Interviewed by Marian Knight
At the Home of Helena“Bunny” Wilkening
Bluff Head Road, Huletts Landing, New York
September 9, 2010
Marian Knight: Well I’m Marian Knight, and I am talking to Bunny Wilkening at her home on Bluff Head Road. This is September 9th and I am delighted to have an opportunity to talk to you, and get some of your, you’ve called it yourself, ancient times.
Bunny Wilkening: Thank you.
Marian:So anyway, I’d like to start with just, if you would talk just a bit about who you are and of course the first question we ask is how did you happen to come to Lake George or to Hulett’s?
Bunny:Well, that’s very easy. My name is, given name is, Helena Emerson Wilkening, I first came to Lake George I think probably 83 years ago. My family owns, my grandfather bought an original 150 acres which was divided between his, four of his five children. One had passed away before the division, and then, because of difficult circumstances one piece of property was going for back taxes, and my grandfather gave my mother two pieces of property; so we now have, we had two houses, one fallen down, and one now a large house facing the lake, with a beach, and I own 34 acres. So, given the fact that I’m almost 90 years old, which is why I am not able to come and take care of it anymore as I did, my three children are renting the house out in the summertime and at the moment I am extremely lucky to feel well and am down visiting my beloved home which I’ve come to for most of the years. Most, 80 plus, 85 plus years that I’ve been coming here.
Marian:This is the White House?
Bunny:Yes, we call it the White House, and however we found that years ago when we repainted and took down, scraped the paint off, why it had been at one point a pink house and at one point it had been a green house, and then many years of white house, so I had to paint it white because that’s the name we’ve had for years and years.
Marian:It’s a wonderful house.
Bunny:Yes, it is.
Marian:It’s a beautiful house looking at it from the lake.
Bunny:But it’s, it’s typical Adirondacks, sort of, added onto, it was an original farm house, built before 1876. I know that from a friend who did some historical work and found out that the Bluff Head Road was built around this house, so this one was an old farm house; then my Grandmother added a breezeway and then what was to be the family party house, which was quite large. Six bedrooms, huge living room, dining room, and then the old farm house was to be where the servants lived. Cook, and housekeeper and etc.
Marian:That was here on this side?
Bunny:Yes. Then my grandmother died the year after she had this designed and built and so the house was not used, the White house, was not used for several years; then it was turned over to be used as a, I guess, the dining facilities, mainly for a girl’s summer camp. And then, I think probably in the late 20’s early 30’s, I don’t know this for fact, Grandmother died in 1916, I believe, yes, because this house was built in 1915, the so-called family party place, but the family just didn’t come because of the sadness of this death of my grandmother.
Marian:What was her name?
Bunny:She was Helena Dewey Leeming before she married grandfather, who was Smith Ely Jelliffe. And I am, my full name is Helena Leeming and Emerson was my father’s name and I married a Gene, Eugene Wilkening, but that is much too much so I go by the nickname of Bunny Wilkening, which is a little bit easier to say.
Marian:How did you get the nickname Bunny?
Bunny:(laughs) That’s not related.
Marian:What was the house that came down? You said there were two houses.
Bunny:It was the Chalet, way up on the rocks. Had the most gorgeous view down the lake, almost like Lucy White’s.We could see all the way down the lake, almost, not quite, but certainly to Hulett’s and we could see Elephant mountain and not, not Sugar Loaf but Elephant. Anyway, lovely view but it was just a three room jerry-built cottage and I do mean jerry-built. The kitchen area was an old ice house, and then, a living area was built connected to that, and a dorm upstairs, one huge dormitory bedroom. That’s where I used to come up when I was small.
Marian:Interesting. The Jelliffe family is a pretty big family up here.
Bunny:Yes, certainly my cousin Robert, who, took over his mother’s home, which was rather small.
Marian:Robert who is that?
Marian:Father of the current Robert?
Bunny:Grandfather of the current Robert Stragnell, but Sandy’s Stragnell’s father. And there were six in that family, and they have just had a reunion in which there were 30 odd people who came, including my cousin Robert and his wife Libby, who are both living.
Marian:Who else in that family? Would you talk a little bit about that family, because people know a little bit but I don’t think we all know how it all is related.
