Rustic Reading


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.

Historical Fiction

Imaginary Brightness book cover

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.

William and Ella Durant (at left) with aristocratic friends in England, circa 1871 (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

Durant home
The Durant home in North Creek, NY, circa 1881 (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

camp kirby
Camp Kirby as it appears today (

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.

Camp Pine Knot
Dining pavilion at Camp Pine Knot, circa 1881 (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

Adirondack workmen
Men working on an Adirondack project for Durant in 1896 (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

Camp Pine Knot
Photo by Senecaa Ray Stoddard of guests on the porch of the early incarnation of the Swiss Chalet at Camp Pine Knot (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

camp pine knot
Portico of the Recreation Building at Camp Pine Knot (from Durant by Craig Gilborn, The Adirondack Museum, 1981)

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.

Durant's steamboat
The Durants’ steamboat Killoquah in 1879 (

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”]

Historical Fact

Durant book cover

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.

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Early Canoe Club Sign


Pequot Canoe Club sign

This circa 1890 sign is a cultural artifact of the historic and hugely appealing (to us and other canoe aficionados) craze for recreational canoeing that swept the nation from the late 1800s into the early decades of the 1900s. The evolution from birch bark to wood and canvas canoes around this time period made canoes more widely available, and canoeing as a sport among the middle and upper classes was born.

Whereas birch bark canoes were largely utilitarian crafts, wood and canvas canoes inspired more sporting and recreational uses. Canoe outings varied from leisurely or romantic paddling jaunts (as depicted on the circa 1910 embroidered pillow from our past inventory) to organized meets for athletic activities such as canoe racing and jousting (as shown in the circa 1920s photos from the Washington Canoe Club).

canoeing pillow
high kneel canoeing
canoe jousting
athletic canoe club members

This sign is a product of that era, and of the penchant for canoe enthusiasts to form regional clubs, in this case in southeastern Connecticut. It is a well-made, hefty, double-sided wooden sign (30” wide, 1.5” deep, 22” high) with shaped and chamfered edges and hand-forged hanging rings.

Pequot Canoe Clulb sign

The face of each side of the sign is covered in thick, sanded black paint. The front side has gold lettering with the translucent tone of gilding, while the lettering on the reverse side is in a flatter mustard gold paint. The lettering on each side has an excellent, aged-crazed surface.

Pequot Canoe Clulb sign
Pequot canoe club sign
Back of the sign with mustard gold lettering.

This is a quality antique that meets the high standards for collectible folk art signs, but it is the history it evokes that gives it particular meaning within our specialty areas, including sporting art and artifacts (and in this case even with a Native American theme) hailing from the turn-of-the-20th-century rusticator era.

Broad Historical Context

This sign was made not long after the founding of the American Canoe Association (ACA) which occurred as the outcome of a meeting of 23 prominent men – all canoe enthusiasts – on Lake George in upstate New York in 1880. The ACA is still active today, making it “one of the oldest national sports governing bodies in North America” ( Since its establishment, the ACA has held annual summer encampments or “meets” during which members camp out and participate in races and other events. Since 1903 the ACA meets have been held on its own Sugar Island in the 1000 Islands region of the St. Lawrence River.

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Genres of Antiques for Rustic Décor


Adirondack Museum Antiques Show
(Adirondack Museum photo)

The Adirondack Museum Antiques Show & Sale, held every fall in Blue Mountain Lake, New York, is a perfect place (in an inspiring setting) for rustic home owners to find the types of antiques they favor.

On the last morning of the show this year, I had a little time to shoot photos in many of the booths to gather images of the array of antiques for sale. This selection is not exhaustive of the categories of antiques that we and other dealers seek and sell for rustic homes, but it represents some of the typical offerings at this long-running show in the Adirondacks.

