How to Build a Summer Place
IN 1921, two of us visiting in the high hills of upper Connecticut were shown a deserted farm in a fold of a wild and beautiful valley, a rundown farm of woods and rough pastures, with a decaying house and a great barn built with hand-hewn beams of oak. There was little else but quiet and solitude. From the top of the farm, wide-stretching views reached the blue Taconics to the northwest, and to the south the misty course of the Housatonic between its ranges. On the middle slopes of the farm, where there was an old orchard then in bloom, a tiny stream began, trickled down a deep shadowed ravine, and dropped in miniature waterfalls to the meadow below the house.
In a few weeks the local squire who controlled the property, first making sure that we were not millionaires who would corrupt the ancient and simple traditions of the community he guarded, had sold us hills, ravine, brook, and buildings at about $7.50 an acre. The name of the farm, we learned, was Yelping Hill. A century ago a much-respected deaf mute ploughed these acres. Since the sounds he made when steering his oxen among the boulders were loud and peculiar, the neighbors called his holdings Yelping Hill. That joking name now appears in official maps of the state.
It happened that six families of friends, or friends of friends, were vacationing in a scattered cottage community in the Pennsylvania mountains. Some of us had been at the same colleges, most of us had young children, all of us were tired of vacations at hotels, or summer camps, or in rented houses. The parents ranged in age from the latter thirties to the early forties. None of us were rich, none actually poor, though some incomes were small. When we two came back glowing from our speculation in a site for a dimly possible summer home, the others said, ‘Why do it alone? Why not all come in, and do it now? Isn’t coöperative life the solution for summer living for people of moderate means?’ And so, at the first of the tiny waterfalls, six men of six families sat on the grass in a circle on a September day, and pledged (some with a justified foreboding) $1000 each to get under way the community of Yelping Hill.
I do not intend to tell a story of summer adventuring. I propose, instead, to analyze the history of this community, because, unlike hundreds of other experiments of this kind, it has not failed; because, through good times and bad, and with all the temptations and mistakes that usually result in the breaking up of coöperative enterprises, it has not turned commercial, or changed its essential character, or failed in its purpose to make a good and happy environment in the summer for two generations. I believe that there are many elements in our experience applicable to the problems of American families of our kind all over the country. For Yelping Hill is not a community of artists or writers or socialists or faddists. It is based upon nothing more specialized than friendship and a liking for a simple and varied way of American summer life.
The first summer was a riot of children, dogs, half-built houses, steady rain, and almost impassable roads. We left the old and leaky house for storage, and rebuilt the barn into a community centre. Lifted on jacks, the ancient structure almost toppled over in a high wind, but came down again and changed its hayloft into a living room with a giant fireplace and bedrooms above. In the old cow stables we built a kitchen and an inside dining room, and threw out a porch above and a concrete terrace below, screened for outdoor eating.
We had at the beginning perhaps nineteen children under twelve. In the Barn, as we decided to call the clubhouse, each couple camped in a room as best they could, and a forest of khaki tents arose in the meadow below for children and help. There were no shades as yet, and petticoats (they still wore petticoats) pinned over windows gave the only privacy. Water flowed freely to the bathrooms from a concrete pool, except when the pipe clogged or a woodchuck drowned in the spring. In that summer of great rain our cars were useless half the time, and it was a lucky commuter who made his train. The nights were enlivened by dogfights, visits from the Yelping Hill skunks and raccoons, snorting of deer, and scuffles and nightmares in the tent settlement, followed by a rush of anxious mothers from the Barn above. Days were a bustle of workmen, children under foot, improvised meals when the provisions stuck in a mudhole, chopping trees, cutting brush, burning, hauling, exploring. We were wet all the time, exceedingly uncomfortable, and very happy, especially the children.
Fortunately, we were well aware that there can be no permanence in a camping party. And so we began to organize on certain principles, which proved to be sound. First, we borrowed money freely! This was not because the time was the expansive twenties. If a group of varying incomes, and of fortunes running from moderate to next to nothing, were to live together with equal financial responsibilities, — as was essential for independence and self-respect, — it was indispensable that all should contribute alike. Investment was easy for some, very difficult for others. The only solution was to borrow the money which we could not raise from equal cash contributions of an amount possible for each family. All of us could pay interest, and the property, the new construction, and our own cottages as built could serve as adequate security. It cost us over $10,000 to remodel the old barn, and large sums, not at first wisely spent, to lay out what became eventually more than two miles of roads and more than three miles of pipes for a water supply. Our mortgage, at one time, was large. Later there were cabins to be built for the staff, a garage and game-anddance room, tennis courts, a pumphouse, and small capital investments too numerous to mention.
