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August 2014

Mountainside Library

Lake George's indie book club

Photograph by Erin Reid Coker

A few years ago John Schroeder, of Cleverdale, took his five-year-old granddaughter to a favorite family spot: the tiny, historic Mountainside Library, a quaint cottage at Dunhams Bay, on the east side of Lake George. Riffling through the children’s books there, she made a delightful discovery, a book her mother had donated when she was 10 years old—after adorning it with a few scribbles.

For more than a century, that kind of cross-generational loyalty has kept Mountainside open, despite the growth of publicly funded libraries nearby. First in carriages or boats and now in cars, local families have stopped by to borrow best sellers and classics from this privately run not-for-profit where there are no librarians, due dates or late fees.

“It’s so unusual to have a place like this on the honor system,” says Linda Long, president of the Friends of Mountainside Library board and one of the volunteers who checks in donated books and shelves returns. “We explain it to people who haven’t been here before, and they can’t believe it. They’ll say, ‘Now let me get this straight. …’”

Occasionally books disappear, but Long prefers to see their absence as long-term leave. “They just haven’t been brought back yet,” she explains delicately. This past summer, someone sheepishly dropped off a few books checked out in the 1990s. In early winter, the library often receives mailed boxes of returns, after summer folks find overlooked volumes tucked in their luggage.

The story of this charming spot goes back to the 19th century and author Ed­ward Eggleston, an Indiana native who had written a string of popular novels, including The Hoosier Schoolmaster and The End of the World. After mi­grating to Brooklyn, he began summering and finally living year-round at a home he called the Owl’s Nest on the west side of Lake George’s Dunhams Bay.

There he noticed a troubling trend. “The suicide rate in winter was high be­cause of the dismal weather,” says Jeff Branson, Eggleston’s great-great-grandson, who vacations with other family members on the property today. “So he started loaning people volumes from his personal library, called Mellowstone, to help break up the doldrums.”

Meanwhile, Eggleston’s daughter Eliz­abeth married a dashing Union soldier, Elwyn Seelye, and moved to Owl’s Nest. The author’s brother, George Cary Eggleston—a high-ranking Confederate officer—also bought into the property, staying fit by swimming the chilly bay in a loincloth.

Although Seelye and George Eggleston had fought on opposite sides in the Civil War, they discovered a common cause in nurturing a community library not far from Mellowstone. Once Ed­ward Eggleston conceived the idea in 1894, his family donated the land and philanthropist An­drew Carnegie funded the building. The family held a lavish garden party (with a brass band, steamboat rides and a 25-cent picnic lunch) to raise money for its first books, including a set of works by James Fenimore Cooper. The library received its permanent charter from the state in 1912.

The Victorian cottage, with gingerbread details and a skeleton key in the front door, rests on a foundation of flat-laid native stone set in cement. “You can see how sturdy and well-built it was; many in the family were engineers,” says de­scendant Katharine Seelye.

The building has never acquired certain amenities—a telephone, central heating or a bathroom—though the li­brary board recently installed a ramp for patrons with disabilities and is toying with the idea of wireless access. Since they rely on an annual book sale and fund-raising drive, they can only make improvements a little at a time.

But business is booming, and donated books arrive nearly every day— 3,300 in the past four years. “We love it,” says Long, “but more to the point, everyone else loves it, too.”

Mountainside Library (www.mountainsidelibrary.com) is located at 3090 Route 9L, in Lake George. It is open all day, seven days a week.

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