Helena (Bunny) Wilkening
Interviewed by Marian Knight
At the Home of Helena “Bunny” Wilkening
Bluff Head Road, Huletts Landing, New York
September 9, 2010
Marian Knight: Well I’m Marian Knight, and I am talking to Bunny Wilkening at her home on Bluff Head Road. This is September 9th and I am delighted to have an opportunity to talk to you, and get some of your, you’ve called it yourself, ancient times.
Bunny Wilkening: Thank you.
Marian: So anyway, I’d like to start with just, if you would talk just a bit about who you are and of course the first question we ask is how did you happen to come to Lake George or to Hulett’s?
Bunny: Well, that’s very easy. My name is, given name is, Helena Emerson Wilkening, I first came to Lake George I think probably 83 years ago. My family owns, my grandfather bought an original 150 acres which was divided between his, four of his five children. One had passed away before the division, and then, because of difficult circumstances one piece of property was going for back taxes, and my grandfather gave my mother two pieces of property; so we now have, we had two houses, one fallen down, and one now a large house facing the lake, with a beach, and I own 34 acres. So, given the fact that I’m almost 90 years old, which is why I am not able to come and take care of it anymore as I did, my three children are renting the house out in the summertime and at the moment I am extremely lucky to feel well and am down visiting my beloved home which I’ve come to for most of the years. Most, 80 plus, 85 plus years that I’ve been coming here.
Marian: This is the White House?
Bunny: Yes, we call it the White House, and however we found that years ago when we repainted and took down, scraped the paint off, why it had been at one point a pink house and at one point it had been a green house, and then many years of white house, so I had to paint it white because that’s the name we’ve had for years and years.
Marian: It’s a wonderful house.
Bunny: Yes, it is.
Marian: It’s a beautiful house looking at it from the lake.
Bunny: But it’s, it’s typical Adirondacks, sort of, added onto, it was an original farm house, built before 1876. I know that from a friend who did some historical work and found out that the Bluff Head Road was built around this house, so this one was an old farm house; then my Grandmother added a breezeway and then what was to be the family party house, which was quite large. Six bedrooms, huge living room, dining room, and then the old farm house was to be where the servants lived. Cook, and housekeeper and etc.
Marian: That was here on this side?
Bunny: Yes. Then my grandmother died the year after she had this designed and built and so the house was not used, the White house, was not used for several years; then it was turned over to be used as a, I guess, the dining facilities, mainly for a girl’s summer camp. And then, I think probably in the late 20’s early 30’s, I don’t know this for fact, Grandmother died in 1916, I believe, yes, because this house was built in 1915, the so-called family party place, but the family just didn’t come because of the sadness of this death of my grandmother.
Marian: What was her name?
Bunny: She was Helena Dewey Leeming before she married grandfather, who was Smith Ely Jelliffe. And I am, my full name is Helena Leeming and Emerson was my father’s name and I married a Gene, Eugene Wilkening, but that is much too much so I go by the nickname of Bunny Wilkening, which is a little bit easier to say.
Marian: How did you get the nickname Bunny?
Bunny: (laughs) That’s not related.
Marian: What was the house that came down? You said there were two houses.
Bunny: It was the Chalet, way up on the rocks. Had the most gorgeous view down the lake, almost like Lucy White’s. We could see all the way down the lake, almost, not quite, but certainly to Hulett’s and we could see Elephant mountain and not, not Sugar Loaf but Elephant. Anyway, lovely view but it was just a three room jerry-built cottage and I do mean jerry-built. The kitchen area was an old ice house, and then, a living area was built connected to that, and a dorm upstairs, one huge dormitory bedroom. That’s where I used to come up when I was small.
Marian: Interesting. The Jelliffe family is a pretty big family up here.
Bunny: Yes, certainly my cousin Robert, who, took over his mother’s home, which was rather small.
Marian: Robert who is that?
Bunny: Robert Stragnell.
Marian: Father of the current Robert?
Bunny: Grandfather of the current Robert Stragnell, but Sandy’s Stragnell’s father. And there were six in that family, and they have just had a reunion in which there were 30 odd people who came, including my cousin Robert and his wife Libby, who are both living.
Marian: Who else in that family? Would you talk a little bit about that family, because people know a little bit but I don’t think we all know how it all is related.
Bunny: Well, I don’t know too much. In the early days, Aunt Sylvia, of course, occupied her house and it was wonderful in the early days when I was young, but wonderful for Mother because she and her older sister, Aunt Sylvia, or Sylvia, and then her brother Ely came to the lake, so Mother and then Grandfather Jelliffe was still alive, with his second wife, who was not a very popular person in the Jelliffe family; but apparently they all so loved their mother, who died, that, you know, they weren’t very accepting of a step, or second wife, they never called her step-mother.
Marian: Your grandmother was Helena?
Bunny: Also a Helena, yes. So the name Helena has come down each generation, I think at the moment now, that’s it, unless, I think, that would be it, unless a grand or great grandchild would be named this, but to get back to Robert’s family. Robert moved to Los Angeles area after his medical degree, I don’t even know where he got his medical degree, but he was, I believe, a general practitioner, but I understand extremely popular. Anyway, he had the foresight, after his degree, after he and Libby, his wife, moved to California, to buy a property in Los Angeles, in the down town area, and they actually lived outside in a suburb, but I do not remember the name of it. He had his practice there for years and I did not see Robert at all, and I thought he had no interest in the lake. Uncle Ely did for a while, but he was the third child; however, he was the one that defaulted on tax payments here at the White House, and in the mid-30’s sometime the (property) was transferred to my mother and father to take over because Mother had such a deep love of this property and the houses. Oh, it’s (not) just the property that she just loved; it was, it was family, it was nucleus and it’s turned out to be the one place that has been sort of the nucleus of my love because I don’t, I have family spread all over. The Emerson family is spread all over the world and this is one place where I sort of felt really at home with relatives, and you know, had a place, and besides, just absolutely adoring the location and the beauty of the nature here.
Marian: Well, your father was a person of interest, and I know there’s been some, there’s a talk that’s gotten out about him, but I know my husband admired him greatly. Tell us a little bit about your dad.
