A Catskill Catalog: May 19, 2010
Saturday was Slabsides Day. Open House at John Burroughs’ Hudson Valley retreat is the third Saturday in May and the first Saturday in October. I went.
Slabsides is the substantial cabin John Burroughs built, in 1895, in a rocky ravine about a mile-and-a-half inland, and uphill, from his Hudson River-edge fruit farm. At the farm, called Riverby, Mr. Burroughs, grower, federal bank examiner, and well-known author, lived in a substantial stone house with his substantial wife, Ursula, and his son, Julian, who, at 17, helped him build Slabsides.
Burroughs’ land produced table grapes, shipped every autumn by riverboat or train to the New York market. The rocky ravine Burroughs purchased west of his property held a swampy bog, perfect, farmer Burroughs thought, as a place to raise celery for market.
Or maybe that is just what he told his wife. John and Ursula Burroughs were married for 57 years. They met in Olive Bridge, then called Tongore, when John took a job teaching in the common school, and Ursula’s family provided lodging for the young teacher. Seventeen-year-old John had walked from his home in Roxbury to begin his duties. Twenty-year-old Ursula was ready to settle down.
Their marriage seemed to be rocky from the start, with farm boy John, perhaps, a bit too ardent for the modest Ursula, and her penchant for cleanliness and order (in a decent and respectable home!) a bit stringent for the looser, more casual and rustic Johnny.
Besides, she did not understand his need to write and found his fool nature-watching largely an excuse to avoid more urgent chores.
So John, over the years, created spaces where he could retreat to write and read and be the literary man he so earnestly wanted to be and, by 1895, had become. His Bark Study was just outside the house at Riverby, perfect when Julian was little. His father could read and write and be near.
When Slabsides was built, Julian was preparing to leave for Harvard. Being near, maybe, seemed less attractive.
So, the celery swamp may have been just a practical and potentially profitable excuse. Burroughs bought the rock-lined ravine, and built Slabsides, so named for its barked timber slab siding. The house stands a good two stories from its raised stone foundation to its steeply peaked roof. It is built on rock and is surrounded on two sides by cliffs, huddled-in, as if in a hollow on the side of Burroughs’ beloved Old Clump, the Roxbury mountain that holds his boyhood family farm.
From 1895 until his death in 1921, Slabsides became the symbolic center of Burroughs’ celebrity, the rustic retreat where visitors, both famous and obscure, sought out the celebrated naturalist and philosophical thinker.
For in the early years of the 20th Century, John Burroughs, along with John Muir, was the conscience of the Conservation movement. Theodore Roosevelt was its political leader. Both visited Slabsides.
But Burroughs was more than a conservationist. He was more than a naturalist. He was the literary and philosophical heir of both the original American poet, Walt Whitman, and the original American philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, and its great philosopher-poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
John Burroughs was famous. People were attracted to the simplicity and natural harmony of his life, and the implicit spirituality of his keenly-observed connection to nature’s truth. He attracted visitors. Within a few years, Slabsides must have seemed less a retreat than a class trip destination for students from Vassar and other surrounding schools and colleges. John began to pine for home.
Home was always Roxbury. In 1910, Burroughs contracted with his brother Curtis to lease a house on the old family farm, paying him $25 a month over ten-year agreement. With the help of several nephews, John added a rustic veranda and a used Franklin stove and Woodchuck Lodge was born.
Burroughs spent the last 10 summers of his life at Woodchuck Lodge. Visitors still came to see him in Roxbury, but, for most people, the trip was distant and arduous, so visitors had to be serious, and, most often, were expected. Burroughs had three grandchildren. Their visits to Woodchuck Lodge were cherished.
For us, in Burroughs’ Catskills, a visit to Woodchuck Lodge is much easier than a trip south from Kingston, down Route 9W to West Park to see Slabsides, although I recommend both. Woodchuck Lodge is open for tours the first weekend of the month, May through October, Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
There were 100 people at Slabsides Day. John Burroughs is one of those few remarkable people who, even tough he is dead, continues to draw a crowd. People loved to come see Johnny B. at Slabsides and at Woodchuck Lodge when he was there. They are still coming to see him, knowing full well that he isn’t home, but confident that they will find him anyway.
And most visitors, I believe, do.