DOES anyone beside myself, I wonder, collect cellar-holes? You might suppose they would be a rather difficult thing to collect — outside of the battle region of France; but they are not, in my part of the world, at any rate. They might be somewhat cumbersome to assemble in one place, and somewhat crumbly also; but why should a collection be assembled in one place? Why not leave each choice piece in its original setting, and visit it from time to time as the mood invites? That is what I do with my cellar-holes. More than two hundred miles separate the northern and southern specimens, though the bulk of the collection is scattered in a portion of one county in my native state. I could visit nearly all of them in a day, if the roads were good. But the roads are not good; some, indeed, are as overgrown with verdure as the cellar-holes themselves, and can be negotiated only on foot. That assures me a privacy, however, which quite justifies my assumption of ownership.
I call them my cellar-holes because I alone visit them and treasure them and muse over their story when I know it, — which is not often, — or invent a story for them otherwise; an even more delightful occupation. Let other men rave of their first folios, their banister-back chairs, their Wedgwood urns, their Renaissance chests; give me my cellar-holes, bramble-edged and full of crumbling brick and rotten wood, melancholy reminders, at the front of some ancient clearing by the forgotten road, of a vanished race, an altered civilization, lovely with fireweed, home now of a woodchuck, silent and wistful in face of the reinvading forest.
Would you like to visit some of my collection with me? You would, I am sure, if you were here on a glorious summer day, when the lazy cumuli pile into Himalayan summits against the blue, and the sunshine pours like a golden flood let loose down our lush green valley, between the long ranges of brooding hills; or, still more, if you were here when autumn has stung the air and touched the swamps with red, the mountain woods with brown and gold. It is not in a museum, under a filtered light, that my collection is displayed, but in the wide and windy open, where trees bow and toss, or the soft surges of the summer breeze roll across the feathery grass of abandoned clearings. So, if you are ready, let us go first to the House of the Pink Lustre Tea-set.
We climb a long hill to reach it, out of the valley town with its industries, its shops, its movie theatre, six miles or more into the hills, where we reach another town, older than that in the valley but scarce a tenth its size and hushed with the sleep of forgetfulness. Not far beyond this village, where the ancient houses regard each other somnolently and with the indifference of the very aged across an elm-hung green, we shall have to abandon our car, and resort to a method of locomotion to which the modern man is becoming painfully unaccustomed: we shall have to walk. There is still climbing to be done, also, though you might suppose we had already reached the top of the world. But in a few moments I shall tell you to look back, and you will see the Catskills huddled against the far horizon, lifting their patient domes above the haze that forever hangs about their feet.
Our path now takes us past a pond in the woods, through a grove of smooth gray beeches, through hemlocks and pines, and presently emerges into what was once a road. You will know it was a road because through the trees on either side — which meet overhead — run two bounding walls of mossy stones, piled once with care and precision, but now falling here and there into fern-tangled heaps. We will now follow this road, wherever it takes us — over a crest, down into a swampy hollow where the alders meet to form a barrier that we have to lift up with our hands, up a crest again, and suddenly into a partial clearing, where sugarmaples sentinel the way in regular formation — a sure sign to the collector to look for a cellar-hole.
Nor is it hard to find. The old house was close to the road. A step from that huge marble door-stone, between the twin lilac trees, and the dwellers touched hands with the passer-by. The marble door-stone is still in place, but there is no door. The whole front wall, one of the side walls, and the entire rear, lie rotting with the roof in the cellar-hole, and a sturdy young poplar is growing up through the kitchen. But the huge central chimney stands, as high up, almost, as the vanished second story; and on its two sides, and at the rear, we can still see the marble-backed fireplaces which heated the dwelling. That in the west front room — quite evidently the living-room — still has clinging around it the gray, weathered mantel-frame, with a bit of the hand-wrought moulding yet in place. A portion of the west wall of this room still stands, also, with its two moulded window-caps: and where the corner of the room was, one side backed to the remnant of wall, one side backed to vacancy and an exploring bittersweet vine, rises in forlorn dignity an elaborate corner cupboard! It is a lovely, soft, furry gray from its weathering. The lower doors have dropped into the cellar. The moulded cornice and cap have almost disintegrated. But the fluted pilasters at the sides are still erect, still beautiful in their grace of line and dignity of proportion — a bit of Colonial architectural craftsmanship rising like a strange flower here in the silent wilderness. There are four gracefully recurving and swelling shelves in the upper part of the cupboard, beneath the rotted scallop-shell. On one a squirrel has left a litter of hazel-nut shells. And now do you see why I call this my House of the Pink Lustre Tea-set?