The antiques show is held outdoors on the Museum grounds, which presents challenges for setting up booths that are evocative of the upscale indoor spaces that are the ultimate destinations for many of the antiques. Despite the potential wet grass, uneven terrain, low light, rain, dew and (sometimes hurricane force) winds, customers who know what they like can see past the conditions and home in on individual objects that catch their eye. So here is a sampling of things that caught my eye as representing popular categories of rustic décor.


Fine Art

Landscape paintings are a natural fit for rustic homes that are nestled into their own beautiful surroundings. Paintings of lakes and mountains, whether depicting an identifiable local region or simply evocative of one, are understandably popular in the Adirondacks.

Saratoga Fine Art
Saratoga Fine Art

Prints and Posters

Plants and animals can look almost as appealing in ink on paper as they do in real life.

Anne Hall Fine Antique Prints
Anne Hall Fine Antique Prints
Chimney Corner Antiques
Chimney Corner Antiques


There are all kinds of vintage trade, cottage, and roadside signs at the show, ranging in age from the 1890s to the 1970s. Their creative and quirky presence is a refreshing respite from the standardized, too-good-to-be-real reproductions found in gift shops throughout the Adirondacks.

Loose Moose Antiques
Loose Moose Antiques

Snow Shoes

Snow shoes vary widely in age and style, whether hand-made or manufactured. Older Native American snow shoes especially have aesthetic appeal, and can also have high value depending on their rarity, decoration, condition and historic importance.

Pastime Antiques
Pastime Antiques

Canoe Paddles

Paddles with colorful paint, as well as those with sculptural forms such as Native American and Adirondack guide boat paddles, can make a striking decorative statement hanging on interior walls.

Cotton's Antiques
Cotton’s Antiques
Pastime Antiques
Pastime Antiques


Oriental Carpets

The muted hues and stylized geometric and floral designs of antique oriental carpets make an elegant base layer to set off rustic furnishings.

1880 House
1880 House

Navajo Rugs

Traditional Adirondack Great Camps always included Native American art within their décor, and Navajo rugs with crisp geometrics and simple color schemes continue to be popular floor coverings for rustic abodes.

1880 House
1880 House


Indiana Hickory

Hickory furniture is always well represented at this antiques show as it typically forms the core furnishings of great rooms, bedrooms and porches of rustic homes in the Adirondacks and all across the country.

Parrett/Lich Inc.
Parrett/Lich Inc.
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Bountiful Nature Painting


Birds painting oil on canvas

This detailed and richly colored American oil painting (on canvas laid on wood) depicts flora and fauna in a lush forest understory complete with a small woodland pool. It is housed in a deep, embossed gilt frame that accentuates the quality of the artwork.

gilt frame

Although it is a large painting (21″ x 29″ sight size, 31″ x 39″ framed), it conveys an intimate view of nature, with just a small hint of a more expansive landscape illuminated beyond the trees in the top center of the painting.

birds painting

The forest tableau gives an immediate impression of nature’s profusion, largely due to the number and variety of birds represented. There are 15 individual birds in the painting, representing 13 different species including a blue jay, a mockingbird, a hummingbird, a bobolink, a meadowlark, a chestnut-sided warbler, a pair of yellow warblers, and a pair of woodpeckers.

birds painting
birds painting
birds painting

But close examination reveals many additional animals in the verdant scene, including three frogs, a turtle, three beetles, a spider, three butterflies, and a hive of bees.

birds painting
birds painting
birds painting
birds painting

Flora and fungi include violets, trumpet vines, ferns, jack-in-the-pulpit and a patch of inky cap mushrooms.

birds painting

Although the painting depicts some ecological interactions (birds foraging for a spider and bees), some life history details (a bird near its nest with a clutch of eggs), and some appropriate habitat matches (the reptile and amphibians near the pool, the woodpeckers on a tree trunk), the painter was clearly more concerned with aesthetics than with scientific accuracy. The bird and plant species are recognizable, yet they are embellished archetypes rather than exact portraits.

birds painting
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Five Things Antiques Dealers Want You to Know



August is high season for antiquing in many places around the country, so we offer here a few thoughts to keep in mind as you head out to shows, markets and auctions.

