For the Hales on Willsboro Point, homes, land and history are intertwined. How one family rescued the legacy of another
Every old house has a story or two. You might read it in the architecture, how native and exotic materials were combined; how tastes, tools and technologies evolved; how growing families were accommodated, how rising or falling fortunes were reflected in the facades we see from the road. Sometimes scraps of past lives linger, giving a glimpse of just who sat in a porch rocker or peered out of an attic window.
At an age when many people are looking for an oceanfront condo to escape harsh weather and home upkeep, Bruce and Darcey Hale chose to move to Willsboro full time and begin an epic historic preservation adventure involving dozens of acres and many structures. Bruce, 76, has been connected with this Willsboro Point property—once the domain of the Clark family, some of the area’s earliest settlers—since before he was born, when his 14-year-old father drove his mother, Elizabeth, and Mary Hope Cooley, a Clark descendant, to a cottage here named Cedar Lodge. Bruce’s parents bought Cedar Lodge from Mary Cooley in 1949 and Scragwood in 1958, using them as summer getaways. Darcey, who grew up in rural Virginia, first set foot on this land in 1994, and it was “love at first sight.” The fields, forests, old buildings, stone fences and pervasive peace resonated, a welcome change from Boston, where she was director of the French-American School. Bruce, an electrical engineer, was living in Natick, Massachusetts.
For this couple, these buildings—Cedar Lodge, Scragwood and Old Elm—are encyclopedic, not just as structural narratives but as deep repositories of material culture. The Clarks, who owned hundreds of acres here for more than a century, arrived from Connecticut in 1801. Succeeding generations became farmers, dairymen, quarrymen, boatbuilders, travelers and above all, assiduous savers. They kept letters, ledgers and diaries; clipped newspaper articles; filed away seed catalogs, religious tracts and hymnals; mapped their orchards and gardens; and carefully retained everything from knitting patterns (and the socks made from them) to quilts stitched with the signatures of the makers.
In the late 1990s Bruce and Darcey lived in a house they built near Lake Champlain, working on Cedar Lodge and Scragwood as the seasons dictated (the buildings are 100 feet apart). In July 2001 they made Willsboro their permanent home, committing themselves to putting the Clark legacy back together. Old Elm was a missing piece of the puzzle. When they began their acquisition of the beautifully proportioned Federal-style bluestone house, they found bulging closets, trunks and boxes. In assorted outbuildings there were thousands of documents, 6,000 photographs and 2,100 textiles, even an unused coffin. There were laundry boxes of old clothes, including one that was labeled “Margaret’s Bathing Suit for Sitting on the Rocks.”
This trove was the tip of the proverbial iceberg; when Darcey began dusting hundreds of old books in Scragwood, a wood-frame house that once belonged to Solomon Clark, she discovered another layer on the shelves: the business records of his four quarries that supplied bluestone for the Brooklyn Bridge, New York’s state capitol, Lake Champlain lighthouses and other important buildings. Solomon’s brother Lew-is built the boats to transport the stone as well as ferries and pleasure craft, all noted through bills, correspondence and drawings.
Others may have tossed it all into a dumpster, the sheer quantity of stuff an insurmountable burden to the process of making livable homes out of careworn buildings. Here the Hales plunged in headlong, not just with hammer and nails but scanner and laptop, the artifacts and documents informing faithful renovations and vice versa. They knew they had very special places in their hands, sites that told of industry, agriculture, education and aspirations of a 19th-century family. They were committed to recording that saga and enlisted local historian Morris Glenn to weave all the threads into whole cloth. Darcey, a dynamo of energy and enthusiasm who will be 85 in August, says, “This has been the most intellectually stimulating project of my entire life.”
The work—and make no mistake, archiving, cataloging, transcribing and scanning papers is demanding work—has cemented the couple’s bond with the place. “When I go to Scragwood and do research, these people are real to me,” says Darcey. “When I’m at Solomon’s desk I almost feel like he’s right there with me.” Yet Solomon Clark passed away in 1895, and the very last family members involved with the property were gone by 1999.
The Clarks’ 51,000 papers—transcribed, organized by subject and chronology—are headed to the New York State Library, where they will become accessible to the public digitally. Some of the textiles will go to the New York State Museum. Darcey’s book, The Clarks of Willsboro Point: The Long Trek North, was published in August, the first in a planned series. Old Elm, Scragwood, Cedar Lodge, a blacksmith shop, smokehouses and other outbuildings are restored and well loved by the Hales, their six sons and grandchildren. And thanks to the efforts of Morris Glenn, the property has been declared a National Historic District.
But who will come along to fully embrace it all once Bruce and Darcey are gone? Their children are scattered across the country, happy to visit but reluctant to become full-time caretakers. Knowing this painful truth was certainly an incentive for the intense scrutiny and documentation. As Darcey says wistfully, “If you take the contents out of the house they don’t have a lot of meaning. It’s the whole picture.”
Built as the schoolhouse for the children of French-Canadian stoneworkers, Cedar Lodge dates to 1860. The limestone quarries—which yielded incredibly strong slabs five feet thick and up to 15 feet long—employed 300 laborers at the height of production. There was also a boardinghouse, store, cooperage, carpenters’ shop, limekiln, workers’ housing, steam-powered derricks and numerous other buildings, now absent, their evidence disguised by huge cedars that have grown among the rocks.
The old school was transformed into a home in 1895, when an elderly quarryman was allowed to stay on after the work ended. It was then renovated as a summer cottage. Now it’s a camp for the Hales’ extended family and friends, close to a new boathouse and water’s edge.
To comprehend Scragwood’s eclectic exterior, picture four distinct buildings connected over time, each with a different function. The earliest dates to the 1830s. Inside, three stairways leading to disconnected bedrooms and rambling downstairs spaces—office/library, sitting room, dining room, kitchen and rustic porches—all illustrate how the Clark family worked, played and lived. The architectural style defies description, yet the chocolate-brown building has tremendous appeal. Beneath the twig archway of the nearby perennial garden, the view encompasses a rustic porch added in the late 1800s and a succession of board-and-batten rectangles, ending with the oldest, Solomon’s office, which once stood adjacent to the quarry and was moved to this site.
According to Bruce, “With Scragwood we didn’t have to do restoration but dealt with deferred maintenance. We modernized wiring and plumbing, repaired leaky roofs, repainted the exterior and every year there’s always a project.”
Every bit of the interior relates to the Clarks, from a square piano flanked by taxidermy owls to a cubbyhole desk used when Solomon ran the quarry and was postmaster for the community. “The contents of Scragwood have been appraised twice,” Darcey says. “I don’t think anything has significant value except it is the context for understanding the whole place and the lives of the people who lived there.”
Scragwood and Cedar Lodge, encompassing about 15 acres, now belong to a trust set up by the Hale family.
After Darcey discovered the detailed 120-year-old garden plan in a cupboard at Scragwood, the Hales and members of the Adirondack Garden Club began the process of listing the Hales’ stone-walled perennial plot with the Smithsonian Archives of American Gardens. The space had become quite overgrown, with a giant shagbark hickory smack in the middle.
Beyond prodigious weeding, there were challenges. Darcey says, “Many varieties in the old garden are no longer available so we had to find modern substitutes. Then there’s climate change: things that did well in the early 1900s might not do well today. Back then the land was always covered with snow for at least three months and the lake was freezing over.”
The garden is now noted through text, photographs and maps in the Smithsonian’s searchable archives.
With its formal stone main house constructed in 1841 and wood-frame ell built a generation later, Old Elm required Herculean historic preservation. “To get in you had to push a shovel in front of you to clear a path through the debris,” Bruce recalls. Plaster and lath from walls and ceilings were ankle deep. Windows were broken. Chimneys tilted perilously and exterior limestone blocks needed mortar. The floors were treacherous. On an early exploration, Bruce was walking through the kitchen and heard something plunk into water below. It was more than just a puddle—it was a huge cistern, fed by a pump from the lake, and all the moisture was the major contributor to the house’s deterioration. Old Elm lingered in decrepitude for many years, a magnet for local mischief and petty theft.
Restoration began in 2001, when the Hales took possession of the 26-acre property. Work was completed in 2018. The Hales kept the stone house honest to its roots. Because of the water, even the lath had dry rot, so every wall was taken back to the stone itself. Broken panes were replaced with wavy old glass. Beneath frayed carpets wide-board floors were refinished to match the originals. There’s no kitchen in the stone house but a modern bathroom is tucked under the center stairwell and an upstairs bathroom has a special hole in the ceiling that shows the house’s huge hand-hewn attic beams. Period wallpaper was hung this spring; Darcey says a house of this age and quality would definitely have had wallpaper in every room. The furniture, much of it from her family, dates from the 19th century and reflects how a successful farm family would have decorated. A pump organ attests to the Clarks’ love of music.
The wood-frame addition, looking just as its 19th-century predecessor did, was completed in 2018. Darcey’s son Mark Hall, an architect in nearby Essex, New York, created bright, modern, energy-efficient spaces within that traditional facade, making the home comfortable for his mother and stepfather year-round.