Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Around The Campfire With Old Mountain Phelps

Orsen PhelpsOrson Schofield “Old Mountain” Phelps (1816-1905) was the archetypical Adirondack guide.

Guide historian Chuck Brumley attributed this to the wide literary attention Phelps received from early city visitors to the High Peaks, including Verplanck Colvin and Charles Dudley Warner. Phelps was painted by Winslow Homer. He became a stock character in the guidebooks of E.R. Wallace and S.R. Stoddard.

Phelps certainly had the requisite outdoor skills to be a well-known Adirondack guide, and he cut many High Peaks trails still in use, as well as naming a number of high peaks. But it was his personality and aphorisms that caught the imagination of many of the “city men” he guided. He amused and impressed his clients with rustic humor and philosophy.

It is this aspect of Phelps that is apparent in a previously unknown collection of papers recently acquired by the Adirondack Research Library of the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College.

The collection was kept by one of Phelps’s great-granddaughters, and survived her death thanks to the friendship and good stewardship of Helen Chase of Liverpool, NY.  In it are manuscript theological essays, letters (including one to Phelps from New-York Tribune editor Horace Greeley) and a series of short-short stories. The stories are the type better heard around a campfire (which one imagines was their purpose) than read in the artificial light of a library. But use your imagination with “Driving Cats” or “The Runaway Bedstead” and perhaps you’ll hear above the crackle of flames the “small, high-pitched, querulous voice” of the sage of the High Peaks.

I’ve transcribed “A Frightened Dog at Meeting” as Phelps wrote it with one exception, a word he spelt “charter,” by which I believe he meant “character.”

“A Frightened Dog At Meeting”

“Near forty years ago on the suthern slope of the great Adirondacks there was being held what was then called a protracted meeting by a sect that were called Protestant Methodist. It had come to be so interesting that the old log schoolhouse was crowded evry evening, when one evening it received the addition of a young [character] that seemed to have an idea that nois was the most convincing argument with out much regard to what kind of a nois it was, but so happened that night that a young Dog worked his way into the house and laid himself away under the back seat. The meeting commenced and had gone part through when the young [character] arose brim full of course, and commenced in a sort of a supprese gron quite low at first. My dear brotheren and sisters, it was so different a nois from what the pup had heard he picked up his ears and gave a low woof woof when the [character] opened his mouth near half way and repeted his sentence with a half groan and sob, that it did not seeme possible to suppose to the pup that a human being could be makieng such a nois when he sharpened up his woof woof bark to correspond, when Mr opened his mouth the third time and opened it to its full capacity and repeted the same sentence not subdued this time, but a sobbing howling thundering yell that no one could suppose was made by a human being, or animal unless they had long ears. This time the pup thought this was no place for him and out door he starts with bristles erect, and a woof, and Bow wow, Bow wow and he did not stop till he got home and it was the making of the pup as far as going to meeting was concerned, no sir you did not get that Dog to meeting any more.”

Photo: Orsen Phelps, taken by Seneca Ray Stoddard in 1888. From the Phelps papers at the Adirondack Research Library.

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Hallie Bond is the Director of the Kelly Adirondack Center of Union College. The KAC is an interdisciplinary research center with the mission to collect information and to educate the Union College community and the wider public about the Adirondacks and the vital issues relating to the meaning and use of the natural environment. It is housed in the former Center for the Forest Preserve, which includes the Niskayuna home of conservationist Paul Schaefer and the Adirondack Research Library.




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