Mark Twain Visited This Famed Catskills Colony for “Artists and Brain Workers”

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    Perched amongst the scenic overlooks and summer colonies of the Catskill Mountains is a 19th century retreat that began as a utopian colony for a congenial group of friends in artistic and literary circles. Onteora in Tannersville, N.Y., cofounded by well-known designer Candace Wheeler in 1887, offered in particular a haven for a number of single women, many accomplished artists or writers, striving towards financial independence in the late 19th century.

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    Wheeler’s 1881 wallpaper Bees With Honeycomb. Image via Metropolitan Museum of Art

    One of the first women interior designers, by the 1880s Candace Thurber Wheeler was an expert in textiles and interiors. A founder of the Society of Decorative Arts, she partnered with Louis Comfort Tiffany and in 1883 established her own design firm, Associated Artists, focused on textile design.

    In her 1918 memoirs, Yesterdays in a Busy Life, Wheeler wove a romantic tale of heading out with her brother and sister-in-law in the spring of 1883, searching for the landscape of their dreams where they could live “the wild life” amidst rugged surroundings. What they found was a scenic plateau on Parker (now Onteora) Mountain in the Catskills.

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    Lark Spur, Fernseed and Yarrow cottages at Onteora in 1897. Photo via Godey’s Magazine

    Two cottages — Lotus Land and Pennyroyal — were the start of what began as a personal retreat for Frank and Jeannette Thurber and Candace and Thomas Wheeler. Somewhat unexpectedly, it grew into a flourishing summer community. “It grew by accident of friendship, the human instinct for congenial companionship, the desire to draw people whom we love into an almost unknown realm of beauty,” wrote Wheeler.

    The name of the new community, Onteora, was said to come from a Delaware Indian word for the area meaning “hills of the sky.”

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    A “rustic sofa” in an Onteora cottage. Photo via Candace Wheeler’s Principles of Home Decoration (1903)

    By the late 1880s, the Onteora Club was officially formed and the Catskill Mountain Camp and Cottage Company was established to acquire more land for cottages. The rustic Bear and Fox Inn was constructed as the centerpiece of the new seasonal community — and since the original cottages were built without kitchens, it was where everyone gathered for meals. The inn was designed by Wheeler’s son Dunham as his first architectural project, and he went on to design a number of the cottages in the community.

    By 1892, Engineering Magazine, in the article “Summer Suburban Communities,” was reporting that there were 30 cottages scattered around the property costing “from $1,000 upwards” with a”general tone of rustic simplicity.” The article also noted that Onteora was not alone in the Catskills as a utopian retreat as “a half dozen so-called parks have been laid out since 1887.”

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    1898 illustration via Brooklyn Daily Eagle

    The new summer communities certainly sparked the imagination of the press and Onteora was covered extensively, including an illustrated spread in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1898. With a headline declaring it a “bark bound paradise” and “a colony of artists and brain workers perched high among the Catskills,” the Eagle waxed enthusiastically about the artists and writers seeking “the privilege of quaint seclusion.”

    While perhaps bohemian in spirit, the summer community had rules, regulations and a general sense of order. An Onteora Club constitution was adopted in the 1890s and there was an elected board of officers, membership fees and a superintendent. The organization was meant to “preserve the character of Onteora as a summer community” as well as handle practical matters such as roads, water and other health and safety measures.

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    Artist Carroll Beckwith in front of his Onteora cottage, 1908. Image via New-York Daily Tribune

    The initial residents of Onteora were largely friends, colleagues and those deemed appropriate — and since the club controlled who could buy property, the group ensured residents fit the vision for the community. The requirements for membership were “native refinement, intelligence, and introduction by some person already within the charmed circle,” according to an 1897 article in Godey’s Magazine.

    Many of the early residents were professional women, particularly writers, according to Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875 and 1900 by Amelia Peck and Carol Irish. A number of the working women were single, and while their presence in other 19th century summer colonies may not have been as welcome, in Onteora the women were “accepted and admired,” according to the book. While not a radical, Wheeler consistently worked to help other women achieve financial independence.

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    Some of those early women residents were Mary Mapes Dodge, author of Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates and an editor of St. Nicholas, the popular 19th century children’s magazine; Jeannette Leonard Gilder, newspaper correspondent and editor of the literary magazine The Critic; and Lillie Hamilton French, author of Homes and Their Decoration and My Old Maid’s Corner.

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    Mark Twain at Onteora, circa 1890. Image via The Critic

    These are not the names that have necessarily survived in popular memory, however, and the writer most frequently associated with Onteora is one who was a sometime guest: Mark Twain. Wheeler first met Twain in the 1870s and helped decorate the Twain house in Hartford, Conn., as part of her work with Louis Comfort Tiffany.

    The club’s initial intimate, artistic heyday seems to have lasted until the late 1890s when, according to Wheeler, she found “the initial idea was soon dissipated by subjection to the fire of commercial methods.” By the early 20th century, Wheeler’s involvement in the community had dwindled.

    However, the community flourished and was, and still is, a coveted summer retreat. The complex is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and at the time of designation in 2002, there were 123 cottages and structures in the community, including 30 cottages built between 1883 and 1893.

    Those early cottages were largely built with local materials and were sited to take advantage of the views while also retaining some privacy for each resident. One of those surviving cottages is 32 Candace Road, now on the market for $525,000, listed by Regina Tortella of Coldwell Banker Village Green Realty.

    The original owner of the rustic abode was Margaret Keiver Smith, one of the professional, single women of Onteora. A psychologist, Smith graduated from Oswego State Normal School in 1883 and went on to earn a PhD from the University of Zurich.

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    The circa-1893 cottage Smith inhabited fit the early cottage model and was meant to blend into the landscape with its mix of vertical log and shingle siding and stone chimneys.

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    On the interior, the cottage has a storybook feel with diamond paned glass, split doors, exposed beams and two stone fireplaces.

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    Quirky window arrangements, the liberal use of wood siding, an unusual log ceiling treatment and wide-plank floorboards continue the tucked-amongst-nature theme.

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    It was in this cottage that Smith toiled away on her translation of German philosopher Johan Friederich Herbart’s A Text-book in Psychology into English, according to the Eagle. For relaxation after, there were “cozy gatherings around her fireplace.”

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    One of the rustic stone fireplaces is in one of the four bedrooms. The other bedrooms have sloping ceilings, paneled walls or ceilings or other idiosyncratic features.

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    There are three modern bathrooms in the house, enough to satisfy the early community rules that in each cottage “there must be not less than one sanitary closet for each five persons.” A kitchen was also eventually added when meals were no longer required to be taken at the clubhouse.

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