1. Buy the better one

We often hear dealers and seasoned collectors advising new collectors to “buy the best that you can afford.” Our advice is similar, although focused more on wisdom to keep in mind when you have a choice between two similar pieces.

The hard reality of material life is that most of the time you do indeed get what you pay for, so the better one will cost more. As long as you can afford the higher price, accepting the brief pain of paying it will make you happier in the long run. This lesson is summed up nicely in a quotation we came across on “The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten.”

We learned this lesson a long time ago when we sold a hickory chair that was an appealing and uncommon form in weak condition for a fraction of what that style’s value sells for in good condition. Two years later we saw the customer again after the seat weaving had fallen through, and all she remembered was purchasing the chair from us rather than our warnings at the time about why the initial price was so low.

There are plenty of relatively inexpensive antiques that are well worth owning and enjoying, and antiques in age-worn condition are enthusiastically and wisely bought and sold every day. Your standards should depend on how, where, why and for what purpose you will use an antique. But if you have a curatorial instinct and have the chance to be selective within the category you’re pursuing, or to upgrade as better pieces become available, then you will ultimately be more satisfied with your collection for having chosen the better one more often than not.

2. Know the difference between expensive and overpriced

Each year we exhibit at a summer antiques show in New Hampshire during a week when there are several high-end shows running back-to-back. We often hear exclamations along the lines of “Things are so expensive!” from shoppers chatting about the various shows. I usually try to tease out whether they mean things are expensive because they are high quality, or expensive because they are overpriced.

It is natural when seeing dealers’ best wares in booth after booth to feel a bit of sticker shock. But being on your toes as a shopper means keeping in mind that an antique with a high price tag could be a fair deal, or even a great deal. Something tagged $10,000 might actually be a bargain if similar forms typically do or will sell for $20,000. So how can you judge if a price is a fair retail value? See our next piece of advice.

3. Rely on dealers to help you learn

People who are naturally cautious buyers can be reluctant to engage in discussion about a piece with the person who is selling it. Yet it does not take long to recognize the difference between an empty sales pitch and deep knowledge on the part of the seller. More often than not, antiques dealers are thrilled to answer your questions, whether about the piece itself or about its price structure. Most dealers want people to feel good about their purchase and come back for more, so it makes solid business sense to share as much knowledge as possible. We have seen customers’ interests and collections grow and become more refined the more they have tapped into our expertise over the years, and that is very satisfying for all involved.

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Grenfell Dog Team Hooked Mat


A large (40″ wide x 27″ high) Grenfell dog team mat in excellent condition and mounted for hanging.

There are certain categories of antiques whose creation stories carry as much resonance for us as the masterful products themselves. Grenfell mats, such as this hooked portrayal of a dog team carrying a sled and mushers, constitute one of those categories of antiques whose origins evoke a rich and compelling history.

women hooking Grenfell mats
A mother and daughter hooking Grenfell mats in Labrador, circa 1930(

In the late 1880’s, the people of northern Newfoundland and Labrador were making a subsistence living in isolated fishing communities that were accessible only by boat. When Dr. Wilfred Grenfell arrived from England in 1892, he found persevering, skilled people who were in much need of medical, material and economic assistance.

Dr. Wilfred Grenfell (1865-1940), circa 1910 (From Down to the Sea. New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1910)

Grenfell believed that rather than offering only charity to the residents of northern coastal communities, it was best to develop long-term, self-sustaining strategies to help them alleviate their poverty. This led to the establishment of a cottage crafts industry called “the Industrial” as an enterprise of the larger Grenfell Mission, whereby local women could produce goods for supplemental income, or often simply for trade to the Mission in exchange for clothing for their families. (For an excellent overview of Grenfell Mission history and its handicrafts movement, along with photos of stunning Grenfell hooked mats, see the 2005 book Silk Stocking Mats by Paula Laverty, Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.)

