The Colgate Scene
Biography and mystery on Twitchell Lake
A discovered scrapbook holds clues to the lives of two Adirondack women 80 years ago
|By Rebecca Costello|
B Mark W, on the far side of Twitchell Lake, is accessible only by boat and is one of only two camps left on the lake that does not have electricity. [Photos by Timothy D. Sofranko]
Nestled in the western Adirondack woods, up a narrow footpath a thousand feet from the shore of Twitchell Lake, sits a cabin whose contents have inspired two women of today to weave the biographies of the two women who built it nearly 80 years ago -- and attempt to solve a mystery along the way.
Though far from complete, their sleuthing has already taken some interesting twists and turns, created excitement and involvement by a cast of Colgate people and resulted in a prizewinning essay in a scholarly journal. It's an endeavor that is as much, or more, about the process itself as the discovery they hope awaits them: the jealously guarded pen name of one of those women.
The story began six years ago when Scott Kraly, professor of psychology, purchased that Adirondack cabin for his wife Ellen, professor of geography, after she recovered from a major illness. Having a place in the Adirondacks had been a longtime dream for Ellen, an experienced woodswoman. The cabin may be accessible only by boat and has no electricity -- but, as she said of her first visit to it, "Here was this cabin that seemed to glow from the inside out. The place just drew me in."
That glow emanates from the place itself, its remaining original contents and the promise of what might be gleaned from them about the first owners, who left indelible impressions of their lives there.
Pittsburgh residents Adelaide Breckenridge, a high school English teacher, and Katharine Whited, a librarian who was said to be a writer, designed the cabin themselves and had it built, in 1925, by well-known Adirondack builder Earl Covey and his son Sumner. For decades, Katharine and Adelaide were summertime fixtures at B Mark W, as their camp came to be known, and Katharine spent several winters there as well.
The cabin still holds a good number of their possessions: a kerosene cookstove, a tea set, handmade pottery, a bottle of aspirin and some camphor. A living room corner shelf filled with books -- books by women authors, poetry books, books with a nature focus and books that were just plain good woods reading -- revealed much more than the texts alone. Kraly found flowers and leaves pressed between pages, mementos of hikes taken long ago, and, as would appeal to the geographer in her, topographical maps, dating back to the 'teens and heavily annotated, that Adelaide used to plan and document her forays throughout the region. The most intriguing, though: Katharine's scrapbook of writing and quotations.
The book holds pasted clippings, handwritten snippets and notes, indicating that Katharine and Adelaide shared it and used it with friends and neighbors as a chronicle of their lives. Kraly showed the scrapbook to colleague and friend Sarah Ann Wider, professor of English, who studies women's autobiographical writing.
"She wanted to know if I might be able to say anything about this wonderful quotation book, and I said, `oh, my heavens, could I ever!'" Wider exclaimed. As she pored over the handmade book, fashioned from two women's shared reading and shared experiences, many questions began to bubble up. Who were their friends? Are any of them still alive, and what do they remember of Adelaide and Katharine? What circumstances prompted the choice of particular passages, and what might that say about their experiences? Who were these women who lived in a remote cabin at a time when interest in the woods was considered a man's domain?
Thus began a collaboration between a geographer and writer that is contributing to the scanty but growing body of scholarly work about women's lives in the Adiron-dacks and, perhaps more specifically, women's literary tradition there. The two are weaving the biographies of Katharine Whited and Adelaide Breckenridge from the relics of their interactions and activities.
As Kraly continued digging and asking around, the mystery -- what she calls the "idiosyncratic" part of their endeavor -- emerged: who was Katharine Whited?
"All these clues start coming out, these narratives from neighbors on the lake saying, `Katharine was a writer,' so that gets provocative," she said. Katharine's only known published work is a Country Life magazine article (found by a Twitchell Lake resident) that she'd written about the process of designing and building their cabin. Kraly also found three of Katharine's poems, prepared in a format for publication, and an essay about the Big Moose Lake region. But she was also told that Katharine wrote pulp fiction, under a pen name that she kept guarded. They began to wonder, what books did she write? Do we all know them? Why the secrecy?
An extensive search, with much help from David Hughes, head of reference services in Case Library, has yet to turn up anything else published under the name Katharine Whited, or any clues as to her pen name, but the mystery deepened. Another lake neighbor, "a woman who knew both of them and admired Katharine in particular, as an adolescent on the lake," said Kraly, "told me, `One thing you can take to the bank is that Katharine and Georgia O'Keeffe were very, very good friends.'"
They're seeking corroboration, following the leads that the artist and Katharine Whited were born in the same year and that O'Keeffe had a summer Adirondack connection in Saratoga, including time spent at an artist's colony called Amitola. Katharine was herself a gifted artist, as evidenced by her detailed drawings and plans for the cabin as well as other sketches she left behind; it's possible she and O'Keeffe studied at Amitola at the same time.
Wider noted that O'Keeffe's papers are still being collected and catalogued, so something may yet be discovered. Lynn Schwarzer, associate professor of art and art history, has picked up the O'Keefe lead and hopes to follow it with a student for a summer research project.
Yet, well beyond the mystery, "are the tangible and tantalizing pieces of two distinct lives -- lives well worth recovering and remembering," Wider said of Adelaide and Katharine. Early on, Kraly had prepared a compilation of the books in the cabin: "If you want to think about what these women's lives were like," explained Wider, "look at what they read." They also kept talking to people, current and former Twitchell Lake residents, other women who write about the Adirondacks, friends and relatives, colleagues and students.