If we were to eat together (at first three times, later once or twice a day) we knew there would have to be unusual opportunities for privacy to keep the balance — all the more so since our membership was to contain finally at least five men and two women who used the freedom of their summers for hard work. A maximum of social enjoyment, combined with a minimum of pressure upon individuals who liked or needed privacy, was our ideal. We planned to see as much of each other as we wanted, while living as far apart as was practicable. Fortunately we had plenty of land, nearly 600 acres by the time the community was complete. Visits, except by arrangement, were barred in the morning.
The plan, therefore, was to evacuate the Barn as soon as possible and leave it for guests. That building, and all the roads, water supply, other public buildings, and unoccupied land, were to be owned in common by all the families; but each family, in return for its cash contribution, which amounted to about $2500, was entitled to the choice of a four-acre site, to be held on a ninety-nine-year lease, with communication by road with the Barn and a water supply. On a morning in spring, before residence began, we drew lots, and then, by couples, raced over the hill searching for our sites. Some chose sites with views which disappeared as soon as the leaves came out. Some could find nothing to their liking. But eventually each was satisfied, and in a few years was certain that his was the best location in the community.
By August of the first summer, two socalled portable houses were already up and occupied. Under our scheme each family was able to live as it pleased on its own site. Some built expensive houses, some clustered cabins in the woods, one family made a glorious garden and rock terrace around a tiny fabricated house, another for years preferred tents on its high and wind-swept hill. We were equal where it was important to be equal (in upkeep of roads, water supply, and the Barn), unlike where personal preference and financial ability could safely be allowed to function without restriction.
The reader may think that such an easy and friendly community would almost run itself. Nothing could be more untrue. There were recurring crises in finance, in water supply, in roads, in the staff, most of all in policy. There were major upsets over children, and minor ones over the dogs. Nothing makes friends quarrel so quickly as the problems of small children and the fighting of family dogs. We had a dog for every other child, and a range of pets extending from chipmunks, lovebirds, guinea pigs, and cats to a deodorized skunk. One family arrived the first summer with a rooster crowing on the roof of their Ford and a hen laying an egg on the back seat.
The staff in itself gave infinite trouble. A housekeeper and cooks solved (sometimes) the problems of meals; but waiters-on-table and dishwashers and caretakers for the children were explosives. I should say that the community was so organized as to require no servants at the cottages, except for an occasional nurse. There were cottage girls from the Barn to help with cleaning and bedmaking. No meals, originally, were served in the private houses, and guests, not intimates, could be cared for in the rooms at the Barn.
At first we had the conventional idea that the children should be put to work at the lesser community tasks. So we engaged relays of college students to supervise them, and — except for the cooks, the housekeeper, and the gardener — put the place on an amateur status. That never worked. Sometimes the students came from theological schools and were unbearably pious. Sometimes they came from regular colleges and flirted, wore out the community car, or taught crap shooting to the infants. Yelpers, Helpers, and Whelpers were our social classes then, and of them the Helpers were the most trying. The mothers divided into two factions, one in favor of supervised play, one against it. Finally counseloring declined to a daily trip to our lake in a decrepit station wagon. As waiters and dishwashers, the Whelpers and Helpers were terrible. The little water boys, engrossed in the interesting conversations around the tables, would pour cold drinking water down the nearest neck. Dishwashing cost us $200 in breakage in one summer. At last we let the children attend to their own affairs, dropped the students, hired professionals, and lived quite happily ever after.
Personal ownership in the community carried with it one vote. Thus every adult member of Yelping Hill was a voter, as well as a proprietor in a leasehold, and an owner of one share of the undivided property. Twice or thrice each summer, once each winter, we held a community meeting in which the young over sixteen were soon invited to join, though not to vote. At these meetings differences were aired as soon as they arose, grievances frankly expressed, each summer planned in advance, budgets analyzed, and experiments discussed while they were under way. I feel myself that the harmonious continuance of this community owes more to these meetings than to any other factor. They are argumentative, often hot, never angry, usually humorous, and when they are over everyone has had his or her say. A president of the Association presides; a manager of the place, one of our own members, a woman of business and architectural experience, reports, and sees that what is voted gets done. One of our women, experienced as a hostess, supervises the ordering and serving of the meals.
Yelping Hill now has eleven families in residence, one a second-generation family. We have expanded our membership very slowly and only by common consent. Our few elections have all been of friends of members of the community. Thus the group has remained in a close relationship, and its limit in numbers will make it possible for the new generation to carry on in their own way. We have been rather careful to confine our choices to families who do not see much of each other in the winter. And we have avoided like poison the temptation to solve our financial problem by realizing on our abundant real estate at the cost of unity and harmony.
The community is financed in two ways. Except for a sale of dead chestnut trees and a little maple syrup, we have never made a penny out of the place, though it should be added that its assets in timber and in value of residential land have heavily increased. However, the community house with its meals carries itself usually, and sometimes makes a profit. Taxes, interest, upkeep, wages for our resident caretaker and his assistant, and cost of improvements are divided twice a year among the families as a service charge. We grumble, but should do worse if we lived alone.
