Published: August 6, 2013
By R. Scudder Smith
EAGLE BAY, N.Y. — There is a popular saying among auctioneers that goes something like, “If you really want an object at auction, then just keep your paddle up.” No one knows this any better than Pat Benton, host and owner of The Hedges at Blue Mountain Lake, N.Y. Her life changed dramatically one summer day — July 18, 2009, to be exact — when she ventured 27 miles down the road to Eagle Bay to attend an auction. Objects in the sale included Adirondack furniture and accessories, things that drew her to the auction as she always kept them in her sights to improve the appearances of her cabins, lodge rooms, dining room and public areas of her popular vacation spot on the shores of Blue Mountain Lake.
The pickings were ripe that day as Old Hickory furniture, nice early cupboards, three large chopping blocks, a white birch canoe, stoneware, a bottle collection, an early rawhide chair and countless other objects crossed the auction block. “We sold between 1,500 and 1,600 lots that day,” June DeLair, auctioneer, said.
An advertisement in the Adirondack Express classified on Tuesday, July 14, 2009, announced the sale to be conducted by
Constableville Auction Hall of Constableville, N.Y., owned by Duane and June DeLair. Bold type listed “The Great Camp of Earl Covey,” formerly the “Twitchell Lake Inn,” with this Important Historical Auction starting at 10 am with the sale of the property, followed immediately with the antique contents of the camp.
“The sellers of the property wanted to have the auction the week before, on June 11, but we were busy and had to push it off a week. That was very fortunate as it poured on the 11th, and we had a beautiful day on the 18th,” June said. She added that “we had a couple of open house previews prior to the sale and many came who were just curious to see the property. Due to limited parking at the site, we had to use golf carts to get people in and out.”
June mentioned that at one time there were about 12 bathrooms in the original, main camp building, but only one was working at the time of the sale, and “there were places in the building where you could see the outside through holes in the walls.” But the contents, many of them original to the inn, were the driving force behind the auction, drawing about 750 people to either compete in the bidding or just to be entertained. Among that number only about five or six people bid on the property, including Pat Benton, who actually had no intention to buy the property when she first arrived at the sale.
“When I got to the auction, I realized that the inn, or what was left of it, was going to be sold and at first I had no interest in it. However, seeing it for the first time from the water side, I just looked up at the once-elegant inn and it struck me as one of the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen,” she said. “It talked to me in the same way The Hedges did when I first saw it,” she added. The main building, formerly called the Twitchell Lake Inn, had certainly seen better days, but it was well situated on a piece of shoreline property on another one of the beautiful Adirondack lakes.
When the bidding reached $320,000, Pat’s paddle was the last one, and now, with an extra 10 percent buyer’s premium, she was the owner of yet another prime piece of lakefront Adirondack property. “After buying the property, I was in such a state of shock that I really did not bid on as much of the contents as I wanted,” she said, “but I did get a few things, including the table that was pictured in the early lobby photograph, as well as the deerskin table cover.” After all that, she noted, it was just a few other tables, a kitchen cupboard and some odds and ends.
On the way back to The Hedges what she had just done began to sink in; she had taken on another large restoration project without a backup of skilled workers in place, and probably a bank account that would fall way short of the cost of such an undertaking. For those who know Pat, however, and are aware of her ventures in the past, there was little question that success was just about assured.
She was born in California and, with a father in the military, did her share moving around the country as he was assigned to different bases. She spent most of her later life in the South, including both Georgia and North Carolina, where she and her late husband Rip entered into one venture after another. “I am not sure quite why we kept doing it, but we opened three restaurants and two inns,” she said. And it was on a trip North into the Adirondacks that they came across The Hedges, and it was a serious case of love at first sight.
The Hedges was purchased in 2000, and two years later, in the midst of major restoration projects such as lighting, septic and kitchen update, Rip died of cancer, but not before asking Pat to sell The Hedges and not to try to face all of the problems alone, especially the need for new leaching fields. She assured him that she could manage all of the tasks, including the fields, and upon leaving the hospital room that day turned to her sister Francie and asked, “What are leaching fields?”
