On Rambling Driving Trips
( Originally Published 1907 )
DRIVING into Massachusetts, one day, just over the line from New York State, and descending a long hill into the depths of a narrow valley, we came upon a fine old house, of sun-bleached white, set back from the road among old vines and bushes and with great maples shading the broad and generous doorway. A modest sign, "For Rent," was nailed upon the gatepost. The whole place had an air of repose and the charm of days gone by. Leaving the horse, we went in through the gate. What a paradise for a home! Many miles from a railroad; and what an air the place had! We walked up the path, with the grass hanging over it from the tangled lawn. There was an old portico with seats on either side. There was a knocker on the door. The door was shabby. The sidelights gave a glimpse of the hall, with wallpaper in mottled marble blocks. An old clock stood at the bend of the stairs. Two green Windsor chairs were in the hall.
The caretaker, an old farm-hand from a neighboring field, came in at the gate. He gave us the key and sat down on the doorstep to wait and smoke.
We went through the house. There were old settles by the kitchen hearth. There were two four-poster beds. There were old splint-bottom chairs. There were candlesticks of pewter and brass, and iron fire-dogs.
The whole house had a scattering of furniture, but was far from completely furnished. Yet there was enough for the suggestion of a fascinating home.
We were completely carried away with our find of this old house, apparently forsaken by its owners and awaiting a new home-maker. We went back to the door. The old man rose up and after a moment of hesitation grinned. Just why he should grin was not apparent, but that it was from a sense of some subtle joke which he was enjoying was quite clear.
"What place is this?"
"The old W-- place."
"How long since it has been occupied?"
"Nine years. And last spring, Mr. G--, the present owner, fixed it up.'."
"Is any of the furniture to be sold, or is the house to be rented furnished'?"
But the man was a Yankee. "Do you want to rent or do you want to buy?" he asked.
We were not Yankees, but he was answered with another question : "What is the rent?"
"Six-hundred-dollars-for-the-season!" he lined out slowly, as if he were relishingly rolling the money under his tongue.
We were surprised, and said so, for we knew something of rents in neighborhoods far from a railway.
"Yes. Six-hundred-dollars! That's what he's looking to get. You 're only nine miles from Lenox over that mountain, though it's thirteen by road."
He looked at us. "Do you want to rent it?" "No." We smiled. We knew that there was to be some explanation.
"Well, I'm to give anybody that looks at it one of these."
With that he shoved out, with a motion like that of breaking coal with a poker, a card; and the card was that of a well-known dealer in antiques on Fourth Avenue.
It was all plain. It did not need the garrulous explanation of how the dealer had leased the old house, bought what old things he could in the vicinity, and sent out others from his New York shop.
The old caretaker walked down to the hitching-post with us. "You 're the fourth ones to look at it. Lenox don't seem to come over very fast. I helped put up those beds and balance that clock on that turning step of the stairs. It wouldn't hold the fourth corner of the clock, so I put a stick under it. Yes, the W s are all dead. The house has been for rent for seventy-two dollars a year for year after year, and now this New Yorker has it and puts in these old traps. Don't you want to buy any of them? The other folks took off chairs and candle-sticks. The price is pasted on 'em. Ninety dollars for that clock. It's pine and won't go. Fifteen dollars apiece for those old green chairs; the price is on em under the seat. A hundred dollars for the dining-table. No'? You are the beatenest folks! You don't seem to care for these things. You came over the wrong mountain. The folks from over Lenox mountain just paid what the label said and went off tickled to death."
There was certainly nothing the matter with the old farmhouse-except the rent; nothing the matter with the articles the dealer had put inexcept that he was asking more than New York prices on account of their present environment. It was certainly an amusing and unexpected way to sell antiques and enhance the rentable value of a house. It could not be called a trap, for the articles of furniture were all genuine.
Driving trips need not always be distant from one's home. At times the most surprising discoveries may be made but a short distance from where one lives.
We were out, one day, driving about the country, and came to a road so steep that the buggy seemed in imminent danger of sliding down over the back of the horse. The happy nomenclature of the neighborhood, so it appeared, had given to this road the cognomen of the "Teakettle Spout," on such an abrupt and dipping line was it constructed.
At the foot of the descent a little stream forced its way with clamorous perseverance over the rocks with which the bed was filled. And on the farther side, on a sort of shelf of land a little above the brook, stood an ancient gabled cottage with dentilled portico.
