscot and Passamaquoddy baskets made on reserves south of our town. A large, strong-handled, thick-splint “potato-picking” basket held garden tools in our shed; a tall oval, handled basket with sweet grass trim held tins of mink oil and bottles of shoe polish in the back hallway; a delicate, two-tiered round picnic basket sat high on a shelf in the kitchen closet; and a lidded, low, round, fine-splint basket held ribbon and other sewing notions. One of my first purchases with babysitting money as a young teen was a “fancy basket” with rose and indigo colored splints which eventually became a cherished reminder of home in my college dorm room.
Basket-making is still a vibrant Native American craft in northern Maine, but the three baskets we have just acquired are much earlier examples from the mid-19th century. While in an excellent state of preservation, these three Penobscot baskets date to circa 1850-60, which was prior to the widespread use of decorative techniques such as twisting splints into conical points (called the porcupine technique) and adorning edges with braided sweet grass.
This tall, lidded storage basket has wide splints alternating with bands of fine splints. The two Penobscot baskets shown below are very similar in style, although not as tall, and also date from 1850-60.
In addition to its large size, another striking feature of this basket is its multi-color splints. While the standards or warp (vertical splints) are blue and russet, the weavers or weft (horizontal splints) include yellow and green along with blue and russet.
Before the horizontal splints were woven into the body of the basket, color was applied to both the warp and weft splints with a cloth swab or soft brush dipped into a stain made from powdered pigments or cakes of watercolor paints (McMullen & Handsman, 1987). The color appears only on the exterior of the splints (with some interior edge leakage around the sides of the narrow splints). In later baskets whose splints were soaked in vats of aniline dyes, both the exterior and interior of the splints were richly colored.
In a swabbed basket the bottom was left uncolored.
In this tall basket the lid was also left its natural color. Ash splints are quite pale when freshly woven, but they darken to a golden beige with exposure to light and air over time.
Given the come-and-go nature of buying and selling antiques as dealers, we do not typically have the range of rustic furniture in stock at any one time to furnish every room of a house, or even to showcase one idyllic room setting. Therefore, it is a pleasure to present these photos from the home of a couple that has been collecting hickory furniture and rustic accessories for about 25 years. Over several decades they have honed their focus and continued to upgrade, thereby creating a curated treasury of pieces that manifest their personal tastes.
Two things set their home apart from many of the settings in which we’ve seen rustic collections. The first is that their collection resides in the home they live in every day, rather than in a vacation home. Secondly, they live in a mid-century house with white walls, rather than in a log or wood-paneled rustic home.
They are equally passionate about furniture, primarily antique Indiana hickory and Arts & Crafts genres, and accessories. Their accessories include art pottery made during the first decades of the 20th century by Ohio artisan Charles Walter Clewell, “weird wood” (a type of woodcraft created in many forms as rustic souvenirs in the early 20th century, in which the bark is left partially intact on the finished pieces), and animal carvings.
This photo of their den shows examples of each of their collecting interests. The shelves flanking the fireplace contain an amazing collection of Clewell pottery. The hearth, coffee table and plinths hold pieces of weird wood. There are also a few animal carvings on the coffee table, and the two rustic floor lamps are carved to resemble tree trunks. Finally, there is a fine pair of Old Hickory barrel arm chairs with woven aprons. Their grey cat finds the chair on the right to be especially comfortable.
Another view of the same room provides a better look at one of the Old Hickory chairs, and shows a hickory center table, a pair of weird wood tankards, and a table lamp with a carved bear.
This vignette displays elements from two of their collections – a rare form of Indiana hickory wall shelf and an Old Hickory dresser each holds pieces of Clewell pottery.
In an adjacent study, the collection themes continue – Clewell + weird wood + animal carvings + Old Hickory. Every piece is selected with a connoisseur’s eye. Some of the weird wood, such as the plaque in the middle left edge of the photo, features applied pot metal animals including deer, elk and moose. The Old Hickory chair whose back is shown in the lower right foreground is an uncommon 1940s modern design with its original nylon tape weaving. Juxtaposed with the rustic collections are a Frank O. Gehry cardboard “wiggle” chair and the original poster from a Marcel Duchamp exhibit featuring his Fountain piece, as photographed by Alfred Stieglitz.