Pat, a quick learner and with the right help, including Francie who, to this day, has been Pat’s stalwart aide-de-camp, has kept things under control, including the fields and cabins.
Here was a Southern lady let loose in the Adirondacks, which has turned out to be a very lucky turn for the countless people who vacation with her every year at Blue Mountain Lake and enjoy swimming, boating or just relaxing in a most peaceful surrounding. Perks are plentiful, including a hearty breakfast with grits, better known at The Hedges as Georgia ice cream, a full dinner in the evening, an interesting wine list, a platter filled with homemade cookies, popcorn while playing a rousing game of Bingo, lemonade or tea and comfortable seating at the lake’s edge to take in beautiful sunsets. Pat’s constant renovations and updating have made the rooms in the lodge and Stone House attractive and the eight cabins, situated as close as 15 feet from the water, enjoy the sound of waves lapping against the shore and ducks in the morning quacking for a crust of bread or a sweet cookie.
So with the constant maintenance and chores of The Hedges generally under complete control, Pat turned her full attention over to the Twitchell Lake Inn, now renamed Twitchell Lake Lodge, picturing it as it was at the start of the Twentieth Century. And what a beautiful picture that was, with elegant and well-heeled guests arriving at the Big Moose Station via the Adirondack Division of the New York Central Railroad from various cities and continuing on by autobus or horse and wagon to the inn for a weekend or weeks at a time of fine food, swimming, fishing and complete relaxation.
Some came by auto from major cities, such as Utica, 72 miles to the south; New York City, 300 miles away; Boston, a trip of 310 miles; Saranac to the north, 135 miles; or a 155-mile jaunt from Rutland, Vt., to enjoy the rustic charms of this Adirondack inn.
It was the first inn built on Twitchell Lake by skilled carpenter and fine stonemason Earl Covey. Earl was the son of Emma and Henry Covey and was born on November 27, 1876, in Glenfield, N.Y. His family had ties to Vermont, Connecticut and Rhode Island, but when Earl was nine years of age the family moved to property located between Third and Fourth Lakes in New York State. There they lived in a two-room cabin, built by Henry, and moved to the property by sleigh.
During the years 1887–1888 Henry built Camp Crag on South Bay for the family. However, his wife Emma, in poor health, died of tuberculosis in 1890 and never did reside at Camp Crag. In 1892, Clarence, Earl’s older brother, fell from a canoe and drowned. At the age of 16, Earl quit school and went to work with his father full-time and in February 1895 he married Addie Butts. He and his wife first lived in Washington, D.C., but in 1896 he moved his family, at that time with just one child, back to Camp Crag to help his father.
Earl Covey, who has been credited with putting Twitchell Lake on the map, bought the site for the inn in 1896, opened it in 1899, and was known for saying that from then on he never fully completed building on to or repairing the inn during his entire ownership. Earl, with fellow builder George Matheson, started construction after spending their first night on location in a snow cave. Since there was no sawmill at the time, the first inn was built entirely by hand, using a two-man pit saw system designed by Earl with a platform erected at about the height of a man for one person to stand on, while his partner worked the other end of the saw from ground level. In this way the logs were cut in half and then stood on end to create walls, and waterproof paper was inserted into the cracks between them. The ceilings were made from whole logs, with the top portion peeled and flattened to accept the floor boards on the upper level. Eventually, Earl had his own sawmill, but it was destroyed by fire in 1914 and even with the support of a ladies bucket brigade, from the lake to the fire, the building could not be saved. It was totally destroyed, including a large supply of wood that had already been milled.
The inn, when initially completed, included a living room, dining room and kitchen on the ground level, and five guest rooms and two rooms for the family upstairs. Over the years, as the inn became a popular spot in the Adirondacks, the dining room was increased in size and more guest rooms were added. In the end there were 16 buildings, including the inn itself, nine cabins, boathouse, workshop, horse barn, sawmill, battery house and a garage where the ladies would often stop to freshen up from their dusty ride to the inn.