A widow lived there, with her son and an ancient servant-a servant such as these modern days can never develop! Old, old she was-one could almost think her older than the house-and with such an ancient unstayed gown, and with a perfect gem of a mulberry-colored melon bonnet of cotton print, shaped like a scoop, quilted with cottony puffs and lined ridges, and encompassing a gentle, faithful face. Sukey; that was her fitting name. And in that lonely house, in that steep valley, with such a servant, it seemed certain that there must be treasure.
Falling into a talk of old times and old things, we were shown up the steep stairs into the attic. Well, there was not so very much, after all; but there were cupboards and chests, and a litter of jugs and baskets, badly broken and in sad repair.
And there, against the farther wall, was an ancient four-poster, piled high with blue feather-ticks. It was a slender Heppelwhite frame, without elaborate ornamentation, but well and capably built. Ornamentation, indeed, is more apt to be lacking on old four-posters than on any other class of furniture. The drapery, the curtains, were more depended upon for fine looks than was the framework. Even George Washington, when at home, slept in a bed of comparatively plain frame. The poet's ideal of the builders who, in the elder days of art, wrought each minute and unseen part with greatest care, does not hold as to bedmaking in the eighteenth century; nor, in fact, does it hold to any appreciable extent in the art work of centuries ago, human nature being always pretty much the same and there never having been very much of strong determination to beautify what was to be hidden.
With no difficulty, the four-poster was obtained, and it was arranged that the son was to drive it within a few days to our home.
And so, one morning, there was the sound of a wagon stopping at our door, and looking out, we saw the son of the widow. But where was the four-poster! It was not visible, and so the presumption was that the young man had come to say that, after all, they did not wish to dispose of it.
But the bed was there! At the house we had told the widow that we did not care for the four pieces, full of rope-holes through which, in old-time days, the rope was crossed and crisscrossed to make a strong foundation for the bedding and to hold the bedstead together. For although they appeared to be clean enough, it seemed obviously better not to use them. Without these rope-holed pieces the bed-stead, when taken down, was but a bundle of sticks -the four posts and the slender bars of the canopy, and the graceful head-board.
The problem presented by a bed that was now without ends and sides was overcome by the use of an iron bedstead strictly hygienic and up-to-date-old enough in association, too, if one must insist, for of Og, King of Bashan, we read that "his bedstead was a bedstead of iron." It exactly fitted the space between the upright posts. To the corners of this iron bedstead the posts were fastened. A valance was made to cover the iron frame. All that showed, therefore, was just what ought to show: the canopy and the posts and the head-board.
The posts show not only above the valance, but clear to the floor, outside of it; for we remembered the admirable suggestion of Chippendale that it is a grievous fault to hide the legs of a bed, because there is then the appearance of posts supported upon cloth.
In meeting strangers, on one's random rambles in the country, offense is often needlessly given, and an opportunity lost, by the blunt inquiry as to whether things are for sale. Most people rightly resent this. They dislike having a stranger come to their door and, pointing to this or that article, ask, "How much ?" Even though they may really wish to sell they resent the implication that they have the appearance of being so poor as to desire to dispose of anything, or the alternative implication that they do not themselves have sufficient taste to care for what others deem beautiful.
But the danger of giving offense, of hurting the feelings of the sensitive, of making one's self disagreeable, and of thereby losing the chance of an acquisition, is entirely avoided by an inquiry as to whether the owner of the thing you want knows of any one in the neighborhood who possesses similar articles and would be willing to sell. It is really astonishing what a difference the use of this formula makes. Many a person who would coldly draw away from a direct question is quite ready to sell when he thinks your inquiry is directed toward his neighbor!
Few things are more exasperating for the collector wandering away from the beaten track, driving off into one country district or another, than to come upon fine old articles ruined deliberately; not worn out, but so smashed or altered as to be useless. The memory of a splendid grandfather's clock lying in hopeless fragments upon a woodpile, comes strongly; so does the memory of two sofas-one, so ingeniously mangled, Procrustes-like, to fit into a recess too small for it, that it was irreparable, and the other, a fine Empire, with its back sawed off to make it into a nondescript bench with ends; the sawed-off pieces having then been burned up, making restoration impossible.
On the other hand, eyes are often gladdened, as one drives along some out-of-the-way road, by the sight of charming Windsors upon a porch, or quaint old settles, or even, what we once saw on the verandah of a delightful little low-browed house, a black banister-back chair made nearly two hundred years ago. There is keen pleasure in seeing these, without the disturbing desire to possess them.
