Rediscovering John Burroughs' Catskills Retreat
By Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Woodchuck Lodge. Photograph by Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Due north of Roxbury in New York’s Delaware County sits a little-known but nevertheless vital American literary landmark. Woodchuck Lodge—as its owner, the writer and naturalist John Burroughs (1837-1921) dubbed it—sits on a lower flank of the promontory known traditionally as “Old Clump” and more recently as “Burroughs Mountain.” This is a weather-beaten cottage overlooking a landscape that remains as bucolic and tranquil today as it did when the elderly Burroughs last locked the door and walked away during the autumn of 1920.
The Roxbury-born Burroughs was a lion of his era. Henry James called him “a more humorous, more available and more sociable Thoreau.” Through some 30 books and hundreds of essays, Burroughs staked his claim as literary heir to the New England Transcendentalists. Burroughs wrote of Emersonian self-reliance, urged simple living in sympathy with nature, and critiqued the insidiousness of cities and machine-culture. He was a protégé of such giants as Walt Whitman (whose first biography, Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person, he wrote in 1867) and Theodore Roosevelt (with whom he toured the Yellowstone in 1903). He also traveled to Alaska with W.H. Harriman, and roamed both Alaska and the Grand Canyon with John Muir.
But it was to Roxbury that he always returned.
Not far to the northwest of the lodge, a bit further up Roxbury’s rural Burroughs Memorial Road, one comes upon a place called Memorial Field: a small expanse of acreage owned by New York State. Here John Burroughs lies buried at the foot of a large sandstone boulder upon which he used to come and sit when a boy, and to which he routinely brought guests on expeditions during his dotage. Burroughs called the boulder “Boyhood Rock.” The rock holds a bronze relief plaque designed by C.S. Paolo. The plague depicts Burroughs gazing off into the distance, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. Below the image we see lines from Burroughs’ most famous poem “Waiting.” These lines read: “I stand amid eternal ways, and what is mine shall know my face.” Just over the next hill from Burroughs’ resting place sits the homestead—much changed now, and in private hands—where the boy Burroughs was born and raised. It was from this piece of real estate that Burroughs departed at age 17, with just a few dollars in his pocket, to make his way in the world.
After teaching school in rural communities of the Catskills and Hudson Valley, and taking a wife, Burroughs eventually settled in Washington, D.C. around the time of the Civil War. There he clerked at the U.S. Treasury while simultaneously struggling to launch his career as a writer. Subsequently, in 1874, he established a fruit farm and vineyard on the Hudson River at West Park (Esopus), Ulster County. Called Riverby, the farm would remain Burroughs’ primary residence for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, he eventually (in 1895) built himself a cabin retreat a mile or so inland from Riverby which he named Slabsides. It was not until sixteen years later that he started spending a significant part of every summer “back home” at Roxbury, using Woodchuck Lodge as his base of operations. The small farmhouse, which rested on a corner of the old Burroughs family farm, had been built by Burroughs’ brother Curtis in 1864.
Life and Writing at the Lodge
During his first summer at the lodge, Burroughs intended to do much creative work in the house itself. The sunny parlor seemed ideal for writing. But then tourists started knocking on the door, and his grandchildren arrived to spend weeks running through the downstairs rooms. Seeking an alternative, the essayist eventually settled on an old hay-barn (no longer standing) two hundred yards away. Throughout the balance of the summer of 1911, and for all succeeding summers through 1920, Burroughs made a ritual of strolling to the barn after breakfast. For his first two years at the lodge, he used an old dry-goods box as his writing table. Then, at the start of his third summer, Burroughs made himself a rude desk of cast-off boards. At the opposite end of the barn he hung a hammock. Meanwhile, the balance of the building remained in use for nonliterary purposes. As the season progressed, the piles of hay in the mows slowly built up around the man who labored every morning creating such books as The Summit of the Years (1913), The Breath of Life (1915), Under the Apple Trees (1916) and Field and Study (1919).
In several of these volumes, Burroughs explicitly referenced the terrain about the lodge. The essay “A Hay-Barn Idyll,” which he published in The Summit of the Years, included observations of a junco building its nest in the barn. “The Circuit of the Summer Hills,” also published in The Summit of the Years, conveyed the scenic landscape of the home farm with all its nostalgic, youthful associations: “The peace of the hills is about me and upon me; the leisure of the summer clouds, whose shadows I see slowly drifting across the face of the landscape, is mine. The dissonance and the turbulence and the stench of cities—how far off they seem! The noise and dust, and the acrimony of politics—how completely the hum of the honey-bee, and the twitter of the swallows blot them out! In the circuit of the hills the days take form and character… The deep, cradle-like valleys, and the long flowing mountain-lines, make a fit receptacle for the day’s beauty…. The valleys are vast blue urns that hold a generous portion of lucid hours.”