The poured cement battery building is still there, right behind the inn, where it once housed the generators and glass cases that acted like batteries with stored energy to provide one electric light per room at night. It was a Delco system that worked well until 1952, when power lines were run from a central source. Living in the Adirondacks in the early years was far from a bed of roses. Winters were spent in the kitchen, where a large stove with a capacity for 3-foot-long logs kept the family warm, and the spring brought knee-deep mud as the snow melted, creating streams of water running from the mountain to the lake below. Spring thaws often created difficult travel, and the main access to the inn was by a corduroy road, logs laid crossways and packed with dirt to allow use by a horse and buckboard. Sometimes people had to simply walk in, carrying youngsters in pack baskets, and at severe times supplies were taken to the end of the lake and then transported to the inn by boat. Eventually the roads improved, keeping in tune with lighting at the inn, which went from early kerosene lanterns to electric lamps.
Once arrived at the inn, guests were treated to healthy meals and quiet, lakeside relaxation, with a list of “things to do” that included canoe races, popcorn parties, log rolling, swimming, fishing, taffy pulls and square dancing in the dining room that often went well into the early morning hours. An accordion provided the music, Earl called the dances, and cake and ice cream were served to cool off the dancers.
Illness seemed to follow the family, for on December 3, 1918, Earl’s son William died of influenza while stationed in France during World War I, and on September 25, 1920, his wife Addie died of pneumonia following surgery. In memory of lost family members, The William Earl Covey Memorial Stone Bridge, built by Earl and his sons Henry and Sumner, was dedicated on August 27, 1921, at the outlet of Twitchell Lake. Later that year Henry died of a perforated vertebrae and he turned most of the management over to Sumner and his wife. In April 1923, Earl married one of the employees of the inn, Frances Alden, and two years later had a daughter, Mary Alden. However, his departure from Twitchell Lake Inn did not slow him down, and he continued full time in the construction business. After purchasing 66 acres at the Big Moose outlet in South Bay in 1923, he finished the first building at Covewood in 1924, and four years later began building the Big Moose Chapel. The chapel was three years in construction and is known as his finest achievement. At his doctor’s suggestion, Earl and his bride went to Florida, built a stone house in Clearwater, and in October 1949, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his left side. His health improved enough for him to build an addition to his Florida home, but soon his health deteriorated and he died at Big Moose Lake on August 22, 1952.
Sumner Covey ran the inn for about the 20 years, followed by Sam Blake and Mary Boardman, who managed the inn during most of the war years, and from 1948 to 1958 Mildred Covey, Earl’s daughter, was the owner-innkeeper, along with her husband, Fayette F. Brownell. An advertisement flyer during the time that they were the owners and operators includes a list of distinctive features of the Twitchell Lake Inn, such as an informal, friendly atmosphere; wonderful trails, long, short, easy and hard; a section free of ragweed, which is of interest to those who have hay fever; wooded bridle paths, with stables five miles from the inn; picnics, campfires and outdoor dinners; occasional square dances; tennis and badminton courts; fresh vegetables; delicious home-cooked meals, attractively served; and movies and golf 11 miles away at Inlet or 20 miles away at Old Forge. Visitors to the inn always found a laundry slip in their room; however, there was a charge for this service. Forty-nine things were listed, including bibs, dresser covers, doilies, rags, cotton and wool blankets, curtains, aprons, chemise, corset covers, night dresses and night shirts, rompers, Union suits, soft collars, vests and coats.
An auction in 1958 marked the end of the property as one unit, and by the close of the day there were 40 new owners of the cottages, boathouse, empty lots and the inn itself. Out of the 500 to 600 people who attended the sale, four now shared the ownership of the inn building and a couple of acres, including access to the lake. However, some joint ownerships do not pan out, as was the case of the Twitchell Inn. Four years later the property was sold to the Edward Scherfling family, who retained ownership until the turn of the Twenty-First Century. “We used it as a camp and at times we had so many guests there that it seemed like a large family reunion,” said Bob Scherfling, who lives in one of the former cottages on the lake with his wife, Marguerite. Now retired, and spending the colder months in Baldwinsville, N.Y., he has the best of both worlds. “We are a close group of owners on this part of the lake and generally when a property comes on the market, we don’t call a realtor but just sell to one of our friends,” he said. Bob is an expert on the area, having spent just over half a century living there, and knows the Twitchell Lake Inn backward and forward. “I seemed to have worked every waking hour around the place with my father, for there was always something going wrong,” he said. Today, he often acts as a guide for visitors, pointing out along the way where additions have been made, walls changed, buildings removed and modern day conveniences added.