Bunny: Well, Dad was a, got his PhD in entomology, zoology and entomology at Cornell University, which also happens to be, have family, lots of family of the Emersons went to Cornell, or taught there, but Dad’s first job was at Pittsburgh and I don’t remember too much about coming up to Lake George from Pittsburgh, but we left Pittsburgh and I think it was probably the University of Pennsylvania but I’m not sure what Dad’s job was; I should say what university he was connected with; however, in September of 1929 we moved to Chicago, and that is the time I remember most clearly when I was 9, 10, 11, 12 in that time of what the Lake George area and the Bluff Head Road area was like for us to be living here. But anyway, in those early days, we would come here most – Mother would bring my brother and me here most summers. However, we did have a year abroad. Dad had a Guggenheim fellowship and that, oh I’m getting ahead of myself but, his PhD and interest was stimulated by a man by the name of William Beebe. When Dad went down with Mother – they were newly-weds – went down to what was British Guiana, which is now Guyana, went way into the interior and were studying different animals, etc. and as I understand, Dad asked William Beebe what he, what Beebe thought would be an interesting area to study, and he said, nobody has ever looked into termites and you might be interested in that. Well, that really took hold and they rushed back from British Guiana to have me and I arrived, I think, two or three weeks after they got back, so I was born at Cornell, to Ithaca, New York, but Dad’s continued interest, the Guggenheim fellowship that took us to Europe from Sicily through Italy, several cities in Italy, overnight in the Alps in Switzerland, so I have no memory of that, but, and then Germany, and then Sweden and Norway. So we started out in the winter in Sicily and ended up in the summer and early fall in the Scandinavian countries, but Dad was at that time interested in identifying what they call the type species on the basis of which they diagnosed what the family – well, now I’m going to get mixed up – anyway, what the species or subspecies – an original example of the species was collected in different…, and was a present that held, in different universities, and he went to find out whether, in fact, they were correctly identified, or whether there had been a mix up because the communication and interaction between people who were studying insects had misplaced them in terms of their sequence – not sequence – but their connection, and he did find some very serious mistakes. So he changed those, or corrected them, to what, in the 19, late 19, or mid 1920s – we were there in 1927, I think that year – so he corrected that, and then built upon that in his fairly frequent, well, 4 or 5 trips around the world, or in different parts of the world, tropical. And then he collected a tremendous number of species from Australia, Indonesia, India, through the Middle East, actually termites, at that time, before the change in, climate change that is now taking place, in the late 1900’s and 2000’s, that’s changing things, but termites were tropical or semi-tropical. They couldn’t live through the cold or the freeze. Now they’re slowly, migrating, very slowly, north, as the climate warms up. But anyway, so Dad got a job at the University of Chicago and as I say, those are the years I remember most clearly – the fun of coming up here for the entire summer. Do you want me to (go on)?
Marian: Well, that’s fine about your father. I know that he was well-known, and that he had a very illustrious career.
Bunny: Well, he became the world expert on termites, but his, quote, which I always amused, but very, very accurate, he said he enjoyed being a big frog in a little pond, and he was. He was the top frog of a very little pond. Most people are interested in killing off termites, he said I want them to live, but he, because of his studies, before they even, well, he died before they knew about the tectonic plate theory, or its now an established fact that there are these tectonic plates, but he found, very, very similar relationship between the looks, what did they call it, the, well, let’s just say the physiology – that is not the correct word for termite structure – but anyway, the closeness of the relationship between termites that were in Northern Australia, for instance, and those in Indonesia, and then there were slight differences from the Indonesian termites to the Indian termites, but he could see that with these structures, with these similarities that there had to be at one time, some connecting link between Australia, Indonesia, India, etc. and that would include Malay, Burma, all those places. He didn’t know why, but he just knew that they were related, so he thought that at one time there were, maybe, barrier, not barrier but links between these islands and links to Australia, some kind of a bridge, let’s say, that the termites could slowly migrate across; but the tectonic plate theory he didn’t know about. And he didn’t, then developed, particularly, our year in 1930, no, 1935, I think it was, in 1936, he began to develop concepts of how the termites controlled their environment and in every different geographical location, be it, very dry desert area like the interior of Australia, or very wet climates like an Indonesia or an India, that the termites developed control systems so that they could control the humidity and the temperature of their nests, so sometimes they were huge, such as in Australia, they were huge mounds, that led to almost, well they would be 15, 20, 30 feet high, that these huge termite mounds, and then other places it was underground, other places they developed tunnels, they covered their runways to go up to eat the leaves of the trees so that, in the tunnels, they were controlled, the climate and the temperate was controlled for them so that they could live in all these, they adapted to these different climatic conditions, which became very interesting, so that led dad into becoming one of the very early ecologists of this country. So it’s very interesting how these things develop. But to get back to Lake George.
Marian: What was life like? You loved it and?
Bunny: I loved it and it was very, very, very different than it is now. One thing that I particularly loved, well, I just would get so excited in the summer. First place, mother would bring Bill, my brother and I up for the entire summer. So that meant large trunks, and complete summer clothing, etc., whatever we needed. And we would take the train from Chicago to Troy, NY, sleep on the benches, I’m sure mother got no sleep, but I, brother Bill and I got sleep on the benches while we waited for the train that would take us from Troy, NY up to Lake George Village, and from Lake George Village we would catch one of the lake boats, and at that time there were three lake boats plying the lake every day. There would be the, what was it, the Horicon, which was the largest, the Sagamore, which was next large, and then the little tiny boat was the, what is it now, what’s the boat called? Well now suddenly its missing, but the little boat, which mostly, mostly we travelled on the Horicon or the Sagamore. So we would catch these boats, that had, I don’t know what you would call them, any engineer would immediately, but it had a sort of a rocker system, beam, that would rock back and forth on the top of the boat, and that would work the propellers, so that that was the way that the, you know, I think it was probably diesel or, you know, oil, that was used to propel the boat. I don’t think it was kerosene, but anyway, so we would arrive at Hulett’s Landing, and all of these places around Lake George at that time were landings. There were very few roads that would come. We did not have much of a road. We had a dirt road, which, was, we would, trunks would be carried over the road by wagon. In fact, before the Hulett’s road was built, the only road over the mountain was right behind what is our tennis court, our family tennis court, which is now called the old North Road, and the previous owners of the White House property, the property I have now, they came over from the lower end of Lake Champlain, I’ve forgotten the name of the landing, but it wasn’t Clemons, but it was some place slightly north where they would land and then by wagon they would come over the mountain.
