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July / August 2011
Cornelliana
Pleasant Thoughts
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Recalling a bygone wilderness retreat

cabin
Cabin fever: Mount Pleasant Lodge in 1947.

Drive away from campus on Route 366 toward Varna, take a right on Mount Pleasant Road, and keep going (and going) uphill. Once it flattens out, you'll find a dirt road on your left that soon degenerates into impassable ruts. Walk into the woods and there it is: the corpse of a rustic lodge, a long-forgotten gem that once housed throngs of nature-loving Cornellians.

It was called Mount Pleasant Lodge, a year-round retreat that drew students and faculty for weekend getaways, orientations, receptions, and all manner of outdoor fun. Located on a 196-acre parcel bought by New York State under the Works Progress Administration, the lodge was built by the Farm Security Administration and given to Cornell in 1939. "Besides the main lodge building, with accommodations for 28 persons, there are two 'ski shelters,' fashioned of logs," the Daily Sun reported that September. "There will be a softball diamond, ski trails, stone fireplaces, running spring water, and electrical facilities."

It was a popular spot for the next two decades. A sample notice from the Sun in September 1941: "After supper at Mount Pleasant Lodge, [the hikers] will sing by firelight. Arrangements will be made for freshman women to arrive home by 9:30 p.m." But by the Sixties, the lodge had fallen into disuse; it burned down in a spectacular blaze in April 1968. "Use of the building had not been sanctioned by Cornell for some time," the Ithaca Journal noted, "although police have had many complaints about its being used for beer parties and other unauthorized gatherings."

Flash forward to spring 2011. Casey Hagg '12 and Miwa Oseki Robbins '12 chose the lodge as their research topic for ALS 4770: Environmental Stewardship in the Cornell Community. Instructors for Cornell Outdoor Education, the two became captivated by the concept of a lost wilderness retreat. "It used to be a special place for outdoor recreation, and that's what we work for in COE," says Hagg. "I felt like a historian uncovering some magical mystery." Adds Robbins: "I love the outdoors, and the idea of some secret treasure hidden in the woods was really appealing."

fireplace
Miwa Oseki Robbins '12 (left) and Casey Hagg '12 in front of the remains of the stone fireplace.

They made multiple trips to the site—adjacent to Cornell's ropes challenge course and an ROTC training ground—and found artifacts from the lodge's heyday as well as its decline: a stone chimney, remnants of the foundation, the ballfield backstop, a pair of moss-covered shoes, outhouse pits, the mangled remains of metal bunk beds, dozens of bottles and beer cans. "When you look at this place, it's completely abandoned, but imagine all the people who made amazing memories here," says Hagg, her sandals sinking into the muddy grass at the exact spot where, according to a vintage photo, students played games in front of the fireplace. "Why did that ever stop?"

She and Robbins never did figure out why the lodge went out of use—but they managed to track down someone who'd been there. Ransom Blakeley '55 spent a weekend on Mount Pleasant in August 1951 as part of a freshman orientation for some two dozen CALS scholarship students. "It was very rustic," Blakeley says. "As I recall, it was the same inside as outside— bare logs—and it smelled of woodsmoke." Blakely remembers sitting in front of a "cozy little fire" after dinner (hamburgers, the meat stretched with corn-flakes) for a meet-and-greet, then bedding down in a loft. "It was a very nice place to go," says Blakeley. "You don't think of such a place in conjunction with an academic institution like Cornell. But it was just right for us."

Comments (2)Add Comment
'55
written by Neal F Jordan, July 06, 2011
The photo in "The Lodge in the Alumni News" was taken of the "backside" of the Lodge, looking downhill toward the country road beyond. The small addition on the right of the photo housed two separate dormitories with built in bunks, with lumpy mattresses provided. Through 1953 heat was provided only by the fireplace, the ruins of which are pictured in the main article. On a pre-'53 Thanksgiving, I was part of a student group that found frost on the fireplace when we arrived for a 3-day weekend, and found it still there on stones remote from the hearth, the day we left, despite a continuous fire. The only running water came from the cold-water tap on the kitchen sink and was controlled by a foot-operated valve set deeper in the ground than the local freeze depth. A butane or LPG space heater was installed in the main room circa 1953-54 and made a world of difference, though not much for the dorms. Circa February '54 we were there on a night in which, we later learned, the temperature back in town hit minus 28 F. The next morning was calm and sunny, but still cold enough to frostbite my roommate's ears in just 30 minutes of wood chopping. The February date came in connection with a Between-Semesters Retreat held by Inter Varsity Christian Fellowship. (February? Between Semesters? Yes, there were a couple of weeks of classes after New Years and exams didn't end until late January.)
The Lodge had a nearly tuned piano and enough unmatched dishes that we could serve a reasonable meal for 30 people. The furniture was as unmatched as the dishes, though there were benches neatly built in along the panneled walls. The University charged a very nominal sum for use of the Lodge, though this was raised a bit once it was necessary to pay for the LPG.
To the activities mentioned in the article, I would add tobogganing, down hill and down the road when it was not plowed all the way down to the gravel,and ice skating on a pond up the road a bit. The pond was perhaps half-acre, though we rarely shovelled off more than an oval track.
If the students who did the research report have any continuing interest a baker's dozen B&W and color pictures of the interior and exterior (or odd period costumes), I will be glad to forward copies upon request from them or others. Yes, color photos were available even when dinosaurs roamed The Hill.
2012
written by Casey Hagg, August 03, 2011
I am one of the students from Cornell doing some research on the history of Mt. Pleasant Lodge. Any memories of the lodge that you have to offer would be greatly appreciated. Mr. Jordan, thank you so much for your comments on this article. Additionally, we would LOVE to see those photos you mentioned. In fact it would be great to have a couple copies. If it is alright with you I would love to ask you some more questions about you time at the lodge. Please feel free to contact me by email at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it . Thank you!

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