The work Burroughs did at the lodge demonstrated the synthesis and maturing of the writer’s long-held concerns vis-à-vis the increasing urbanization of America and the advance of industrial society at the expense of the environment. “More and more I think of the globe as a whole,” he wrote in 1919. “More and more I think of it as a huge organism pulsing with life, real and potential.” After a trip to smog-choked Pittsburgh, he set down on paper his belief that instead of burning the oil and coal of the earth, industries should come “above the surface, for the white coal, the smokeless oil, for the winds and sunshine.” In another essay he wondered whether the time had come when man’s scientific knowledge and “the vast system of artificial things with which it has enabled him to surround himself” would cut short “history upon the planet.” Envisioning a time when the earth’s mineral and fossil fuels would be depleted, the fertility of the soil used up, wild game made extinct, and primitive forests decimated, Burroughs borrowed a phrase that his hero Emerson had originated in describing Manhattan a generation before, speaking of what a “sucked orange” the earth would be if a sensitivity to ecological concerns was not fostered.
Burroughs’ Boyhood Rock. Photograph by Edward J. Renehan Jr.
Prominent guests came and went, sometimes interrupting and sometimes sharing Burroughs’ treasured “lucid hours.” The sculptor Cartaino Sciarro Pietro visited the lodge to immortalize Burroughs perched atop Boyhood Rock. The artist Walter Otto Beck painted him on the veranda. Muckraking journalist and Lincoln biographer Ida Tarbell sat with Burroughs on a stone wall and probed him for his reminiscences of Lincoln and the city of Washington during the Civil War. Helen Gould Shepard—the eldest daughter of financier Jay Gould, Burroughs’ old Roxbury friend from boyhood—made frequent appearances, sometimes driving and sometimes walking from her summer home in the village. Occasionally the two made pilgrimages to the graveyard at the Old Yellow Meetinghouse, where many markers bore the names Gould and Burroughs. Helen also brought Burroughs to visit Furlow Lodge, the princely yet rustic house built by her brother, George Jay Gould, on the shores of Furlow Lake in nearby Arkville. (The lake had been a favorite trout-fishing hole visited by John Burroughs and Jay Gould in their youths.)
An additional visitor to Woodchuck Lodge was the writer of western romances, Hamlin Garland. He and Burroughs’ friend Orlando Rouland, the painter, both kept summer homes at Onteora Park, Tannersville. During a sunny summer afternoon in July of 1919, Garland drove over from Onteora and dropped in at Woodchuck Lodge. There he found the 82-year-old Burroughs in the process of being “motion pictured. …He was a good subject for the camera with his shaggy head, brown shirt, and baggy trousers. How inescapably rustic he is.” During the visit, Burroughs told Garland of having dreamed about his recently-deceased brother, Eden Burroughs. In the dream, Eden rested his hand on John’s shoulder and said: “John, time will fetch us.” Several months later, in October, Garland sat with Burroughs in Orlando Rouland’s Manhattan apartment watching the Prizma color films made that day at the lodge. “John sat beside me,” Garland wrote, “and I wondered what was passing in his mind as he saw his shadow self upon the screen and realized how soon he must pass into history.”
The next summer, in August, Garland again stopped by for a visit. “The lodge looked deserted,” he recalled, “but at my knock, Clara Barrus [Burroughs’ longtime physician, secretary, literary executrix and—it is widely believed—lover] came to the door. “It isn’t a sightseer,” she called to Burroughs. “It’s someone you know.” Following Barrus inside, Garland found Burroughs lying on a couch. A few days before he had suddenly gotten dizzy and fallen in a heap on the floor. “Dr. Barrus thought I was dead,” he confided to Garland, “but I remained conscious the whole time.” Barrus told Garland that Burroughs could not stand the flood of curious visitors. “They swarm on Sundays,” she said. “They overflow the porch.”
