Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Rendezvous With History At Camp Kirby

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun filters through the hemlocks and dapples the ferns on the forest floor as you walk the shoreline from SUNY Cortland’s Camp Huntington to the cabin in the woods called Camp Kirby.

Walking the mile path along the shoreline of Raquette is the only way to get back and forth between these camps unless you take a boat ride. Camp Kirby is available to rent for alumni of SUNY Cortland. We have been renting it with fellow alum friends for the past few summers.

While walking the trail one day last summer I imagined what it must have been like for William West Durant to walk the same trail back in 1890-93, especially, if, as the local legend goes, he was venturing to meet up with Minnie for a rendezvous in the woods. This piece of folklore is what started me on my research journey to learn more about William West Durant and his family about two years ago. I thought it would make a great story: wealthy genius keeps a mistress in a hunting cabin sequestered away in the woods. It was the basis for my novel on the Durants.

Then I started to learn more about Minnie Everette Kirby (1876-1944) and her cousin Cornelia Trimble Kirby (1854-?) and as has been happening all along, some myths get busted. Slightly.

I started with the research collected by some of the sorority sisters from SUNY Cortland that over the years have visited Camp Huntington, and intrigued by the story of Minnie as well, gathered some facts about her and her cousin Cornelia who appears on the Durant guest registry in the summers of 1893-94.

First, a bit about the cabin itself. It is nestled in the woods near Silver Beach on Raquette Lake. The sign on the front states it was built in 1890. Every room in the cabin has an exit door to the outside. This intriguing feature has led to speculation that it made for an easy escape for anyone having a clandestine affair. Although I found evidence that William’s cousin Frederick Clark Durant built Camp Cedars with the same feature, an exit door in every room so that people could leave (for the outhouse I assume) without bothering others.

There is no record of Camp Kirby in the inventory that Durant kept when he sold Pine Knot to Collis Huntington in 1896. Nor could I find it referenced in a short history of the SUNY Cortland/Camp Huntington facility written by Vincent. J. Gonino. But small clues to the past indicate people used the cabin. There is an old stone foundation close the cabin that looks like it was for an outhouse. Last summer we found broken bottles and broken crystal behind the camp buried in some dirt. The site may have been an old dumping ground for the cabin inhabitants.

So where did this story about Minnie get started and why is this cabin called Camp Kirby?

Minnie graduated from the State Teachers College of Potsdam in 1895. At some point after SUNY Cortland acquired the cabin as part of Huntington the staff (or somebody) found a small candy dish at Camp Kirby. It was a silver dish from a company that got its start in 1894 and inside was Minnie’s calling card with a ‘With best love and wishes for a Merry Christmas, Miss Minnie Everette Kirby”. It’s not clear who the calling card is addressed to. Like all good folktales, this is how the one about Minnie got started: lack of facts can lead to good story telling when you have to fill in the blanks.

Cornelia, Minnie’s cousin, is another interesting character in the lives of the Durants. From the information gathered by the sorority sisters and my own investigations I have discovered that she was a friend of Janet Stott. In the summer of 1894 she was staying at the cabin on Raquette Lake. There is a reference to her made by the wife of a traveling minister (Rev. John V.L. Pruyn) who was invited by William West Durant to speak at the Church of the Good Shepherd on St. Hubert’s Isle. During their visit, Mrs. Pruyn states Mr. Durant was living on his houseboat while his wife Janet stayed at Camp Uncas – Camp Pine Knot was closed. She said they took a ride on the Durant houseboat to ‘Camp Kirby’ where a Miss Kirby was staying for the summer months, and had a campfire by the water. In the winter, she says, Miss Kirby lived in Saratoga.

This had to have been Cornelia, Minnie was at the time, living in Potsdam with her family. Indeed, Cornelia may have met Janet in Saratoga, where the Durant family house was located. Cornelia plays a role in Janet’s life later when, after the divorce, she lends Janet money. How she became friends with Janet I am not sure. What her family connections are the Durants I do not know.

As I recall my walk between Camp Kirby and Huntington I remember the sound of the tree limbs in the forest canopy above, rubbing against each other, creating an eerie creaking sound like the opening of an attic door that hasn’t had its hinges oiled in decades. It shatters the calm feeling of walking in the woods. Would William have heard all of this as well? Would it have made him jump? Question his decisions? Worry a bit?

And in the background, I can hear the undercurrent of water lapping against the shore.

Photo of Camp Kirby by the author.

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Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at Cayuga Community College and is currently writing a trilogy of historical fiction featuring the Durant family. Her first book Imaginary Brightness: A Durant Family Saga was published in 2015. The second book in the series, Castles in the Air: A Durant Family Saga, will be published in 2016. To learn more visit

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