Grenfell village
Grenfell Mission community sometime prior to 1921 (

The women of the region had a long-standing tradition of hooking floor mats during the winter months. An American occupational therapist named Jesse Luther whom Grenfell recruited to the Mission in 1906, recognized after a few years of focusing primarily on weaving and woodworking, that it made sense to build upon the women’s existing mat-hooking skills. Thus began decades of Grenfell hooked mat production that peaked in the 1920s-1930s, and declined after WWII.

Grenfell Industry staff and volunteers delivered hooking materials to women by boat and dogsled, and then collected the finished mats on return visits. The materials included burlap (locally called “brin”) for the backing (and sometimes for the hooking fabric), as well as dyed cotton, wool, rayon and most famously, used silk stockings donated by more affluent women in American, Canadian and British cities, for the hooking. The women also received sketches of the patterns to be hooked. Whereas their traditional patterns tended to be floral or geometric, part of the marketing genius of the Grenfell Mission’s employees, volunteers, and even the founder himself, was to create patterns that reflected the unique northern landscape and ways of life in Newfoundland and Labrador.


The dog team design was likely one of those originally sketched by Dr. Grenfell, based on his experience with using dogs and sleds as a means of winter transportation in the region. Grenfell must have had a special appreciation for dog teams, as in retirement he opened several mission and tea houses in Vermont and Connecticut which he named The Dog Team (the best known became The Dog Team Tavern restaurant in Middlebury, VT).

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Defining and Identifying Old Hickory vs. Hickory Furniture


Two antique hickory settees

Precise definitions are important in any field, and the field of antiques is no exception. We have written previously about how loosely the word “antique” itself is used, for instance to describe new mass-produced merchandise in home decor shops (see article), and about our definitions of “rustic” and “Adirondack” furniture (see article).

We now turn to defining the difference between “Old Hickory” and “Hickory” furniture, which is a query that customers have occasionally posed to us.

In the world of rustic furniture, hickory refers to bark-on hickory poles (i.e., unpeeled branches and trunks of young hickory trees). Milled hickory boards and turnings were also used to construct antique furniture, but not antique rustic furniture. This can sometimes create confusion, for instance in the case of a woman who hoped to sell us a pair of country ladder-back chairs that she assumed were something that rustic furniture collectors would want because they were made out of hickory wood.

Another thing that can be confusing is that several of the rustic hickory furniture manufacturers made a few lines of furniture for a limited number of years that had no hickory parts. These were constructed of willow, pine, oak or chestnut, but sometimes were of the same designs as the rustic furniture that those manufacturers made from hickory poles.

Finally, we have occasionally encountered confusion caused by the names of two makers of non-rustic contemporary and reproduction furniture (Hickory Chair Company and Old Hickory Tannery) which are very similar to the names of the traditional rustic hickory furniture companies.

We find it easiest to avoid this terminology muddle by referring to all manufactured rustic hickory furniture with the catchall title of “Indiana hickory.” This works because the handful of companies that produced classic rustic hickory pole furniture from about 1900-1960, were all located in Indiana. (We do occasionally come across antique “homemade” hickory pole furniture from other regions of the country, but we classify that as unique rustic furniture, not the manufactured furniture that we are describing here.)

So the best way to continue our discussion of “Old Hickory” vs. “Hickory” rustic furniture is by describing the various Indiana hickory furniture companies.

The Indiana Hickory Furniture Manufacturers

There were six major companies (and several minor companies) producing rustic furniture made with hickory poles in Indiana during the first half of the 20th century. (See more discussion of these companies in A History of the Old Hickory Chair Company and the Indiana Hickory Furniture Movement by Ralph Kylloe, 1995)

1. Old Hickory Furniture Company, Martinsville, Indiana

Old Hickory was the most prolific and longest lasting rustic hickory furniture manufacturer, so more of their products turn up on the market than do the products of all the other Indiana hickory manufacturers combined. Theirs is the only furniture that can technically be called “Old Hickory” and we try to abide by that in our descriptions, for instance by titling our website listings of furniture made by the five other companies either just “Hickory” or “Indiana Hickory.”

