Saturday, May 5, 2018

Mateskared: The Zahniser Cabin in Johnsburg

In the mid-1990s Harold Allen reminisced about my father Howard Zahniser: “He bought the place, and he never had seen it,” Harold said. “Paul Schaefer was the one who told him about it.”

Pansy and I were sitting at their kitchen table. Her parents, John and Hester Dalaba, named their girls for plants—Pansy, Daisy, Blossom, Fern, and Carnata — and their boys for trees — Oliver and Linden.  Harold, Pansy’s husband, sat in his favorite easy chair, next to the door to their closed-in front porch. “We even tried to give it away,” Harold said of their first attempts to sell what became Mateskared to our family, “because we didn’t want to pay the taxes on it.” They paid $3 school tax and $8 land tax. Harold knew exactly what they paid, because he was the collector for school taxes then. “Here now school and land taxes are $2,000 a year,” Harold said of their present home just down the hill from Mateskared.

Harold and Pansy had been asking $1,000 for what would become our family place up the hill. “Vernon Maxam had offered $600 or $700. In the meantime Paul Schaefer came over and said that Howard Zahniser would like to have the property and would give $1,000. Maxam was pretty upset and said that he would have come up to that.” Paul Schaefer gave Harold $100 down to hold the property. “Howard Zahniser paid $1,000 for it but Paul Schaefer had already given me $100 down on it so I got $100 more than I was asking for it.”

As Harold was talking it struck me that the three of us were sitting and revisiting the Zahniser’s Adirondack nesting advent in the very house — or at least part of the very house now — to which Paul Schaefer first came to the Adirondacks. His parents rented the upstairs of the house Hugh Lackey lived in on this very spot. Part of Harold and Pansy’s present home was part of the original structure. The Schaefers were here on doctor’s orders for the relief of Paul’s mother’s seasonal allergies. The doctor advised that another summer in the city at Schenectady might do her in.

It wasn’t completely true my father “had never seen the place” before he bought the house Harold and Pansy had built on the portion they bought off her family’s farm. On the last day of our family’s first visit to the Adirondacks in 1946, Paul took Zahnie for one last half-hour walk up the hill. Paul had said Zahnie owed him one last bit of conservation talk. Three hours later they returned by way of walking through Pansy and Earl’s place above the Dalaba’s Hillmount Farms. At some point there, according to my father’s journal of that summer, Paul and Zahnie stopped to admire the view down the valley toward Crane Mountain. If “the place” was the house and not the setting, then it was true that Zahnie had seen only the exterior of the place.

Recently, rooting through a box of family papers, I found the frantic August 13, 1946 letter Paul Schaefer wrote to Zahnie outlining the deal Harold Allen wanted on the place. The difference between the Maxam offer and my father’s offer — and the reason Harold felt he could still take Zahnie’s offer — was that my father was willing to take the twenty-five acre woodlot along with the six and a half-acre piece with the house on it. Paul urged my father to go for the woodlot, too: “If you can see your way clear, you couldn’t miss by having both the house and the woodlot. One would make the other more valuable. Besides, they adjoin each other.”

Later in the letter Paul editorialized: “Of course I am personally thrilled at the prospect, as are my family and folks, but understand that such feeling as we have should not influence you one way or the other. But it really is I think the best buy I have yet seen up in that country.” It was entirely true that my mother Alice had never seen the place! There was a kitchen stove with water reservoir, a sheet iron stove in the downstairs living room/bedroom, and a hand water pump in the corner of the kitchen area. But neither stoves nor water pump conveyed with the property.

I remembered from my earliest years at Mateskared a hog pen up behind the barn, although by the time I remembered it the pen was a fallen-down caricature of itself. Harold verified “a hog pen up above the barn on the edge of the woods.” The edge of the woods now edges much closer to the cabin.

When my parents bought the cabin in August 1946 the stairway was closed in on only one side, and Pansy had a story about that. “Before it was completely sealed off, one Christmas Harold brought in a package, and he reached in between the floor and ceiling as far as he could reach. Now I was very inquisitive.”

Pansy later snaked the package out with a hoe, looked at the contents, and put the package back in its hiding place. It was a beautiful pair of green-fur and leather-palmed mittens. “When I opened it Christmas morning I was a bit of an actress,” Pansy said.