Marian: Where did the wagon, where was the wagon that brought your family?
Bunny: Oh, we never had that. We were much more modern. We came by boat. And, so, our trunks were on the boat, came by train, and then, transferred to the train that came up to Lake George Village, then onto the boat, and then grandfather, usually, met us. He had a large inboard motor boat, in one of these old, I don’t know boats very well, we never owned one. What does the inboard motor boats, a very large one?
Marian: I don’t know, Criss Crafts?
Bunny: Garwood, Criss Craft, yes, something like that. He would take us, with our suitcases, but our trunks then would be taken by wagon from the boat landing all the way through this dirt road.
Marian: Do you know who had the wagon?
Bunny: I don’t know then. I’m sure people who remember those days, who worked at the Casino or something would know something about that. Anyway, so we were up for the entire summer. Dad usually taught summer school at the University of Chicago, so he did not come with us, and just the three of us, mother and Bill and I were here.
Marian: Who else was around?
Bunny: Very few people. Aunt Sylvia was here. Aunt Helena was still in the Netherlands and she did not, she and Uncle Carle, left just, I was told the last boat that got out before the Germans swept through the Netherlands but I have heard since that that was not accurate, that it was months before that, but Uncle Carle was part Jewish and had he stayed he would have been, sent to concentration camp, which his sister was and his sister died in concentration camp. Aunt Helena, being an American citizen, was able to get the family out and so the first I saw them, was in the early 1940s, that I met them, my cousins Ely and Dolf. Dolf, or Adolf. He was the oldest, and Ely next, and they’re about, I think a little less than 10 years younger than I am. So, in the late 30s or it was early 40s I guess, why then I had cousins, Dolf and Ely. Otherwise, the only cousin that would come up would be Barbara Stragnell, Sylvia’s oldest daughter. Robert, her other son, and only other child lived, by this time, either he was in medical school or he had already moved out to the west coast, I don’t know that exactly.
Marian: So what did you do when you got here?
Bunny: Well. We were living in the Chalet up on the hill here, and we would have, ice had been cut from the lake, so we had an ice house and ice. We had an icebox, we had no electricity. We did not get electricity until very late, in, what was it called; there was an electrification under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s period?
Marian: Really, that late?
Bunny: Yes. We were very late because we’re quite an isolated community here. So our source of heat was propane gas, excuse me, correction, kerosene stove, ice, in an icebox and, c’mon, kerosene lamps.
Marian: What about cooking? How did they cook?
Bunny: Kerosene stove, which was extremely dangerous because mother would have to watch the cooking very carefully because if anything boiled over well then the flames would shoot up to the roof, but she was absolutely superb cook and loved cooking and at that time it was in a lot of ways much more convenient than it is right now because Hulett’s Landing had two grocery stores, including one that had excellent meat and excellent poultry and people who fished on the lake would bring in lake trout, fresh lake trout that they would sell and we had complete, well they also had access to fish, ocean going fish, so we had that. I don’t know how they got in, but it must have been packed in ice and several days trip.
Marian: Was that Benjamin’s store?
Bunny: That was the Benjamin’s store.
Marian: Then the other store, what was the other store? There was a Scott’s but that was later.
Bunny: I cannot remember, but it was where the historical society and the where the old fire station used to be. Or maybe it’s where young, the younger Billie Borden (lives). Was it Billie?
Marian: Well they have a son they call Tubby that lives next to the fire house.
Bunny: No I think this is Tubby’s father.
Marian: Yeah, Fran, and Rudy Borden.
Bunny: Yes. It would be Fran and then, I’m getting blank now, the elder Bordens, who you have interviewed I imagine. Fran and Rudy yes, and they were very, we knew them well. They were year round people.
Marian: But that store, there was a little store just beyond that, and that was called Scott’s, but I thought that was later.
Bunny: That’s right. It’s Scott’s, and it wasn’t as big as the one that was near the casino. Then, I didn’t mention but I will now, is that we had a large, old Adirondack type hotel, and the Casino next to it. If you wanted a really fancy dinner you went to the hotel, or to the Casino to dance, and they would have fairly good dance bands that would come. I remember it just once because young girls at the age of 12, 13, 14 were not supposed to go to the casino but I did go once and dance with my Uncle Carle who was a fantastic dancer, but you could get liquor there of course and there were parties and all kinds of things, and the hotel had a tennis court, and of course swimming, and the docks.
Marian: Were you involved at all in that community?
Bunny: Not involved at all, no. It tended to be that those of that came, came to our property and then stayed there most of the summer, we didn’t move around. If we had a boat we were fortunate enough to ride around in the lake or fish. Our family never had a dock or a boat, a motor boat, so we only had canoes, or a row boat, and so I became quite a good canoeist.
Marian: Go back, and just, what did you do for water?
Bunny: We had a one pump that was down below Aunt Sylvia’s, it’s now where Sandy Stragnell’s dock is, well quite close to it, but we had one large pump that we could hear all over the property, that would pump lake water up to a large cistern, a big rock made cistern, you know, rock and cement, and then gravity feed would feed all of the houses. So the, Aunt Sylvia’s property, Aunt Sylvia’s house was one of the lowest, so they very easily got water. We and the Chalet which was up on the rocks but still it was lower than where the cistern was so we would get the water by gravity feed that would come to the Chalet, of course it would come to the White House which is much lower in elevation and it would also feed Grandfather’s house, which was a beautiful, beautiful, small, not so small either, that he had, which burned down.
Marian: Where was that?
