At Home with Susan Crane

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows and Residents, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information HERE.

Courtney DeRusha is a senior masonry student at Alfred State College. Her studies and practical work focus primarily on preservation, restoration, and sound building practices. She also is pursuing certification in dry stone walling. Masonry is a mid-life career change. DeRusha formerly managed graphic design and production for the Corning Museum of Glass and had earlier careers in non-profit management and journalism. Preservation merges her backgrounds in research, reporting and design with her interest in historic buildings and building techniques. Learning a skilled trade continues her family’s legacy of fine building and handwork.

I’m thinking about Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” It expertly examines the concept of heritage, specifically in the African American community. As I recently have been filled with stories of the Langdon family’s abolition work and of black people at Quarry Farm, the story feels fresh for many reasons. But I consider it now because it also discusses methods of – and motives for – preservation.

One extreme on the spectrum of preservation methods is to remove objects and structures entirely from use and sometimes even from view. This method seeks only to protect an object from all foreseeable forms of decay.

The other extreme leaves something just where it was found, allows it to remain in use, and only interferes to maintain the thing as much as is necessary to keep it from going away.

This is different than preservation in a museum, or even at a living history site that invites some level of interaction. In this state there are no labels or interpreters or velvet ropes to keep the visitors from touching. This brand of preservation allows those who interact with a thing to feel its stories, ponder its craftsmanship and understand through discovery its original utility.

As a preservation mason, this is usually my relationship with historic stone and brickwork. I am trusted to hold, learn from, and repair or even rebuild things made by skilled craftspeople whose handwork was often their only legacy.

I am lucky to be experiencing Quarry Farm largely in this way.

Steps leading to the Study

Other than agreeing to follow a few commonsense rules, I have been set free to live in this house, poke my head in the fireplaces and run my hands along the foundation. I have picked up bricks in the (incredibly warm) basement and fit my hand into the clear handprints of their makers. I’ve spent days pulling back brush in the woods to find hard evidence of the retaining sidewalls that would have locked into place the stone stairs leading to Clemens’s writing studio. I am writing at the same table Mary Ann Cord and John Lewis used to argue religion.

Susan Crane nicknamed Quarry Farm “do as you please hall.” It was her wish that all visitors be able to feel comfortable in its spaces and on the grounds. From numerous cat doors along the foundation to additions built to house the growing Clemens clan, her architectural decisions helped ensure that the house would feel gracious for all inhabitants.

This seems in keeping with the rest of Crane’s legacy. I am reading her obituary now – a multi-page newspaper accounting of her life, her funeral, and the tributes paid to her. “She touched nothing which she did not adorn” says one epitaph, followed by commentary on Crane’s singular ability to leave love and kindness in her wake.

Her charitable work was sweeping and legendary. When the people (and especially children) of Elmira needed a safe, regulated supply of milk, Crane started the region’s first certified pasteurized dairy. It was an expensive undertaking but, according to a display of milk bottles discovered by an Elmira College archaeology team, her milk found its way to the homes of many people who could not pay. I have had the privilege of examining a giant copper kettle now resting in the gardens and wondering whether it might once have been used to heat large batches of milk.

Chimney that may have been part of John T. Lewis’s home

Crane was also an abolitionist who respected and cared deeply for her black cook and tenant farmer. Cord and Lewis have their own fascinating histories, and I am captivated by them. Thankfully, I can examine artifacts of their tenure here.

Cord’s immaculate Quarry Farm cookstove was a grand tribute and convenience to her in its day, even if the low stovetop would have required a woman of her stature to stoop at times. I imagine her bending to bellow air into the fire before making the breakfast that called Lewis down from the hill.

Meanwhile, I’m increasingly hopeful that a chimney still standing in the woods on the hill was Lewis’s (though other theories remain equally plausible). The stamped fire bricks within it, and some that might have been used to make later repairs, are of the right dates to coincide with his residence.

More convincing is a nearby concentration of half-buried, very old hearth bricks of a size typically found in forges and blast furnaces. Given Lewis’s history as a blacksmith, it’s easy to imagine that he had a rustic forge here for repair of the occasional farm tool, or to keep a work horse in shoes. Lewis, with his meager finances, would have been self-reliant.

So it is that that I have neglected thinking about Clemens. His presence left impressions on this structure and its physical landscape just as surely as his writing and commentary have changed the literary world. But the house was Susan’s, and his writing studio, the steps that led to it, even the fire grate he thanked her for adding to his Quarry Farm bedroom were all gifts she dreamed of giving.

I look at framed pictures of Lewis and Cord above the kitchen radiator and a portrait of Crane in the back staircase and ponder the arcs of their lives. 

With Thanksgiving fast approaching, how very grateful I am for another quiet moment to gaze at the ever-changing view of the valley, and to consider the life- and landscape-changing nature of generosity.

Susan Crane on the front porch at Quarry Farm