Not all dealers or auctioneers are as careful about that nomenclature, however, so you cannot always be sure that a piece that a seller calls Old Hickory was actually made by Old Hickory Furniture Company. (Sellers also sometimes call a piece “old hickory” meaning it is old and made of hickory poles, not that it was made by Old Hickory.) It helps if the furniture is branded or tagged with an authentic Old Hickory identifier, but the company did not consistently stamp all of the furniture it produced. So if a piece is marked Old Hickory, non-specialist dealers and customers can be sure of its maker, but if it is not marked, it does not necessarily mean that the piece was not made by Old Hickory.

After decades of handling and studying hickory furniture and collecting original catalogs from all of the manufacturers, we can usually pinpoint its maker from various clues, so we often do not even look for a brand before making a purchase. When we advertise an unmarked piece as Old Hickory, we are always happy to explain to a potential buyer how we identified it as such in that particular case.

Here are some examples of changes in Old Hickory’s name, maker’s marks and furniture styles as they evolved throughout the years.

a) Old Hickory Chair Company

The first incarnation of the Old Hickory company was called Old Hickory Chair Company, a name which lasted from 1895-1921.

Old Hickory Chair Company brand
This early brand says “Chair Co” on the center line.

Old Hickory Chair Company also sometimes put a paper label with the Andrew Jackson logo on their furniture, and we have occasionally had pieces that retained that early label, pictured here.

Old Hickory Chair Company paper label Andrew Jackson

Below is an early Old Hickory Chair Company dresser with woven hickory bark panels.

Ol Hickory Chair Company woven dresser

b) Old Hickory Furniture Company, early eras

When Old Hickory Chair Company changed its name to Old Hickory Furniture Company in 1921, it used the brand shown below, modified just slightly from the earlier brand. This stamp was used into the 1930s.

Old Hickory Furniture Company early brand
The middle line was changed from “Chair Co” to “Furn Co”

Here is a piece from that era with that brand:

Old Hickory spindled arm chair

c) Old Hickory Furniture Company, middle eras

The brand pictured below was used throughout the 1940s, and is what appears on the majority of stamped pieces we encounter.

Old Hickory Furniture Company 1940s brand
The middle line was changed to say “Martinsville” with “Indiana” spelled out fully below it.

During the 1930s and 1940s, Old Hickory also sometimes marked their furniture with a “Bruce tag,” a small round copper tag that contained the year (e.g., “39”) that the furniture was treated with the company’s Bruce preservative.

Old HIckory Bruce tag

There are hundreds of furniture designs from this era, but here is one example with a 1940s brand.

Old Hickory coffee table

d) Old Hickory Furniture Company, final eras

The style but not the content of Old Hickory’s brand changed a bit in the 1950s to a rectangular shape. That stamp seems to have been used on some, but not all pieces made in the 50’s, and we do not often see it.

Old Hickory brand 1950s

The following drop-leaf table with casters is an example of a table made during that era.

Old Hickory barbeque table

After 1960 Old Hickory Furniture Company shifted to making generic furniture that was not in a rustic style and not made from hickory. In 1978, Old Hickory Furniture Company closed its operations in Martinsville, Indiana.

The company was eventually purchased and reopened under new ownership in 1982 as “Old Hickory Furniture Shelbyville” in Shelbyville, Indiana where its plant is still located. Therefore, any furniture with an Old Hickory Shelbyville tag (pictured below) was made sometime between 1982 and today. Since this is contemporary furniture that is still being manufactured, it is not something that we buy or sell.

Old Hickory Shelbyville tag
Oval brass plate that marks Old Hickory Furniture Shelbyville.

