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Andrew Baker welcomes a literary pilgrim on his doorstep. (Photo provided)

Andrew and Mary Baker used to have people around their house because their livelihood depended on it. They ran a kind of frontier-themed tent-style bed and breakfast that featured hunting and fishing, the main attraction for “sports” who escaped here from the big cities on the east coast. This explains the origin of the “The Hunter’s House” one of the nicknames to which Robert Louis Stevenson applied “Baker’s – emphatically Baker’s” when he rented their house for the winter of 1887-1888.

However, hunting and fishing was not a requirement for renting tent space on Baker’s farm. As long as you paid for your seat and behaved well, the bakers didn’t care what you did. Besides sports, all kinds of people have come to these mountains in response to their own personal call from nature. The fugitives loved them too. The “Philosopher’s Camp” is an illustrious example. This title was provided by one of the many guides hired by the most intense group of intellectuals to ever sleep together in the Adirondack woods, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Louis Agassiz and William James Stillman, who painted a beautiful picture. all in their wild setting. They were ten in all. In his book, The Autobiography of a Journalist, Stillman provides insight into life in their camp. They usually stayed at “The Baker’s Tavern” before going to camp. Their first gathering in July 1858 was at Follansbee Pond.

Andrew and Mary Baker met a wide range of people of their generation for at least forty years while running their business; but Robert Louis Stevenson was the most unusual tenant the Bakers had ever recorded. First of all, he was among the first to seek health. According to Bertha Baker, one of her owner’s twin daughters, “At that time few came to seek health but rather to hunt, fish, etc.” RLS also did not show up in the usual way, by prior arrangement. He also didn’t come in the summer, but instead wanted to use their house for the whole winter.

Fanny Stevenson, the author’s wife, took care of all the details of the business before her husband, mother and servant arrived from New York. Fanny probably seemed like a pretty demanding client, but she backed it all up with an offer of fifty dollars a month to rent the house. , which would include furniture. Fifty dollars doesn’t seem like a lot now, but in 1887 it would be a windfall profit for the Baker family. When they accepted Mrs Stevenson’s offer, the bakers unwittingly made a choice that would affect the rest of their lives.

Robert Louis Stevenson was at the height of his fame when he suddenly took a detour to Lake Saranac, even though Colorado had been his destination. Everyone knew who the public’s infatuation with his recent little gothic horror story, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, was aimed at. It must have been an exceptional winter for the bakers who temporarily occupied rooms connected to the main house while the two families shared a kitchen.

The Bakers got to see what it’s like to exist next to a celebrity. Strange people came and went all winter, but there were also a few familiar faces, like Dr. Trudeau and Mrs. Estella Martin, a local friend of Stevenson’s mother, Margaret; in addition, local hunters came to sell freshly killed game to the Stevenson Expedition, such as partridges, rabbits, deer, and fish. One of the Baker twin girls, Bertha, gives insight into the situation in her essay, Robert Louis Stevenson, A Student Project at the Normal School, now SUNY Plattsburgh, 1892: “The author cared little for company and made few acquaintances. Many people hearing of the distinguished novelist’s presence would call on him, but Mr Stevenson always refused to see them, citing work stress as the reason. Even well-known people would be turned away without an interview. »

Sadly, it was this reclusive aspect of Stevenson’s one and only arctic experience that made him a misunderstood former resident of this village he said was his “Little Switzerland in the Adirondacks.” Louis was new to fame when he came here and he didn’t like it and could see through it. In his first letter from Baker to his old friend, Sir Walter (Bart) Simpson, in Scotland: “I had a very curious experience here (in America), being very busy and in demand, and all that; quite the famous party actually. It’s not as enjoyable as people try to make it out to be… Sure there are good bits… but the whole thing is a bore and a cheat; and I’m much happier here (Saranac Lake) where I don’t see anyone and live my own life.

Over the years, this seemingly unsociable aspect of Robert Louis Stevenson has taken root in local lore and combined with his colorful language about the times here, so that the poet behind A Child’s Garden of Verses has morphed into a conceited celebrity who hated Lake Saranac and was rarely seen because he was stuck up and thought he was too handsome to mingle with commoners; besides, he couldn’t wait to get out of here. Here is an example of misinformation where someone or something is misunderstood, sometimes out of spite, in this case out of ignorance. Lloyd Osbourne, Stevenson’s son-in-law, actually addressed this concern in a lecture he gave at the Saranac Lake Free Library in 1917.

The spring of 1888 finally arrived after a harsh, strange and profitable winter for the Bakers. On April 16, they said goodbye to the Stevenson expedition which was due to return in a few weeks but they never returned. This is an other story. Meanwhile, spring operations have ramped up at Baker Farm, including the removal of tents and poles from winter storage to prepare for a new sports season. The family moved back into their private quarters and right away Mary found the black scar on her mantelpiece, from a lit cigarette left by you know who. She talked about it for the 36 years she had left.

It eventually became clear to the Bakers that they would never truly be rid of Robert Louis Stevenson. A new strain of sports started to infiltrate the scene who just wanted to watch the place and harass owners with questions about RLS, if possible. Luckily for posterity, Andrew and Mary were receptive and even let them into the house. After some time Andrew built a new gate, just for pilgrims, at the south end of his house. In 1916 it became the official entrance to Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage.

Someone called these newcomers “literary pilgrims” and it stuck for a while. Generally speaking, they were civil, inquisitive, sometimes interesting people with widely varying intellects. Their modern counterparts still read real books and are grounded in reality and still practice critical thinking, which would make them prime customers if you must have company.

One of the most interesting Pilgrims also became the most persistent in returning, again and again, to ring Baker’s Bell with a brand-new Pilgrim or two to see the chambers where the Stevenson Expedition camped for the winter of 1887- 1888. He is Stephen Chalmers and with him the story of the “Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Cottage” begin.

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