One of the unanticipated joys of living at Rosslyn (aka Hyde Gate) has been discovering the property’s legacy. Prior to purchasing our home, neither my bride nor I had ever stopped to consider the impact that these four buildings clustered along the shore of Lake Champlain might have had on others before us.
One recent reminder was the first chapter of All My Houses in which octogenarian Sally Lesh chronicles her itinerant life story by way of the many homes in which she has resided. Published in 2005, Lesh’s memoir is available online and — if luck’s on your side — at your neighborhood bookstore where the aroma of fresh brewed coffee, the sedative shuffling of pages and the muffled whispering of customers might transport you to wintry Essex, New York by way of Boston, Massachusetts.
Hyde Gate, Essex, New York
Lesh opens the memoir with her birth on Janurary 19, 1921 in Boston, but the title of her first chapter and the origin of the journey she intends to chronicle is Hyde Gate, Essex, New York. This quirky collection of reminiscences is not altogether unlike a literary charm bracelet. Though, it is a bit longer than a bracelet… Is there such a thing as a charm necklace? In any case, the back cover blurb promises plenty of shiny if slightly tarnished charm.
Meet Sally Lesh, mother of eight, (descendant from Royalty), traveler from New England to bush Alaska, Inn keeper, cow milker, weaver, ferry steward, farmer, wife to a doctor, and author of Lunch at Toad River. Read her down-to-earth life story spanning 84 years full of ingenuity, humor, independence, and a love of life as it unfolds. (All My Houses a Memoir)
The first charm on Lesh’s necklace is Hyde Gate, Rosslyn by a different name. Though her memory falters when describing the home’s fabrication, the illustration and subsequent description make it abundantly clear that our journeys have overlapped not in time but in place.
My parents, Sarah “Sally” Carter Townsend and Ingersoll Day Townsend were living in Essex, New York, on the shore of Lake Champlain. The property was known as Hyde Gate, and it extended from the water’s edge well back into the meadows and woods. The house was nicely proportioned wood frame building. A veranda ran across the front and around the two sides, giving a gracious and welcoming aspect. The house exterior was painted yellow with white trim, except for the big front door. That was dark green. A long flight of wide steps led up to the veranda and the main entrance…
I never found out what those nine servants did in that large house. I know about Nana, and there must have been a laundress to handle the piles of sheets, towels, tablecloths, napkins, baby clothing, and Bobby’s little cotton outfits. I’m sure there was a cook, because Mother couldn’t even boil water. There had to have been a yard man or gardener, for everything that came to the table was grown in our garden. And there must have been at least two maids to clean. Mother wouldn’t have known what a dust mop was, let alone how to use it. That makes five. What on earth did three more do?
Directly across the road, ice was cut every winter from the frozen lake surface. All these years later, I can picture the huge square hole full of dark water where the big blocks of ice had been cut by men using long saws. Each block was then hauled out. I have no idea how the block of ice was carried up the steep rocky bank and across the road, up the sloping driveway past the house, past the big barn that houses the carriage and the car, and finally to the icehouse, where it was buried in sawdust. We had iceboxes then, no refrigerators. The ice was broken into square chunks that fit neatly into the tin-lined top compartment of the icebox. I do clearly recall picking tiny bits of sawdust out of my summertime lemonade throughout my childhood. (All My Houses a Memoir, by Sally Lesh)
A year later, Lesh explains in the second chapter, Hyde Gate was sold. It had been owned by her grandmother, Louisa Johnson Townsend, who also owned the Stone House in Essex (where Sally’s family moved next) as well as a seasonal camp on Lake Champlain and “a large old house in Oyster Bay on Long Island, next to Theodore Roosevelt’s home, and a place with a banana tree in New Orleans”. A well healed granny by the sound of it!
Sticks or Bricks? Hyde Gate Remembered…
It’s worth noting that the house was constructed out of brick (with stone foundations) and not wood. But this detail — like the soft math when recollecting the number and function of servants — matters little and reveals the patina-ing power of time’s passage. The other notable difference between Hyde Gate as Lesh describes it and Rosslyn as she stands today is that the veranda has been removed, revealing an older — and most likely original — stone stairway and entrance. The owner from whom we purchased the property undertook this alteration in a nod to historic authenticity. He too felt obliged to leave his imprint on the front facade of the house and erected a Greek Revival columned entrance roof which incorporates subtle Georgian detailing which I’ll share in a subsequent post.
Hyde Gate Gardens-to-Table
This weekend I will transplant tomatoes, eggplants, pepper plants and artichokes into our own garden which accounts for much of the what graces our dining table during the summer and fall each year. Rhubarb and asparagus have been coming in for weeks, and the strawberry patch is currently covered in blossoms. Fruit trees, bushes, brambles and vines add to the Rosslyn harvest, and an attractive herb garden close to the kitchen fortifies our recipes and intoxicates our nostrils whenever it rains or the wind blows out of the south. Almost a century after Sally Lesh’s brief sojourn at Hyde Gate, a gastronomic connection to the land endures. But the ice house has long since surrendered its critical warm weather role, and the apiculture which occupied her father (he sold five tons of honey per year) has vanished.
With luck we’ll returning to beekeeping some day in the future, if for no other reason than to improve the pollination in our small orchard. And honey, fresh out of the comb? Divine. I’m adding it to the wish list. Right after ducklings…
Although it would have been wonderful indeed to stumble upon this memoir quite by accident only to discover my home on the first page, I feel equally fortunate to have been guided by my Essex neighbor Tilly Close who showed me the book last summer. She knew the author and suggested that I dip into the property’s legacy from a fresh perspective. Thank you, Mesdames Lesh and Close.