Driving one day through one of the oldest neighborhoods of the Western Reserve, we stopped at a venerable house, white and narrow eaved. And in the garret was a curious sight. There were lines on lines of ancient coats and gowns, the old clothes of the family's ancestors, preserved partly, no doubt, from a feeling of pride, partly, no doubt, from some vaguely transmitted instinct of thrift. There the old clothes hung, ghostly, limp, strange, swaying slightly as the door opened upon them, as if startled out of mysterious reveries.
In the same garret stood, primly, some enormous old-fashioned bandboxes, covered with gay-flowered paper. And there, too, we came across a silver toddy ladle, with long and flexible handle of whale-bone; and in the bottom of the bowl of the ladle was welded a shilling of George the Third; as, within three such ladles which we once saw in a house near Oxford, were welded silver coins of the time of Anne.
After learning not to be too quick to consider a piece of furniture older than it is, it is important not to go to the other extreme of being too quick to consider it new. At any time, and especially upon driving rambles into comparatively unfrequented regions, the very old may be happened upon.
Stopping, not far from one of the battlefields of the South, at a great old house from whose size and appearance we should have expected much, but where we knew it was unlikely that the exigencies of war had left a single thing of the past, we found bareness and comfortlessness, but hospitality. We found a genial man, the sole occupant, who, it being a cold day and the fire being unresponsive, poured oil upon the troubled flame directly from a large can, with the nonchalant remark: "It 's all right; it 's Georgia State test!" And in this house, in spite of its bareness, we found an enormous armoire, huge in size, with ball feet; it was at least a century and a half old, and stood against the bare wall, defiant, lonely, striking, though not really beautiful.
The unexpected may at any time be met with.
At a house, almost a cabin, near a village which gave its name to one of the great battles, we found the owner and occupant to be the descendant of one of the old families, ruined by the Civil War and its havoc. His father had lived in a great house which had been destroyed; but servants had saved, and he now proudly took out and displayed, old commissions and letters and seals of Colonial and Revolutionary days, and, at the last, the uniform of a colonel in the Mexican War, with sword and soft red sash.
It was in a bleak and scantily-settled hill country, some fifty miles from the town, Gallipolis, where unhappy exiles from France, refugees from the French Revolution, vainly tried to hew homes out of the Ohio wilderness, that we came upon a sunny farmhouse, a veritable bit out of New England, the home of one of the early settlers, where, in a cup-board off the dining-room, there were forty pieces of lavender "sprigged" china, the cups and sugar-bowl and plates being of octagonal form; and in this house there were old prints, framed in narrow black as they would be framed to-day, of battles and he-roes of the War of 1812.
And in Kentucky, driving along the fine limestone pikes near the Ohio, where, in a dry season, the white dust rises in clouds and settles like snow upon the shrubs and grass, where there are mighty oaks and lines of silver poplars, where houses, old and new, look out toward the magnificent river and where the friendly people cordially give a welcome, there are numerous things of value.
One is first attracted by the tall ten-rail fences which give such an impression of the jumping powers of Kentucky colts, but one is more attracted by the recurrent old-time houses of squared timbers and by the things of the olden time still to be found. In some of the better houses there are fine treasures, but even in many a simpler house there are articles of what may be termed the splint-bottom school of antiques; iron fire-dogs, simple chairs, old waffle-irons, long-handled, not for the purpose of supping with a certain distinguished one of evil reputation but for holding the irons over the blazing coals in deep fireplaces.
If one only realizes it, it is sometimes as easy to go from one place to another, within reasonable limits, on a vacation outing, as to remain fixed at one point. It was on a brief summer driving trip that we went through the French Creek region of the northwestern part of Pennsylvania; that region in which Washington first won reputation, early in the 1750's, as envoy from the Governor of Virginia to the commandant of a French fort but a few miles from Lake Erie.
We stayed over night at a somewhat old-fashioned hotel in a little town; and the room in which Lafayette had slept, on the occasion of his triumphal progress through the United States when an old man, was shown us, and the ball-room where he had danced. It was doubtless a mistake of the stone-mason that made the date upon the building, cut in the stone upon the front, a year later than that of Lafayette's visit!
However, the house had a good deal of dignity of its own; and it also had a really good specimen of Empire sideboard, very large, with pillars and claw feet, that stood out of sight in a passageway between dining-room and kitchen.
The proprietor was pleased that it was looked upon as of any interest. Frankly, he did not greatly value it. "I am using it, you see," he said; "but if you care to have a carpenter build a set of shelves, with doors, in there for me, to put my dishes in, you may take the sideboard away."