Bunny: That was right where Ann and Ely’s brand new home was and it replaces the home that Ann and Ely were in, was a library, and Grandfather had thousands and thousands of books, but this old, the previous house, had a two story living room, with an enormous fire place at one end, huge logs that would fill this whole thing, and then a sort of a balcony bedroom at the other end of this large room. The doors had a authentic totem poles on either side, which were incredible. The side where you’d walk in from the dirt road that came into their property, not on the Bluff Head Road but off of it, there were two beautiful ones there and then across the hall, across this room, there were two totem poles in front of the door that would lead out onto the porch, that would lead out onto their dock and waterfront property.
Marian: Were they created by Indians in this area?
Bunny: Yes they were. They were true ones that were brought in from one of the tribes on the west coast in Alaska.
Marian: Oh so the family brought them in.
Bunny: Yes, Grandfather did. I don’t know how. And then from floor to ceiling the whole rest of the hall, the walls, were filled with books. Of course he was the editor of a journal of nervous and mental diseases which was the first journal to carry Sigmund Freud and, who was the other, Adler I believe, first journal to carry Freud and Adler’s theories of psychiatry, and otherwise, apparently the medical people did not think that, they thought any medical, any psychological problems were created only because of some physical disorientation. They had no idea of the complexity of course of the brain and things like chemical, you know, chemical aspects of our blood and of our fluids in our body, they didn’t have any idea how the chemicals could react to change a person’s mental outlook, or how things like stressful situations in childhood could create emotional problems, so Freud’s ideas were very slowly accepted but it was thanks to Grandfather’s medical journal that these things, these ideas were spread in the early 1900s, 1905, 06.
Marian: Now tell just again your Grandfather’s name was?
Bunny: Smith Ely Jelliffe, and he was well known, and became well known.
Marian: Well may I just ask, what about the plumbing and that, you had running water in the house then?
Marian: And a toilet inside?
Bunny: Yes, and then of course, septic system; very poor septic system.
Marian: Well there weren’t very many of you using it.
Bunny: No, and there were very few people of us here. Harrison Bird was here, down on the Bluff, at that, in the 1930s, the time I remember the clearest, there was a couple who, called the Holcomb’s, who had a cow, and their location, their house was where Edie Cerosky’s tennis court is, and one of the things I would do was walk down with these milk cans, probably half, maybe gallon, but my guess maybe it would be two half gallons, and I would go down and get the fresh milk every few days when I was something like 10, 11, 12, something like that. I used to walk all the time. No car. Anyway, but, besides, I’m now kind of, switching around from this and that. We could buy groceries at the grocery store. Sometimes Grandfather would take us by boat, we would walk over to his boat house and he did have this boat house at that time.
Marian: Where was that?
Bunny: That’s down below the mansion, it’s all been renovated now.
Marian: In the bay? In Jelliffe bay?
Bunny: In the Jelliffe bay, right. You can’t see it from your house but your property used to look across to the (boathouse).
Marian: If I walk down to the little cove there I can see it.
Bunny: Otherwise, I would paddle to Hulett’s and get groceries sometimes. My brother had no interest and he was not a very active person and he also had some, I don’t know, nobody knew at that particular time what his difficulty was, but he could never learn how to read or write. He couldn’t pass from first to second grade because he just never learned, and sadly, because there was no scientific explanation for what was wrong at that time, my dad tended to scapegoat my brother, and so Bill developed, quite early, a lot of emotional problems, and he carried those throughout his life. Very sad, and very difficult for mother, but I think Bill always enjoyed Lake George, but he just never was, I don’t remember him ever being particularly active doing things as I did. I kind of was the one who paddled all over.
Marian: So you were kind of alone?
Bunny: Very much so, so I learned quite early to be quite happy by myself, and I don’t know how Bill felt, he didn’t express himself very much or I just didn’t pay much attention but I was pretty much by myself, and later on I had three friends, Marian, the last name has skipped my mind right at the moment, anyway, it was Bill Beech, Burt Bonning, and Marian, okay, she lived where, in the home where the Hansons have a house on Lands End. Those were the three friends. Grace Ijima was here at that time but Grace was about 10 years older than I was, and Henry would come up to but Grace.
Marian: Henry was who?
Bunny: Henry Ijima and Grace Ijima and they were sort of adopted by a family who was a cousin or some relation, second or third cousin, to Grandfather. I don’t know exactly what the connection was, but anyway, they were brought up from New York City and this family just adored the two kids and so they were here quite often in the summer, I never knew them. I did not know Grace and Henry until I was, you know, well along, in my 50s and 60s.
Marian: My husband Dave says at some point you were both part of whatever group there was playing around, he’s a little bit younger than you.
Bunny: Not with Grace.
Marian: No not with Grace, but he remembers you as being part of his play world.
Bunny: Yeah. You know, as teenagers, or young pre-teens, a year or two years makes a lot of difference, and Marian, oh I’ll come up with the name, Marian was a year old, Bill Beech and Burt Bonning were a year younger than I, but the four of us, were, once in a while would get together. Then about, oh I think, five or six years at least younger than we were, were David, your husband, and Ty, your brother in law.
Marian: This is the Knight’s we’re talking about now.
Bunny: The Knights, and we knew their family. Proctor and Edith. We knew them quite well, of course they lived on the Bluff Head Road, right next to the road, just like my house here, this part of it is right next to the road.
Marian: The farmhouse at that time where the stream is.
Bunny: And the thing, well, let me get back to the connection with your family, but the living was so much easier, as I said, than it is now, because, again, the sources of food were available by a relatively short paddle to Hulett’s Landing itself. Then we had, don’t remember the name of the man, but he had a vegetable garden and he would come by truck every, twice a week, with fresh vegetables, all organic, because in the 30s nobody knew about the pesticides and herbicides, so we had wonderful vegetables, fruits, berries brought, kids would go up on the mountains and pick blueberries and come down and sell them to us for pennies, I can’t remember. Something like, well, I’m just guessing, something makes me think about fifteen cents per quart for blueberries that were picked in the blueberry bushes which were all over and then the blackberries when they came in, and I don’t remember raspberries but there were a few. So they would come, you know, from house to house and these houses were separated by miles, or half miles, you know the next house to us was the Holcomb’s and then was the Harrison Bird, and of course Lucy White’s house was that family, who was, who is it, Amy, anyway.
