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‘Up on a Hill and Thereabouts: An Adirondack Childhood’ a rollicking, wild tale of life in the backwoods during Great Depression

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Gloria Stubing Rist pulled herself up by her bootstraps to escape a life of poverty in the Adirondacks. It was an amazing feat considering that as a child, a lot of the time she was forced to go barefoot.

Her memoir “Up on a Hill and Thereabouts: An Adirondack Childhood” is a tale of Depression-era moonshiners, drifters, the dirt poor and people, like the author, who persevered.

A lack of shoes was a minor inconvenience compared to some of the other hardships she shares in the book, which was published in September by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press.

Mrs. Rist is 88 now and lives in Marcellus, Onondaga County. She has trouble hearing, so questions from the Times were emailed to her daughter, Roxanne Raicht, who also lives in Marcellus. Her answers are as told by Mrs. Rist to Mrs. Raicht.

“Every story I wrote, I felt that I was right back there,” Mrs. Rist wrote. “I wrote each story one time — no editing or redoing.”

Mrs. Rist was living in the Bronx with her mother (“Mim” as she’s called throughout the book), father and younger brother (Harland, nicknamed Bubby) when Mim decided to leave her husband. Mrs. Rist doesn’t recall the exact year, but based on the year she came to Chilson, at age 5, it was either 1930 or 1931.

“It’s enough to say that my mother couldn’t stand living with my father any longer,” Mrs. Rist writes in the book.

The plan was for Mim to move back to her hometown of Chilson, Essex County, where she grew up and where her parents still lived. She moved there with Harland. Gloria was to stay in the Bronx with her father to finish school. She writes in the book she became “scared, lonely, unhappy.”

But her mother changed her mind and returned to the Bronx to move Gloria north to Chilson.

Gloria’s father would have none of it. He blocked the doorway and told his wife she wasn’t taking Gloria, nicknamed, “Yada,” anywhere.

“Mim put down the suitcase and pulled a gun out of her pocket,” Mrs. Rist writes in the first chapter. “She said, ‘Yada, take your suitcase and get in the car.’”

And so began her Adirondack adventures. Priority No. 1: finding a place to live.

The first roof over their heads was “an old leaky tent.” A kerosene cookstove was set up on the tent’s lot, on the main road between Ticonderoga and Schroon Lake. Oatmeal and black tea became staples.

“We were in great shape,” Mrs. Rist writes in the book.

But winter was coming. Mim asked a neighbor if she could buy an old shed that had once been used to store corn. The deal was made, and Mim tore down the shed. Her children helped carry the boards to the tent lot, where they were reassembled into a 15-by-16-foot home. Mim wrote “Top of the Hill” on a board and proudly nailed it to the top of the shack.

The living quarters eventually improved, but Mrs. Rist’s life was full of other adventures. Her memory for characters and situations is keen throughout the book, which presents stories in no particular order and mostly without dates.

Tramps wandered through Chilson. Food was always scarce. Storms were hazardous. Government liquor inspectors had to be dodged. The writer shares tales of weddings, school days, holidays, funerals, and a “Typical Late Summer Morning,” in which she describes the joy of country life:

“... the field beckoned. I would run over, crawl under the old wire fence, and run, run through the beautiful sweet-smelling tall hay from one end of the meadow to the other.”

Mrs. Rist wrote in her book that her mother never considered traveling to nearby Ticonderoga “to sign up for relief.”

“What a horrible thing that would have been — pride would not allow it. The New Deal was never going to get us!” she wrote.

The book explains that Mim, early in their time in Chilson, met a man, Harold Hayford, nicknamed Cowboy, who became her boyfriend. He helped the family immensely with physical labor (although Mim was quite adept at that) and money. Mrs. Rist was asked if she thinks the family would have made it without him.

“I think we would have made it in spite of ourselves,” she said. “I will always have a special spot in my heart for Cowboy. He was the closest I ever came to having a father.”

Mrs. Rist said it may sound unusual, but she said the Depression never changed their lifestyle.

“We were so poor before and still so poor after that,” she said. “Everyone in Chilson was in the same situation.”

‘making the run’

One way to make extra money during Prohibition was by making bootleg runs to Canada. Mrs. Rist details an exciting trip in the chapter “Making the Run.”