“After I left up there,” Harold said of selling our place and moving down the hill, “and even to this day I sometimes think back to up there because that was our first years of married life and we did it all on no money.” Harold backed up his no-money claim by saying that he didn’t even have enough credit to buy a fifteen-cent file on credit at Harold Thistle’s store in North Creek.

“Harold Thistle’s wife Roxie wouldn’t give it to me on credit for fifteen cents!” Harold said. He still seemed genuinely nonplused by that half-century-old failed transaction. Harold recounted working for the Works Project Administration for one year. “We got forty dollars a month, paid once a month. I showed the check to Harold Dunkley, and he was so envious of it!”

The largesse wasn’t entirely rosy, especially with Harold’s father in law. “John Dalaba called me a pauper for working for the WPA. He said that if he’d known I would be a pauper he wouldn’t let Pansy marry me. To get on the WPA you had to get on town welfare and apply for an order of $10 to last for three weeks, but before that time was up I got on WPA.”

Pansy defended her choice of mate against that old specter of her father’s anti-WPA wrath. Both her sister Daisy and her Aunt Esther Rist (her mother Hester’s sister) subsequently married Allen men, Pansy pointed out. “They did it because they saw what a good job I did by marrying an Allen,” Pansy said. Daisy’s husband Earl was Harold’s cousin.

Pansy came home to her parents’ Hillmount Farms to have her first baby, and Harold and Pansy soon bought seven acres from John and Hester Dalaba for $300. Harold worked on the state road crew then. Pansy stayed with her parents a while. John Dalaba had people come help build the young couple’s foundation. Harold G. Allen and his brother-in- law Harold Dunkley dug the foundation with a horse-drawn shovel. Some of the rocks for the fieldstone foundation were rolled up with a horse-drawn stone boat. It was John Dalaba’s idea to use the gambrel-style roof, giving more room upstairs.

“We sold our pig—our meat for the winter—to buy the roofing material, tar paper with slate coating,” Harold recalled. “We bought them from Ernest Noxon in North Creek.” Before they completed the house Harold was drafted for World War II. “There was a big snowstorm that day,” Harold said. It seemed to me he was now remembering a scene and not an event, as though the memory had its visual placemark. Although he could have gotten deferred, Harold said, “I had something to be fighting for.” He and Pansy had three children by then. Harold went into the service in January 1943 and was discharged October 12, 1945. He had been stationed at an air force base that no longer exists.

Pansy’s war took place here in Bakers Mills. “I stayed there with the three children,” Pansy said. “Rats got in the house. It was the first time I screamed. I went down in the cellar and bumped the ceiling with a broom, and a rat ran down the broom and down my arm. I decided I needed a woodshed, and I put the boards out like I was going to do it.” Then mostly John Dalaba and others came along and they actually put it up.

Harold built the barn in 1938. He tore down an old barn in the Willy Meadow — downhill and just northeast of Mateskared — that had belonged to William Hitchcock and Hattie. William and Hattie had had a double wedding with Pansy’s parents Hester Rist and John Dalaba. John was William’s brother in law. The cowshed was built onto the barn with $25 of lumber delivered from Thurmond by the Baker sawmill man for whom Bakers Mills is named. Harold cut the shingles with his dad’s shingle machine, a saw table with alternate ends to taper the shingles.

“We cut flat stones for Mateskared steps from the Willy place, too,” Harold recalled. Both are still in use, although the one they cut for the front door now serves one end of the porch. “John Dalaba used to cut the hay in the Willy Meadow.” The whole interior upstairs of the house was made with flooring. Pansy did a lot of that herself while Harold was in the service. Before that she used to hold an Aladdin lamp with mantle on it up there so Harold could see to work on the upstairs area.

“We thought we had a palace when we finished it,” Harold said. “The house was eighteen by twenty four feet. The sills were made out of ash trees sawed by Uncle Del Allen from hardwood ash. A preacher from Canada was here holding services, and he helped build the house, and he showed us some of how to do things.”

“When we moved into the house from my father’s with the new babies,” Pansy said, “we had tarpaper on the floor over the rough lumber. That was hard to sweep.” Their children Dody and Melvin were born in the front room, most of which is now a bedroom again.

Photo: Howard Zahniser cabin “Mateskared” in Johnsburg (photo by John Warren).

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

2 Responses

  1. Bob Meyer says:

    Now that I have been to Mateskared, I just love reading about all these details. Thanks Howard!

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