Even when a contemporary hickory piece does not have a brass Shelbyville tag, it is not difficult to distinguish it from early Old Hickory pieces. Although some of the Shelbyville furniture is based on early Old Hickory styles, the modern interpretations of the designs, the hickory poles used, the construction techniques, the weaving and upholstery, and the finish on the wood all make it immediately recognizable (and we think undesirable!) to a trained eye.

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An Exceptional Iroquois Bird Effigy Ladle


Iroquois effigy feast ladle

This stunningly large sculptural object is an eloquent example of an Iroquois feast ladle dating from the late 18th/early 19th century (circa 1780-1820). This would have been used for portioning food into individual bowls from a caldron or large serving bowl, particularly during celebratory or ceremonial feasts.

It is made from a maple burl whose swirls, knots and irregular grain resulted from stunted twig buds that failed to elongate into limbs so grew instead as a round protuberance from a tree trunk. This burl ladle has a burnished patina and edge wear along the right side of the scoop, both attesting to its many years of past use.

Iroquois fest ladle bowl
Front and back of the scoop portion of the ladle showing the burl grain, edge wear and patina.

There is archeological evidence that the earliest Woodlands peoples used eating and serving ladles made of shell and antler, and journals kept by Europeans during their first encounters with Native Americans in the 1600s documented that wooden ladles were commonly used for eating meat stews and cornmeal mush.

While every individual in a tribe had a personal eating ladle, only one feast ladle was needed per clan, so this larger form of effigy ladle is scarce indeed.* In a study of 701 ladles (with and without effigies) in the collection of the Rochester Museum and Science Center, Betty Colt Prisch (1982) notes that the ladles ranged in length from 2”-12”, with the vast majority being 4”-8” long individual eating ladles. Only a few examples of the larger feast ladles in the 12” size range are in the collection, which began being formed over 175 years ago by the museum’s anthropologists.

Iroquois feast ladle

This ladle is 13.5″ long and 8.75″ wide. The photo below showing it next to a personal eating ladle emphasizes the contrast in size, and thereby function, of the two ladles.

Iroquois effigy ladles

Another remarkable feature of this ladle is the carved raptor effigy forming the handle terminus. Unlike passerine birds that sit in a slightly horizontal perching position, raptors such as hawks, falcons and eagles have an upright sitting posture, as does this ladle’s bird. Iroquois artists were extremely skilled at communicating the essence of an animal in simple representational form, as evidenced in this recognizable raptor carving.

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Snow Shoes with Provenance


Tlingit snow shoes

It is always rewarding to find a quality artifact of the material culture of indigenous peoples (such as the First Nations in Canada and Native Americans in the U.S.), but even better when its provenance is known. More often than not the story behind an antique’s previous owners is lost in time, but in the case of these snow shoes we know quite a bit about their owner and collection history.

Chris Henne's study
The snow shoes on display in Chris Henne’s study, circa 1900.

These snow shoes were acquired by Christian Henne II on a trip to the Klondike in 1897. They were passed down in his family until they were recently sold by his now elderly granddaughter. They are in remarkably good condition, having hung on a wall since they were acquired 118 years ago. Tribal members would reweave their own snow shoes whenever the babiche wore out, but they would reuse the same frames for many years. Since neither the weaving nor frames of these snow shoes show signs of heavy use, they had most likely been recently made when given as a gift to Henne.

What is particularly intriguing about this rare form of snow shoes is that they were made by a cultural group (Tlingit) and within a region (Pacific Northwest Coast) that are not typically associated with snow travel accoutrements. However, the Northwest Coast Tlingit peoples also occupy less temperate regions away from the immediate coast, eastward into the mountainous region of the Yukon, which explains why snow shoes were part of some Tlingit tribes’ tradition.