From that great fireplace, almost a century and a half ago, the firelight danced, and glinted on the china in the white corner cupboard. Then this road we have come upon was a highway between two towns which were the most prosperous in all our county. Far from being poverty-stricken wilderness pioneers, the men and women who built and adorned this house were successful farmers, who knew the virtue of fine woodwork, solid furniture, handsome china. Successful? Did they and their neighbors not lend the money which built the first church and town house in what is now our largest city? And at a comfortable rate of interest, you may be sure! Past their door rode these same neighbors to church and market. At night, at the sound of a horse’s hoofs down the road, the door was thrown open, no doubt, and friend or traveler saw a red-gold rectangle of firelight stream out through the dark; and, as he drew near and looked within, caught the warm glint of the pink lustre tea-set, ranged in the corner cupboard. In the great fireplace at the back of that chimney the kettles hung, the baker stood, the porridge was warm on the trivet. It may be that into this same rectangle of light, one night in 1775, too excited to notice the glint on the lustre, rode the messenger who shouted the news of Lexington. I like to think that he passed at night, leaving excitement behind him, and perhaps the figure of a man taking down his gun from the mantel.
It has been fifteen years now since that road was used by anyone but the deer. It has been many more since anyone lived in the house. That is a long time, under the battering of our winter storms, the attack of our treeseeds and trailers and brambles. I have poked and poked amid the rotting débris in the cellar-hole for some tiniest fragment of the pink lustre, but none have I found. Probably it was carefully packed and moved away, long, long ago. Yet sometimes, when the afternoon sun comes flickering in through the great decaying maples and warms the soft gray of the old corner cupboard to a faded gold, I think I see the teapot glisten.
While we are in this particular section of the hill-country, perhaps you will not mind a tramp of ten or fifteen miles, to see the Hole of the House of God and the House of the Secret Vault.
Following the abandoned road we are already upon, we shall come in time into a road that is not abandoned — though, were you in a car, especially if it were your own car, you might think that it ought to be. This road takes us to the ancient village green of what was once our most prosperous town. It crests the world, at an altitude of 1700 feet, and the very dirt of the highway has followed the inhabitants down into the valley, leaving a long stretch of naked rock to mark the road. In this village were once, a century ago, four stores, three churches, and a town hall. At least, so I am told by the ancient gazetteers. I have discovered one of the stores, now occupied by hay, and the cellar-hole of the last church to remain standing. The rest are quite gone. Of the fine Colonial dwellings, two are evidently used at times as summer homes. One is the residence of a family of Polish Jews. The rest are abandoned and falling into desolate decay. Between two of them — one, no doubt, formerly the parsonage — a flight of marble steps leads up to a broad door-stone, and you step from that — into the cellar-hole of the church. This edifice burned not many years ago, and thoroughly, so there is no pile of rotting timbers in the hole; only pink fireweed and a few charred beams.
You look across the cavity and the clearings behind it, — now growing up to weeds and scrub birch, — over mile after mile of rolling hills and shadowed ravines, country almost as forlorn as this in the immediate neighborhood — all because Stevenson invented the locomotive, and this country is seventeen miles from the nearest railroad. A fine and sturdy civilization came up here and conquered these hill-tops, bringing the graces of architecture, the strength and sanctions of religion. And now they have gone back again, like a wave that rises only to recede. Their cellar-holes are their monuments. I have often been moved to preach from those marble steps, with the fireweed for congregation; but the inhabitant of the village, coming into his front yard with the dog, invariably discouraged me with his suspicious glances. When he, too, becomes discouraged and moves away, I shall have the village quite to myself.
I could take you to the House of the Secret Vault by several roads, each worse than the other, and more beautiful with meadow rue, with cardinal flowers, with fringed gentian, with boneset and asters and goldenrod in season, and none without its cellarholes. But. let us consider that we have arrived, a little footsore and weary and hot, and sink down for a moment in the shade of the dooryard maple, amid the riot of day-lily leaves, to look at the graceful Colonial doorframe and the palladian window above. Yes, I have deceived you — this is not a cellar-hole — not yet. The house still stands, after a fashion, though you wonder how it manages it. The only cellar-hole is that of the barn, almost swallowed up by the forest, across the dim remnants of a road. But the interest of the old dwelling must be my excuse. It was quite evidently a fine house, even for its day, here in a hill-top farming country, many, many miles from any city or even any considerable town. Its architecture indicates that it was probably not built till after the Revolution: the details are too refined and delicate. Yet it is erected around a huge central chimney, not of brick but of field stone, which is, of course, the secret of how the house can remain standing with one side wall gone, a gaping hole in the roof, and half the sills rotted quite away.
