A Summer in the College Grant

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"A Summer in the Dartmouth College Grant" is an essay by Bill Davis '49 about his memories working for the Dartmouth Outing Club after World War Two. The essay is reproduced below.

The essay

I was casting about for something to do in the summer before I was to graduate from Dartmouth in 1948. Rather unexpectedly I received an offer to serve on the Cabins Crew of the Outing Club. Since I had only transferred to Dartmouth as a junior after serving in the Seabees, I had had no experience really with the Outing Club, other than skating on Occom Pond and skiing after a fashion, both with my roommate Jim Laing, a speed skater from Wisconsin. Jim gave me some idea of how to ski and skate, but I never attained any degree of proficiency in either sport, although I enjoyed them both immensely. But I was certainly not a "chubber", the name given to fanatical devotees of The Outdoors, hunters, fishermen, woodsmen and trail blazers. Anyhow I was invited to join the Cabins Crew and I accepted the offer.

It was a tough assignment. It involved clearing the Appalachian Trail from Hanover up to Moosilauke, and repairing cabins on the trail, both of which had suffered from complete neglect during World War Il. The other two permanent members of the Cabins Crew were also veterans of the War. Dick Backus and Alex MacPherson had been members of the notorious 10th Mountain Division, the first unit to be trained specifically for combat in winter, and one of the toughest outfits in the entire Service. They were true chubbers, keen on fly-fishing, deer hunting, and tracking game. They both knew the Appalachian Trail intimately and were familiar with the various shelters, lean-to's and cabins along the Trail. Alex had a Model A truck, with axles high off the ground, which was admirably suited for the rocky terrain over which we had to transport ourselves and the material needed to repair the cabins for which we were responsible, in four years most of the Trail was completely overgrown, with young trees right in the middle of the Trail.

The summer was hot and humid during the day and pretty cold at night, so we slept in comfort in sleeping bags on boughs of fragrant Balsam Fir, but during the day we sweated away with deer-flies, mosquitoes, and other biting insects making life miserable. Anticipating a long day on the trail with materials on our backs, we would make one peanut butter sandwich (no butter), put it in a plastic envelope, and stuff it into our back pocket. By the end of the day we were ravenous, needless to say. During this stage of the summer we relied on local eateries, which were pretty bad for the most part. The cabins usually needed considerable repair. Usually some animals had invaded the premises, mostly field mice, pack rats, porcupines, or racoons. The outhouses had to be moved to new locations, over a newly-dug pit, and the seats in them replaced because the porcupines, who had a fondness for salt, had gnawed away at them. Dick and Alex had a large repertoire of songs that included logging songs, cowboy tunes, madrigals, glee club favorites, and they knew the parts. This left me to improvise the remaining harmony, which was not easy for a baritone with a limited range. In spite of this handicap we managed to achieve by the end of the summer a pretty decent selection of barbershop harmony, especially after Jim Schwedlin joined us with his guitar. On weekends we usually returned to Hanover and bunked surreptitiously in the Outing Club office on campus. This was actually illegal, and we were once evicted by the Night Watch, an officer with the very appropriate name Nelson Wormwood. On this occasion we dragged our sleeping bags down to the cemetery and tried to find some level tombstone on which to sleep.

Thus passed the summer and now came our reward (the monthly "salary" was correctly judged by someone to be totally inadequate, so we deserved a reward). We were picked up by Ross McKenny, the legendary adviser of the Outing Club, who indoctrinated many Dartmouth students into the life of the outdoors. Ross had been a guide in the Maine woods, taking groups of businessmen into the wilderness by canoe and providing them with meals cooked over campfires. These meals included cornbread freshly baked in a reflector oven and, of course, beanhole beans. We came to appreciate Ross's talents mightily after the meager fare we had been used to on the trail. We also appreciated the Gl weapons carrier that Ross bought from Army Surplus. In this wonderful buggy we could pitch our backpacks down onto the floor and sit on the elevated seats down each side. Deer hunters among us were allowed the privilege of sitting next to Ross, who would point out deer which they would never have noticed.

