Naturalist John Burroughs paid lifelong homage to his Delaware County roots. Scattered throughout his essays are scores of recounted memories from the first 17 years of his life, years that he spent near Roxbury, New York. “My blood,” he said, “has the flavor of the soil in it; it is rural to the last drop.” Biographer Edward Renehan, Jr . writes that Burroughs “had a deep psychic connection not only to the geography of his home region, but also to his kin who lingered there above and below ground.”
Burroughs often grew nostalgic, almost mournful, when he remembered his youth. “The days do not merely pass,” he wrote, “we bury them.” He restlessly and uneasily longed for some pre-industrial past. The past of his ancestors. The past of unhurried afternoons spent watching clouds float above the Catskills. Of afternoons fishing in clear, tumbling brooks. Of cows munching on hay. A romanticized past. A Delaware County past.
Woodchuck Lodge Inc.
For all the eloquence of his written words, Burroughs’s actions speak with equal volume. After he turned 70, he began an annual summertime pilgrimage back to Delaware County, to Woodchuck Lodge, a rustic residence on land owned by his parents. There he enjoyed the gloriously refreshing summers of the Catskill Mountains. And, when he died, he chose a Delaware County hillside for his grave. He rests within miles of many of his ancestor’s graves, including his parents.
Amazingly, much of Burroughs’s Delaware County still exists. Although his birthplace is gone, the family farmstead survives. Now privately owned, the house where his parents spent their last years sits down the road from Woodchuck Lodge. The distinctive, rustic features that Burroughs added to a plain rural farmhouse demarcate Woodchuck Lodge as a special place. Boyhood Rock, where Burroughs exercised his youthful right to be lazy, now carries a plaque with a sculpted, older Burroughs peering across the valley. The streams where he fished and the mountains that he climbed remain largely wild. The Delaware River that he floated upon, and made the topic of his essays, rises not far away. The church of his parents is still painted a now traditional yellow color. Burroughs family graves unite them with Delaware County soils in perpetuity.
In word and deed, Delaware County and John Burroughs are inseparable. “Where cattle and woodchucks thrive, there thrive I. The pastoral is in my veins.” Could he return, John Burroughs would still be at home in Delaware County.
Visiting Burroughs’s Delaware County
To discover Burroughs’s Delaware County, begin at Burroughs Memorial Field. A sign on Route 30, just north of Roxbury, points the way. Follow Hardscrabble Road to the intersection with Burroughs Memorial Road. Along the Memorial Road you will find Old Stone Jug, Woodchuck Lodge, Boyhood Rock, Burroughs’s grave, and the Burroughs homestead.
To see other Burroughs sites, return to Route 30 and travel south. The Jay Gould Memorial Church is in the village of Roxbury. South of Roxbury, turn west off Route 30 onto Briggs Road. Then turn south on Roxbury-Stratton Falls Road to see the Yellow Church, the graves of Burroughs’s parents, and fishing and swimming haunts. Route 30 follows the East Branch of the Delaware River, skirts the Pepacton Reservoir, and continues to the confluence with the West Branch in Hancock, NY. Before the reservoir, Burroughs followed the East Branch and recorded his experience in his essay, “Down the Pepacton.”
John Burroughs shared Delaware County with the world. He wrote extensively about the places that he experienced as a boy. You can see them for yourself and, via Burroughs’ descriptions, compare today with the past.
The Burroughs Homestead
On April 3, 1837, John Burroughs was born into a long line of farmers. His mother, Amy Kelly Burroughs, gave birth to 10 children. John was number 7. In a region well known for dairy farms, Amy Burroughs took pride in the quality and the quantity of butter that she produced – over two tons annually. “Every housewife (in Delaware County) is, or wants to be a famous butter-maker, “ wrote John.
From another natural product, Burroughs earned pocket money of his own. By collecting and refining maple sap, he made 2 cents on sugar cakes that he sold in Roxbury. “Those lucid March days in the naked maple woods under the blue sky with the first drops of sap ringing in the pans, had a charm that does not fade from my mind.”