It took me some time to discover a path to the attic. I felt like the explorer of some new Alpine peak. Entering the front door, we can get up the first flight of stairs in comparative safety; but the attic stairs are at the rear, and to reach them it is necessary to creep around the outside of a chamber, hanging on by the window-sills, and then walking the one (relatively) sound beam which leads to the attic stairway.
The floor of the attic is wet and mouldy, but tolerably sound. It is made of wide boards, and in lifting the loose end of one of them, beside the chimney, to see how thick it was (it was a two-inch plank, no less!), I discovered the Secret Vault. Beneath the board, I saw that the chimney flared out nearly two feet. As there was no fireplace in the room below to account for this flare, and no apparent need of such a buttress, I investigated further. A large, flat stone forming the top incline of the buttress yielded to my tugging, lifted up, and disclosed a vault, about eighteen inches in diameter, and running down to the floor of the second story below. It was not a smoke-house, for there was no flue at top or bottom. It could hardly have been used for drying purposes, for the inner wall of the chimney was too thick to let much heat through, at this height from the fires. Inside it were a few iron hooks, however, as if to hang things upon. I went back into the room beneath. There was no inlet from there, and no indication that any such vault was concealed in the chimney. It could be discovered only by lifting a board in the attic, and prying off an innocent-appearing stone, which might easily have been made to look secure with a bit of mortar dust.
I have tried in vain to find the true history of this house, preferring in so curious a matter the facts to any fiction. Its secret seems long ago to have been lost. No one knows about the secret vault. None, indeed, had ever seen or heard of such a contrivance anywhere. Perhaps the inhabitants of this house kept their secret so well that it was never known. Valuables in this stone receptacle would have been quite as secure from fire as in any safe manufactured in those early days; and certainly no burglar could have got to them without arousing the family, even had he discovered the hiding-place. As a specimen of Yankee ingenuity, this vault is unique in my experience. Is n’t it worth a walk up the winding old road, through the weed-grown clearings and the invading woods, where the gentians grow almost in the wheelruts and a brook comes down to tinkle a welcome?
That will be all of my collection we shall see this day, for we are yet a good eight miles from the spot where we left our car, and four from any spot where our car could have been driven with safety to meet us. To-morrow, however, let us go to the House where the Little Poets Looked Down on the Valley World.
Again we leave a pleasant village on the plain and climb steadily for six miles, rising more than a thousand feet, through a water-worn gorge in the abrupt and heavily wooded mountainside, with the tumbling brook ever beside us, now far below the road and lifting up its voice from the shadows of the hemlocks, now almost laving the wheel-ruts. Halfway up, a spring gushes from a bank, amid a bed of maiden-hair, and a mossy hollowed log conducts its water into a yet mossier wooden trough. Just as the road at last breaks over the final ‘thank-youmarm,’ and enters on an upland plateau quite invisible from the valley, you will note again the tell-tale formal planting of aged maples by the wayside, and the no less tell-tale banks of day-lily spears. There is an old orchard here, too, across the road, in what was once a clearing, the poor, neglected trees still struggling bravely to renew their life in a wilderness of suckers from the base of the dead branches.
Just back of the largest maples, where the day lilies mass in profusion, is the cellar-hole. An entire colony of young trees has started up in the bottom. No trace of woodwork is left. The house has all gone back to compost, save the foundation stones. Yet here, and not so long ago, either, as time runs, books were once written — books of poetry by two little girls, which were published by a famous firm in New York and read by all our parents. The little girls knew little of life; they wrote about the flowers, the trees, the coming of spring, of summer, the first reds of autumn, the first winter storms. Standing here on their doorstep, beneath the maples, they looked back down the deep ravine,— more easily than we can do to-day, for the clearing was larger, — and saw life, not only as something adult and beyond their experience, but as something far away and far below, something lived under a faint haze down there on the valley floor. You will find a hint of this now and again in their poems, as always you will find the suggestion of their mother’s presence behind them, their mother who loved flowers and whose hands, no doubt, set out the first clumps of these day lilies which have now preëmpted a whole section of the roadside. I dug a clump of them up one spring, and transplanted it into my garden, in remembrance of that strange flowering of the arts on the bleak hilltop a generation ago. I call them my literary lilies. The lilies and the cellar-hole are all that is left of Sky Farm.