Marian: Where they related? Part of the Jelliffe group?
Bunny: No, but they were the other nucleus was now, now I’m beginning to forget names, the parents of Bensons, Priscilla Benson and Judge, what’s her name, well anyway, the two sisters, would come up, but that was quite a bit later, but that was a sort of a nucleus, they were somehow connected I think with Harrison, the Bird connection, which was also Gillette and Amy Bassett, that was her name, who had the house in which Lucy White now has, and then Harrison had his big colonial type house and then the red barn across the Bluff.
Marian: That’s gone now.
Bunny: That’s gone. Yes, and the Suozzos now have bought Harrison Bird’s. So there were three houses there and one beautiful house which was falling apart, and I do not know who had that, but that is now, that is torn down and the location now is where the Adlers live, their beautiful home. Anyway, so, things were supplied here. We had the ice in the ice house, the kerosene was our source of heat, including a heater for our little Chalet. At the time, in the 30s, we did not have this White House, this did not belong to my mother, and when Uncle Ely defaulted on paying taxes here, again, 30s, depression, difficult to get jobs, and Uncle Ely just didn’t manage it. He also had had polio, was one of the few people that survived it but he had a very serious limp, and he had a hard time, apparently, holding jobs. I don’t know too much about the details. He was married to Auntie Vaughn and they had the three boys, who do not come up here anymore. The only one who owns a ten acre plot is David Jelliffe. No, Gordon Jelliffe, the youngest son, but they were all quite a bit younger, I was the oldest cousin of the first cousins, and they would come intermittently, a barber who has since passed away, quite some time ago, but she would come up here with Aunt Sylvia quite often, but she was a scrounger, however I find that, when Dolf and Ely came over from Holland they discovered that they could maneuver it so that they could arrive at Aunt Sylvia’s house at a certain time and get half of their supper and then they would mosey up to Aunt Winifred, who was my mother, and get the rest of their supper, free, and then they would go back Aunt Helena, their mother’s house, who had a much later dinner, and finish up their meal. So, I kept seeing these kids come over, it made me mad, because, particularly Barbara, because she would arrive just at the time we were about ready to sit down, enjoy the meal, and we would always have to set up a different place for her, and then she would leave immediately. She would never help put the dishes, she would never help put anything, she would just scrounge, and I did not know that Ely and Dolf did the same thing, but the three of them just worked this out, the three cousins, they would take advantage of those who cooked. So they ate well I would say. I did not know a thing about this or maybe I would have tried it myself, it wasn’t a bad idea, but for those who were always the recipients of having to make extra places and you know share their food, anyway, but you see, we had the vegetables brought to us, we had the local fruit brought to us, we had these two excellent, quite good grocery stores, not from the 19, post world war period, they weren’t that fancy, but they were very good, and we had a caretaker that was a cousin of George, of Frannie Borden’s and he was the caretaker of our house, or property, and he took care of things, got the ice in at the winter time, which is very interesting right now. The lake freezes, or sometimes doesn’t even freeze now, whereas, it would freeze six feet down, solid ice, and there used to be, apparently, in the winter time, a lot of winter activities, there would be ice boating, ice fishing, which of course still exists, and a lot of lake trout in the lake naturally, they didn’t, don’t think they were, what do they call it, bringing in small fish, small lake trout to grow larger, but it had its natural source of indigenous fish and a lake trout was, to have a large lake trout was not unusual. They’re of course gorgeous.
Marian: Good eating.
Bunny: But the thing we didn’t have was much social life, we had it within the family. Each one of the members, not so much Grandfather Jelliffe, he did not have, he was not very oriented to having grandchildren around. At my age I can begin to understand, there’s so much energy with these young ones and you know they get loud and noisy and old people have a hard time coping with this. Anyway, Aunt Sylvia would always have a big party, I know mother had at least one if not two huge parties on the beach. The beach was actually much, the lake level was lower because of use of the water going over the dam at Ticonderoga, that would power the mill, the paper mill. Now, since that was torn down, the stream is no longer being used for power, but the lake level is much higher now than it was at that time, so our beach would be 10 feet deep, and mother would have this big spread for everybody at the latter part of the summer.
Marian: Your mother had a lot of energy then?
Bunny: She, well, yes and no. She was a wonderful cook, new how to cook ahead of time and keep things, but no, she had rheumatic heart disease as a 14 year old and that impaired her heart and so she was not able to be very active. So she spent most of her time at the house but another thing that we had done too, there were the wives of many of the people who, I won’t say many, but some of the people who lived up on the hills, on the mountains behind us here, would do the laundry, so mother would have the laundry done for us, and that continued on after mother died in 1949, dad remarried in 1950 I think, the end of the year, to a woman that he had known before, who he had written a child’s book on termites with Eleanor Fish, and they married, and even till the time that Eleanor first and then dad passed away in 1976 they had people doing their laundry for them, and ironing their sheets and all this, so all of that was taken care of. Well mother couldn’t afford that so I remember we had our soapstone double bin old soap stone tubs with washboards and we would wash our sheets and our clothes on those, that was one of my jobs with mother, for mother, and every once in a while I would get very tired of this and my escape was to climb the tallest pine trees I could get and get way up near the top and mother couldn’t find me, so I disappeared for three or four hours up on pine trees.
Marian: Well doing laundry in those days in that way was no fun.
Bunny: Well no, and we didn’t even have clotheslines, so very often we’d just put the sheets out on bushes and let it air dry, so it was pretty primitive but no washing machines or dryers or anything fancy.
Marian: Was there a telephone?
