STORIES OF OUR ADIRONDACKS
A Camp in the Adirondacks by Jessamy Harte
(The full article was published in Ladies’ Home Journal, July 1892)
Stumbling upon published material that seems to have been overlooked by the numerous Adirondack historians and bibliographers is an exceedingly rare event. The author of that material being a teenager, and it being her only published work, makes it even more amazing.
With more and more material being available through Internet searches finding details of a “famous” person’s life is often quite likely. Searching for Jessamy Harte, hardly known or famous (or so I thought) started slow but ended up leading to a fascinating, “behind the scenes” story.
Jessamy Harte (b. 1873 d. ?) was the oldest daughter of Bret Harte, a well-known author and poet (b. 1836 – d. 1902) best known for his accounts of pioneering life in California. An 1894 Toledo, Ohio newspaper article describes her as one of four children of Bret Hart, born in New York who was “a clever and gifted girl, with great linguistic and musical accomplishments.” Little else was published of daughter Jessamy’s early life. Further searching revealed that she was for a time Mrs. Steele and by 1907 was divorced and resided in an Almshouse in Maine. The next news of her life was the announcement of a fundraising event in the theatre district of New York held in 1907 for her support. The fundraiser was not without controversy as the famous writer Mark Twain refused to attend due to his unwillingness to overlook a dispute with her Father from years before. One could say however that the event was a success as the newspaper noted that Harte had afterward signed a contract to go on the vaudeville circuit to read parts of her father’s accounts of life in California and sing songs related to that era.
Sadly, the life of a daughter of Bret Harte must not have been an easy one. His biography notes that he was only present for 16 of his 40 years of marriage. When asked about his daughter’s marriage, he expressed little interest and stated that he had little to do with her. Bret Harte was well known in society, and in 1878, during the presidency of Rutherford Hayes, he was appointed United States Consul to Crefekl, a small German city renowned for its silks and velvets. His appointment lasted until 1885 and surprisingly his removal even has an Adirondack connection. Harte continued to represent the United States in Crefekl with the election of Grover Cleveland in March of 1885. While fishing on Saranac Lake during the first summer of his presidency, Cleveland reached for a newspaper to dry his hands. This paper, a copy of the New York Sun, was open to a short story by Harte, which the president stopped to read. On finishing the story, Cleveland asked his secretary if the author was “a consul somewhere,” and when the answer was affirmative, he said to be reminded when he got back to Washington to have Harte removed. After his removal Bret Harte spend the rest of his life in London.
Not surprisingly from a teenage writer, the subjects covered in Jessamy’s article included clothing and thoughts about who should be including in the group of campers. Her thoughts give us a unique glimpse into what when into preparing for the trip, one that an adult writer might have overlooked as unimportant. No details as to who she traveled with were ever recorded, though we do know from one section of the article they camped on the shores of Long Lake. We will hear from her now:
When an enthusiastic Adirondack lover has finished Murray’s “Adventures in the Wilderness,” he is apt to be very discontented, and longs to have been among those mountains twenty-five years ago, when the great North Woods were indeed a vast wilderness; when no axe has sounded along its mountain sides, or echoed across its peaceful waters. But in spite of the amount of desecration this exquisite forest has suffered at the hand of civilization, it still contains in its depths, far from the madding crowd of hotels and boarding houses, the same majesty that awed the first hand of discoverers who trespassed upon its solitude. The great trees of the “forest primeval” are there with their towering branches like huge arms stretched out in loving protection above the heads of their little ones.
And yet, notwithstanding the thousands of people who annually visit these mountains and knock about the hotel verandas, comparatively few have ever known the joy of standing beneath one of these monarchs of the forest and of having camped under its deep shade. Many fashionable young women with Saratoga trunks journey to these mountains, only to sink exhausted upon the hotel piazzas where they remain for the most part, going hardly beyond the hotel limits during the rest of their stay. Of course, those who are great invalids must of necessity be content with the superb views which are so graciously spread before them; but for those more favored mortals who are capable of appreciating the physical as well as mental enjoyments of the wilderness, camp life is the Elysium for which they are looking, and the Adirondack’s their “Happy Hunting Ground.” Camping, until of late years, has been the almost exclusive enjoyment of men, women having been considered rather useless and burdensome under the circumstances; as incongruous, in fact, as a Dresden vase would be. But now that women have proved that they are not so frail and helpless and that total exhaustion does not necessarily follow the ascent of a hill, and that they are quite capable of enjoying the rough life and thriving on it as their masculine friends, camp life has taken on a new charm, and the men are glad to have the companionship of the fair sex upon these expeditions. With a jolly party of both sexes there is no limit to the delight and fun that can be experienced.
These is such a novel charm about the old forest, and such a fascination in being removed from the ordinary daily life and of living a sort of romantic holiday. Many stand a trifle in awe of the vast woods, and the proposal “to camp” is often met by the following despairing objections: “Won’t we catch cold? Aren’t you afraid? What shall we wear? Won’t we look like guys?” It is a mystery to me why people think that the moment they give up the restrictions of conventional social life, they must necessarily make themselves look as ugly and unattractive as possible. Why should the old forest not be respected? It indeed gives us a most beautiful and picturesque background. Some of the costumes which I have seen must verily have offended its critical eye.
Crimson is picturesque for the feminine camping dress. A very striking costume for a young lady is a short kilt skirt, a little above the ankles, of some blue material; a short, blue corduroy velvet jacket, blue and white stripe tennis shirt, russet leather leggings, and a big red felt sombrero. The men’s get-up varies little from the ordinary mountain garb-short corduroy velvet trousers and jacket, woolen tennis shirt, and leather leggings. The latter is essential for both girls and men on account of the enormous amount of underbrush on encounters. You cannot image how picturesque these costumes look around the roaring camp-fire in the evening, or in groups on the shores of some beautiful lake. A gentlemen once said to me, while admiring some pictures I had of “camp: “Why, how well you look! ‘I thought that in camp the women wore healthful but hideous garments, and the men went unshaven and looked slouchy.” So you see no young lady need ever to be afraid of appearing at a disadvantage in camp, nor is her sweetness wasted on the desert air.
It is a rather arduous task though, to get up a congenial party, one that will hang together “in clear and stormy weather,” as the saying is. In selecting your party you must not forget your funny man; he is as essential to its success as a clown is to a circus. He is the life of the camp always; the one who is always getting you into scrapes, and the only one who comes out of them unharmed. You must also have a recognized head, or leader, with an aptitude for managing, two or three trusty guides, and among the rest, of the dramatis persona; good singers, story tellers, etc. Then, too, that “necessary evil,” the chaperone, should be of semi-angelic character, else she will never successfully accomplish the care of such a party. With such a chaperone and party success is sure.