The House of the Little Old Lady in Trousers is not on the mountain. It is on a hill, to be sure, but a foot-hill rolling up from the valley floor, where it looks across two miles of fertile fields to the great, wooded rampart of our dominating summit. This was a fine house once, as you can see by the front wall, which is all that is left standing. No shell struck this dwelling, no bomb descended through the roof, but only the slow, relentless bombardment of the storms. Four-square, with fluted door-posts, elaborately moulded cornice, fine and dignified proportions, the old house was a monument to some carpenter-builder of the 1790’s or thereabouts, and, no doubt, the pride of its owner’s heart. Now all but the gray ruin of one wall lies heaped in the cellar-hole, and out behind, in the last remnants of an outhouse, the Old Lady in Trousers keeps her cow, living herself in a shanty down the road, though this be her ancestral mansion. The reason? Ah, there are many; but chief, no doubt, the lure of the cities. A few generations of the best blood drawn off, weariness, laziness, shiftlessness left behind, slow poverty and no repairs, and the little old lady at last, with her high, screaming voice, her harmless eccentricities of dress, finds grazing for her cow in the ancient garden and kindlings in her best parlor It is said that two corner cupboards went down in the crash when the roof caved in. I have more than once attempted to delve their shattered fragments out; but the old lady is spry in her trousers, and so far I have always been driven off, much to my chagrin, for I do not relish sharing proprietorship in my cellar-holes.
It is but a step — two or three miles — to the last treasure I shall show you, the House of the Old Man who Forgot his Kettle. We walk straight across country to the state highway at the foot of the mountain wall, and turn, apparently, up the drive to an expensive and expansive summer estate. But in reality this is an old town road, though nobody uses it but the owners of the estate. As soon as we have passed the house, the road becomes a dim track through the woods, headed straight for the mountain cliffs, and soon begins to climb sharply, used, apparently, in spring by a snowwater brook. After half a mile or so, it comes into one of those tell-tale clearings on a bit of shelf, with ancient pear and apple trees instead of maples, and in the door-yard in summer a great creamy snowdrift of spiræa — a spiræa which comes up annually from the roots, its foliage resembling the shoots of raspberries, and which has here persisted and taken exclusive possession of a considerable area. The road goes on up the mountain, ultimately reaching the summit plateau a thousand feet above. In the brave days of old, such a road evidently held no terrors; but it was long since abandoned for an easier way, and, when it passed, the day of this farm which clung beside it passed, also. The last dweller here was an old man. He moved at length down to his son’s house in the valley, and the forest settled to its work of closing in upon his clearings, the storms to their work of reducing his dwelling to its original soil — not to dust, but rich brown humus, out of which the new timber is already springing.
But your true collector of cellar-holes must, of course, always rummage; who knows what he may turn up? Once I walked around the rim of a cellar-hole where the house had recently burned, and picked up nearly all the handwrought shutter hinges, in good condition, where they had dropped out of the burning walls. Here at the old man’s house, naturally, I dug up at once a great clump of the spiræa, and then went foraging further. There was nothing in the cellar-hole but the rusted remnants of a sheet-iron stove. But behind the house a dim path persisted, and led to a little spring hole against the mountain wall, and beside it the stoned entrance to a root cellar, dug into the bank. This entrance had once been equipped with a door. The door now lay on the ground, overgrown with Virginia creeper and blackberry vines. Poking the vines aside, I sawwith delight the ancient arrow-pointed strap hinges still clinging to the rotted wood. They lifted easily off. Then I went inside the now roofless cellar. The walls were damp and green. It was quite empty, I thought. But I poked a pile of rubbish on the floor, and the pile gave forth a sound. Lo, beneath it was an iron pot, a round, threefooted pot, the very pot to hang on a crane, the very pot that once hung on a crane! That it would hold water was evident from the fact that it wTas holding water. The old man had forgotten it. I blessed his memory, and his cellar-hole, as I went back down the brook-washed road, laden with pot and hinges and spiræa. As I left, the shadow of the mountain wall had dusked the clearing, and the hermits were beginning to sing. But out over the valley to the east the sunlight was still at golden ebb.
Do you find the collecting of cellar-holes a melancholy occupation? I cannot find it so. Some of them, to be sure, represent a beauty of craftsmanship that it is sad to think of as destroyed. But for the most part they represent, after all, a pioneering into high, stubborn country that was not, in the long run, adapted for farming and the graces of community life, but for forests and ranges. The inevitable readjustment of society has left them stranded and abandoned. But they are brave, brambled records of the pioneers who bred us — tough men who could swing an axe, hew a beam, yet hold a chisel delicately and forge a hinge into a thing of beauty; tough women, too, who had no furnaces in their cellars, but who stood lustre teasets proudly in graceful, pillared cupboards, and planted lilies by the door, and taught their daughters to lisp in numbers. Indeed, there are many things less stimulating to collect than Yankee cellar-holes — such as postagestamps, for instance; and in no other museum than mine will you hear the hermit thrushes sing, and the whispering of the summer wind in the ancient, guardian maples, and the tinkle of the spring as it runs away down the mountain— to store the reservoirs on the plain for us moderns who have resigned ourselves to easier lowland ways.