Although Burroughs’s birthplace is gone, a newer house built in the 1860s by his parents, survives. One of the family barns, although modified, also stands. Stone fences are everywhere fulfilling Burroughs’s prophecy that “a stone wall with a good rock bottom will stand as long as a man lasts.” “Every line of fence has a history…in fact, the long black lines covered with lichens and in places tottering to the fall revives long-gone scenes and events in the life of the farm.” Summer fields of hay reawakened other memories. “The farms lie tilted up against the sides of the mountains or lapping over the hills, striped or checked with stone walls, and presenting to the eye long stretches of pasture and meadow land, alternating with plowed fields and patches of waving grain.” The family farm rested on a mountain named Old Clump. “Old Clump used to lift me up into the air three thousand fee and make me acquainted with the full-chested exhilaration that awaits me on the mountain tops.” Burroughs hiked Old Clump well into his 70s.
Greater Middletown Historical Society
Greater Middletown Historical Society
The homestead is privately owned; please respect the owner’s property and privacy.
Burroughs knew how splendid Catskills summers could be. In 1908, he added natural siding and bentwood railings to a plain farmhouse built by his brother Curtis. He named it Woodchuck Lodge. “The woodchucks are doing their best to make the place justify its name,” he wrote in 1916. “I kill about three a day.” From the porch of Woodchuck Lodge, Burroughs saw “broad pastures, lands where dairy herds have grazed for a hundred years…” “The fields we look upon are like green drapery lying in graceful curves and broad, smooth masses over huge extended limbs.”
Woodchuck Lodge Inc.
Nearby, in an old hay barn, Burroughs set up a workplace, away from curious visitors and insistent grandchildren. “You’d think I’d escape visitors among these Catskill hills, but I have had as many as 40 or 50 come in a single day.” His daily commute consisted of a short walk down a dusty road with his current manuscript nestled in a blanket, along with a fruit and a book or two.
This hay barn, now flattened by time, served as his study; a hammock suspended from beams his recliner. Among the essays that he wrote there, “A Hay-Barn Idyll” has an obvious connection to place. “I have a barn-door outlook because I have a hay-barn study, and I chose a hay-barn study because I wanted a barn-door outlook – a wide, rear view into fields and woods and orchards where I could be on intimate terms with the wild life about e, and with free, open-air nature.”
Famous men often seek one another for companionship. Henry Ford contacted Burroughs and offered to give him a car, hoping to change the naturalist’s opinion of that engine of industrialization that sought out “even the most secluded nook or corner of the forest and befoul(ed) it with noise and smoke.” Surprisingly, Burroughs accepted Ford’s gift and became nothing less than a reckless driver.
In 1913, Ford presented Burroughs with a more personal gift – the deed to a 3+ acre plot of Burroughs’s homestead. Like Burroughs, Ford romanticized his own rural past and regularly came to Delaware County to share Burroughs’s roots. The Ford Lot, now called Burroughs Memorial Field, is owned by New York State.
According to Burroughs, he retreated to Boyhood Rock, a rock outcrop above Woodchuck Lodge, to dream boyhood dreams and revel in the out-of-doors. It was there that sculptor Cartaino Sciarro Pietro, commissioned by Ford, posed Burroughs. But sometimes the present makes immortality difficult to achieve. Before he completed his work, Pietro endured a set back - a cow ate the feet off his clay model of Burroughs.
Burroughs lived only days short of his 84th birthday. Many of his famous friends attended the funeral – Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone. They listened to Brahm’s Lullaby, the 23rd Psalm, and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” Burroughs and Whitman appreciated one another’s work; they liked and trusted on another as men. A wreath of ivy from Whitman’s grave was thrown onto Burroughs’s casket. Newsreel cameras captured the simple ceremony and annoyed the family.
The rocks that surround the grave bear witness to the difficulty of digging into these hillsides. The workers who dug the grave finally used 3 blasts of dynamite to complete their work. “The peace of the hills is about me and upon me…”
Old Stone Jug
For two years, Burroughs attended this one room school. When the school closed, the scholars moved on to the larger, West Settlement School, now gone.