Despite occasional fainting spells, he still had his good days. On one of them—a beautiful Indian Summer October afternoon—he engaged the help of a young nephew and worked hard at widening a section of road near the hay-barn study. The two opened the road up where it had been a mere trench—breaking rocks and filling in low places. “I never use that part of the road myself,” Burroughs told Barrus, “but I have wanted to fix it for years, and I may not be around here another summer.” A few weeks later, he left the lodge for the last time. Right before he departed, he penciled a note on the gray siding of the porch: “October 26, 1920. Leave today.” Five months further on—after spending the winter in southern California, as had become his habit—Burroughs died on a train carrying him east. He passed-away somewhere in Ohio on March 29, 1921. Several days later, on April 3 (his 84th birthday), friends and family laid Burroughs in the ground beside Boyhood Rock.
Between Then and Now
Clara Barrus leased Woodchuck Lodge from 1921 until her own death in 1931. There she did much work on her two-volume authorized biography entitled The Life and Letters of John Burroughs (1925) and the subsequent Whitman and Burroughs, Comrades (1931). Somewhat hard-up late in life, Barrus was known to sell pages of original Burroughs manuscripts to some of the numerous tourists who continued to stop by the house on a regular basis.
Decades later, Burroughs’ son Julian deeded Woodchuck Lodge to his cousin Wilson Burroughs, the son of Curtis Burroughs, original builder of the cottage. Thereafter, Wilson Burroughs’ descendants owned and managed the house and grounds. The site was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963, and also received a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Wilson’s descendants—the Lutz family— have given stewardship of Woodchuck Lodge over to Woodchuck Lodge, Inc. Board members include Tom Alworth, executive director of the Catskill Center for Development. Another board member, Julianne Lutz Newton, is not only a great-grandniece of John Burroughs but also a distinguished scholar whose recent biography of Aldo Leopold—Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey (Island Press)—has been much praised.
Grant monies from New York State and other sources have been applied to much-needed structural work at the lodge, including the stabilizing of the foundation and major roof repairs. As well, volunteers involved with the project have been industrious in opening the house to the public on a more regular basis than previously. The next major task is to restore the lodge’s interior to conform to the period of Burroughs’ occupancy. In concert with this, there also needs to be a narrative-script developed for would-be docents.
Just as Woodchuck Lodge has been stabilized and propped-up, so too has John Burroughs’ reputation. My biography, John Burroughs: An American Naturalist, first published in 1992, remains in print as a paperback published by Black Dome Press. Ed Kanze’s beautifully-illustrated table-top book, The World of John Burroughs (1993), continues to be much-consulted. More recently, Professor James Perrin Warren of Washington & Lee University has published a superb critical study entitled John Burroughs and the Place of Nature (University of Georgia Press, 2006). This same year saw the re-issue of Burroughs’ classic Signs and Seasons (originally brought out in 1886, now republished by Syracuse University Press in a new, annotated version edited by Vassar’s Jeff Walker.) Other scholars, including SUNY Oneonta’s Daniel G. Payne and Charlotte Zoe Walker, Hartwick’s Robert Titus and SUNY New Paltz’s H.R. Stoneback, have also done major work.
All these exertions bode well for the preservation of a key cultural memory: one of critical importance not just to residents of the Catskills, but also every American with an interest in Burroughs and his values. Says Julianne Lutz Newton: “Woodchuck Lodge really belongs to the Roxbury/Catskill Region community and to people who care about Burroughs and the things he cared about.” Tom Alworth adds: “We want to promote the legacy of Burroughs, which to us means a reawakening of our intimate connections to the natural world…to make use of all the natural world has to offer, but in a balanced sustainable fashion, and to appreciate and cherish the miracles of nature that are near at hand.”
Edward J. Renehan’s books include John Burroughs: An American Naturalist (Black Dome Press, 1992) and Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons (Basic Books, 2005). He also wrote the Foreword to the Black Dome Press edition of T. Morris Longstreth’s The Catskills.
If you go:
Woodchuck Lodge is located on Burroughs Memorial Road, off Hardscrabble Road, 3 miles north of the hamlet of Roxbury in Delaware County, NY. Connect with Hardscrabble Road at its intersection with NYS Route 30 just north of the village. After visiting the Lodge, continue up Burroughs Memorial Road to the New York State-owned Memorial Field, where Burroughs lies buried.
If you’d like to help support the Lodge:
Send tax-deductible contributions to Woodchuck Lodge Inc., Post Office Box 492, Roxbury, NY 12474