Upton group works to preserve Rich’s house on Rapid River

The Winter House as seen from the Carry Road.

The Winter House as seen from the Carry Road.

By Amy Chapman

“It’s time to save the Winter House Museum,” declares a brochure published and distributed by the Upton Historical Society, and members of that organization are feeling the pressure of time as they work to raise funds to accomplish their goal.

The Winter House, on the Rapid River in Upton, is part of a set of historic buildings that was once the home of Louise Dickinson Rich. Rich lived year-round on the Rapid River in the 1930s and ’40s, and became a bestselling author in 1942 with the publication of We Took to the Woods, her wry account of life deep in the Maine forest.

Rich’s book, with its witty answers to questions she was commonly asked—“But you don’t live here all the year ’round?” and “Don’t you get awfully out of touch?”—evoked a simpler way of life, and captured the imagination of an America weary of war and economic hardship. A national bestseller, it became required reading for Maine schoolchildren, was reprinted as a Readers’ Digest Condensed Book, and was issued in a pocket edition to troops going overseas.

The buildings that make up the home Rich shared with her husband and two children are known collectively as Forest Lodge, and have been used as a sporting lodge by their longtime owner, fly fishing guide—and famed storyteller—Aldro French. Committed to preserving this important piece of Maine’s literary and sporting history, he calls the place “hallowed ground” and has maintained it much as it was when Rich lived there.

Two years ago, French decided it was time to retire. He placed the two-story Summer House, where Rich’s family lived during the warmer months, up for sale, along with a workshop and a small guest cabin, asking $1.3 million for the buildings and 300 feet of river frontage.

If the “right buyer” came along—one who was interested in preserving Rich’s legacy and the historic integrity of her former home—he’d sell it all, he says now, with the possible exception of a small cabin he recently built for himself as a retirement home, within sight of the Winter House.

“I’ve been coming here for 55 years,” French said. “I’ve been here full-time for the last 25 years. I’ve got a lot of history here, a lot of stories.”

The smaller cabin known as the Winter House was the Rich family’s home during the months when it was too cold to heat the large, drafty Summer House. With the help of the Friends of Forest Lodge, a non-profit group committed to both the preservation of Rich’s home and the responsible stewardship of the Rapid River’s world class brook trout fishery, French has turned the Winter House into a museum. He and the Friends of Forest Lodge have now partnered with the Upton Historical Society, which assists with the maintenance of the building and arranges to bring visitors to the remote location.

A dozen guests recently joined Historical Society members for a visit to Forest Lodge. After being chauffeured over 16.5 miles of private gravel roads in members’ vehicles, they toured the buildings and walked the Carry Road to see the remains of the “Alligator,” the steam-powered boat that once towed boomed logs across Pond-in-the-River and sent them down to Umbagog Lake with the spring thaw.

They gathered in front of the Winter House to listen to French’s stories.

“Joe, you got anything you want to say?” French asked Upton Historical Society President Joe Bernier.

“Nope—you lie, and I’ll swear to it,” Bernier replied, prompting laughter.

They toured the Summer House, where Louise prepared her family’s meals year-round, tramping through snowdrifts to get there in the wintertime, because the Winter House lacked a kitchen. On a porch overlooking the river, they enjoyed a gourmet box lunch prepared by the Upton Ladies’ Aid Society.

French maintains a collection of Rich’s books and many of her personal belongings, most of which were left behind at Forest Lodge when she left the Rapid River after the death of her husband, Ralph.

In the Summer House, the typewriter on which Louise wrote her books and stories sits on a small table in a corner. Photographs and mementos from her time at Forest Lodge line the walls, tables, and the top of the ancient upright piano that Ralph once played. An assortment of comfortable chairs is still drawn up to the “huge stone fire-place that will take four-foot logs and really heat the living-room in the wettest, coldest September rain storm” (from We Took to the Woods).

In the nearby Winter House, one wall is still papered with Saturday Evening Post covers and other clippings that caught Rich’s interest when she lived there, and an antique brass bedstead fills one of the cabin’s two tiny bedrooms.

When French decided to add two feet to the height of the Winter House chimney—Rich had always complained that the fireplace was “too shallow to draw properly” with the chimney at its original height—he brought in hundred-year-old bricks to do the job. What’s more, the bricks came from an outhouse belonging to Rich’s friend and neighbor, Alys Parsons, who, with her husband Larry, owned Lakewood Camps at Middledam, a mile or so up the river, in Rich’s day.

That’s the kind of authenticity that matters to French—and it gives him yet another story to add to the extensive repertoire with which he regales visitors to his historic home.

French’s search for the “right buyer” has been unsuccessful so far. Joe Bernier said that, ideally, his group would like to attract funds from grants and private donations that would allow them to purchase the Winter House in order to ensure its future as a museum, open to the public and dedicated to Rich’s legacy.

As Rich herself wrote, “There’s not much tranquility left in the world today. It may be that in striving to preserve a little of it we are making the best contribution within our powers.”

To date, the Society has received a grant of $20,000 from the Davis Family Foundation and “a few thousand dollars” in individual donations earmarked for the project, but, said member Charlotte Dominique, who helped to lead the recent tour of Forest Lodge, “we have a long way to go.” She estimated that the Society needs to raise between $200,000 and $300,000 to make purchasing the Winter House a reality.

The Historical Society has a collection of photos, books, and papers relating to Louise Dickinson Rich that will be on display at the Upton Schoolhouse during the town’s Fun Day on August 16, when they will also be receiving some important additions from her family.

“The items being given to the Upton Historical Society include a diary and scrapbook which have seen better times and have some issues,” said curator Deborah Judkins by email.

“We have promised the family to do our best to conserve and preserve these items. We will be consulting experts in the field for advice and assistance. The items will eventually be housed in the Jennie Lena Sanborn and Cedric Albert Judkins Reading and Research Room when it is opened in June, 2015.”

An extensive exhibit of items related to the Rich family and their time on the Rapid River is currently on display at the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in Rangeley. The museum collaborates with the Upton Historical Society to run day-long tours of Forest Lodge; the next one is scheduled for Friday, August 22. Information is available on the museum’s website, rangeleyoutdoormuseum.org or by calling 207-864-3091.

More information on the Upton Historical Society’s effort to preserve and protect the Winter House can be obtained from Linda Harvell at 207-626-0953 or leenopharv@earthlink.net, or from Joe Bernier at 207-533-2010 or backstjoe@gmail.com.