Jay Gould Memorial Church
John Burroughs became famous, buy Jay Gould, Burroughs’s classmate at the Old Stone Jug, became infamous. Railroad mogul, director of the Erie and Union Pacific railroads, owner of Western Union, Gould had a “cold-blooded lack of scruples,” according to a biographer. The two men were quite different. The ambition, quick-wit, and precision of Gould vs. the undisciplined intelligence and casual concern for appearance of Burroughs. “Buckling down to any sort of routine always galled me,” Burroughs admitted.
The physical memorials to each man are also strikingly different. Woodchuck Lodge is rustic and unpainted. Native Catskills materials make up its fabric. A local carpenter built from a plan in his head. In contrast, the Gould Memorial Church in Roxbury has walls of imported stone and windows made by Tiffany. George Jay Gould, Gould’s eldest son, hired a well-known architect. Built in 1893, the church defies nature; Woodchuck Lodge bows to her.
The Graves of Chauncey and Amy Kelly Burroughs
Burroughs’s father, Chauncey, admitted that he sowed plenty of wild oats before joining the Old School Baptist Church (the yellow church.) “He became,” remembered his son, “a man of un-impeachable veracity; bigoted and intolerant in his religious and political views, but a good neighbor, a kind father, a worthy citizen, a fond husband, and a consistent member of his church.”
Burroughs described his mother as the type of person who “felt more than she thought.” He was more like her, he thought, descendent from a “line of dreamers and fishermen and hunters.” He credited her with his love of nature.
Halfway across the Yellow Church cemetery, near the wall that parallels the road, Chauncey and Amy lie buried. “I stood long and long at Father’s and Mother’s graves, and seemed very near them.”
Nor far from the Yellow Church, John plunged into the cool water of Stratton Falls. He swam there as a boy and returned with his grandchildren during summers at Woodchuck Lodge. No doubt he also explained to his grandchildren how he found slate for pencils and used it to convince teachers to excuse his tardiness.
“Trout streams coursed through every valley my boyhood knew.” Burroughs’ mother’s father, “Granther” Kelly, served as the young boy’s fishing companion. A man with a storied past, Kelly soldiered at Valley Forge and helped fleeing slaves move through Delaware County along the Underground Railroad.
Delaware County is still known for its trout streams. “A holiday was a holiday indeed that brought permission to go fishing on Rose’s Brook, or up Hardscrabble, or in Meeker’s Hollow.”
Nearly everywhere in Delaware County there are farms. Dairy cattle seem to outnumber people. “I love the land of wide, open, grazing fields, of smooth, broad-backed hills, and of long, flowing mountain lines. The cow fits well into these scenes. It seems as if her broad, smooth muzzle and her sweeping tongue might have shaped the landscape…”
Woodchuck Lodge Inc.
Excerpt from Down The Pepacton
The Delaware River sculpted much of the county’s landscape. Both the East and West branches flow through the county; their tributaries occupy many of the county’s numerous valleys. Burroughs knew the East branch well; it flowed not far from his birthplace. And, as he explains in his essay, “Down the Pepacton,” American Indians called the Delaware River the Pepacton, meaning “marriage of many currents.”
“..The Pepacton (Delaware River) is a placid current, especially in its upper portions, where my youth fell; but all its tributaries are swift mountains brooks fed by springs the best in the world.” The river drains “a high pastoral country lifted into long, round-backed hills and rugged, wooded ranges by the subsiding impulse of the Catskill Range of mountains, and famous for its superior dairy and other farm products.”
“In its watershed I was born and passed my youth, and here on its banks my kindred sleep. Here, also, I have gathered much of the harvest, poor though it be, that I have put in this and previous volumes of my writings.”
John Burroughs: An American Naturalist by Edward J. Renehan, Jr. 1992
The Life and Letters of John Burroughs by Clara Barrus, 1925
The World of John Burroughs by Edward Kanze, 1993
The Writings of John Burroughs the Riverby Edition