John Burroughs enjoyed communing with nature as well as anyone, and he wrote about it better than most.
A naturalist and essayist whose writing helped spark the American conservation movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Burroughs enjoyed the popularity of a rock star for more than three decades up until his death in 1921 just a few days shy of his 84th birthday.
He died on a train returning home to Woodchuck Lodge in his beloved Catskills following a cross-country trip. While he loved the Rocky Mountains and toured the West with the likes of fellow naturalist John Muir and U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt, Burroughs was synonymous with the Catskills.
Woodchuck Lodge, his home for the last 10 years of his life, and his burial site, both about two miles off Route 30 in the town of Roxbury, are great places to visit for those interested in Burroughs and for anyone who loves to experience the Catskill Mountains.
Pretty popular guy
“He was a self-taught scientist and a very accessible writer,” said Diane Galusha, president of the board of trustees of Woodchuck Lodge Inc., the nonprofit group that maintains Burroughs’ residence. “That made him a pretty popular guy, and to get away from people and find some solitude he moved to this beautiful spot in 1910.”
Woodchuck Lodge, which is a few miles inside Delaware County from Schoharie County, is open to the public only on the first Saturday and Sunday of every month, beginning in May and running through October. Docents are available to give visitors a tour of the wooden house on those days, but if you can’t make it that first weekend of the month, you’re welcome to drive about 100 yards farther up Burroughs Memorial Road and stop at Burroughs Memorial Field. A state-run historic site, Burroughs Memorial Field is where Burroughs is buried next to the big rock he used to play around when he was a child.
This Saturday at 11 a.m., Tom Alworth, a Burroughs scholar and the deputy commissioner for natural resources with the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation, will give a short lecture at the site and dedicate a new outdoor exhibit documenting Burroughs’ life and legacy.
Burroughs grew up another mile or two up the road from where Woodchuck Lodge is. He is the seventh of 10 children of Chauncey and Amy Kelly Burroughs. He was apparently the only one in his family with intellectual interests, and he later wrote that when he was a young man of 16, he was “a callow youth, being jerked by the plough handles, but with my head in a cloud of alluring daydreams.”
Living in Washington
At 17, Burroughs earned enough money teaching at Tongore School, a bit further south in the Catskills, to gain some further education at Ashland’s Hedding Literary Institute and the Cooperstown Seminary. He had numerous teaching jobs, married Ursula North in 1857, and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked in the U.S. Treasury throughout the Civil War. It was in Washington that he met Walt Whitman.
“He struggled trying to replicate what [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and other writers had produced, and Whitman told him to write what he knew,” said Galusha. “He told him to write about things that were dear to him, and that’s when Burroughs began to find his own voice.”
Burroughs and his wife returned to the Catskills in 1874 when he got a job as a bank examiner in Middletown. Three years earlier, in 1871, his essay, “Wake-Robin,” began gaining him some notoriety, and with the extra money he was making as a writer, he built a home along the Hudson River he named Riverby by the middle of the decade. About 20 years later, to escape his ever-increasing fame, Burroughs built an “escape” up in the mountains away from the river in Ulster County called Slabsides. That home, operated by another nonprofit group, is, like Woodchuck Lodge, on the National Register of Historic Places.
Traveling with Roosevelt
Burroughs, who had in 1867 written the first biography and critical work on Whitman, continued to write nature essays and was a regular contributor to the Atlantic Monthly. Elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Burroughs finished his career having produced more than 30 books and hundreds of essays and poems.
“He really started getting famous by 1875, and he continued to be a celebrity right up until his death,” said Joe Farleigh, a Roxbury native who has studied Burroughs for more than 40 years now and serves as a docent and member of the board of trustees at Woodchuck Lodge. “When he would go on trips with Roosevelt to the West, Roosevelt would often step out on the train platform and give a quick speech. Usually the group with him would also be out there on the platform, but when Burroughs was on the trip he caused too much of a distraction. He just started staying in the train while Roosevelt spoke.”
Roosevelt wasn’t Burroughs’ only traveling companion. Men like Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Harvey Firestone also went on numerous camping trips with him.
“I believe that they sought him out,” said Farleigh. “It wasn’t Burroughs seeking them. Everyone loved and admired him. He wrote about nature and made it accessible to everyone. At a time when people were just starting to worry about conservation, Burroughs told them that they could enjoy nature the way he did. It was all right at their doorstep. All they had to do was look outside.”
Finding some privacy
In 1910, Burroughs was back in Roxbury and the area where he grew up, moving into the house his brother Curtis had built back in 1863. Woodchuck Lodge needed $100,000 in renovations just a few years ago, and, although the building is stable, it is in need of some more work.
“He came up here for more privacy because he was constantly being visited by people at Slabsides,” said Farleigh, “and the building looks a lot like the way it did when Burroughs lived here. Burroughs added on the front porch when he moved in because he loved to sleep on his cot outside. He wrote about waking up on the porch and seeing the sun come up over Montgomery Hollow. About 35 years ago, I came up here with my sleeping bag and had the same experience. It was wonderful.”
Woodchuck Lodge stayed in the family for a while after Burroughs’ death before Ford bought the place and eventually resold it back to family members. Visitors enter the house through a screen door that swings inside so Burroughs would have room to put his cot on the porch. There are four rooms on the ground floor, including one small room Burroughs called the “cradle,” and two more rooms upstairs.
“He had to have some money, but he didn’t live like a wealthy man,” said Farleigh. “He even endorsed a breakfast cereal, something a rock star or a pro athlete would do these days. That’s how well known he was.”
And while he loved nature, he evidently wasn’t overly fond of woodchucks.
“He didn’t have any trouble shooting some animals, like woodchucks,” said Farleigh. “They would get into his garden and chew things up. He shot so many that he had two fur coats made of their skins.”