The trip chasing waterfalls moved from Mt. Morris, New York, the jumping off place for the falls of Letchworth State Park, to Watkins Glen, a short drive away. But the day was drizzly, and we detoured to the Corning Glass Museum in, surprise, surprise, Corning, New York. This is a world class institution that in addition to the museum offers classes in glassblowing throughout the year. But the museum itself is worth the trip. The mainstay of the permanent collection is a historical exhibit of glass making over the last five thousand years, but the display of what modern artists do with glass is mind blowing. (A little bit of a pun.)
Museum goers could watch an artist at work. We watched a glass blowing exhibition. I have seen such a demonstration before, but this narration was different. The English narrator’s words were translated into Mandarin by a Chinese woman. I don’t know if that happens every time, but on our visit a large number of Chinese people were visiting the Corning Museum, too. The demonstration captivated me. It continues to amaze me what people can do with a lump of glass.
After lunch at the museum and a perhaps too-extended stay in the gift shop, we took the short drive to Watkins Glen, which sits on the western shore and very near the southern tip of Seneca Lake, the largest of New York’s Finger Lakes. Watkins Glen is situated her because of the nearby geological wonders, but I would have founded the town on the eastern shore. As one who grew up on the western side of Lake Michigan, I know there are advantages to being on the eastern side of a lake. I watched a full moon rise over Lake Michigan many times, and it was always a magnificent spectacle, but if you are on the eastern side of the lake, you can watch a sunset every clear night, and I still marvel at a beautiful sunset. I know that I would lose those monthly moonrises, but I would take the trade.
Even though I would have preferred the eastern shore of Lake Seneca, the setting of Watkins Glen is still spectacular. Steep hills climb from the shore allowing for magnificent views of the lake, and our stay was enhanced by at a place that once was the house of Watkins Glen, or at least the house of the person who was once the man of Watkins Glen.
We stayed at the “Idlwilde Inn,” a bed and breakfast up six vertiginous blocks from the lake. (More than once the spouse and I wondered what the roads were like in winter. It was scary enough going up and down the hills in September.) As with other B and Bs where we have stayed, the owners had had previous careers. Marcus had been a TV writer on the west coast, and Elin had worked her way up to become president of a well-known corporation. Both were originally east coast people—he from New Jersey and she from the Finger Lake’s region. Her parents were still in the area, and Elin and Marcus had moved back to be near them.
Marcus introduced us to Idlwilde. In giving us a small tour of the inn, he had pointed out a bound set of pages lying on an end table and said it was a master’s thesis about the house, joking that it was mandatory reading. One night, after others were afoot out of the house or abed, I was alone in that parlor and skimmed the writing.
Towards the end of the twentieth century, after the house had been vacant for a decade, new owners sought to restore the house and its gardens to their glory days. A candidate for a master’s degree in landscape architecture set out to find out about the past plantings. She worked hard, but she could find nothing in the house that indicated anything about the gardens. She searched local newspapers for descriptions of the gardens. Nothing. She sought pictures but found only a standard photograph of a wedding held at the house that revealed almost nothing about the gardens. She sought out but could not find neighbors and notables who might have been in the gardens. She did find one or two people who had lived in the house as children, but the men were in their eighties, had not lived in the house for upwards of a half century, and had not paid much attention to the gardens when they lived there. All in all, she simply struck out.
But I admired her. She could not produce pages of garden designs or descriptions or planting schedules or pruning regimes. She had clearly spent a lot of time but had nothing that would advance her to her degree. So she shifted course and a produced a history of Watkins Glen and the house. I learned about Watkins Glen’s emergence as a summer resort, and the hotels that came and went in the nineteenth century. That history I could get in many places. I was more interested in what she wrote about the house and its most famous owner.
The Idlwilde Inn, the bed and breakfast where we stayed, was built in the late nineteenth century and bought by one Warren Clute in 1911 when he was forty-seven. Clute was then the leading citizen of Watkins Glen. He was the president of the largest employer in the area, the Watkins Salt Company, which he had founded when he was only twenty-five. Who knew that western New York state was a major source of salt? At his death in 1938, the company was labeled “the largest independent salt producer in the United States.” The grad student who wrote about the house and gardens said that the Depression had not affected the salt business as much as other enterprises. Refrigeration had not made inroads into many parts of America, and salt remained needed for the preservation of food. Hence, the demand remained high.
Clute also became president of the area’s leading financial institution, the Watkins Glen National Bank. He was active in civic affairs and among other posts was president of the Board of Education. He sponsored the Watkins Salt band and Watkins Salt baseball club. He was a Mason and a member of many service organizations, and a delegate to the 1936 Republican National Convention. He was the kind of guy that when he died at his home in Miami Beach after several years of failing health, the schools and other institutions of Watkins Glen closed for his funeral. He was the kind of guy that a street and a park bear his name.
Clute’s home was admired in his day. The author of a 1918 publication cataloging the salt business in America said that “his residence high on the western shore of the lake, overlooking the village and the valley, is the finest situated in the neighborhood.”