Well, there were reasons why it was inconvenient to remain there and superintend the necessary work; and generous though the hotelkeeper's offer was, its acceptance would have made the obtaining of the sideboard an expensive matter, after all-as all who have had doors and shelving built to order will understand-but the incident shows anew how on every hand lie possibilities.
But one does not always meet with moderate estimates of value, even in little-visited neighborhoods.
"Be you looking for blue plates?" was the inquiry once addressed to us by a woman in the front door of an isolated house. She had a few rather good ones; plates worth fifty cents apiece in the shops, in current money with the merchant. But she had been influenced, isolated though she was, by the unwise talk of some one who, not from love of the old or from consideration for the owner, but from uninformed enthusiasm, had set prices out of all reason upon her pieces.
"Be you looking for blue plates?" We looked at them; but found that the owner firmly, almost aggressively, was holding them at five dollars a plate.
And we once came across a farmhouse where a woman, after showing a fairly good pattern of old-fashioned coverlet, remarked that if any one should ever want to buy it she would "let it go" for fifty dollars. It was we, not she, who let it go.
No matter how far one may travel in excursions into the country, it is difficult to find a district where the professional dealer has not been. The trail of the dealer is over almost all. He finds his profit in the lonely farmhouse. Nowhere else can he obtain the real things so cheaply. And even if dishonest in the matter of being willing to sell imitations, he none the less finds his profit here, for he can pick up fine old pieces for far less than he could have them manufactured.
Yet the dealer, with all his persistent cleverness and his experience, misses many a treasure. He is often unable to impress the people that they should sell to him. Family pride is apt to assert itself, even though there may be no real desire to retain the desired piece. To sell to a lover of the old, to one who really admires the things for their own sake, has in it no sting. But to sell for mere money, and very little at that, is another matter.
But, on the other hand, there are many folk who have no dislike of selling to dealers; who, indeed, are more ready to sell more cheaply to them; for, so it appears, the dealer must be at the expense of handling and repairing before he can sell again! A sort of topsyturvydom of logic, but none the less frequently met with.
These itinerant dealers, who do so much to make hard the way of the amateur collector by seizing upon things before his appearance, are of two kinds: the junk dealers, who frankly buy as scrap and who are fatal to many a candlestick and many a pair of andirons, and the furniture men who buy as furniture, and who are fatal, from the collector's view-point, to many a rare old specimen.
Sometimes a quite obvious opportunity to acquire a good bit remains curiously open, in spite of the indefatigable collectors and dealers.
In an empty, deserted, ruined house, and put away behind a door, in a cellar, and forgotten, we once came upon a pair of good iron hand-wrought andirons. There was some reason why, that day, it was not convenient to carry the big pieces of iron with us, and so we drove regretfully on without them.
But, a year later, we were driving once more down the charming road, a river on one side and a rocky hill on the other, and once more we came to the old, deserted house, which was just a little more ruinous, just a little more falling to pieces, than it had been when we first discovered it.
Naturally, the thought of the andirons once more came. And so, into the empty house (the door had long since disappeared), across the quavering floor, down the trembling stair-and there, tucked away, just as they had been found and left twelve months before, were the andirons!
The owner, in a house not far away, was found, and gladly took a silver quarter in exchange for the rusty fire-dogs whose existence had been so completely forgotten.
Always one is upon the verge of the unanticipated, the unlooked-for; except, indeed, that the unexpected happens so often to the enthusiast as thereby to lose much of its unexpectedness.
We were driving along a road of alluring beauty, between Tyringham and Great Barrington, amid the tender glory of the sweeping hills, and we stopped at an empty cottage whose door stood invitingly open. This cottage had been examined but a short time be-fore, so we learned, by former President Cleveland, with the view of possibly making it the summer home for himself and his family, so commanding was its location on the hillside with a superb view stretching away for miles.
Meadow grass swept up to the very door, and right at the entrance was a flowing spring. Some of the rooms were unplastered, some had stone fireplaces, and all were empty of furniture.
From the side door the path led between lilac bushes and tansy to a little barn and a littler tool-shed. The barn, like the house, was entirely empty, and so was the shed.
Against the wall of the shed was a cupboard made for holding glue and nails and workshop odds and ends.
The cupboard was bare-but its door instantly attracted attention. It was a complete mirror frame!-with sides and top and bottom complete, and even the wooden stripping of the back.