Land in the Sky: On the Fate of Thoreau’s Hut

Thoreau's-Hut-2I have a piece of wood that used to be part of Thoreau’s hut. Some people don’t believe it. “How do you know it’s the real thing?” I could prove it—all it would take is one wrong word. But I treasure my sanity.

Henry Thoreau is famous because he built a hut on the shore of Walden Pond. This was back in the mid-nineteenth century. It was out in the Massachusetts woods and a mile from any neighbor. He lived there for two years and two months. Afterwards he wrote a book about it. Many today think he was some kind of hermit, but they haven’t read his book and confuse him with the Unabomber, who was a hermit—a really mean hermit. Thoreau wasn’t mean, just a little cranky sometimes. Sure, the woods may not have been the best place for him. He was accident prone when it came to starting forest fires. People in his hometown still complain bitterly about the time he set fire to Walden Woods. For chrissakes, Concord, the man has been dead since 1862—let it go. Fire happens. You never hear folks up in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire, grumbling about the time Thoreau’s campfire got out of control and burned off half the forest on that side of Mount Washington. “Live Free or Die” it says on their license plates.

But anyways, after Thoreau moved out of the hut in 1847, its history starts going outré. First an Irishman comes along and decides to call it his “shanty.” Big mistake. He moves it to a nearby beanfield. Nobody knows why. It isn’t long before the Irishman starts drinking heavily. People think they know why—because he’s Irish—but they are wrong. It’s about the hut. It does not like to be called a shanty, so it decides to get even by getting into the Irishman’s head and making him think the place is haunted. That works. It drives him to drink and then soon enough he abandons the place and lights out for someplace else. The good news is he sobers up and never uses the word shanty again.

Now the hut is back from being a shanty. It stands empty for a while in the beanfield. Then it catches the eye of a Thoreau wannabe by the name of James Clark, who buys it. His family owns a nearby farm. He hauls it over there, sets it up it in a cow field and moves in. He thinks living in Thoreau’s hut will provide him with inspiration. Problem is he has hung out with too many Irishmen. He calls the hut his shanty, which of course really pisses off the hut. You can see where this is going. The hut decides to get inside another head and get even, but this time instead making the man think the hut is haunted it makes him think his own head is haunted. That does it. As one local historian tells it: “Finally the poor fellow became insane and was placed in an asylum.” After that, no more human beings lived in the hut.

For a while the hut was used to store grain. It did not mind this job, as it was a step up from being called a shanty. Then for a couple years a family of pigs lived there without incident. They knew how to keep quiet. Finally the Clark family decided they needed to cannibalize the hut for parts to repair their barn. The hut was okay with this. After all, nobody calls a barn a shanty. And that’s where Thoreau’s hut disappears from history.

It comes back into history in the late 1990s—on an island off an island off the coast of Maine called Great Cranberry. A wealthy family there wanted to put a notable addition onto an already notable summer home. They hired my friend Westphal to do it. He’s a builder. I went to visit him while he was working on the project. He took me to the site. It was the middle of winter and really cold. He had just finished the framing. To keep warm we stood around a burn barrel with a fire roaring in it. Westphal was tossing in chunks of wood to feed the flame. “Hey,” I said, “that looks like really old wood. Where’d it come from?” He told me the story.

Turns out that barn on the Clark family farm stood for many years after Thoreau’s hut was incorporated into it. In the late 1980s the barn was finally dismantled and the reclaimed wood stored away until a buyer could be found for it. That buyer was somebody who wanted to put a notable addition on a summer home on Cranberry Isle. The old wood was shipped to Maine. Westphal was hired to build the addition using this wood. He had his doubts. It was pretty old wood and wasn’t going to support the load of the roof. He said so but they said use it anyway. So he did. Oh well. When the last old beam was put into place it suddenly cracked and snapped and down came the whole lot. Time to start over again with fresh lumber.

“What happened to all the old wood?” I asked. “What about Thoreau’s hut?”

“What do you think, O’Grady? You got a chunk of it in your hand. Toss it into the barrel.”

I couldn’t do it. I kept that chunk of wood. I took it home. It’s been on my bookshelf ever since, right next to my copy of Walden. Maybe you don’t believe any of this. Maybe you think this is just some crazy story and that old chunk of wood isn’t really from Thoreau’s hut. That’s okay. But I dare you to come over and say it looks like something from an old shanty. I dare you.