While walking the trail one day I imagined what it must have been like for William to take the same route in 1890-93, especially, if, as the local legend goes, he was venturing to meet up with his mistress Minnie Kirby for a rendezvous in the woods. This piece of folklore is what started me on my research journey to learn more about William West Durant and his family. I thought it would make a great story: wealthy genius keeps a mistress in a hunting cabin sequestered away in the woods. It was the basis for my novel on the Durants.
Then I started to learn more about Minnie Everette Kirby (1876-1944) and her cousin Cornelia Trimble Kirby (1854-?) and as sometimes happens, myths get busted. Slightly.
First, a bit about the cabin itself. It is nestled in the woods on Raquette Lake in the Adirondack mountains. The sign above the front door states it was built in 1890. Every room in the cabin has an exit door to the outside. This intriguing feature has led to speculation that it made for an easy escape for anyone having a clandestine affair.
There is no record of Camp Kirby in the inventory that Durant kept when he sold his camp to Collis P. Huntington in 1896. But a map I found in Huntington's papers at Syracuse University shows the cabin bordering the property with the owner's initials: C.T. Kirby - Minnie's cousin Cornelia, who appears on the Durant guest registry numerous times. So where did this story about Minnie get started and why is this cabin called Camp Kirby?
At some point after the State acquired the cabin the staff (or somebody) found a small candy dish at Camp Kirby. It was a silver dish from a company that got its start in 1894 and inside was Minnie’s calling card with a ‘With best love and wishes for a Merry Christmas, Miss Minnie Everette Kirby'. It’s not clear who the calling card is addressed to. Like all good folktales, this is how the one about Minnie got started: lack of facts can lead to good story telling when you have to fill in the blanks.
I found Minnie's obituary and discovered Minnie graduated from the State Teachers College of Potsdam in 1895 which would have made her 17 years old when (or if) she was having an affair with William. Cornelia, Minnie’s cousin, is another interesting character in the lives of the Durants. She was a friend of William's wife, Janet and in the summer of 1894 she was staying at the cabin on Raquette Lake. There is a reference to her made by the wife of a traveling minister (Rev. John V.L. Pruyn) who was invited by William West Durant to speak at the Church of the Good Shepherd on St. Hubert’s Isle. During their visit, Mrs. Pruyn states Mr. Durant was living on his houseboat while his wife Janet stayed on land. She said they took a ride on the Durant houseboat to ‘Camp Kirby’ where a Miss Kirby was staying for the summer months, and had a campfire by the water. In the winter, she says, Miss Kirby lived in Saratoga.
This had to have been Cornelia. Indeed, Cornelia may have met Janet in Saratoga, where the Durant family house was located. Cornelia plays a role in Janet’s life later when, after Janet divorces William, she lends Janet money. How she became friends with Janet I am not sure.
As I recall my walk between the two cabins in the woods I remember the sound of the tree limbs in the forest canopy above, rubbing against each other, creating an eerie creaking sound like the opening of an attic door that hasn’t had its hinges oiled in decades. It shatters the calmness. And in the background, is the undercurrent of water lapping against the shore. Would William have heard all of this as well?