School, coincidentally, was canceled on the day of the run. Mim was away, helping her sister run a restaurant in Schroon Lake, but Cowboy was scheduled to drive to Canada to pick up some liquor. Bubby begged Cowboy to take him and his sister along. Cowboy eventually relented.

The trip to Canada up through Rouses Point was uneventful. On “this side of Montreal,” they reached an old barn. Cowboy hid the liquor under the car and took off for the return to the U.S.

Cowboy used dirt roads on the trip back. A farmer knew his route and pulled aside a section of fence. But at that farm they met some state troopers. What follows in the book is a chase scene involving high speeds, a bridge out of service, logging roads and gunshots.

“Nobody could outrun Cowboy,” Mrs. Rist writes in the book. “Before Mim got back home, Cowboy had unloaded the car and had hidden the stock. Bub and I never said a word to her.” She would have disapproved of such dangerous runs. Hiding liquor wasn’t a problem.

In one chapter, Mrs. Rist tells of having to distract government liquor inspectors so they wouldn’t find the stash on their property, including “a twenty-gallon crock in a hole in the ground.”

The children would occasionally make other liquor runs with Cowboy. But to their dismay, they were never again chased by troopers.

an independent life

Mrs. Rist lived an independent life as a child. She recalls in the book one time when her mother had to be gone for a few days. “She said I was nine, old enough to be on my own,” she writes. Mim suggested she “just go to bed early and stay in bed late.” That way, she said, “time would go quickly.”

Such independence made her stronger.

“I think it made me more tolerant of situations that most other people would not accept so readily,” Mrs. Rist told the Times. “I always felt so free. Most children today don’t know what that kind of freedom feels like. That probably is a good thing.”

She is thankful for the life she had as a child.

“I would never have changed anything about it,” she said. “There was never a dull moment. I’m very glad I grew up when I did.”

She left Chilson when her mother bought Lake Harris Hotel in Newcomb, where Mrs. Rist finished high school.

Her mother died in 1988 at the age of 83 and is buried in Chilson Cemetery.

the path to nursing

Mrs. Rist always dreamed of being an English teacher. Her father, who went to Yale University, said he couldn’t help her financially with that plan, she said. Her next choice was nursing school.

“I needed $25 to enroll,” Mrs. Rist said in her email. “I asked Mim if she could help me. She said no.”

But she saw an advertisement in a newspaper for Long Island School of Nursing, which was seeking military cadets.

“There would be no cost,” she said. “The deal was that when you finished your school, you would be sent to the battlefields.”

She enrolled and, as a student, treated many soldiers who were wounded in World War II. Nurses would meet the casualties at New York harbors. She was scheduled to go to the Pacific Theater but the war ended right before her class graduated.

She married DeVerne G. Rist, a native of Newcomb. Mrs. Rist worked at Memorial Hospital in Syracuse for a few years after she was married. She and her husband, a construction worker, then returned to Newcomb, where she was Newcomb Central School’s nurse for five years. When they started to have children, it was decided she would stay home. The couple had three children: Roxanne, Vern, who lives in Saugerties, and Ernie, of Skaneateles.

When the children were grown, Mrs. Rist did private-duty nursing in Marcellus. She and Mr. Rist had been married for 59 years when Mr. Rist died in 2005.

suny press captivated

“Up on a Hill” was originally self-published, but it caught the attention of Amanda L. Lanne, assistant acquisitions editor at SUNY Press. Ms. Lanne has an interest in the Adirondacks but said she tries to represent all aspects of state history in her acquisitions. She was told about the book by a staff member at Albany Times Union.

“I originally sat down with the intention to read the first few chapters to evaluate the project, but then became absorbed in Gloria’s story and could not put it down,” Ms. Lanne said.

“Her story is both heart-wrenching and uplifting,” she said, “and her positive attitude in the face of extreme poverty is inspirational.”




The details
“Up on a Hill and Thereabouts: An Adirondack Childhood” by Gloria Stubing Rist is published in paperback by Excelsior Editions, an imprint of SUNY Press. The book is 329 pages long, with 49 photographs. It sells for $24.95 on the publisher’s website, www.sunypress.edu, and through online bookstores.
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