Keuka Cottage Boy
As the 20th century started, Keuka Lake was one of many places to which city populations journeyed summers for relaxation and to escape the heat. My family lived in Elmira and we did so.
At that time the preferred form of transportation to the lake was by train. On excursion days the special cars would be transferred at Bath to the Hammondsport branch line. Other times you changed cars at Bath.
On arrival at the Hammondsport station on the lakefront most people boarded a boat to go down the lake. Resorts and cottages for rent had been built and the steamboats stopped at the docks which had also been established for the convenience of grape growers to ship their grapes. Roads did not exist, or were primitive dirt tracks.
Wine cellars were in the valley and around the lake, although not necessarily on the lake shore. Romance is attached to wine making, and most cellars followed European styles, and were made of stone.
In a sense I was born to, but not of Keuka Lake. Mother on an early visit fell into the lake at Bluff Point. She was a non-swimmer and she tangled in weeds; her rescue set the stage for her to produce me several years later.
At the time of my birth, in 1917, my father was building a telephone office in Hammondsport that was needed as a part of Curtiss plane production. Curiously, notification of my arrival came to him by telegram. Only Jim Smellie Jr. could read off the telegram, so Dad had to wait until the drugstore opened the day following my birth, to learn he was a father. Jim was the sort of man who would work a situation for all he could get out of it. To Dad's question whether I was a boy, Jim replied "seems so, no specifications." Dad finally got to Elmira for a viewing and confirmed that I was all there, no extra heads, or other parts and none lacking. For years afterwards Dad and Jim kept after each other. Their banter gave me a strong sense of belonging to the Keuka Lake community.
We settled on the east side of the lake, had a multiparty telephone line, and participated in the listening-in and the gossip on such lines. Dad patched breaks in the lines for nearby neighbors, and in this way we became aware of a number of neighbors without seeing them for years.
My personal relationship with one Keuka telephone resulted in a sore head. The phone was on the wall right above the wood box for the stove. Everytime I raised up after depositing stove wood in the box the geography of my skull was rearranged.
In 1924 my father walked out of our rental cottage at Corning Landing a renter and returned as an owner of a cottage and acreage, and we entered a status partway between that of summer visitors and that of real residents. Possessing an automobile had changed the pattern of our visits from casual to more frequent occupation of our cottage. We did, at least once a winter, come to see the place, enduring the cold of the outside toilet and the need to chop through a foot of ice on the lake to obtain water. We knew we had achieved a look of permanence when the game warden offered us some meat from a deer that had been hit by an automobile and crippled-a policy that applied to permanent residents. In a sense we had arrived.
When I was small, I was expected to stay near our cottage. I had no companions then, so I came to notice and examine the plants and animals that grew close by. Frog-foot moss grew along the small run of water at Corning Landing. I have remembered throughout my life that type of moss from what was said about my feet when I climbed the falls in the gully and got my sneakers wet.
Some things were rare: A saxifrage bloomed along the road, a mountain type they said. In the woods the yellow lady slippers grew, but they became victims of the new state road construction. In a spot well up the hill, to be visited only with an adult, was a small grove of sassafras. My herb-oriented grandmother loved the smell of the leaves, and she tried to dig small roots to eat. On the dirt road along the east side of the lake was a spot where waves splashed over the road; on the uphill side a wild calla lily bloomed. No doubt there are places where they are plentiful, but there it was a rarity. When the road was filled higher, the calla disappeared. For a boy with no companions, along the lake was a good place for a preoccupation with the natural world to develop.
Each year my wander range was extended. From a large pile of rocks cleared from a newly-extinct vineyard, I built a stone hut with window and door openings and sticks across the top as a roof. This too disappeared under the new state road.
Once in a while a deer was seen. Gradually, helped by closed seasons, small herds appeared. Of wild life I was concerned mostly with the hairy types, although for a few years a Bob White called. Woodchucks and my dog had battles. Strangely, there were few squirrels and rabbits, but mice were always with us.
Skunks took up residence under our wood pile and kitchen. We did get on quite well with them. Of the four young, two were almost all black and two almost all white. In the morning there might be a faint whiff of skunk in the kitchen but they seemed to sleep most of the day and we never had an incident. I would tease paw skunk as he returned from his nightly prowl, coming along one row of raspberries while I picked in another, by tossing a pebble at him. He would stop, stamp his feet and look bleary-eyed around. Sighting me he would sniff, and his look plainly said, "Oh, only you." Then he would walk on by me.
On the whole we had minimum problems. We fed the skunks, not by intent or in close contact, but by burying our garbage in the garden under large stones. The skunks dug it out, opening the hole again for our further use. The only alarming contact came one evening when I heard a knock on our kitchen door. I turned on the light, opened the door but quickly closed it again. Paw skunk was standing on his hind legs with his front claws caught in the screen door. There was no odor, and he loosed himself, but after that, on the whole, we were happy when they left.
As I grew older, I roved the hills, scrub woodlands, abandoned vineyards, and untilled fields. I learned the best way to cross a gully was to follow an animal trail, and I learned that with too many Concord grapes inside me, I began to ferment.
© 1994, Robert V. Anderson