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Are there ghosts at Yaddo? (with photo gallery)

Docents raise questions, let visitors decide what to believe

Monday, October 15, 2012
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"Ghosts in the Gardens" tour at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs on Friday, October 12, 2012. The tours are held Friday and Sunday evenings at 5 p.m. through October 28th and cost $10 each person.
Photographer: Patrick Dodson
"Ghosts in the Gardens" tour at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs on Friday, October 12, 2012. The tours are held Friday and Sunday evenings at 5 p.m. through October 28th and cost $10 each person.

— The four white marble figures are cracked in places. Their faces are turned upward and green with age.

They came from Italy in 1904 and are known as the Four Seasons — Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer.

More than a century after they arrived at Yaddo, people who pass by them say they feel an aura, a presence, a spirit. Whatever it is, it’s strong and it keeps the mystique surrounding the 400-acre estate at Yaddo alive.

“I can see it in their faces,” said Nancy Denofio, a local writer who toured the grounds Friday evening. “They’re like four guardian angels.”

Carrie Bishop nods.

“Yes,” she smiles. “People feel an aura from them. They really feel it was the children.”

Visitors often whisper excitedly when they pass the statues. No one knows who sculpted them, said Bishop, a docent with the Yaddo Garden Association. But many feel they embody the spirits of the four young Trask children, who all died before ever reaching their teenage years.

The Trask children are rumored to have drowned in the ponds that surround the grounds — the same murky waters where Mohican women were once tomahawked and scalped. Docents are quick to quash the story, though. The children, they say, all died of respiratory illness.

A man touring the grounds two weeks ago was looking up at Fall’s face when he felt the same reputed “aura” others have when standing in front of the Four Seasons.

Gardeners who come through to

water the roses feel their dousing sticks vibrate when they get close, Bishop said.

There are other rumors at Yaddo. Every Friday and Sunday evening throughout the month of October, a docent from the Yaddo Garden Association will tell you just a few. It’s part of the “Ghosts in the Yaddo Gardens” tour.

The rumors, myths and alleged spirits at the gardens have run rampant since well before Spencer Trask built the vast rose garden as a birthday gift for his wife, Katrina, so long ago.

Spencer and Katrina Trask had no heirs. So they created an endowment to turn Yaddo into an artists’ residence after they died. Spencer, a wealthy financier who hung with the likes of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, died in an automobile/train accident on his way to New York City in 1909. Katrina did most of her writing in the years after his death, but also fell sick during that time.

She died in 1922. Two years later, the first artists arrived at Yaddo. Since then, more than 6,000 have produced some of their best work here — Truman Capote, Aaron Copland, Sylvia Plath, Virgil Thomson, Flannery O’Connor and David Foster Wallace, to name a few.

The artists’ colony is peaceful. It’s also fiercely secretive.

To maintain an environment that nurtures creativity, Yaddo needed a certain level of mystique surrounding the wooded estate. Writers and artists are known for their retreats into the hinterlands. Lakeside cabins and spiritual getaways a la Walden Pond are where they produce some of their greatest, time-honored work.

Before the Trasks ever moved there, Edgar Allen Poe is known to have occupied a small shed on the property.

“There are a lot of myths out there that suggest he actually wrote a lot of his well-known works here,” said Bishop. “But it’s not true, though we do suspect that some of the ideas in his writing came from his stays here.”

The gated entrance just off of the Northway is easy to miss. But it’s there, blended into a wooded landscape and tall pines. Along a dirt road that climbs up and around a few curves is a visitor’s parking lot. And through a wall of trees stands an imposing Victorian mansion that holds the original, now-faded furnishings of the Trask family. About 200 artists pass through the quarters each year.

Yaddo is a world in itself. A world where residents have readings and singalongs and mandated quiet time, where leaving the regal mansion is like stepping into a secret garden.

And the garden does have its secrets.

“See if you sense some smoke,” said Bishop, leading the group up a slope to a long terra cotta pergola. “Somebody has mentioned some unusual scents over this way, so see what you think.”

The area she’s talking about is a corner of the garden between a poet’s bench and up the small hill to the pergola, where roses climb up to the roof.

“There’s a photographer in Ballston Spa who claims that this part of the garden really has a spirit in it,” said Bishop. “And he claims he has a picture that shows a fog coming up over at that corner. Now, I have never seen a fog in the corner, but if you go in his shop you will see the picture.”

Bishop is a retired science teacher, so she suspects a logical explanation behind the photograph.

“But what do I know?” she smirks, before moving the group along to another site and another story.

Deer are drawn to the outskirts of the fenced-in property, which is modeled after classical European gardens. Katrina liked opal colors, so Trask chose white flowers streaked in pastel pinks for the garden.

“This garden looks more like a European garden than your average American garden,” said Bishop. “The Trasks traveled a great deal in Europe and when you were wealthy in the Victorian Era, this is the kind of garden that you would aspire to have.”

Spencer planted trees in geometric patterns so that they would eventually grow into the tall, canopied walls that stand today.

“As the trees have grown, so have a lot of the stories about the spirits that inhabit this place.”

Some people say that when they drive by the grounds they lose cellphone service. One woman who used to work in the gardens always felt a tug to Yaddo — literally.

“Whenever she went to the restaurant across the road, every time she got out of her car, she could feel something pulling on her jacket,” recalled Bishop. “She was from the city and ended up moving up here.”

At a glance

A look at the “Ghosts in the Yaddo Gardens” tours:

- Friday and Sunday evenings until Oct. 28.

- Docent-led tours begin at the Yaddo garden parking lot at 5 p.m. and last approximately one hour.

- $10 per person (cash or check).

- Contact Yaddo at 584-0746 for information.

 
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