The gods that sometimes take care of the innocent were on our side. We emerged without a quarrel from a speculation which would have wrecked a less trustful group, and with many solid improvements to the property and with a forested hill and half a mile of frontage on an unspoiled lake which, in the effusion of prosperity, we had bought to preserve a shore line and acquire a little wilderness for quiet wanderings. I can scarcely note this adventure as typical of community experience! However, the net result has been merely to give us more land, and less reduction of our mortgage, than is good for us. A soberer community would have accomplished all that we have, except the purchase of the lake front, by small contributions to capital investment as the years went on.
The final test of such an organization as Yelping Hill, of course, is social. It was not created for work, though much work has been done there; nor for the propagation of ideas, though ideas, humorous and otherwise, have sometimes buzzed like yellow jackets. As for the social life engendered, it has been delightful because unforced. We have college presidents and college professors in our membership, but Yelping Hill has never been in the least degree academic or pretentiously intellectual. Nobody lectures in Yelping Hill; or, if anyone does, he wishes he hadn’t. The tone has been light, pleasantly satirical, affectionate, personal, and goodnatured. Our lawyers and politicians have kept the scholars lubricated, the scientist has prodded the literary; the women have talked as much as the men, and the young, having lived on terms of easy familiarity with their elders, have been unusually tolerant, and quite unusually frank, in their attitudes toward the foibles of middle age.
Our community is part of a much larger summer colony spread through the Cornwall hills and valleys. We know them all, belong to the same lake club with them, but are regarded as somewhat self-sufficient — an undigested group in the midst of a society. This is inevitable. On week-ends some fifty of us sit down at dinner together, and a community of fifty is about as many friends as the most socially inclined can attend to. One meal a day at the Barn is required of all members; and it is the evening meal, with coffee and talk at sunset time afterward, and the life on the tennis courts, that hold us in a sufficient unity. Neither seclusion nor companionship is obligatory. And, indeed, many of us who wish to work or rest at home escape from all sight or sound of the Community all day long.
But of course the real social test is the history of the children, the first crop of whom have now reached college and after. As youngsters they quarreled and made special friends within the community, as any children would. Then, when they reached their teens, they began to leave the Hill — some on long visits, others as counselors at camps, most to find new experiences elsewhere. It seemed that the Yelping Hill young would separate as wholeheartedly as their parents had come together. And then, and especially after college, they began to come back.
There had always been plenty to do at Yelping Hill — plenty of sports, including soft baseball and tennis, though we were short on golf, parties in the neighborhood, swimming and tennis at the lake club. There were also our own peculiar parties in which young and old joined with such lack of self-consciousness that it soon ceased to be amusing to see a college president folkdancing with a ten-year-old girl or a tiny boy in a Polish polka reaching up to a plumpish matron.
I should add one more sport, invented by Yelping Hill — rump-bumping. When the Housatonic is high and the weather warm, we run several miles of its course in flocks of a dozen, young and older, each seated in an inflated inner tube. Floating or handpaddling down the quiet stretches, steering through rocks and rapids (some too rough for a canoe), with waves breaking over your head, adjusting your sitting angle so as to be neither overturned nor rump-bumped on under-surface ledges, is excellent sport for good swimmers.
Our youngsters had been like a family of brothers and sisters, too familiar to be exciting to each other. But when they had absorbed their outside experiences they came back to Yelping Hill and its pleasures with a new and different enthusiasm.
After all, there is very little permanence in American life. But during the twenty years considered in this paper Yelping Hill stayed always the same, improving, developing, but still the same woods and valley and homes, the same kind of atmosphere and life. Yelping Hill began to seem home to the young people — in many cases their most permanent home. Now they come back to Yelping Hill to be married, they come up in winter to ski, in the autumn and the spring for walks and gardening and week-end parties. Not only do all of them spend as much time as they can here in the summer, but their friends come with them. Yelping Hill occupies a central place in their lives. And a large majority of them are already planning ways and means for carrying on with new families after the first generation lets go.
How much of the unusual quality of life here is a result of the personalities involved, how much is due to the nature of our summer experiment, I do not know. There is the toughest individualism, the most resolute nonconformity, in this coöperative commu-
nity that I have ever seen. Half of our community likes the simplest of simple lives; the other half has a taste for comfort, if not luxury. Half of us enjoy cocktail parties; the other half disapprove of them. Half like bridge; the other half hate it. We are social enough on the Hill, and entertain outside friends abundantly, either at the Barn or in our cottages; but it is impossible to get the community as a whole even interested in social prestige in our vacation area, or in opening our gates to general entertainment.
HENRY SEIDEL CANBY