Last month would have been John Burroughs’ 175th birthday. Local admirers of the great 19th-century naturalist got a very nice present when the network of trails crisscrossing the John Burroughs Sanctuary was extended and spruced up in a major way, thanks to last year’s grant from the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation and many hours of volunteer labor. You can now follow a plank boardwalk through the swamp where Burroughs used to grow celery (instead of slogging through the muck as before), and there are new stone pathways and stairways all over the place.
So, now more than ever, the 170-acre Sanctuary is a rewarding place to visit. But most of the year, the jewel of the site is like a tantalizing package that the visitor is not yet permitted to open – though its windows are like little tears in the giftwrap, through which we may peer for a glimpse and a guess at its contents. I’m talking about Slabsides, of course: the rustic cabin that Burroughs built – partially with his own hands – in 1895. It was in this building that Burroughs wrote some of the essays that made him America’s foremost nature writer of his time, as well as entertaining such callers as Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, up until his death in 1921.
Designated a National Historic Landmark in 1968, Slabsides is preserved today much as Burroughs left it. Slabs of lumber with their bark still on cover the exterior walls, and the rustic red cedar posts that Burroughs helped set in place still uphold the porch. Inside the cabin, the furniture that Burroughs used (and much of which he made) remains as it was. But to get a good look at the interior, including his writing desk and tools, you have to be there on Open House Day – and that only happens twice a year: the third Saturday in May and the first Saturday in October. This Saturday, May 19, is one of those rare opportunities.
Open House at Slabsides runs from noon to 4:30 p.m. In addition to a chance to enter the structure, examine the contents and soak up the ambiance of Burroughs’ retreat, you can also hear a talk from 12 to 1 p.m. on Burroughs, Roosevelt and the early conservation movement by Dan Payne, who is a Burroughs scholar at SUNY-Oneonta. Cabin tours and self-guided trail walks will begin at 1 p.m. At the nearby Pond House, refreshments will be provided, and you can view a DVD of John Burroughs: A Naturalist in the Industrial Age, a documentary produced by Dr. Lynn Spangler of SUNY-New Paltz.
The program will go on rain or shine and is appropriate for all ages. Admission is free. To get there, from Route 9W at West Park, turn west onto Floyd Ackert Road (between the Global Palate restaurant and the Post Office), cross the railroad tracks and follow Floyd Ackert Road about a half-mile to the foot of Burroughs Drive. Park here and walk up the hill to Slabsides, or drive up the hill and park at the green gate on the right, walk through the gate and up the gravel road to Slabsides.
For more information, call (845) 384-6320 or visit https://research.amnh.org/burroughs/programs.html. If you’d like to volunteer for the trail improvement project at the John Burroughs Sanctuary, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.