Those who purchased any portion of the property at the 1958 auction also received two perks: a water system and dock privileges. “That water system, still in use today, is unique and wonderful,” Bob said. He delights in telling that the community owns 25 acres of land across the lake on which there are two active springs high on a hill. Water is piped down the hill and under the lake, which is one-half mile wide, 1½ miles long and 2,050 feet above sea level, and up the other side to two reservoirs on a hill above the inn and the entire camp site. The reservoirs each hold 3,000 gallons of water and gravity feed the homes below. “We started out with galvanized pipe, but in later years we went to plastic,” Bob said. He also noted, “I was just up there checking the system and even with all the homes now occupied for the summer, as well as the Twitchell Lake Lodge, the reservoirs are overflowing.” Each resident gets a $30 annual bill, which goes for any necessary repairs.
When the Scherfling ownership ended with the sale of the inn to Mitchell Amedon, the place went into a nosedive and soon became an abandoned building. “Mr Amedon had plans for a restoration of the building, but it never happened,” Pat said. Neglect showed everywhere; pipes froze in the winter, and the wind and snow came in through holes that developed in some of the walls. So once again it was auction time, and enter Pat Benton, beginning a new chapter in the life of the Twitchell Lake Inn.
Mary Alden Covey Williams, Earl’s daughter from his second marriage, has added new photographs and written an “afterward” to The Earl Covey Story that was written by her mother, Frances, and originally printed in 1964, with a second printing in 2010 by L. Brown & Son, Barre, Vt. In the afterward she talks about the 2009 auction, saying, “The successful high bidder was from Blue Mountain Lake and a family with considerable experience in the hospitality industry. Hope that the building will be returned to its place of prominence among Adirondack inns is widespread.”
Well, “that was the plan” Pat said, at the same time remembering seeing the inn from the lake side for the first time. “It looked sad and dreary and I knew I had to save it,” she said, adding a definite, “Hmm, I can do that.” And being known as a woman who does get things done, she launched into this project by rounding up a crew of three local men, headed by Chris Howe, and used all local services. “We worked as a team, with a few ‘pout-outs,’ but got along just fine and did a job we are all proud of,” Pat said. It was not a question of where to begin: “We really just started from scratch, for just about every part of the structure needed much attention,” Pat said. The kitchen was horrible, the sleeping deck on the second floor had to come down for both safety and comfort, new plumbing had to be installed, up-to-date electric lines run throughout the entire building, a new heating system, all new bathrooms, insulation, landscaping, tear down of several buildings that could not be saved and hot water was provided for the first time. “We had to undo all previous renovations and make sure the piers were all structurally sound,” Pat said, adding that “we ran into lots of other little secrets the Old Girl was just waiting for us to find and fix.” Work continued day and night, year round, with the workers often fighting through large snow drifts in the winter to get to the inn. It took the best part of two years to complete, and “I never regretted doing it for even one moment,” Pat confessed.
When working on the lower level, a counter, display case and shelves were found, all that was left of a small store that operated at the inn. Bob Scherfling remembers it well, noting that “the store had bread, eggs, milk and other incidentals that some of the guests might want, but it also was for the folks who worked on the property.” The kitchen went from an unworkable mess to a dream kitchen that now shines with the latest, energy-efficient equipment, including two stoves, two refrigerators, two dishwashers, a pair of sinks, plenty of both cabinet space and countertop room, ovens and all the kitchen accessories needed to put food on the table. Without question, Betty Crocker would feel right at home. Once the food is prepared, and the weather permits, dining can be outdoors on a large circular deck just beyond the kitchen door, an area that once was occupied by a rundown ell to the main building.
Some planting has been done, blending comfortably into the typical Adirondack growth on the hillside, and a small spring-fed stream runs beside the deck. The dining room table, or the main dining room table as there are two, is a massive piece of Southern furniture that is surrounded by a dozen chairs that came from a factory in Des Moines, Iowa.