Bunny: We did have a telephone, one of these old ones, we would have a ring, I’ve forgotten now what it was, but it was maybe three longs and two shorts or something like that, a party line, where anybody could listen to the conversation, which we would hear every once in a while a click and know that somebody was listening in, and we could listen in but I don’t remember particularly being interested in that at the age of 11, 12. And then one of my early summer projects was to paddle over to Grandfather’s boathouse and make Higher’s Root Beer for us. I would make about 48 to 60 bottles of it at the beginning of the year and I would paddle over maybe twice to take all these empty bottles, wash them, sterilize them, and then make in one of these huge copper tubs gallons and gallons of Higher’s Root Beer with sugar and with yeast and Higher’s extract and of course lake water, and then had a bottle capper that we would cap them up and carried back, or paddled back to my house and then carried it slowly, probably case by case at that time, up to the Chalet, and put it under the foundation, but there was no foundation. That house was just built on cement blocks, or stones piled upon top of each other, so that the whole house would wiggle like this, so when I took over after dad died in 1976 well we let that house go. We just couldn’t, we didn’t see any reason to pay for the extra taxes for that house, and this house, the White House was then vacated of course. Dad and Eleanor had passed away, Eleanor first by about 4 years and then dad in 1976, so that’s actually the first time, when we had the, when I came down and we had the memorial service for dad that I ever saw the inside of this house. I don’t remember it when, in the 30s. I don’t remember seeing the inside, but Eleanor was easily emotionally upset with children apparently, and dad refused to let us come in to the house, so we knew nothing, I knew nothing about this, and so it was quite an education to find out how the water worked and by that time dad had dammed up the brook that goes around our house here and out to the lake and so he had again gravity feed water but from the brook, which was the best tasting water, and it wasn’t until, oh late 1990s that I had to dig a well because that water would disappear, would go underground actually, when we had some renters here and I realized, one set of renters had no water at all, and I didn’t know that the stream had ever stopped running in late summer.
Marian: That’s awkward.
Bunny: And I’m not sure it did. I have no idea where the water table is, it’s in various areas in depth. Some people only have to go down, I don’t know, I’ve heard of one 150 feet, we had to go down, about, almost 450 feet. Right next to the brook is where our well is dug, but we had to dig a well in order to get water year round to cover the last part of August and into September.
Marian: So when, how long have you actually had this house or long have you been here?
Bunny: Since dad died in 1976, and I took care of it and handled the renters, the rentering situation and the cleanup afterwards, all of that, up until I decided to move down here. I had moved from Madison, WI where my husband and I had lived for 35 years almost, 33 years, where my husband was a professor in sociology, in rural sociology, but I moved east in 1987 to Burlington, and so I could take care of the house at that time, but it wasn’t as efficient, we couldn’t advertise, I didn’t know any way how to advertise by computer online, things like that, so now, with the help of Jim Hudson, who, you know lives over on Land’s End, he helps my three children, who are all on the west coast, children, you know, they’re 60, 61, but they are on the west coast where their jobs were, and it’s very difficult for them to come east. Two of them, well actually all three, two years ago, three years ago, after I moved up to the retirement community in Burlington, VT, they came, and we had a major three week session of trying to clean up this house, so that it could really be more attractive for renters, and put in a dock that could be removed. We never had a dock, I never had one, and when I was renting I did not have a dock and for that reason lost some renters who would like it. But the other thing is that the house could be, could handle or sleep 15 people, so it was quite large and people just didn’t, weren’t, it was for wonderful family reunions, large numbers of people, or 15 people could be here comfortably, but in the early days, right after dad died, the kitchen was in this particular section that we’re in, this old farmhouse section, was in, not convenient at all, and I had the whole thing, this downstairs, in 1984, I had this whole thing redone. I designed the cabinets and changed, I had a window put in, flooring, brand new flooring, and the heat, here dad had a very different heater right over here with a pipe that went up in through here and the pipe followed the wall, this far from a wood wall, what do you call it, pine, pine paneled wall. This far, and that heat, pipe up to a chimney, was such a fire hazard, so we, I bought this stove, and we had a different system, but this was a room David would remember this, this was a room unto itself, separate, and then dad’s later years he would sit here and have the room at 80 degrees. (laughs)
Marian: Tell me a little bit about your kids? Did they enjoy being here, when your children were smaller?
Bunny: Dad and Eleanor lived here year round after dad retired from the university.
Marian: Okay, but so your own children, what about them?
Bunny: My own children, no, they were not very welcome by the grandfather. I don’t know exactly why but he was wonderful to other children, especially if they were interested in what he had to say but he felt that he, well he became kind of autocratic when my kids came, so that the things that they wanted to do, he did not like the idea. For instance Dean had taken a course on scuba diving and he brought all of his equipment here and dad would not let him scuba dive because he did not have a partner to scuba dive with. But did wanted to, and in fact joined, there’s a historical scuba diving group that hunts some of the old bateaus that the French, during the French & Indian War, prior to that. There are old bateaus, the remains of them, down at the bottom of the lake, and this scuba diving group would go and search these and bring up any artifacts and any parts of the boat and reconstruct them you know, for some museum, I don’t know where, and Dean wanted to do this when he was a teenager and dad wouldn’t let him do it. So, he was always worried about if they did things on their own, which I felt that they could, they should be allowed to do. So anyway, they did not have a very warm relationship with their grandfather, and Eleanor was not at all interested, she had no children and she wasn’t, she and dad married when she was in her mid-40s I think. There was a very wonderful relationship between the two of them, but they did not incorporate my kids at that time, and of course Bill did not marry and had no children. We stayed up in the Chalet and that was their early recollections.
Marian: So they did come?
Bunny: They did come. I would come as often as I could in the summertime, but, usually with my husband, at the time he had actually a month off, but he never would spend more than two weeks here. So I would be here with my kids, just by myself, like my mother did. And not many children either at that time for them to play with, so this is the thing they did not like so much. I found, you know, it was lonely but the advantages that I learned how to be self-sufficient, you could call it a lot of names, damn independent person, but it’s held me in good stead for a long time. Those early days though were really, really interesting in what, you know, we made our own enjoyment, we had no TV, we didn’t even have a radio. I don’t think we had access to newspapers, I’m sure we had access but we did not make a special, I did not make a special trip to Hulett’s to pick up a paper, or to walk the Bluff Head Road.
Marian: So just to, we’ve been talking for a long time, I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but I want to get everything you have to say, what about, well you were alone a lot of the time, did you have your own games that you played or did you read?