Although we have not been fishing in actual waters this month, we have, as always, been trolling for antiques. Our most recent catch in the fish category is this appealing pair of oil on canvas portraits of a landlocked salmon and a brook trout. The body shapes of the salmon and brook trout are fairly accurate, as is their coloration. They are slightly naïve renditions rather than perfect anatomical representations, indicating that the artist was not academically trained.
Both fish are shown hooked in realistic ways – on a side edge of the mouth for the salmon and the bottom edge of the mouth for the brook trout – situations that the artist had likely experienced firsthand.
The fish are painted on a faux birch bark background, which is not an uncommon treatment for fish still life paintings, such as these two by Walter Steward from our past inventory.
We have also found fish portraits painted directly on birch bark, such as the trout below.
Another fish/birch bark association we’ve encountered is commemorative silhouettes of actual fish traced and cut from birch bark, such as the one below that memorializes a fish caught on the Tobique River in New Brunswick in the 1940s.
A much earlier birch bark trout silhouette was made by Percival Baxter (1876-1969), the 53rd Governor of Maine and after whom Baxter State Park is named, when he was just seven years old.
As anyone (not making gender assumptions here) who has spent time in a hair salon knows, the chitchat can yield intriguing information to ponder long after the blow dry has flattened. Thus I came away from a recent haircut with the name of a business guru’s TED Talk to view. Over lunch at my desk, I watched Simon Sinek’s presentation (well, I admit, just the streamlined five-minute version, which was plenty to get the point and finish a yogurt) titled “Start with Why.”
His premise is that customers actually care about why a business does what it does (beyond the obvious “to make a living.”) By articulating your company’s why up front, before explaining what you sell or do and how you do it, you will more easily find, inspire or recruit like-minded customers. He thus presents a healthy challenge for business owners like ourselves to articulate the fundamental motivations for the work that we do. So let’s give it a try.
The Short Version
We buy and sell antiques to spice up people’s lives with objects that embody both artistry and human history.
We intentionally use the term “spice up” in order not to exaggerate the importance of antiques in the relative scheme of things (we are not Doctors Without Borders, after all). Yet we do not underestimate the power of living with aesthetically pleasing surroundings to swing our moods and outlooks in a positive direction. Nor do we discount the world-changing capacity of positive people.
The Long Version
We believe that living with antiques enhances everyday lives in three ways:
1) Antiques infuse beauty, character and interest into our homes.
Some argue that humans have an innate attraction to beauty that is deeply rooted in our genetic code (in fact, there’s a TED Talk on that, too: “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” by Dennis Dutton). Whether our collective eye for good design and artistic expression is mostly innate or culturally conditioned, it is clear that humans crave beauty. We would add that we also crave meaning, which can be derived through the power of objects to evoke personal memories or touch our core identities. For instance, many people who purchase rustic antiques have fond memories of summer camp or a rustic family retreat imprinted in their psyches. Others who love objects with nature or animal themes feel a deep connection to, or simply enjoy, the outdoors. So antiques in our homes can express our character while providing reminders of what makes life good.
2) Assembling non-mass produced objects that have a patina of past love and use is a component of creative living.
This is about being an active pursuer and arranger of antiques. Acquiring and decorating with antiques is a creative process that allows you to write the next chapter in the lives of aged objects by placing them in a new context of design. Reimagining and recombining antiques to explore your tastes and sensibilities is a form of self-expression. Thus, collecting and displaying antiques are thoughtful projects that we hereby dub “slow consumerism.” Searching and waiting for an object with an old soul that speaks to us serves as an antidote to our Amazon Primed fast consumerism which fulfills our quotidian needs or wants with expediency, leaving more time for nurturing the creative sparks within us.
3) Objects with a history provide a portal to understanding human values and ingenuity through the course of time.
Antiques do not just please our eyes – they can also stimulate our minds. As the material culture of our predecessors, antiques reveal something about the societal context that inspired their creation. The potential for antiques to motivate journeys into history is exemplified in a fascinating, classic account of the past lives of three pieces of American furniture as they pass from the hands of their makers through several centuries of owners (Objects of Desire: The Lives of Antiques and Those Who Pursue Them by Thatcher Freund, 1995). While we can find commonality with the societal genesis of objects from prior eras, we can also experience amazement at how past lifestyles and motivations differ from those in our contemporary times. Exploring the cultural heritage of antiques through our Journal articles never fails to fascinate us, and we know that many of our customers also passionately investigate the broader contexts that gave rise to the antiques they collect.
Finally, there are a few whys that are more personal. We’re in this business in part for the surprise and delight of finding old things that have aesthetic and historical characteristics which give them a certain magnetism. Also, we love that pursuing antiques is a form of recycling that reduces the need to manufacture new “stuff.”
We leave the penultimate word on the whys underpinning our business to a quote about things with history (i.e., antiques) from Freund’s book:
Things possess the possibility of immortality. They are pieces of human industry frozen in time…They connect their makers to anyone who ever owns them…Even those things people don’t inherit (from their own ancestors)…can affect their owners through their histories.
Antiques can be soulful elements that grace our lives with the spirit of the past. That is our fundamental why.
Finding unique, attractive and functional rustic furniture that was created in earlier eras is always a satisfying outcome of our hunt for antiques. Although all antiques have an origin story and a life history subsequent to our finding them, more often than not those specifics remain unknown to us. So it is particularly gratifying when we can trace the provenance of notable rustic furniture that we find, as we were able to do for these three tables in our current inventory.
These pieces – a dining table, a game table and a coffee table – originated at Nominigan Camp, a lodge built in 1913 on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. We have a handwritten note from the previous owner of the tables stating that they were given to his mother by Dr. Mary Northway whose family once owned Nominigan.
At wilderness outposts, furniture was usually made onsite from local trees. In this case the softwoods around Smoke Lake’s Loon Point, where Nominigan (meaning “Among the Balsams”) was built, provided the furniture’s raw materials. The frames of the tables are made of bark-on white cedar poles, and the table tops are pine.
They are sturdily built with tight tenons, and have classic rustic style. But before providing more details about the furniture itself, it is worth delving into the history of Nominigan Camp, their original home.
Nominigan Camp was built as an outpost of a Grand Trunk Railway resort called the Highland Inn located on Cache Lake in Algonquin Park (est. 1893). The Highland Inn was built in 1908 during the height of the rusticator movement to accommodate tourists who could travel to the Park relatively easily via train from their urban residences in Montreal and Toronto. The railway and Cache Lake Station were located directly in front of the Inn.
The Inn started modestly, serving primarily as a way station for anglers and campers who went on to explore the interior of the Park.
It quickly grew in size, however, and gained amenities such as steam heating, modern kitchens and a formal dining room serving multi-course meals.
The expanded inn attracted a larger clientele who enjoyed the combination of a remote wilderness setting with the luxuries of a fine hotel.
As more guests brought families on vacations to the Inn, the owners saw a need and an opportunity to expand its entertainment options, so sightseeing trips became a favorite pastime. The most popular was the “Grand Outing” to Loon Point on Smoke Lake, which required traveling more than seven miles from the Inn via train, stagecoach, portage and boat.
Inevitably, the human urge to “make the wilderness comfortable” transformed Loon Point from a simple camping and day trip location to the site for a new lodge which became an official outpost of the Highland Inn, named Nominigan Camp. The following passage sardonically summarizes the genesis of Nomingan, which could also aptly describe the origins of many lodges and camps built by rusticators and those who served them during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:
Since it was already a beloved camping site … what was more appropriate than to put up a lodge to shelter these campers? Simple, of course – an outpost – only log buildings – but of course, we must include hot and cold running water, lighting and good meals. And there must be room to keep boats there, and perhaps a launch for sightseers who want more comfortable travel than by canoe, and good fireplaces to give cheer and… and… and… And so it was. (Northway, 1970a)
Antiques dealers who look at thousands of old objects each year inevitably start to refine categories for the antiques they encounter. Repeated exposure to and study of antiques enable dealers to move from catch-all categorizations such as “Art Pottery” or “Quilts” to informed subcategories targeting what person/group/manufacturer made the item, in what region of the country or world, and when.
The closer objects are to the specialty areas of antiques that a dealer most frequently buys and sells, the more refined the dealer’s categorization of those things becomes. While we might lump together many individual pieces of furniture within the category “Mid-century Modern” and leave it at that, another dealer might lump together all “Rustic Furniture” and call it good. Needless to say, we have learned to classify rustic furniture into many different subcategories, each with its own themes and variations.
Native Rustic Furniture
One subcategory of antique rustic furniture that we continue to find and learn about was made both by Native Americans in the United States and First Nations tribes in Canada. For centuries, the aboriginal peoples of North America traditionally transformed materials found in nature into utilitarian objects for shelter, transportation, clothing, storage and other essentials of daily life, as illustrated in the above photo of Ojibwe bark teepees and a bark canoe.
Being adept at relying on what nature provides positioned native people to use those materials in creative ways as they adapted to living in non-Indian cultural contexts. While the following opinion of a white man who helped establish one of the first Indian crafts stores in Michigan reflects the dominant society’s patronizing attitudes towards Native Americans during the early 1900s, it does recognize native people’s finesse in working with natural materials: “The Indian’s absolute simplicity, unerring instinct, and wonderful knowledge of natural things surely give him a place among Nature’s best interpreters.” (from The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909)
Knowing where to find, how best to harvest, and how to work with natural materials such as bark and twigs, enabled native people to make a living at a time when they were struggling to transition from their traditional ways of life to a cash-based economy. During the mid- to late-19th century, a market for their craftsmanship fortuitously emerged as the rusticator movement gained momentum.
Wealthy urbanites who headed to beautiful, remote natural areas for vacations developed an appreciation for crafts that evoked pleasant memories of their escape into nature. Some of these rusticators established second homes in resort areas and sought appropriate interior furnishings for their cottages and camps, while others purchased furniture to take back for the porches and lawns of their formal homes.
Native people sold their goods in a variety of places – at souvenir shops on or near their reservations, at sporting lodges and camps where they worked as guides, and at itinerant encampments they set up in rusticator havens such as Bar Harbor, Maine. In these ways they either went where the tourists were, or the tourists came to them.
While small souvenirs such as beadwork, tanned hides, quillwork and baskets were produced and sold in great quantities, native people also made and sold some rustic furniture in these locations. Note the rustic settee that Stanislaus Francis sits on (and no doubt made and offered for sale) in the above photo from Maine.
Likewise, in an early 20th century article titled “Indian Industries in Michigan” (The Indian’s Friend, Volume 22 No. 1, September 1909) Miss Grade Travis describes a “modest little Indian workshop” in Wayagamug, Michigan filled with crafts made by a group of 50 Indians comprising Ojibwes from the Garden River Reserve in Canada and Ottawas from Michigan. She reports that furniture made by the native men were among the items offered for sale.
What then, did that furniture look like? We are familiar with four* different forms of native-made rustic furniture that evolved in the northeastern and midwestern regions of the U.S. and Canada during the rusticator era: Bark panel, Mosaic twig and bark, Bentwood, and Branch and burl furniture.
This scene captures the peaceful mood of a northern lake at sunrise on a calm, late summer day. The red maples are beginning to change color, but the foliage on all of the trees is still lush.
There are three people in a boat along the left shore, perhaps preparing for a day of fishing.
The painting is housed in its original deep molded gilt-gesso frame (some minor losses) with overall dimensions of 33.5″ x 21.5″ and a sight size of 27″ x 15″.
This oil on canvas scene was painted in 1914 (signed and dated lower left) by Seth Wyman Steward, Jr. (1844-1927) of Monson, Maine when the artist was 70 years old.
This photo of Seth working in his studio was taken circa 1915, so it captures how he would have looked during the time period when he created this lake painting.
At that point in his life he had been working as a professional painter for nearly 50 years, ever since returning home to Maine in 1865 after serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. He advertised himself as a “painter, decorator and artist in oil” who also “hung paper and painted carriages.”
We are constantly on the hunt for quality rustic accessories, so feel rewarded when we find something as fantastic as this frame. It embodies the essence of rustic creativity – transforming natural materials into aesthetically pleasing and functional furnishings.
The frame dates from an early era of rustic design, circa 1890-1900, and originated in the northeastern United States. It was most likely made in southern New England or New York, as it is similar to other burl-decorated pieces we have found from New York’s Hudson Valley region.
It has a solid wooden frame backing that is covered in applied root burls and twigs. The burls are slabbed with flat backs so that they fit flush against the frame.
Some of the tendril-like root twigs on the frame are intact with the burls from which they grew. Additional root tendrils are applied over and around the burls to enhance the natural, intertwined appearance of a root mass while lending sculptural interest to the frame.
Short winter days with fewer hours of light to lure us out and about bring more opportunities to cozy up indoors and read. Here are descriptions of two books from our winter reading list, one fictional and one factual, that will immerse you in a bygone era when upper-class entrepreneurs first made the Adirondack wilderness accessible and alluring to other affluent families.
Have you ever imagined living during the Gilded Age of the late 19th century and participating in the early wave of recreational forays into beautiful but remote regions of the country? Historical fiction can be an effective way to transport yourself to time periods that capture your fancy, and the recent (2015) book Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga by Sheila Myers promised to do just that by weaving a fact-based tale about the family that spearheaded the incursion of metropolitan aristocrats into the Adirondacks of New York.
Living amidst elegant European surroundings, learning multiple languages with the finest tutors, mastering horseback riding and marksmanship, hobnobbing with sophisticated patricians, journeying to exotic foreign lands to hunt big game, and lavishly entertaining peers in the finest hotels were formative experiences in the early life of William West Durant (1850-1934), the man who would later be credited as conceiving and popularizing the now iconic Adirondack Great Camp architecture and indeed, Adirondack style itself.
The book begins in 1873 in England where William, his mother Heloise and sister Ella had been living as expatriates since 1861 while the head of the family, Dr. Thomas Durant, was back home in America focusing on building the Union Pacific Railroad. Finances were never stable for the family – for the tycoon Durant, huge assets were accompanied by huge risks, such as those entailed in building a transcontinental railway. Thus we learn in Part I of the book that the general economic downturn in the U.S. (“the Panic of 1873”) and questionable investment strategies had left Durant close to ruin. This halted the free and frivolous life of William, age 24, and the social pursuits of Ella, age 20, and their entire European idyll.
Ever the entrepreneur, Thomas Durant called his family back to New York to reduce expenses as he embarked on his newest scheme. He had used the family’s only solid asset, $200,000 gained from selling Heloise Durant’s inherited land in New York City, to purchase thousands of acres in the Adirondacks. Inspired by an 1869 book (Adventures in the Wilderness by W.H. Murray) about the spirit-enhancing effects of camping and hunting in the Adirondack wilderness, he intended to build a railroad to bring people from New York City to the Adirondacks. The railway, planned to extend eventually into Canada, was also planned to serve Durant’s timber harvesting, iron ore extraction and lakefront property development enterprises. William was to lead the initiatives of the new Adirondack Railroad Company from an office in New York City and a lumber mill and home in North Creek, NY, in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains.
While the opening segment of the book establishes the backstory for William Durant’s introduction to the Adirondacks, it is also unfortunately when disappointment as a reader sets in. The author marches along to a prescribed factual chronology of events in the lives of the Durants without indulging in the rich period details that characterize the best historical fiction. Although she does sketch the harsh demeanor of Thomas Durant, the powerlessness of Heloise, the frivolity of William and the poetic temperament of Ella, character development is secondary to timeline advancement. The result is an awkward concoction of scenes, both among the Durant family and between the younger Durants and their friends and sweethearts, peppered with stilted dialogue that does not convincingly emanate from or reveal the inner lives of the characters.
Part II introduces a jarring and ultimately distracting aspect of the book that also prevents it from quite reaching its potential to fully immerse readers in the late 19th century world of the Durants. The narrative hurdles ahead to the year 2010 to introduce a 28-year old graduate student named Avery who is doing research on Saw-Whet Owls on the site of William Durant’s first camp in the Adirondacks, on Raquette Lake.
The backstory is that ownership of Durant’s Raquette Lake compound, called Camp Pine Knot, was transferred to The State University of New York at Cortland in 1948 and has been used as an outdoor education center ever since. So the fictional Avery is representative of many actual students who have lived, worked and studied at Camp Pine Knot (now called Camp Huntington after the family who acquired Pine Knot from the Durants in 1895 and ultimately donated the buildings and 201 acre site to SUNY Cortland).
Avery is living in a cottage called Camp Kirby that is set off from the main Camp Pine Knot complex, but which is also owned and used today by SUNY Cortland. It is named for Minnie Everette Kirby, the daughter of a Durant family friend whom legend has it became the mistress of William Durant.
Whether Durant had the camp built for Kirby as a location for their trysts, or if it was simply a hunting camp already on the property when the Durants acquired it, is open to speculation. But the author runs with the historically unsubstantiated notion that Durant and Kirby were lovers by having Avery find Minnie’s 1893 tell-all diary wrapped in canvas in a crevice at the base of a pine tree that she is examining for signs of owl habitation.
Chapters taking place in the summer of 2010 are interspersed throughout the remainder of the book as Avery reads Minnie’s diary and begins her own affair with a handsome local carpenter named Jake whose great-great grandfather was tutored by Minnie Kirby. The entire intrigue is built around the fact that it takes Avery all summer (!) to find snatches of time to read the diary, the discovery of which she decides to keep as her own secret. What Minnie’s fictional diary reveals, and what ultimately happens to it and to Avery and Jake, are simply not exciting or important enough to distract the reader from the main narrative progression of the book.
Yet Part II also introduces the book’s strongest sections – those portraying William’s introduction to and time spent at Long Point on Raquette Lake, his interactions with local guides, the creation of Camp Pine Knot, and the subsequent visits to that wilderness outpost by the rest of his family and other genteel guests.
Myers convincingly depicts the arduous pre-railway journeys to Raquette Lake from New York City, as well as from the less distant town of North Creek, in scenes describing William Durant’s five-day journey there in the winter of 1876 as well as the family’s summer treks via stagecoach and guide boat. We meet some people who really did play roles in the Durants’ life, such as the guide Charlie Bennet from whom they acquired land, and the eccentric and reclusive guide Alvah Dunning. The story also includes fictional characters such as members of an Iroquois family, Issac, Ike and Louise Lawrence. Louise evolves from making fur mittens for William to becoming the Camp Pine Knot cook and ultimately William’s true love.
The young Ike Lawrence is also a vehicle for portraying the clash between the cultures of privileged urbanites and subsistence-living locals. When Heloise and Ella Durant first visit Raquette Lake in 1877 they bring trunks of clothing and provisions such as tinned caviar, biscuits, fine wine, port, cigars and cheese. One of the guide boats, overloaded with people and gear, gets swamped rounding a point into a headwind on Raquette Lake, sending Ike overboard. When he is hauled back into the boat, a pack full of wine is lost to the water instead, highlighting the challenge and questioning the necessity of importing luxuries into the wilderness.
A conversation between Ike and Heloise explores similar terrain. When Ike says he likes to hunt, fish and trap, Heloise asks, “So you like sport then?” Ike responds “Sport ma’am? I don’t know about sporting, but I do know I like to eat,” thereby emphasizing the difference between two cultures’ views of hunting as a form of recreation and as a means of survival.
Myers does not continue to deepen the theme of cultural contrast, however. The book might have been stronger if she had forgone the 2010 storyline in favor of painting a nuanced profile of a local family whose skills allowed Durant to build and furnish his great camps, such as with characters based on the rustic craftsman Joe Bryere and his wife Mary.
William Durant is intriguingly portrayed as being comfortable in both cultures – in fact often happier living the simple life of a woodsman than among his elite peers. As a hunter and excellent marksman, it is believable that he could hold his own and have interests in common with the local guides and trappers. Perhaps camping on Raquette Lake truly did free his spirit and creative mind for design and architecture, despite being reluctantly and frequently drawn back to the city to attend to his father’s shaky and complex business initiatives.
As the book progresses it touches on many other details of the Durants’ years in the Adirondacks. A photo shoot at Camp Pine Knot by renowned photographer Seneca Ray Stoddard to “showcase all the Adirondacks has to offer in sport in leisure” really did take place, and reveals Thomas Durant’s genius as a marketer. He strategized that showing well-dressed guests reading on a rustic porch, eating in open air dining pavilions, and strolling on groomed pathways would attract wealthy rusticators to whom he could sell land, and who would then clamor for a railway to transport them to their homes in the woods.