Bunny:Well, I don’t know too much. In the early days, Aunt Sylvia, of course, occupied her house and it was wonderful in the early days when I was young, but wonderful for Mother because she and her older sister, Aunt Sylvia, or Sylvia, and then her brother Ely came to the lake, so Mother and then Grandfather Jelliffe was still alive, with his second wife, who was not a very popular person in the Jelliffe family; but apparently they all so loved their mother, who died, that, you know, they weren’t very accepting of a step, or second wife, they never called her step-mother.
Marian:Your grandmother was Helena?
Bunny:Also a Helena, yes. So the name Helena has come down each generation, I think at the moment now, that’s it, unless, I think, that would be it, unless a grand or great grandchild would be named this, but to get back to Robert’s family. Robert moved to Los Angeles area after his medical degree, I don’t even know where he got his medical degree, but he was, I believe, a general practitioner, but I understand extremely popular. Anyway, he had the foresight, after his degree, after he and Libby, his wife, moved to California, to buy a property in Los Angeles, in the down town area, and they actually lived outside in a suburb, but I do not remember the name of it. He had his practice there for years and I did not see Robert at all, and I thought he had no interest in the lake. Uncle Ely did for a while, but he was the third child; however, he was the one that defaulted on tax payments here at the White House, and in the mid-30’s sometime the (property) was transferred to my mother and father to take over because Mother had such a deep love of this property and the houses. Oh, it’s (not) just the property that she just loved; it was, it was family, it was nucleus and it’s turned out to be the one place that has been sort of the nucleus of my love because I don’t, I have family spread all over. The Emerson family is spread all over the world and this is one place where I sort of felt really at home with relatives, and you know, had a place, and besides, just absolutely adoring the location and the beauty of the nature here.
Marian:Well, your father was a person of interest, and I know there’s been some, there’s a talk that’s gotten out about him, but I know my husband admired him greatly. Tell us a little bit about your dad.
Bunny:Well, Dad was a, got his PhD in entomology, zoology and entomology at Cornell University, which also happens to be, have family, lots of family of the Emersons went to Cornell, or taught there, but Dad’s first job was at Pittsburgh and I don’t remember too much about coming up to Lake George from Pittsburgh, but we left Pittsburgh and I think it was probably the University of Pennsylvania but I’m not sure what Dad’s job was; I should say what university he was connected with; however, in September of 1929 we moved to Chicago, and that is the time I remember most clearly when I was 9, 10, 11, 12 in that time of what the Lake George area and the Bluff Head Road area was like for us to be living here.But anyway, in those early days, we would come here most - Mother would bring my brother and me here most summers. However, we did have a year abroad. Dad had a Guggenheim fellowship and that, oh I’m getting ahead of myself but, his PhD and interest was stimulated by a man by the name of William Beebe. When Dad went down with Mother - they were newly-weds - went down to what was British Guiana, which is now Guyana, went way into the interior and were studying different animals, etc. and as I understand, Dad asked William Beebe what he, what Beebe thought would be an interesting area to study, and he said, nobody has ever looked into termites and you might be interested in that. Well, that really took hold and they rushed back from British Guiana to have me and I arrived, I think, two or three weeks after they got back, so I was born at Cornell, to Ithaca, New York, but Dad’s continued interest, the Guggenheim fellowship that took us to Europe from Sicily through Italy, several cities in Italy, overnight in the Alps in Switzerland, so I have no memory of that, but, and then Germany, and then Sweden and Norway. So we started out in the winter in Sicily and ended up in the summer and early fall in the Scandinavian countries, but Dad was at that time interested in identifying what they call the type species on the basis of which they diagnosed what the family - well, now I’m going to get mixed up - anyway, what the species or subspecies - an original example of the species was collected in different…, and was a present that held, in different universities, and he went to find out whether, in fact, they were correctly identified, or whether there had been a mix up because the communication and interaction between people who were studying insects had misplaced them in terms of their sequence - not sequence - but their connection, and he did find some very serious mistakes. So he changed those, or corrected them, to what, in the 19, late 19, or mid 1920s - we were there in 1927, I think that year - so he corrected that, and then built upon that in his fairly frequent, well, 4 or 5 trips around the world, or in different parts of the world, tropical. And then he collected a tremendous number of species from Australia, Indonesia, India, through the Middle East, actually termites, at that time, before the change in, climate change that is now taking place, in the late 1900’s and 2000’s, that’s changing things, but termites were tropical or semi-tropical. They couldn’t live through the cold or the freeze. Now they’re slowly, migrating, very slowly, north, as the climate warms up. But anyway, so Dad got a job at the University of Chicago and as I say, those are the years I remember most clearly - the fun of coming up here for the entire summer. Do you want me to (go on)?