About two years ago, a call for papers at a conference on women's private writings in Maine "gave us a reason to start to pull some things together and take this to an interested audience," said Wider. The conference was organized by Elizabeth De Wolfe '83, who now teaches history and politics at the University of New England's Westbrook College Campus.
Wider and Kraly put together a panel with themselves; Susie Quern '95, a former student of Wider's who had done an honors paper on the diary of Eliza Eaton, wife of 19th-century Colgate President George W. Eaton; and Kay Johnston, associate professor of educational studies, whose work in moral development had influenced Wider's thinking on the use of atypical materials in women's autobiography. A scholar who has studied needlework as autobiographical records joined them.
The kitchen still holds many of its original contents, including the kerosene cookstove and a tea set that occupies cupboard space. [Enlarge]
The group's discussion of the quotation book "as a record of these two women's
lives," as Wider put it, was well-received, encouraging Kraly and Wider to go
Over the years, some leads have taken them far and wide. "I'm looking at the books on the shelves and I see lots of references to Oberlin College," said Kraly. "My son Geoff was applying to music schools at the time, so that took us to Oberlin. He's taking the campus tour and I'm in the college archives looking up Adelaide, who went to Oberlin, as did the rest of her family." Another lead brought Kraly to Los Angeles, where Katharine had died in 1974. The thought was that there might be a connection to Hollywood screenwriting. While alas, the suspicion proved untrue, even a false lead can bear fruit -- the director at the funeral parlor in California gave Kraly a hint about the whereabouts of Katharine's remains that will take her to New York City. Each step, large or small, perpetuates excitement.
Of their project, Wider said, "In the past 20 years, several forgotten literary traditions have been rediscovered. Women's nature writing is a case in point. The books left in B Mark W show a curious slice of that tradition, early 20th-century women taking on Henry David Thoreau's project and writing their own versions of `Life in the Woods' (Walden's subtitle)."
Holding up the quotation book, Wider also pointed out that 20 years ago such an item would never have been taken seriously. "This would be just a curiosity," she said. Only first-person material such as a diary or letters, which in the case of Adelaide and Katharine thus far have not been found, if they exist at all, would have been considered substantive. But today, due to the emergence of the field of feminist criticism, approaches to research are more "user-friendly."
"In feminist criticism, you've got to devise methodology to match the materials," she explained. "You don't just exclude a work because it doesn't behave by someone else's rules; you figure out what its rules are. The quotation book is a perfect example because here you can talk about how different lives, different voices and different texts come together. Look at the sources of the quotations and you'll see a much more richly textured fabric of intersecting lives."
Adelaide's topographic maps, on which she recorded hiking dates, destinations and names, are another example. "It's a different kind of autobiographical text, and one that we are not used to reading as `autobiography,'" said Wider, "but it clearly maps an important aspect of Adelaide Breckenridge's days."
The project is a departure for Kraly. "As a demographer, I'm trained to look at the life course. You're born, you age, you die, and things happen in between and we add all of that up, so this is a real challenge for me," she said. "Sarah's much more comfortable with the weaving together of things, and that's what's so wonderful about it. It just really loosens up the way I look at things . . . all of my work in immigration and migration gets methodologically shaken because of my witnessing how Sarah's approaching this."
"I'm grateful for the energy that travels back and forth between the two of us," said Wider, "We get each other out of the dead ends and turn them into next steps. How might we begin thinking about filling in those blanks of time that we just don't have any information about?"
Their efforts were strongly validated when, by some force of serendipity, in spring 2001, the journal Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, called for papers for a special issue on biography and geography. Wider wrote an essay, with Kraly collaborating, about their project.
"We are learning the long and painstaking process of reading individual lives from the places that hold them," Wider wrote in "The Contour of Unknown Lives: Mapping Women's Experience in the Adirondacks." A student they had in common, Kristin McHenry '00, lent her technical expertise in scanning maps, drawings and photos to illustrate the text.
The piece was selected as the co-winner of the 2001 International Life Writing Prize and was published as the lead essay in the winter 2002 edition.
"Our collaboration, building knowledge in a way that is open to new approaches, is very consistent with what we try to do, particularly in interdisciplinary studies and the Core, with our students here at Colgate," remarked Kraly. "We try to get students to think seriously about ways of knowing things and how we build knowledge and get at truth. We're struggling with that ourselves, and that's very much what we ask our students to do."
Kraly also noted that "we wouldn't be having this conversation if Colgate was a different sort of place. I knew to turn to Sarah because I know Sarah and I know her work. The collaboration is fulfilling in so many ways because of the fact that we share lives on this same faculty."
In the meantime, as the search into the past continues, the Kralys have begun offering the use of the cabin for Colgate students to learn about the present as well, such as bringing environmental studies students up to test water in area lakes for acid rain research. Kraly and Wider plan to look for more information about Katharine and Adelaide, especially in Pittsburgh, at the library and school, the places in which the two worked. And they are bent on someday discovering Katharine's nom de plume.
"If there were letters and journals, we haven't found them yet," said Wider. "Maybe they're in some cousin's attic, but we don't know that. There could have been. It seems likely, given they were an English teacher and a librarian, and yet those documents may well be irretrievably lost. But their lives are not. From Katharine's article in Country Life, we know that they shared an aesthetic that was also an ethics of place. Their lives are held by that place, still present in the camp on Twitchell Lake and the words it contained. These women would virtually be lost without that place."
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