Back to Previous Page

History Lives Here Text

The Gage Cottage


If you stand at the Ferry landing and look up at the high wooded hillsdownriver, just beyond Mt. Baldhead, you may be ableto discern two cottages nestledamong the treetops. The house on the right, harder to findthan the other because it is located on the far slope of the main ridge, wasbuilt by Edith Ryder Barron, a widow, around 1914. The lot was deeded toher as a gift by the Harbert family, with the stipulation that she should buildwithin five years, which she did. She had often been a guest at the Harberthouse (sometimes referred to as Avalon) and she loved the sense of being awayfrom it all that the forest conveyed. It was a good thing that she enjoyedsolitude, because it was 17 years before she had neighbors, The Gage cottagewas built in 1931, some 120 feet away from hers, the most visible of the twobecause it perched on the front slope of the ridge. A cottage had been mymother's life long dream project, butthis one came into existence almost by chance. Some old family friends, artistswho knew Frederick Fursman, happened to spend part of the summer of 1929 or1930 at Ox-Bow. While there they heard that the current owner of Avalon and therest of the hill property was the last Harbert daughter, who was living in California, bent underthe burden of the taxes on the extensive lands inherited from her father andanxious to sell building lots. Our friends impulsively rushed to offer for thelot next to Mrs. Barron's,and then excitedly convinced my parents that this hilltop property waseverything my mother had been looking for. The price was right, they crowed,$150 for the lot next to theirs.

The land was thus bought sight unseen. Jean Richardson Gage had drawnfloor plans as a hobby all her life, but when she finally saw the narrow ridgetopping two steep slopes, she faced a real challenge. There were otherconstraints. The house had to be economically small- it measures 26 x 28 feet- butdesigned to provide an illusion of space and privacy for at least two adultsand seven children. My mother expected her sister Clara and her five childrento spend at least one month of every summer with us. As was the custom in thatera, as in the decades preceding it, husbands figured only peripherally in thesummer retreat of women and children. Rentals the two sisters had occupied inthe past provided examples of inconveniences to be avoided, and Mrs. Gage wasable to invent many neat arrangements and space saving devices. Though neverschooled in architecture, she had the ability to think and visualize in three dimensions,and the plans she drew were accurate to the tiniest fraction of an inch.

Since the main entrance to the house is on the ridge path, the livingroom, dining area, and kitchen are actually on the upper floor, while the two principalbedrooms, dividing the width of the house equally, are down a twisted flight ofstairs. Two smaller bedrooms, so tiny that they are reminiscent ofold-fashioned Pullman compartments, are fitted, one off the living roam butraised three steps, and the other snugly underneath it, partway down to thelower floor. These small cubicles, whimsically named Parlor A and Parlor B, each have a built-in single bunk with drawers underneathand a curtained closet space. The larger rooms, 201 and 202, were named after aline in a romantic song popular during my mother'sgirlhood. They each have double beds built into upper and lower bunks. Thesturdy steps leading to the upper berth conceal drawers for the occupants' belongings. Jean Gage'soriginal plan was that 202 could dorm four little girls; Parlor B would belongto her then pre-adolescent niece, while the eldest of Clara's children, a boy, would have Parlor A. The twosisters would use 201 which, in addition to the built-ins, contained a child's bed for my brother Jack, then three years old.Though never occupied in exactly this way, the cottage was always able toprovide comfort and privacy to a greater number of people than its measurementsmight indicate.

One of the things that Mrs. Gage wished to avoid in her design was thetraditional broad front porch. Instead, the living room was made to extend to afull width screened window,displaying a mass of leafy treetops descending to the river and Lake Kalamazoo.On each corner, a square porch could be closed off with French doors. Thus, ingood weather, the whole house was open, but closing up when bad weather set indid not sacrifice space and light. The original windows themselves were aclever invention of the creative carpenter-builder, long square-paned panelsthat were ingeniously hinged to fold up accordion-wise and disappear into aneat rectangular package on each side of the broad-screened expanse.

The cottage was build single handed by a Mr.Allen, a native of Douglas, who over the yearshad built many cottages in the area, including Edith Barron's.He was not daunted by the apparent inaccessibility of Ox-Bow Hill, havingpreviously driven wagon loads of lumber andbuilding materials through the soft sand of its tilted, uphill trail. He hireda local laborer for a few days of heavy digging and unloading, but from then onhe worked alone, depending on his diminutive wife if he happened to need anextra hand to steady some connection. She usually accompanied him, sitting inthe shade with her sewing when not called upon to brace a two-by-four. Mr.Allen was very dubious of Jean Gage'smeticulous and complicated plans, the like of which he had never seen in alifetime of building. He begged to be allowed to put up a good, strong, squarestructure of any size. He had no confidence in what would result from thecarefully measured Chinese puzzle box Mrs. Gage was insisting on; he admittedthat he did not understand it, but under her guidance he was willing to give ita try. It was only after the house began to take shape that he was able to seewhat he was doing, and he suddenly found it very exciting. "Like a ship!"he would cry. When the job was finished, he considered it his greatestachievement and often asked permission to bring friends to admire its intricacies.

Allen was not only a master carpenter, he was also an artist who tookpleasure in extra touches of beauty. He made attractive, high-backed dinettebenches (with storage spaces under the seats), wood boxes disguised as benches,bookcases, cabinets, shelves, and all the doors, including the heavy front doorin a kind of antique rustic design my mother had sought and failed to find. Hehad to be restrained from putting a gracefullycurved banister where the plans showed a plain handhold on the steps leading toParlor A. His eye told him it would be pretty, but measurement proved that itwould interfere with opening the front door.

His interest, care and artistic sense translated Jean Gage's complex plan into much more than a raw cabin inthe woods. The simple trims added to doors and windows added to the atmosphereof welcome, and my father John Gage, who never got to spend as much time on thehill as the rest of us, added a finished glow to the inner wooden walls bypassing a blow torch over every surface. This brought out the natural grain ofthe wood, or at least added an autumn leaf shine to the interior.

At the time the cottage was built, the only utility provided was water.There were no electricity lines on the hill. We lighted with candles and keroseneand cooked on a full-sized gasoline-powered Coleman stove. We had norefrigeration, but, like other early builtplaces, we had a shaft, a kind of dumbwaiter on a pulley, that lowered into ahole in the ground and kept things moderately cool for short periods. The brickfireplace with its guaranteed-not-to-smoke cast iron interior, still provideswarmth and cheer, and, incidentally, appears to anchor the precarious thrust ofthe house.

My parents called it "Oh-Ja-Jo-Je," a kind of acronym offamily names, with an Indian sound suitable to its location. It has welcomedgenerations of relatives, friends and their connections, close and distant.Alterations, additions and improvements have been made and loads of groceries,luggage, etc., no longer have to be toted uphill by individual strain andsweat, but can arrive by Jeep. With increased development down below, the viewis a little different, but still one of the most breath-taking in Saugatuck.There are always pleasant breezes fluttering the leaves of the treetops thatthe big front window overlooks. Village buildings and boats on the water looklike colorful toys, and the lacy ferry can be seen creeping slowly across theriver. After more than three scoreyears, the site remains restfully isolated, and although the older place haschanged hands often, the Gage cottage is still home to Gages; Jack and JoanneGage, their children and grandchildren. It stands as a tribute to JeanRichardsan Gage, architect, dreamer, and force of nature; to Mr. Allen, master carpenterand artist, and to John Newton Gage, my father, who stood back of it all.-Helen Gage DeSoto



A reader of old Commercial Recordfiles points out that in last month'sstory on airports we missed one and sends this from the August 2, 1929, issue: