One Simple Life

by Daniel Way | History

Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1997, Dr. Daniel Way wrote about one of his patients, an elderly Adirondack farmer who gave him his journals chronicling a disappearing way of life. The piece can be found in Way’s 2013 collection, “Never a Dull Moment; a Tapestry of Scenes and Stories from an Adirondack Medical Practice.”

Oct. 21, 1933. Twenty one years old. Received for my birthday one pair leather gloves, one dollar, one cake and five bananas, also one pair of shoe insoles. Helped to dig Hilda’s grave. I had my birthday dinner at grandfathers. I have this date nine dollars and seventy-four cents. Beginning reading the Bible through, also to write it through. Saw the airplane … 
both ways.

So begin the chronicles of Frank Lillibridge, the last master of Maple Grove Farm in Thurman. The third gen­eration of his family to reside there, this unassuming man documented events from 1933 to 1978 in diaries that serve as a time capsule of a simple, quiet life on a southern Adirondack farm.

As a family physician with Hudson Headwaters Health Network, which serves the Adirondacks from Indian Lake to Bolton Landing, I first met Frank ten years ago, when he became a patient of mine. Our relationship grew into a real friendship, so that a year before he died, he generously offered to share his journals with me “for what good might come of it.”

To know Frank, you have to know the land on which he lived all his life. In the southwestern shadow of Crane Mountain, which looms like an enormous cairn over the hills between Warrensburg and Johnsburg, lie a hundred-­odd acres that Frank’s grandfather Horace Lillibridge bought in 1888. In those days—as is still true today—you couldn’t reach this secluded area without circumnavigating Crane. The mountain was enough of an impediment to forestall the invasion of modern civilization into Thurman, a community that was first settled in the 1790s. When Horace moved his wife and six children into the two-story farmstead built by Abner Sartwell, he found it little changed from the eighteenth century. He also found it so deeply buried in snow that he had to crawl in through an upstairs window.

Horace’s second-youngest son, James, born in 1880, stayed on the farm and worked it with his father. In 1912, when Frank, the only child ofJames and his wife, Mabel, was born, Maple Grove Farm was a bustling, self-sufficient enterprise.

Frank grew up in the days when muscles, not machines, performed labor, and men worked together on commu­nal projects like cutting hay. His journals vividly portray a bucolic life-style that echoed the farm and forest seasons. In the winter he wrote of cutting vast quantities of wood, as well as hunting and trapping rabbit, raccoon, fox, skunk, weasel, muskrat, porcupine and woodchuck. Each spring, the family tapped four to five hundred sugar maples and boiled enough sap to produce sixty to a hundred fifty gallons of syrup. In late spring they put in the gar­den: tomatoes, cabbage, parsnips, turnips, beets, onions, com, string beans, cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, carrots and lots of potatoes. When summer came, they mowed hay, which they hauled to town to sell or trade. In the fall they harvested and canned vegetables and sold the surplus; they also cut and sold more wood. The Lillibridges had dairy cows for milk and butter and raised cattle and chickens for meat and eggs. They kept horses for hauling and plowing. Mending fences, sharpening tools, shoeing the horses, hauling manure, tending livestock and taking the buggy to Warrensburg or Johns­burg for supplies were necessary year-round chores.

Time hardly seemed to touch the farm from the day Horace Lillibridge bought it to when Frank began his diaries. According to his early notebooks, the only concessions to twentieth-centu­ry convenience were a flashlight, a hand-cranked phono­graph and a bicycle on which Frank had ridden more than twenty-one hundred miles by fall 1934. In the 1950s the family bought a battery-operated radio and a chain saw. In the late seventies electricity arrived. To the day he died, though, the house never knew television, central heat or running water. The water source was always a spring located several hundred feet from the front door and rain barrels under the eaves.

Frank’s greatest preoccupation—on paper, anyway­—seemed to be with wood. Just as Eskimos reputedly use a hundred different words to describe snow and Arabs have dozens of synonyms for a camel, his vocabulary was replete with nouns and verbs having to do with wood. In his 1944 journals the terms “pulp” and “wood” showed up almost two hundred times. He cut, chained, chopped, sawed, snaked, skidded, split, peeled, piled, drew, burned, traded and sold it. He logged yellow birch, white birch, basswood, ironwood, elm, oak, ash, beech, cherry, maple, popple, box elder, wil­low, hemlock, white pine, yellow pine, spruce and tama­rack. He called it housewood, roundwood, polewood, pulp­wood, limbwood, winterwood, sugarwood, greenwood or logs, depending on its physical characteristics or eventual purpose. He measured it in blocks, cords, jumperloads, wag­onloads and hitches. He cut it with Bangor saws, bow saws, Billy saws, bucksaws, crosscut saws, circle saws, Champion saws, chain saws, Lew saws, lance-tooth saws, Ottawa saws, hacksaws, handsaws, Sears saws, Simonds saws, axes, adzes, hatchets, hammers and wedges. Sometimes he cut wood with one saw so he could cut it again with another.

When he wasn’t putting up his own wood, he wrote about chopping it for neighbors: “I stopped at Mr. Wordens and helped him saw some wood.” Frank felled trees in mead­ows, forests, swamps, hills, valleys and along roads. His cru­sade against standing timber was relentless, sometimes cut­ting down fifty or more trees in a single day, as if he were fending off an invading army that would overrun his beloved farm. Even in his later years, when he was too old and frail to plant potatoes or boil maple sap, he could be found in his yard, chain saw in hand.

Frank spent the few leisure hours he had studying the Bible, going to church, writing letters, eating homemade ice cream, playing with the farm’s dozens of cats, listening to records, hunting, reading Grit and exchanging visits with friends and neighbors. His entries show that Lillibridge hol­idays were simple affairs:

Monday Dec. 25, 1933. Went up to Will Pasco’s and got his wrench. We went to grandma’s for Christmas dinner. We fixed the church bell. Set a coon trap on Emma’s swamp. Bought one grit and paid for next week’s $.10. We got our fur check $7.75 from H. E. Galusha.

Nov. 30, 193 9. Thur. I snaked some wood with Daisy. We all went to the Sanborn home and had Thanksgiving dinner. We went with Mr. LaVoilette. We had a fine time. It was the first turkey I ever ate.

Dec. 25 1962 Tues. Christmas (Temp 6). A nice day. We stayed home. Pa had fire in shop and dressed two roosters. Sam and Johnnie Parker came and we shot John’s new bolt 22 he got for Christmas.

Frank’s prose waxed nearly ecstatic when he described his great-aunt and uncle’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary:

Mar 21 19 34. Aleatha and Hazle were here. We cut sugar wood. We went to Mr. and Mrs. Cyrus Baker’s silver wedding anniversary to-night. We had canned beans, sallad, cake and ice cream also l.emmon ade. They had a spl.endid wedding cake which was served to all.

In Frank’s early diaries, cash seemed of small importance. His bookkeeping was meticulous, though, and in 1934 his expenses totaled $40.78 and his income was $47.75. Barter was often the medium of exchange, trading wood for kerosene, potatoes for fruit, maple syrup for grain. In many instances, Frank noted putting in a full day’s labor hanging Sheetrock or repairing a sleigh for a neighbor, without men­tioning any compensation. In return, though, friends like Henry and Winifred Westcott provided Frank with transportation to Warrensburg or even farther—that is, when they could get the car to run:

Saturday Dec. 30, 19 33. Winifred and Henery came down and started their car. They had to build a fire under the car.

Jan. 24 1934. Henery brought the mail. Pa hitched Daisy on to the car to get it up the hill and she broke a tug. After that Henery got the car off the road and had to go home and get his team and Winifred to get the car home.

Frank rarely left the confines of Thurman, though. His day-to-day world extended from North Creek to Warrens­burg, a radius of perhaps fifteen miles from Maple Grove Farm. His first trip to Wevertown, just a couple of miles past Johnsburg, was in May 1934; his first ride in a boat was in June 1948, on Schroon Lake. When he was thirty-eight, in 1950, he rode the train from North Creek to Saratoga, prob­ably his longest, most exotic journey up to that time. In later years friends and relatives took him on day trips to such faraway lands as Ticonderoga and Vermont. More often, his locomotion was snowshoes, bicycle, wagon, sleigh or buggy. The closest thing he ever had to an automobile was a rid­ing lawn mower.

In some ways Frank’s journals were obsessively itemized. He rarely failed to document the weather (“It came 7 1/2 inches snow today”) or who visited (“The Roy Russells were here except Roy.” “We saw Dick’s wife.” “The Newtons were here.”). All farm chores—especially the most routine—were diligently catalogued:

June 6, 1945. Wed. We finished putting manure on the piece above the Barn. It took eleven loads. Pa plowed the piece and I cleaned the hen house. We have drawn out 43 loads of manure. I went to the P.O. Claud and family were here this evening. They brought some bike wheels for me to fix.

June 30, 1955. I snaked out staging poles for the church with Gyp. Pa fixed chicken coop and yard, seven more chicks. I went to P.O. Got salt block. Ma canned 8 cans goat.

If Frank’s bike had a flat tire, as it did six times in 1934, mention was made. When Pa cleaned the outhouse, Frank noted the occasion. He recorded each dental visit ( includ­ing number of teeth pulled), every airplane sighting and any new experience: for instance, his mother ate her first banana on July 21, 1951, when she was sixty-one years old. Some minutiae were truly amazing, such as “put new lead in pen­cil today.” Frank even kept entries when virtually nothing happened:

May 8 1955. We stayed at home. Had no company. I walked up the road and back, then went to bed awhile.
A few statements went beyond my understanding alto­gether: “Ma and I went to Jasper’s house and Ma burned the toad-stool Henry got in 1910.” And: “Painted the east side of the rug gray.”

Frank’s memoirs appeared almost secretive, devoid of emotion or analysis. He simply recorded the day’s events, often in two or three sentences. When something unusual occurred, he did not disclose personal feelings and opinions. Nonetheless, some reactions can be inferred. For example, in 1945, when Daisy, his trusty draft horse, took sick and had to be put down, he wrote:

Dec. 21 1945. Fri. I went up to Henry’s and he came down and finished Daisy. We went up to Billy’s with Lily cow. Will came and brought the kettle home and snaked Daisy away. I went out and there wasn’t any Christmas tree. It was two below zero.

His focus of attention was always the farm. Throughout the 1940s, he never once referred to World War II. When momentous events happened elsewhere in the world, his universe remained intact:

Nov. 22, 1963. Fri (Temp 48) I sawed a little wood near barn. Chain saw quit. Pa cut the willow brush near the brook in barn yard. I went to Mt. View, put stones under shed. I split Bass­wood and pine for the church shed. President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas Texas.

Frank’s writings reveal in astonishing detail the unhur­ried flow of an old-time Adirondack farmer’s life. As I scan from page to page and year to year, I can picture him feed­ing grasshoppers to the trout in the spring, eating maple sugar on snow or tuning in the radio to Billy Graham preaching from Toronto. Frank was one of the very few peo­ple I’ve met who seemed to have no regrets about his life. He was content to the end, and the calm complacency re­flected in his 1930s observations continued through the 1970s entries.

His dear friend Edith Baker, who knew the Lillibridge family for more than fifty years, also enjoys poring over his books. “I find them very relaxing,” she said. “When I read them all my troubles seem to disappear, and I can travel back and forth in time and feel like nothing has changed.”

Evelyn Russell, a cousin who lived nearby in what had been Henry Westcott’s general store and the Thurman post office, also shared fond memories of Frank. “All the little children in Thurman used to wait for Frank and his father to go by in their hay wagon so they could beg for a ride in the hay. He dwelled in an unspoiled world, uncorrupted by TV and modem ways of conversation,” she recalled. “He lived by the Bible and always remembered his mother’s favorite saying, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”‘

Frank’s life-style had unforeseen consequences, however. His devotion to the land and his parents left him little time for courting the ladies, and although he did have a sweetheart at one time, he never married. “I gave up on the idea when I got to be seven­ty,” he told me. “I figured I’d stay single after that.”

An only child, Frank was clearly the beneficiary of his parents’ undivided at­tention and affection, and even if he never wrote it down, their feelings were reciprocated. They were always “Ma” and “Pa,” and perhaps the greatest mea­sure of his sentiment for them was ex­pressed when they passed away. Around the time of his mother’s death, in 1956 (she was sixty-six), he stopped writing for two years. When Pa died, at the age of ninety-seven, in 1977, Frank put down his pen forever.

Frank came into my care in March 1987 when he was hospitalized for hypothermia. One cold, rainy day he went out to dump ashes from the wood stove and fell. He had lain outside all night and was found by Edith Baker the next morning. She called Evelyn Russell and another friend, Glen Rounds, and the three of them got him into the house. “He was gray and cold as ice,” Russell recalled.

Frank was taken by ambulance to Glens Falls Hospital, where he made a slow but steady recovery. The combina­tion of bed rest and pre-existing arthritis made him very weak, and furthermore, his upper back had become badly bent forward, as though the cumulative weight of all the cords of wood he split, pounds of butter he churned and gallons of maple syrup he boiled were bearing down on him. This affected his breathing and threw off his center of gravity, making him unsteady when he tried to walk. He relied on the nurses to feed him and get him out of bed, and I was convinced he would never be able to go back to the farm. When offered a bed in a nursing home, he said simply, “I’ll be all right at home, and that’s where I’m goin.” His friends took him back to Thurman, and thanks to their efforts, Frank not only lived at home for the next three years, but regained enough strength to go back to “cuttin’ and splittin’ a little wood,” as he put it.

In 1989 he ended up back in the hospital and was about to be discharged under similar circumstances. As his doc­tor, I wanted to visit him at Maple Grove Farm to see his situation with my own eyes.

There’s no easy route into Thurman from any direction, so I approached from the north, out of Johnsburg. I found myself on a well-paved road that passed by some modern homes before opening into a beautiful valley with broad fields and woodlands on either side. As I continued, the steep northwest face of Crane Mountain appeared, loom­ing ever closer, while the forest closed in on the other side. The road became progressively narrower until I came to a sign announcing “end of county road maintenance.” My route turned to dirt and gravel, with many deep ruts and washouts where small streams trickled across the path.

After several more miles of jostling through puddles and potholes, I passed Hershey Pond and the homestead where Frank’s grandfather was born. From that house, Crane’s summit was perfectly re­flected on the surface of the tiny pond. Several steep hills later, I finally came upon Henry Westcott Road and knew I was close. I still had to ford another stream and cross an area of loose fill that had been dumped where the road had washed away. Finally I pulled up to a rus­tic little farmhouse. Its unpainted clap­boards blended well with the surround­ing forest, and the odor of wood smoke greeted me as I passed between walls of housewood stacked on the porch.

Inside, as my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I found myself in a room dominated by a huge stove, with every available space occupied by something. It was plain that little had changed here since Frank was a youngster, apart from a telephone and a knee-high refrigerator, both recent­ly acquired. With Edith Baker’s and Evelyn Russell’s help, we got Frank into his favorite rocking chair and covered his lap with a bearskin blanket. He sat still while I took his picture, even though he seemed unable to grasp why any­one would make such a fuss over him.

After visiting a while, and satisfied that he was in good hands, I set about trying to find my way to Warrensburg, only twelve miles distant according to the map. In the forty-five minutes it took me to get back to town, I felt as though I had passed though a time warp. I had just spent a couple of hours at a place where an enigmatic, placid gentleman had lived his whole life in isolated tranquili­ty, and I understood why he wanted so much to stay there.

Sadly, the twentieth century finally caught up with Frank and Maple Grove Farm. In the spring of 1991 he became too weak to live alone and moved to a nursing home in Glens Falls. He died in October that year, two days before his seventy-ninth birthday. After Frank’s death, the house was destroyed by fire, closing the final chapter of Maple Grove Farm.

I still think about Frank’s home, how the seedlings of trees he cut by the thousands are silently filling in the clearing, and of a conversation we once had. “The place is a lot wilder now than it ever was before,” he told me, but he was at peace about that. “Did you see the big maple on your right as you came up to the house?” I nodded, recall­ing a giant that measured about two feet across at the base and towered over his house. “I took sap from that tree for over fifty years, and people asked me, ‘Why don’t you cut it down?’ Well, I stopped makin’ syrup when Pa got to be ninety, and I had plenty of other trees for wood. I figured someone else might want to make sugar from it someday, so I left it for them, whoever they might be.”

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