Here is a shrine worthy of a pilgrimage, and a fews weeks ago my children and I did just that. This one room cabin sits on a mound of shale above a braided stream on a hillside in eastern New York, and was for many years the site of boyhood adventure. It was here that I and the neighborhood gang fought imaginary frontier skirmishes in our coonskin caps and dungarees. The venerable log cabin sits back in the woods far enough from the road so that it might almost feel like a wilderness retreat, instead of being a mere 5 minute walk from my childhood home at Millbrook School.
The cabin was one of the original structures of the old Stevenson farm that formed the nucleus of the school when it was established seventy-five years ago. It sat between the main farmhouse - what was to be the headmaster's residence and our home for 14 years - and the old dairy barn that would become a theater and student center with its cypress plank silo open to the elements. Down the hill from the farmyard was an old red gristmill, built in 1862, and destined to become the school's first art classroom. The other structures were moved or taken down when the boarding school was established, its quadrangles and Georgian brick laid out where hens once scratched and cows moved slowly from pasture to barn.
It seems odd to me now that a Hudson Valley Farm in the early 20th century would have a log cabin placed so prominently in its farmyard. I remember a story concerning old farmer Stevenson and his wife and the fact that there were no windows on the cabin facing the farmhouse. Each structure shared one distinctive feature often found in the architecture of the region - a pair of Dutch doors that divided laterally so that the top half could be opened while the lower remained shut. I liked to imagine the farmer sitting on the stoop of his barnyard refuge, out of sight but still in earshot of his wife calling from the farmhouse door.
Be that as it may, there was just as little use for an old log cabin at the new boarding school as there was for it at a New York dairy farm, so the butts of its logs were given painted numbers, the field stone fireplace was dismantled, and the whole affair relocated and resurrected by the schoolboys and their masters on a hillside just beyond the campus pale. Here it was reoriented to face East and the other Dutch door, symbolically if not in actual fact reconciling the shades of farmer and wife.
One of the best spur of the moment impulses I could have as a teenager home on school vacation was to spend a night camped out in the cabin. This was particularly attractive to me and my friend Rob Stowell as a good thing to do over winter vacation when we had the campus virtually to ourselves. We'd gather sleeping bags, wool socks, slabs of bacon, decks of cards and six packs of beer and walk out into the woods where the moon cast blue shadows on the snow. Much of our time was spent getting the wood stove to draw and the air temperature sufficiently warm so that we could deal the cards without our gloves on. The wind would blunt its fury on the thick log walls before finding its way through the chinks, and in the morning the windowpanes - those we had not been forced to patch with tape and newspaper - would be glazed with ice from our respiration.
The place is likely deemed an "attractive nuisance" today, a place for teenagers to misbehave and get into trouble. Back in the mid 1980's, my father permitted one of the Millbrook students to renovate the cabin, and this young man spent school vacations for much of a year putting his carpentry skills to good use. The cabin got a new roof, loft and deck out of the bargain, and a young man looking for his niche found a sense of purpose. When Emily and Elias and I visited the cabin for the first time since I left Millbrook in 1990, it seemed as if in the intervening years it had seen no further maintenance. The Dutch door was gone and the plywood replacement hung open on its broken hinges.
It was, if anything, even more shabby and decrepit than I remembered from my youth, but my children soon swept away whatever melancholy I entertained at its fate. The quickly set up house, finding a broom to sweep the leaves and dust about with and clambering excitedly up to the loft. They were suitably impressed when I said I had once slept up there and asked why we hadn't brought our own sleeping bags this time. I found the scattered pages of a neglected sign-in book and left our names in the register.
We spent the rest of the day exploring the woods and fields of my childhood wilderness. At the site of what my father used to insist was an old Indian burial ground, we discovered a fort built in the shape of a wigwam by the current generation of faculty kids. Further on I pointed out a copse of trees in a hayfield and asked them to puzzle out why the farmer left them standing and didn't just cultivate the whole area. As we approached, I showed them the cellar hole I knew we'd find there, and the overgrown lilac bushes and wild apples in among the Black Locust trees that are telltale signs of former habitation.
It's not every day that a father gets to conjure the past so successfully for his offspring, and particularly in a place where we have several generations of family tenure. My grandfather was the first classics and music instructor at the school, and my father was a student there and in later years its headmaster. Every place we visit, my children map the landscape in their minds through the stories we tell.
"Remember that big tree that was hit by lightning?"
"Here is the place where I first saw a bobcat."
"That was Pop's house when he was a boy."
"There is the log cabin in the woods where I played Davy Crockett, long ago."