The book briefly juxtaposes the extravagant development in the region, such as William’s cousin Frederick Durant’s 300-room Prospect House built in 1881 on Blue Mountain Lake, with the stirrings of the conservation movement that would lead to the establishment of the Adirondack Park in 1892. In one scene, William and Frederick meet the surveyor Verplanck Colvin (the real Superintendent of the Adirondack Survey) during his stay in Blue Mountain Lake while on business for the State of New York. Colvin disdained the river damming and dredging the Durants were undertaking to allow steamboat passage between Blue Mountain Lake and Raquette Lake, as well as the denuding of forests for lumber. Myers portrays this encounter as the first time it had occurred to William Durant that his father’s massive initiatives to gentrify the wilderness had negative environmental consequences.
William continues to move forward on his father’s behalf, however, and gradually envisions and then creates the decentralized camp complex on Raquette Lake which would become Camp Pine Knot. Modeled after European hunting lodges William had visited in his youth, Pine Knot had multiple structures* for dining, sleeping and recreation, each with good sun exposure and views of the lake and connected by paths along which guests would necessarily engage with one another and the outdoors. All of the buildings were constructed and trimmed in a rustic style using whole logs, twig and bark ornamentation, and local stone to create a primitive ambience that complemented the natural surroundings.
Another essential detail of Durant family history woven throughout the book is the fractious relationship of both Ella and William with their father, and the growing schism between Ella and her brother. These are important elements of the Durant story, as Ella’s estrangement from her family eventually plays a large role in her brother’s downfall.
But the book ends before William Durant’s complete undoing. We do see Thomas Durant’s businesses and finances unravel when the Adirondack Railroad Company goes bankrupt before yielding a return on a six million dollar investment. As Thomas Durant’s health is failing, William’s mother arranges her son’s marriage to Janet Stott to solidify their allegiance with a prominent family.
Despite the financial debacle, William is optimistic in December 1883 when the book ends. He believes that the steamboat, land, and mining assets that his father managed to transfer to his mother to save them from creditors in anticipation of his death, would bring the family back, once again, from the brink of financial ruin.
Myers drew her book’s title from a line written by James Fenimore Cooper in Last of the Mohicans (the same book that inspired Durant to name one of his great camps after a central character, the Mohican Uncas): “History, like love, is so apt to surround her heroes in an atmosphere of imaginary brightness.” While Myers’ book imbues historical facts with imagined details and personalities, the Durants’ real historical legacy is not at all imaginary. William’s Great Camp developments in particular stand as important innovations in American architecture and vacationing traditions that are still thriving in the Adirondacks and similar remote regions around the country.
Although not a literary masterpiece, Myers’ book does succeed in animating an historical time period and the role of an influential entrepreneurial family within it. The book also inspired us to learn more about the Durants’ actual enterprises in the Adirondacks by turning to a factual treatise on the family. Thanks to prior immersion in Myers’ character portrayals, we could read additional vibrancy between the lines of the nonfictional account.
[*Camp Pine Knot structures that were built from 1877 through 1900 (including those erected after Durant sold Pine Knot to the Huntington family in 1895) were: Swiss Chalet, Servant’s Cabin, Huntington Cabin, Maid’s Cabin, Trapper’s Cabin, Recreation Hall, Durant Cabin, Caretaker’s Cabin, Guide’s Cabin/Telegraph Office, Pump House, Blacksmith’s Shop, Carpenter’s Shop, Carriage House, Kirby Cabin, Privy, Durant Privy, Smoke House, Water Tank Tower, Well House, Woodshed, and the houseboat “Barque of Pine Knot”]
The book Durant: The Fortunes and Woodland Camps of a Family in the Adirondacks by Craig Gilborn (1981) is the perfect accompaniment to Myers’ fictional book about the Durants. Gilborn, a former Director of the Adirondack Museum, presents valuable historical information gleaned from the Durant family archives and related photographs from the Museum’s collection.