"An Island Cabin" describes the simple life off Noank
I have read my share of back-to-nature literature set in New England, from Henry David Thoreau's "Walden Pond" to "The Outermost House," an account by novelist Henry Beston of a year spent in a cottage atop a dune in the great outer beach of Cape Cod.
But until recently, when I ran across a new reprint by our own Flat Hammock Press of Mystic, I didn't know that southeastern Connecticut has its own classic in this genre.
It's called "An Island Cabin," and it was written by Arthur Henry, a one-time Midwest newspaper man, who spent one spring, summer and fall living on a small island in Fishers Island Sound, off Noank.
"I am lord of an Isle. The nearest mainland is a mile away. I have not seen a policeman nor disagreed with my neighbor for a month," Henry wrote at the outset of his little book.
"There are days together when the wide stretch of water between me and all laws and customs is rough enough to swamp a boat."
Henry was joined, not by his wife and daughter, but by two women, whom he taught to sail and swim, an unusual domestic arrangement in turn-of-the-century Noank that caused quite a few eyebrows to go up.
The book, published in 1904, relates Henry's time spent not just with his women companions but also with author Theodore Dreiser, an old newspaper buddy, Dreiser's wife and her maid, a trio that visited later in the season.
Flat Hammock's new edition of "An Island Cabin" also includes three interesting short stories by Dreiser on Noank topics, apparently researched while he was living in the island cabin.
One of the Dreiser stories raised hackles in Noank when it was published with this account of the village at the outset:
"Noank is a little played-out fishing town on the southeastern coast of Connecticut, lying halfway between New London and Stonington. Once it was a profitable port for mackerel and cod fishing. Today its wharves are deserted of all save a few lobster smacks.
"There is a shipyard, employing 350 men, a yacht-building establishment ... and some dozen or so shops and sheds, where the odds and ends of fishing life are made or sold. Everything is peaceful."
Peaceful is perhaps flattering. But "played-out fishing town" was considered not so kind.
Into this sleepy environment arrived Arthur Henry, who explains in his own book how he came to lay a claim to what he called Quirk Island, a craggy little land mass to the east of Ram Island. He arrived in Noank, made some enquiries, and an old ship's captain pointed him to one of the small islands at the mouth of the Mystic River.
"You can rig her up and claim her and she's yours," he quotes the captain as telling him.
Henry paid a local carpenter a few hundred dollars, and later that spring he moved in with his two companions.
He describes their arrival on a raw, windy and wet day.
"We built a roaring fire in the fireplace, hung the hammock across the room, put a gay-colored blanket over the table for a spread, drove nails for the kettles, built racks for the dishes, and made the whole place as bright and cozy as a ship's cabin."
The book continues on with more about domestic arrangements and life on an island without power or running water.
The trio made excursions to nearby islands for well water, sailed over to Noank for provisions, caught fish and lived a quiet life largely consumed by chores like scrubbing the cabin floors and collecting driftwood to burn in the fireplace.
When all his guests left, Henry eventually spent time alone on the island, taking in first three kittens and then a dog. He describes his pain in finally deciding to row one of the cats out to the middle of the harbor channel and drown it, because it couldn't get along with the other animals.
"The whole island seemed to feel a relief, and I returned to my chair in the dooryard, a little quiet perhaps, but serene," Henry writes at the end of the chapter in which he tells of drowning the cat.
The rest of the story of Henry and Dreiser's time in Noank is told quite masterfully in a publisher's afterword by Stephen Jones of Noank, who teaches literature at the University of Connecticut and is a principal in Flat Hammock Press.
Jones helps put the two men and their Noank years into a literary perspective as he also tells more of what the village was like at that time.
Henry gives "An Island Cabin" an ending with a crescendo, as he and his companions decided to row back to Quirk one stormy October night, what was to be their last trip of the season, to shut the place down.
Old Noankers they encountered in the village that night warned them not to set out because of the weather. They were anxious to go, in part because the dog and two cats awaited them in the cabin.
"Our boat was half filled, and hard to manage when we left the violent strip of tide race . . . . We had been almost one hour on the way, for the wash of the waves, the adverse tide, the strong head wind had been almost too much for us," he writes about that last trip.
Once ashore, with the boat fastened, they ran inside.
"Elizabeth had piled the fireplace high with dry wood, and as I entered, its roar and cackle greeted me as shouts of laughter, sparks from the pine sticks flew beyond the hearth in harmless showers, the room gleamed and twinkled with its light, and I could almost discern the fairies as they danced …
"The voice of the wind, the rain and water filled the night, and the cabin creaked and trembled constantly. There were gusts that we thought would surely lift us up and hurl us into the sea."
But they didn't. And it appears that was the last weekend Henry spent on Quirk.
All traces of the cabin are gone now, the last bits washed away in the 1938 hurricane.
This is the opinion of David Collins.
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