The ceiling is a work of art, constructed of tongue and groove wood in an intricate pattern that was original to the inn. “We had to go down to the original piers to make sure the walls would hold the ceiling,” Chris Howe said. To save time, each board was taken down in order and placed in a specific pile to make the job of putting it back up much easier. When the ceiling was all down, dozens of well-arranged piles were scattered about the dining room floor. Before it was time to arrange them back on the ceiling, however, Pat decided to invite some of the neighbors in for a look and refreshments. And what better place to serve than in the dining room. So to make room, and free up some extra floor space, Pat moved the piles about, shoving many of them into the corner with little regard for order. “What a mess we found the next day at work — and it took a number of extra days to complete the ceiling installation,” Chris said. In fact, the ceiling project took a full three weeks.
A large fireplace, now piped for gas, dominates the end of the room and boasts the fine work for which Earl Covey was known. And it was said far and wide that Earl Covey never made a fireplace that did not draw well. Appropriately, a full length picture of Earl hangs over this fireplace. “As we moved through the building we undid some of the restorations that had been accomplished over the years, mostly to make sure of the strength of the walls and to install structurally sound piers,” Pat said, “and all the time our goal was to take it back to the original building, but with comfort in mind.” With that criteria set, the bathrooms proved to be less of a problem, but one of the costliest. Everything went out, a few walls were moved, and all new plumbing and fixtures went in. Now each of the six bedrooms on the second level has a private bath, as does the single bedroom on the first level. Every old window, a total of 60, showed the wear of time with rotten wood and some broken glass, had to be replaced and the large, plate glass windows in the main living room provide a wonderful view of the lake with the dock reaching out into the water.
The inn realized it largest size in 1918, resulting in a number of different looks to the outside of the building. The wraparound porch, which was deemed unsafe, came down and now only the lake side of the building has a porch, well appointed with Adirondack chairs for easy lake viewing. The upper porches, or the sleeping porches, were replaced with new ones, separated so that the two bedrooms in the front each have a porch with privacy. The supporting pillars now are not milled pieces of wood, but trees that have been skinned of bark and each has its own look and personality, with the railings complementing the appearance of the pillars.
After tapping several retailers who deal in the Adirondack look, as well as dipping into her own supply of Adirondack furnishings and accessories that have come from an endless line of tag sales and auctions, Pat’s lodge has the right look, but with the comfort she insisted upon. Most of the furnishings are large, fitting for the rooms, a canoe hangs from the ceiling in the main living room, fish pictures decorate many of the walls, and it would not be complete without a moose or deer mount, of which there are several. “I even used quite a few things from my shop,” Pat said, as she has been an antiques dealer since 1974. And to add to her busy schedule, she is an EMT, on call two days and nights per week.
During all this renovation, Pat remembers waking up in the middle of the night and thinking that some of the work done the previous day was not right. “Early the next morning we might be taking away things we did the day before, and doing it again a better and more attractive way,” she said. During the project nothing was wasted. “We used the old wood we took down in other parts of the building, putting it right back up to retain the look of aged wood.” At present, the original ice house, once filled with ice cut from the lake and the only means of refrigeration, is still standing. “I have been advised to take it down, but now with the lodge about where we want it, we are starting to restore that building and it will become an annex,” Pat said.
“While the property has been split up, it has remained together in another respect,” Pat said about the piece of the lake she has changed for the better. “Some of the people, like Bob Scherfling and his wife, have been here for many years and it is really a very tight-knit community,” she said. “We all know each other, help out when needed, and meet socially during the warm months we live here,” Bob said. There even is one time during the summer when neighbors hook outboard motors up to their docks and cruise the lake, finally all meeting in one place for a picnic and jumping from one dock to the next to greet friends and share food and drink. “It’s like the good old days,” Pat said, “when everyone pulls in the same direction.” So, to reflect back on what Mary Alden Covey Williams wrote in her mother’s book, the inn did fall into good hands and it is now flaunting all its glory to those who see it from the road, as well as those who see it from the lake. And the neighbors, near and far, have taken their hats off to Pat Benton.
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