Dam It All

Friends in the audience, new and old. We met together upstairs at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, New York.

golden notebook

It was a warm autumn day outside, and everything had that sun-burnished appearance. In the middle was a sign that beckoned: come inside, come inside, come inside.

store sign

Afterwards I wondered just what it was that made me so fascinated by beavers that I hold forth about them in every talk I give about The Orphanmaster.


True, not enough has been said about beaver.

New York was built on the foundation of the shaggy, rotund rodent with the frying pan tail.

The animal was easily trapped by Native Americans in their winter dens. The pelts were then traded with Europeans for copper, guns, rum, which was called “English milk.”

Cartographers dressed up their work with the animals.

Fur_Trade map

Everyone wanted to know where the beavers were. In the 1600s, traders sent hundreds of thousands of pelts back to Europe. The sole reason for this huge trade? Beaver hats.

Beaver felt

Not made from the fur proper, but from felt made from the fur, an extraordinarily complex process that involved a heavy dose of mercury, the chemical that made the Mad Hatter mad.


The felt was waterproof in an era before umbrellas. It was glossy, sturdy. The beaver – so the beaver hat was called – was the essential accoutrement for men and women of Europe. Everyone who could afford one had one, or two, or three. Beavers were bequeathed in wills.

painting of hats

In The Orphanmaster, everyone would have worn a beaver, even the women. All kinds of styles were available. Blandine, the protagonist of the story, is bent on getting rich buying and selling beaver pelts to Europe, venturing out into the woods to make her trades with Indian trappers.

Later, my friend Lloyd led us on a beaver hunt. Not to capture the animals but to see their impressive lodges.

Lloyd at his pond

Down the hill from his house was a magical if uneven path.

magic if uneven

Far in the distance, across the pond, we could glimpse the rodents’ handiwork. More sun-burnishing.

distant lodge

A ways down the road,  the ruins of an ancient lumber mill.


So much history of this area, the Catskill region of upstate New York, is a stumbleupon away. Like the antique bottles Lloyd’s daughter Alice excavates from the woods behind their house. Also in those woods, black bears rumble around, tearing open rotted logs to get at the creepy crawlers within.

old bottles

We saw one more lodge at Yankeetown Pond — to the right, below. David Bowie owns the mountain above. Probably has befriended a few of the beavers over the years. Like to come up for a drink? I’m Bowie.


The finest specimen of the afternoon stood just to the side of the water, a gnawed tree that had clearly been someone’s snack.

beaver post

The beaver population was hunted out in the seventeenth century in these parts and is only just coming back today in earnest. They found one at the Bronx Zoo a few years back. No one could understand where it came from. Its name, they decided, was not Ernest, but Jose.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, History, Home, Nature, Photography, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

6 responses to “Dam It All

  1. Yeah, because cowboys don’t carry umbrellas.


    The cheapest cowboy hats are made of wool felt or a blend with some rabbit fur; they don’t hold up in the rain. The felt of costlier ones blends wool with more rabbit, cashmere, angora, buffalo, or some beaver, etc, but the most expensive are 100% beaver (up to $1000+) which can sit out in a downpour all day and not lose their shape; they can also be re-blocked or re-haped, over and over, lasting longer than their owners, as you said.

    I haven’t found a place where I can buy one of Blandine’s 17th century Dutch beaver hats, but here’s a website where you can order reproductions of LOTS of hats made famous on TV or in the movies (Ben Cartwright? Hoss? Little Joe? Crocodile Dundee? Indiana Jones?)… women’s hats, too.

  3. That way, that way like the Wizard of Oz. There must have been a lot of Danbury Shakers in olde England, where most of the hat factories were back in the 1600s. But the tradeoff was you were seen as a real wizard if you could make good felt, it was magic and science combined. I love your story.


    Some of the best cowboy hats are beavers, too; I’ll examine the Stetsons of the Prescott Buscaderos when they ride into town next Friday with Wyatt Earp to keep the peace, here. (Our *Rascals + Rogues of AZ* series concludes soon, with a bang.) At the Hermosa Inn, you can buy a reproduction of Lon Magargee’s Stetson… available in several grades of beaver felt… but I’d rather have the one that Blandine wore in mid-17th Century Manhattan.

  5. Jennifer

    Danbury, Connecticut, was known as Hat City, and my father claimed that all the men who had worked in the hat factories had the Danbury Shakes because of it. (My grandmother lived in nearby Newtown.) One day he decided to drive us through some desolate Danbury streets, the streets that time forgot, with shop windows filled with prosthetic devices and plumbing supplies, and we got all turned about and lost (as we always did, kind of the point). Some old men were sitting on lawn chairs outside a building and uncharacteristically my father asked them how to get back on the highway. “That way,” said one man, shakily, holding up a shaky finger. “No, that way if you’re headed to the city,” said the other man shakily, pointing his shaky finger the other way. The third man was silent and just nodded and shook his head, shakily. And that’s kind of the story of Danbury.
    Loved your happy day in Woodstock, Jean!

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