Tlingit map

The Snow Shoes

Tlingit snow shoes

These snow shoes are a style made by Inland Tlingit, which includes the tribes (called Kwáan) Áa Tlein Ḵwáan of the Atlin Lake area, Deisleen Ḵwáan of the Teslin Lake area, and T’aaku Kwáan of the Taku River basin.

Tlingit groups
tlingit snow shoes upturned toes

They have two-piece birch frames, bent into rounded, upturned toes where the wood is spliced and lashed together.

tlingit snow shoe toe

The frames are dyed red, and the fine weaving is either babiche (strips of semi-tanned hide) or sinew (dried tendons). The middle of the snowshoe where the foot is placed has wider weave, laced with stronger strips of rawhide.

Tlingit snow shoes foot section

While men usually made the frames, both men and women wove the netted sections of the shoes.

Native woman weaving snow shoes
(Library of Congress, circa 1900)

Round tip snow shoes were preferred for breaking backcountry trails where they were less likely to get caught on brush than pointed toe shoes. The large surface area of these snow shoes (47.5″ long x 10.5″ wide) distributed the wearer’s weight to prevent sinking into deep snow.

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West Coast Flea Scenes


On a recent trip to visit family in Los Angeles and San Francisco, we spent a couple of mornings at well-known flea markets in each of the cities. We were curious about the buying and selling scene at west coast flea markets, and were also hoping to find some things for inventory.

Before dawn on the morning after we landed at LAX, we made our way to the Santa Monica Airport Antiques and Collectibles Market. It was not yet light when it opened to early buyers at 6 am, but there we were, trained from years of attending the Brimfield, Mass markets to arrive while dealers were unpacking to get the first look at their wares.

santa monica airport flea market

Jeff took off ahead of me to start roving the field, while being cautious not to make purchases in the dark – even a flashlight is no substitute for daylight when examining an antique’s condition and authenticity (does that sound like we’ve learned this the hard way?!)

santa monica flea market

A few dealers already had their booths set up, and had even brought good camp lanterns to illuminate their wares. This booth had a sign that we sort of liked (not pictured), but ultimately passed on (and now neither of us can even remember what it said, so that tells you something).

santa monica flea market

Other booths had no lights at all. We were momentarily attracted to these painted surveyors’ poles in the dark, but decided they were nothing special after all.

santa monica flea market

Before we arrived, Jeff had said “I bet I’ll see at least one dealer I know.” As he was walking around in the murky gray light shortly after we arrived, he heard a voice behind him saying, “Hey, what are you doing here?” So here is a blurry photo taken in low light of two high-speed walkers – Jeff and a California fine arts dealer whom he knows from Brimfield shows.

That dealer, who sets up at the flea market every month, described it as “A lot of shabby chic, but you can sometimes find things.” The operative definition of “things” in this context of dealer-speak, is real antiques with intrinsic value.

santa monica flea market

I wish I could follow that sentence with an illustration of real “things,” but shabby chic, as in the booth pictured above, did indeed rule the day.

santa monica flea market

When the day dawned, Jeff began focusing in earnest, revisiting booths again and again until everything was unpacked. The palm trees helped me realize I was not in Maine and not at Brimfield, but in fact was on vacation, sort of.

santa monica flea market

Other popular categories were vintage clothing and industrial lighting, not so different from trendy vintage goods back east.

santa monica flea market

This tailored wool jacket from the 1920s tempted me, but it is hard to shop for oneself during business hours (wait, did I say I was there on business? jet lag confusion, I guess).

We kept our eyes sharpened for anything related to our rustic specialty, but the pickings in that regard were indeed slim.

santa monica flea market

This coppery surfaced leaping stag caught my eye, but close-up I could see that it was new and cheesy. However, I did take a shine to the (newish) gilt-painted wooden tiered serving stand which I might have purchased to use at home, if I was indeed anywhere close to home.

santa monica flea market

These owl andirons qualified as a rustic accessory, but in addition to being heavy they were in bad condition – definitely not worth buying.

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