Bunny: Not so much games, I would love to walk in the woods, and just by myself. I was more interested in birds. We had at that time, up until, I can’t say when the change, when I noticed the change, but we would have flocks, 50, 75 of the different warblers that would come through, and up in the Chalet our eating area, if it wasn’t raining, was outdoors on the porch, underneath some birch trees, and we would see these flocks of what’s that beautiful orange warbler, hardly ever see it again, but different varieties. Now I’m beginning to lose my memory of what these different birds were but we would see a lot of them. We would see, we had whippoorwills, that would whippoorwill right out on the rocks that would drive us crazy, but they are, a goat sucker, a ground nesting bird. When the population increased people began to build houses here on the Bluff Head Road, they quickly disappeared although I understand in your area occasionally you’ll hear them.
Marian: I don’t know them.
Bunny: Well it’s a definitely, you’d know it, it goes whippoorwill, whippoorwill, whippoorwill, all night long.
Marian: I think that most of my, well you remember the year that they used DDT for the bugs and the flies and so much disappeared.
Bunny: And that was my father’s recommendation, without knowing the long term effects of DDT. They didn’t know it and they had what they called Spruce Bug Worm that was coming in to the evergreens, I don’t know which, we didn’t have many spruce trees but we would have these pines and, what are the other ones? Anyway it was effecting a lot of trees and he recommended that they spray this whole area. Which they did do, and which caused the decimation of so many birds and fish, the whole food chain got effected by that and he felt very badly at the end of his life, and by that time they began to find out the damage that DDT can do, but at the same time, as far as the birds were concerned, why the tropics, where the spend their winter, was being clear cut, so that their winter habit was getting decimated and their summer habitat, more people and the DDT was effecting them. But we would also have, it was a warbler, again a ground nesting warbler, what did they call that, sorry, this is where my memory goes, certain names, but we had one that was very, very nice. It would follow the stream, it ate some of the insects that gestate in the stream, in a rapid stream, so we had several of them along our stream here. It was so different than now. Again, the isolation was something that you just had to adjust to.
Marian: But you enjoyed it apparently.
Bunny: I did, I loved it. I loved it. I never, I loved city, but I have, as I grew older, I had less and less tolerance for city, for the traffic, for the odors of the city. You come here and when you breathe you really feel like you’re breathing fresh air, and you can smell the pines and so there were so many things that I loved. I loved the nature. I didn’t pick this up as an academic area at all, I followed sociology instead. I would learn a lot from dad when he, well more in Chicago because I would go out, he had a course that he would take people out to the outlying areas of Chicago or the dunes in Indiana dunes and have an ecology, field ecology trip, and I was allowed to go on those, just following the graduate students and learning, listening to dad. So that I was exposed to enjoy, not so much the intellectual, but, just the appreciation of nature, so I just loved, just soaked it up here for two and half, three months, and loved it, with the connection with family, because the Emerson family was spread all over too. My father’s one aunt moved to India, married a Hindu and lived in India for most of the rest of her life, from the mid-1930s, when she and uncle Bochi married, right until her death in the mid, she was in her mid-90s when she died, and aunt Edith was in Philadelphia and Uncle Willard was in Connecticut, but they didn’t come up, for some reason or another, they were not ever invited up here, so the Emerson group, Aunt Edith came, yes, Aunt Gertrude lived in India so she didn’t come but a couple of times.
Marian: Were those your father’s sisters?
Bunny: Father’s sister and brother, yes. So I don’t know those cousins, well actually, only Uncle Willard, Aunt Edith and Aunt Gertrude, who was the one who lived in India, they had no children. Aunt Edith never married and Gertrude married and lived in India but she married when she was in her mid-40s, for a very interesting reason culturally because Uncle, they had a system, the caste system, Uncle Bochi was not a Brahman caste, but he was the next caste below that which was the military caste. Uncle Bochi was not military but their family apparently was not very wealthy, but a very wealthy Indian woman would sort of adopt or support financially a brilliant man, and send him to England, so Uncle Bochi got his doctorate, PhD at either Cambridge or Oxford, I don’t know which one, I think it was Cambridge, but as a plant physiologist. He developed, he started a research group, experimental research group developing grains in his particular area, well I think when they lived in Calcutta it was rice but when they moved up to Almorah, which is in the lower hill country above New Delhi, and, Old Delhi, why he was working on hybridizing of wheat, and apparently did, was amazing research work that he did. They moved in the top, sort of top echelon of people, they knew Nehru very well. Nehru was put in prison at one point before the British were encouraged to leave India and when Nehru got out of prison why he spent three months with Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Bochi recovering from his prison experience and they knew Gandhi very well. Indira Gandhi called Aunt Gertrude something or other mother, honored mother or something, very close relationship to them, so they were, they moved in the top, let’s say the political and the resistant to the British. Anyway, Aunt Gertrude wrote, she was a correspondent, she wrote for a now defunct magazine called the Asia magazine, I found out, only a few years ago that she was a pilot, I didn’t know that, and flew with Amelia Earhart, I had no idea about that. She was quite an adventuress, she wrote a book, which was, I won’t say well-known, but it was very interesting. One of the first women, or at least the first person who wrote about it, first woman to go and live for a solid year in India in a village. A very small, rural village, and didn’t have any connection with white people at all. She was the only person, and become sort of the dispenser of medicines which primarily was aspirin but there was almost nothing the Indians could do then, there was no medical system in the 30s and 40s. She was there I think in the early 1930s when she wrote this, when she was in this village and then wrote the book called Voiceless India, which we have copies of, but she also sent articles about India and Indian culture to Asia Magazine and one of her very close friends, Elsy Wilde was the editor of this magazine. I don’t know when it went defunct.
Marian: Now tell me again what her name was.
Bunny: Gertrude Emerson Sen. She married Bochi Sen, Basiswar Sen.
Marian: What about you, you mentioned in passing that your field was sociology. What did you do with your career?
