Connecting to history: Louise Dickinson Rich.

On on of my walks recently, I stumbled across a free copy of Louise Dickinson Rich’s The Coast of Maine, which I brought back with me to the house (despite our surfeit of books) to add to our Maine books collection.

I hadn’t known about this particular work of Rich’s, but Louise Dickinson Rich brings me to another post on the books, landscapes, and experiences that have been formative in my connections with the past. Her first book, We Took to the Woods, is a delightful account of essentially riding out the depression in the backwoods of Maine, with her husband, son, dog, and hired man. It is illustrated with great photographs of the Rangeley Lakes region during the 1930s, and the people, places, and things that populate her tale.

I encountered Rich completely by accident, and it wasn’t a historian who turned me on to her, but a scientist. When I was working for OpenCourseWare, I was in charge of recruiting faculty in the Biological Engineering department to post their courses with us. One of the best folks I worked with over there was John Essigmann, who has some of the best chalkboard technique and visual pedagogy of any teacher I’ve encountered, and is equally great one-on-one. (One of the joys of working at OCW was discovering great profs I had never encountered as a student, and being able to share in their work just a tiny bit.) At one of our meetings, Prof. Essigmann told me about a second home he and his family had on the Maine-New Hampshire border, and how you could go walking in the woods and find abandoned cars and machinery from the early 20th century, and the cabin formerly inhabited by Louise Dickinson Rich. As he explained her story, she had grown up in Boston, and was walking in the Maine woods one day with a friend when a man stepped out of the woods and asked them in to a meal. Much to the surprise of her female companion, she eventually married the fellow, and they rode out the Depression together in that cabin, making do on odd jobs, sports guiding, and her writing about her experiences. He recommended We Took to the Woods, and told me that you could go up there and find all the things she writes about in the book, still standing, alone in the White Mountains.

Well. The thought of going on a treasure hunt of that nature was immediately captivating to me, so I read the book almost immediately. Just a short way in, I stumbled across a passage that I immediately had to send to all of my engineer friends:

The one building here that looks as though it belonged in the deep woods is Ralph’s shop, an old log cabin from long before our day. I can’t say much about it, as it comes under the heading of sacred ground. It is full of tools and pieces of board that look like any other boards, but which have something special about them, so that they must never be touched, or even looked at. Hanging from the rafters are old car parts, lengths of rope, chains and boat seats, all of which are going to be used some day for some important project. In the middle is a pile of invaluable junk, and around the edges are kegs of nails and bolts. On my bridal innocence I used, when I needed a nail, to go and take one out of a keg. But it always turned out that I had taken (a) the wrong kind of nail for the job on hand, and (b) a nail that was being conserved for a specific purpose and was practically irreplaceable. So now when I need a nail I find Ralph and ask him to get me one.

But We Took to the Woods is full of many other pleasures as well, ones that I appreciate even more now, as a historian, than I did when I first read the book, excited as I was by the history it recounted. Rich describes in detail the seasonal rhythms of backwoods life. What they wear to keep warm in winter. What they eat and how they secure and prepare and preserve it. What their neighbors do. The landscape and the wildlife. What it is like to work as a guide for sportsmen coming up from the city. What the trip to the “Outside” involves. What it is like to see a log drive coming down the river. How people cut ice from the frozen lake. What it is like to be in a turn-of-the-century lumbering camp. And more and more and more. It’s a wonderful story and a wonderful document as well, and it makes you want to get up and go to Umbagog Lake, to go look for the cabin, to go see all these places she is describing, even though no lumbering camps are there anymore.

One of the great things you can see form Rich’s book is how a life so apparently cut off from the rest of the world is nonetheless intimately tied to it. Though they go there rarely, Louise and her family are dependent on canned goods from “Outside” to make it through the winter. The make money by working for logging crews and city folk who have come to the woods for lumber and game. They have a number of ramshackle vehicles that need gasoline. And the logging companies that own the land around them are their “insurance” that they will be able to remain far away from lots of other folk, that there won’t be a street full of houses or summer cottages cropping up in the next season. Their landscape, wild though it may seem, is completely inscribed with the markings of industry, capital, and exchange. It’s a great lesson about wilderness, and it’s striking to behold.

In preparing this post, I came across some unexpected pleasures. One is an audio recording of Louise Dickinson Rich speaking on the radio program This I Believe in the 1950s. As it turns out, her husband died shortly after she wrote We Took to the Woods, a heartbreaking thing to learn if you’ve read the book, since the two of them seem to be so happy in their woodland life together. It’s lovely to hear her speak, though, even if it is about great difficulty and tragedy, a voice from out of the past.

The Winter House.The other is the web site of Rapid River Fly Fishing, where I learned that you, too, can experience the Winter House where Rich and her family lived. You can even go there as a city sport, with your Maine guide taking you on a fishing expedition on the Rapid River.

As much as I hate being in that tourist-from-the-outside position, I have to say that the thought of sleeping in Louise Dickinson Rich’s cabin is pretty tempting. And there you have it: the Maine tourist economy written in landscape, historical and present-day.

This is the third in a series of posts about how we relate to the past in our everyday lives. See also:
Connecting to history.
Connecting to history: Cemeteries.


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