Summer At the Lake

Katy's cousin Sophronia writes about her childhood
summer vacations at a lake.
written June 1967

Dear Nephew Ray

My cousin Sophronia and I have always kept in touch over the years. Before long she'll be ninety though to see and talk with her you'd say she was years younger. I thought I'd share her latest letter with you just to prove we had interesting and fun vacations that long ago. (note: about a century ago now.) She wrote:

"For years we spent summers at 'LaGrand Cottage' which Grandfather LaGrand built in the late 1850s. Wings, rooms, and porches have been added to the original cottage until it is almost possible to get lost in its hallways and cubbyholes. Some windows open onto blank walls only inches away, others face each other across narrow air-shafts which, bridged by boards, were used by the boys for short-cuts and easy visiting.

As soon as school let out, the family exodus began. Everyone, under Grandmother LaGrand's direction, shopped, packed, and loaded wagons for the trip. We had to take bed-linens, clothing, some cooking dishes to supplement those left there, all kinds of food-stuffs, and games, books, and toys to amuse children and adults through the summer days. It was an exhausting job that left Mama, Aunt Phronsie and Aunt Abby with aching heads and a hearty dread of the cleaning to be done when we arrived.

On the morning we were to depart, Grandmother was in her glory, hurrying and harrying her sons, daughter, and daughters-in-law, the hired girl, and all us children. We lived in a cluster of houses, Grandfather's in the middle, Aunt Phronsie's, Uncle Bija's, and ours gathered close under the paternal eye. Uncle Horace, still a dashing young batchelor, lived with his parents.

The caravan set out with Grandfather driving his buggy in the lead, Grandmother in her second-best black bombazine dress and a large leghorn bonnet, riding beside him. Next came Uncle Horace driving a loaded wagon, the hired girl clinging to the seat beside him and his horse trotting along behind. Aunt Phronsie drove her own buggy and her sisters-in-law rode with her. Pa and Uncle Wally came next, each with a wagon full of goods. Uncle Bije brought up the van with his wagon topped off by the six grandchildren, a boy and a girl for each of Grandfather's married children.

We sang and joked with Uncle Bije who was our favorite playmate. He always had time to do what ever we wanted or to listen when we wanted to talk. Aunt Abby, his plump little chickabiddy of a wife, was very like him. She sang as she worked, loved to giggle, and dressed in light, gay colors much to her mother-in-law's dismay. Grandmother was a very proper Victorian lady.

We reached the lake by mid-morning. All the goods then had to be loaded into boats for the trip across the water to the cottage half a mile further up the opposite shore. The wagons were stored and horses boarded by an obliging farmer who also sold us milk, eggs, and garden truck. Finally everyone was settled in amongst the trunks and bundles and we shoved off, moving slowly over the water.

We girls had our heads full of plans and I suppose the boys did too. Our first few hours we knew would be spent in hard work. There were cobwebs to sweep down, windows to wash, dust-covers to remove, floors to scrub, beds to make, oil-lamps to clean and fill, wood to chop, water to pump, dishes to wash and so on. By nightfall we were achingly weary and hungry as threshers.

The men had a five o'clock breakfast and left for town every weekday morning, returning for supper by six. Uncle Horace came and went at his pleasure, keeping a rowboat for his own use. Mama and the Aunts baked and cooked on a monstrous wood stove, which the boys kept fed by each splitting wood for half an hour every day. There were fireplaces in the living room and dining room in case of cold weather.

There were special days we looked forward to. The Fourth of July when our fireworks were set off on the beach so the water reflected their brilliance. My birthday when we made ice cream and had my favorite meals all day. Uncle Horace's birthday when the lawn would be lighted by paper-lanterns, his friends would come to dance on the grass and picnic beside the lake and we children each had a tiny glass of champagne to drink his health.

Ordinary days were good, too. We had canoes and rowboats to race, fish from, or just paddle around. We went swimming several times a day tho we girls wore more clothes than girls wear on the streets now. Shoes, long stockings, skirts over bloomers, a blouse with elbow-length sleeves, and a bathing hat to cover our hair. How did we ever stay afloat?

We played croquet and lawn tennis, tramped the wooded hillside behind the cottage, collected wildflowers and made albums or drawings of them, the boys cut the grass and kept the beach cleaned of debris and we girls had chores to do in the house every day. We had picnic suppers on the beach or one of the porches if it was rainy. With all of that, there were still endless hours to fill as we liked, even by just doing nothing but lie on the dock and watch clouds float past above or, faces pressed against the warm wood of the dock, watch fish flitting through the water below. Much time each day was spent gathering driftwood for Saturday evening's bonfire which would be supervised by Grandfather.

Each of us had a favorite hideaway where we retired to be alone with a book or our thoughts. Even Grandfather had a hammock slung between two huge cottonwood trees near the water's edge which was used only by him. Papa and Uncle Bije hung swings from several trees and one year helped the boys build a tree house.

Grandmother was entranced with the tree house and decided to have one built for herself. In due course, workmen had built a largish platform about fifteen feet up in a huge pine tree. They put a railing all around it and made a slanted, flat-runged ladder leading up to the platform. Grandmother furnished her retreat with cushioned wicker chairs and welcomed all of us to her pine-scented tree house where we could sew and talk in cool comfort.

By the end of the summer our feet, legs, arms and faces were tanned and scarred. Aunt Phronsie fussed over Ronie's unladylike appearance but Mama and Aunt Abby were happy that Tilly and I were healthy and weren't concerned with our tomboyish looks.

It is so good to have those days to remember. The smell of coffee, toast, and oatmeal in the early morning, the feel of cool water eliminating the itch of my serge bathing costume, the heavy hot enervating afternoon sun, the lonely loon crying over the water when I went fishing in the evening with Papa and Brother Artie, the last murmurs of adult conversation flowing through the house as I fell asleep..... I close my eyes and summon them all back and many more thoughts come with them.

After one last grand picnic early in September, we packed up again, this time for the trip home to school, winter, and dreams of another summer at the cottage."

Sophronia's childhood memories of the lake cottage are as precious to her as mine of the Big Farm are to me. Probably we both find them clearer than what we did last week but that's alright. They were much more fun, I'm sure.

Uncle Jos sends regards as do I,

Your Aunt Katy