Bunny: Well, not much, I wish, if I had to live my life over again, which never, I don’t think happens, but who knows, we don’t know, but I would very much have liked to have finished my master’s degree. I had been in the service, World War 2, as a wave office, connected with a base hospital, sent to this base hospital outside of Memphis, TN. Anyway, I had done half of my undergraduate work at Cornell, but majored in sociology when I transferred to the University of Chicago, which was dad’s urging. I don’t know why, maybe financial difficulties prior to the war, I don’t know exactly why, but it was intellectually the best thing that ever happened, because the professors at Chicago were absolutely incredibly good, and were so exciting and so interested in the work that they were doing that they really fired up our, the students. Anyway, I was working on my master’s degree before I joined the service but I, actually, I was doing research work in industrial sociology, interested in relationships of, say, the working people and the floor managers in charge of the working people, and I was interested in the dynamics of that, but then after the war I went back and at that time, under the GI bill, to continue on with this master’s degree, I’d only had a couple of courses, so I wasn’t very far in it before I joined the Navy, and afterwards, under the GI bill, why I was working, I had about two thirds of my course work done, and was starting research work. When I met Gene and he had almost, well not quite, he practically finished his PhD and was a conscientious objector when he learned from one of his professors, who I also, oh I never took a course under Louie Worth, and professor Louie Worth, being Jewish was knowledgeable about the concentration camps and what was happening to the Jewish people in Europe and most of this information was not, at least I never picked it up. I never knew anything about it until the concentration camps were being liberated let’s say by the Americans and the Russians and the French. Gene was so close to finishing that he had, the minute he got out of the service, he immediately got a job as an instructor at North Carolina State, in Raleigh, NC, so he was back, trying to get his language requirement out of the way and begin to decide how he was going to do his field work for his doctoral thesis, and that was the time I met him. Well he had to return to North Carolina, which was during the, what they called, the winter semester I think. We have four semesters in Chicago, not, you know, not divided into two, and then a very short summer course, that was not the system they have, and he was having to return. I guess he was there for two semesters and then had to return in the fall, and I thought hmmmm, if I let this man go he will probably find another woman and we were very fond of each other and so I fell in love with him and so we married and I left the master’s degree, so I never got it, and then when I was in my 50s I returned but it turned out it was the end of the Vietnam War, or, during the Vietnam war, absolute chaos on campus, it was like, Wisconsin, where, there were protests, major protests, we had, what do they call it, reserve, army reserve up and down our campuses and tear gas and all kinds of things going on. Well, I was trying to finish up a master’s degree and did not get it done by the time my professor, who did not get tenure after 5 years, he then, you know, had to leave and the new professor said he had no interest in the field I was interested in. I was interested in voluntary associations as triggers of change, as instruments of change. My professor thought that that was absolutely crazy, that voluntary associations had nothing to do with social change. I’m convinced they do. I know they do. They weren’t organized and he was an organizational, that was his field, and he felt it had to be a structured organization with a chart of who is top CEO and who are the people underneath and voluntary organizations don’t do that, much more fluid and far less structured, so the second professor saw no reason for this, but he said well, you just come in with your thesis done and I’ll take a look at this thing, and this was the second professor, I lost the one who was interested in this, and he just said, you know, work on your own, but I needed support, and it was before continuing education for women, that came in about two years after I was there, and so I had no support, nobody, no older person coming in back on campus, and on top of that I was a professor’s wife, in sociology, husband in rural sociology and I was in the general sociology department, or studying there, and the professors did not like it, and I got a lot of (negative attention) at that time. In one case the professor would not let me take a required course for the sociology students, graduate students, that he was teaching that semester, and he wouldn’t let me come in because he was embarrassed to have a faculty wife in his course. Now, the course had 45 or 50 people in it, but this man would not let me come in, and for a while I was trying to earn my way through because we had two kids in college, the eldest was at the University of Wisconsin and Dean had transferred to the University of Chicago to do their undergraduate and so both of them were in school and I felt for me, I could not take more money in state tuition, so I earned my own was as a teaching assistant, which was alright for the first, I guess maybe two years, no one year, and the second year well they said, well your husband can pay for you, you know you don’t need to be a teaching assistant. Well I wanted that, very badly, and we really did need it, I could not justify taking the money, so they cut me out of it, and then at the last minute they wanted me to come back, well by that time I had gotten another job, but the trouble was I was handling the entertainment for my husband’s graduate students, taking care of my teenage kids, doing all the cooking, no help from husband, because he was involved in his work, and taking full time courses, and I ended up collapsing, physically collapsing, I couldn’t do it, and so I just never finished this thesis. I had all the course work done, but not the thesis.
Marian: Well there’s something for your next life. We have to start planning for our next lives.
Bunny: So the thing I would do in my next life is definitely get your degree so you have a potential for a job. But that has nothing to do with Lake George.
Marian: (laughs) No it doesn’t but it’s very interesting, it’s a life story. Have you, do you have anything more to say? Any story? We’ve been at this a long time.
Bunny: Oh, a long time, I can go on and on, but you know, you have other obligations. I don’t know. Oh I was going to pick up on one thing connected with your family. At the time, Proctor Knight and Edith, but it was Proctor primarily that would have these regattas in Indian Bay, you know and very few houses around there, that’s when I really knew David at that time, because I would go and we would have these crazy, doing things, canoeing with a broom and a bucket, and to try and nudge another canoe and pour water into their canoe to make them sink first.
Marian: There were a lot of people who developed their swimming and diving skills all because the regatta was coming up.
Bunny: I loved that regatta, that was more fun, I think it was two or three days, I don’t know how long, maybe it was only one.
Marian: A couple, a weekend. Labor Day weekend.
Bunny: And that’s when I first really knew David and Ty, at that time, and diving and swimming, I’ve forgotten what all those things were. I was a water baby, I loved water.
Marian: Well I think we better.
Bunny: Well I don’t know, gives you a little bit of, particularly those early, mid 1930s days, which I can remember so clearly, but I was here long before that, up in the Chalet but I don’t remember anything specific because I don’t think I was doing things that were, or helping mother that much, we were just young kids.
Marian: She must have liked it, your mother must have liked it.
Bunny: Oh she loved it here. I never offered you any tea, I’m sorry.
Marian: Don’t need tea with all this good history going on. Well, we’re going to stop, and thank you so much, I know I could come back and have another episode.
Transcription by Robert Stragnell
Edited by Marian Knight
A Project of the
Friends of Historic Huletts Landing
- O. Box 82
Huletts Landing New York 12841