Marian:Well, that’s fine about your father. I know that he was well-known, and that he had a very illustrious career.
Bunny:Well, he became the world expert on termites, but his, quote, which I always amused, but very, very accurate, he said he enjoyed being a big frog in a little pond, and he was. He was the top frog of a very little pond. Most people are interested in killing off termites, he said I want them to live, but he, because of his studies, before they even, well, he died before they knew about the tectonic plate theory, or its now an established fact that there are these tectonic plates, but he found, very, very similar relationship between the looks, what did they call it, the, well, let’s just say the physiology - that is not the correct word for termite structure - but anyway, the closeness of the relationship between termites that were in Northern Australia, for instance, and those in Indonesia, and then there were slight differences from the Indonesian termites to the Indian termites, but he could see that with these structures, with these similarities that there had to be at one time, some connecting link between Australia, Indonesia, India, etc. and that would include Malay, Burma, all those places. He didn’t know why, but he just knew that they were related, so he thought that at one time there were, maybe, barrier, not barrier but links between these islands and links to Australia, some kind of a bridge, let’s say, that the termites could slowly migrate across; but the tectonic plate theory he didn’t know about. And he didn’t, then developed, particularly, our year in 1930, no, 1935, I think it was, in 1936, he began to develop concepts of how the termites controlled their environment and in every different geographical location, be it, very dry desert area like the interior of Australia, or very wet climates like an Indonesia or an India, that the termites developed control systems so that they could control the humidity and the temperature of their nests, so sometimes they were huge, such as in Australia, they were huge mounds, that led to almost, well they would be 15, 20, 30 feet high, that these huge termite mounds, and then other places it was underground, other places they developed tunnels, they covered their runways to go up to eat the leaves of the trees so that, in the tunnels, they were controlled, the climate and the temperate was controlled for them so that they could live in all these, they adapted to these different climatic conditions, which became very interesting, so that led dad into becoming one of the very early ecologists of this country. So it’s very interesting how these things develop. But to get back to Lake George.
Marian:What was life like? You loved it and?
Bunny:I loved it and it was very, very, very different than it is now. One thing that I particularly loved, well, I just would get so excited in the summer. First place, mother would bring Bill, my brother and I up for the entire summer. So that meant large trunks, and complete summer clothing, etc., whatever we needed. And we would take the train from Chicago to Troy, NY, sleep on the benches, I’m sure mother got no sleep, but I, brother Bill and I got sleep on the benches while we waited for the train that would take us from Troy, NY up to Lake George Village, and from Lake George Village we would catch one of the lake boats, and at that time there were three lake boats plying the lake every day. There would be the, what was it, the Horicon, which was the largest, the Sagamore, which was next large, and then the little tiny boat was the, what is it now, what’s the boat called? Well now suddenly its missing, but the little boat, which mostly, mostly we travelled on the Horicon or the Sagamore. So we would catch these boats, that had, I don’t know what you would call them, any engineer would immediately, but it had a sort of a rocker system, beam, that would rock back and forth on the top of the boat, and that would work the propellers, so that that was the way that the, you know, I think it was probably diesel or, you know, oil, that was used to propel the boat. I don’t think it was kerosene, but anyway, so we would arrive at Hulett’s Landing, and all of these places around Lake George at that time were landings. There were very few roads that would come. We did not have much of a road. We had a dirt road, which, was, we would, trunks would be carried over the road by wagon. In fact, before the Hulett’s road was built, the only road over the mountain was right behind what is our tennis court, our family tennis court, which is now called the old North Road, and the previous owners of the White House property, the property I have now, they came over from the lower end of Lake Champlain, I’ve forgotten the name of the landing, but it wasn’t Clemons, but it was some place slightly north where they would land and then by wagon they would come over the mountain.
Marian:Where did the wagon, where was the wagon that brought your family?
Bunny:Oh, we never had that. We were much more modern. We came by boat. And, so, our trunks were on the boat, came by train, and then, transferred to the train that came up to Lake George Village, then onto the boat, and then grandfather, usually, met us. He had a large inboard motor boat, in one of these old, I don’t know boats very well, we never owned one. What does the inboard motor boats, a very large one?