Actually, I believe that I have jumped ahead of my story, for now I recall that we had made this journey up into the Dartmouth College Grant before we cleared the trail. In other words, we went up to the Grant (way up in the very northernmost part of New Hampshire) at the start of our summer stint, and then returned later to build the cabin (the second one in the Grant) for which we had felled and peeled the balsam fir. I say "we", but actually Ross did the felling and we just did the peeling. Ross felled the trees with three huge thwacks of his broad axe, which he was careful to sharpen until he could slice off a thin layer of skin on his hand. At these times, one could notice that Ross had lost half of one of his fingers, as a consequence of an accident in a sawmill. In order to get into the College Grant, one had to stop at the caretaker's office and register, then proceeded on around a bridge that had collapsed when the Brown Paper Company was cutting trees ruthlessly, and the weight of the heavy logging trucks was too much for the bridge. The market for maple logs had fallen off, and the Brown Company in its wisdom had chosen not to rebuild it as too costly. A year or two later my Dad and I had been invited across the Dorset West Road to the house now occupied by the eccentric Jeff Hill and his more human wife and tennis doubles partner Marion. After one drink I was describing with my usual vivid exageration the outrage of leaving beautiful logs of virgin maple rotting on the ground. There was an awkward silence, after which our host said quietly, Hl am the President of the Brown Paper Company." We were never invited for drinks again, which is just as well.

Back to the Grant for our return visit. The other members of the crew went off to retrieve the logs, which were beginning to dry out ready for building the cabin. Ross told them "Leave Gil here with me", which I took as a compliment. I had been wondering how on earth just the two of us could get those logs up onto the sides of the cabin, but I had underestimated Ross' skill. With the help of several ropes strategically placed on short logs slanted up against the sides, Ross and I pulled the logs up with the greatest of ease. However, when we got up to the top logs on the sides of the cabin, I heard Ross silently swearing under his breath (and believe me, he had a picturesque vocabulary of abuse). "What's the matter, Ross?" I asked. "One side is a foot longer than the other1', he answered with chagrin. But we went ahead and finished it anyway. Does that make it a trapezoid? I cant remember my elementary geometry.

During this stage of our summer's work, we were visited by my older brother Wilfred. This was a total surprise to me. He had parked his Army surplus jeep at the entrance to the Grant and hiked into the wilderness. How he found us I'll never know. Maybe we were making a lot of noise, Anyhow suddenly he emerged from the dark carrying a six-pack of beer. Jim Schwedlund was in the midst of an old logging song called "The Little Brown Bull". I got up off the log I was sitting on, of course, and greeted my brother loudly. This was not to Ross McKenny’s liking, for he wanted to hear the remainder of the song (....For the longest day's work on the river is done.") I was severely reprimanded, as were the rest of the cabins crew, who had burst out in applause when they saw the beer (or was it Black Horse Ale, their favorite?)

Well, we finally got the cabin roofed, chinked, and provided with a woodshed and a yoke for carrying two pails of water from the Alder Brook (I hope that's still the name of the cabin). On our last day we picked pails of red raspberries which the wife of the Guardian baked into a delicious pie for us. We topped it with vanilla ice cream for the ultimate taste sensation.

Then we regrouped with the College Naturalist, Doug, and headed for the Isles of Shoals to observe the annual migration of shore birds. This also turned out to be a notable event. First we boarded the little steamer that chugged out to Star Island (a well-known summer resort of the Unitarian Church.) From there we got into a rowboat that one of the summer students at the Star Island hotel used to row us over to Appledore Island, scene of a famous lawsuit between New Hampshire and Maine over jurisdiction, and later home to the MacDowell Colony where famous musicians spent cool and presumably happy days rehearsing solos and chamber music. Unfortunately a savage storm came up and left us marooned for five or six days. Dick and Alex had brought along their fly rods, and they were able to catch local fish (haddock, as I recall) which we cooked with rice. At length the hotel waiter returned with the boat and rowed us back to Star Island. The college girls and boys who made up the staff invited us to eat down in the kitchen, after hearing our story about our desperation diet. Then Jim Schwedlen got out his guitar and we began to sing. All of the staff came down to listen, and even some of the hotel guests. Finally the Manager himself came down and ordered us to cease and desist. Then we boarded the Koboku and returned to shore in Portsmouth. A final irony: after all that effort, Doug the Naturalist had forgotten to bring his binoculars along on the boat. So we had to content ourselves with observation with the unaided eye. Another experience!

It was in the course of that summer on the Cabins Crew that I learned how to prepare and bury Beanhole Beans. And that's what I started out to write about. Now (in 2006) I understand that there are something like 36 cabins in the Grant, much sought after by Dartmouth alumni, male and female, but usually populated by Administrators and their "guests", whoever they might be. What a changel And not necessarily for the better. The Dartmouth Grant was truly a wild place, full of animal life, and wonderful in its lonely beauty.