Lindbergh’s Crate: The Story of How it Became a Home in N.H.
Rick Rideout liked to live within history. Whether a schoolhouse, church or railroad depot, he preferred old to new any day. It started in Hopkinton, N.H., at the age of 10 when his family moved into a white three-story colonial on the town’s historic main street. The stairs creaked, the large glass windows shook in the January winds and the Indian shutters let the dappled light dance on the wooden floors.I was 3 when Rick – my father – built an addition to our one-room schoolhouse. He and my mother had found the decrepit building on a dirt road, not far from Hopkinton. The addition included a bathroom but it came too late for me – I had already been potty trained in the outhouse in the back yard. After the schoolhouse, my dad would go on to restore and live in many more historic structures across New Hampshire. Feeling the texture of worn wood, listening to an old building shift and settle in the night – this love affair draws a clear line through his life.Out of all the stories he’s collected from old buildings, the best one comes from a shack he chanced upon at the age of 21. It was off a back road in nearby Contoocook, along the banks of the Blackwater River.A quarter mile walk in from the road, the hut was just isolated enough to enchant him. It was a wooden structure 10 feet wide by 13 feet long, with a few windows looking out on the dense forest and river’s edge. “The crate,” as it came to be known, had traveled thousands of miles to get there, and was hundreds still from where it rests today.When I was growing up, my father’s tales of the crate had always been legendary: back in his youth he wore his hair long and lived in a box in the woods. And like all legends we hear from our parents’ pasts, it floated in an undefined timeline of his life before I was born. I couldn’t envision it, and if I tried, it was in desaturated colors and slightly blurry. It’s not often we get the opportunity to snap these stories into sharp focus, complete with smell and touch. But as my dad and I ventured up an unmarked dirt road in central Maine last summer, I had the chance to do just that.The story starts in 1927 when the Navy was bringing the Spirit of St. Louis – the plane that Charles Lindbergh piloted on his historic flight across the Atlantic – back to the United States from France. It was housed in a crate.Admiral Guy Burrage, who was overseeing the transport, watched Lindbergh worry over the tie lines that held the box to the deck of the ship, checking their tautness against the waves and the wind. The Admiral decided he could not let a thing like the crate go to waste. And so, he struck a deal with Lindbergh to purchase it.The Spirit would make it back to the United States intact, and the crate that had housed the fuselage of the plane arrived in disassembled pieces at the railroad station in Contoocook, N.H.With the help of local handymen, the crate was reconstructed at the Admiral’s home and transformed into a charming summer cottage complete with a front deck overlooking the Contoocook River.The chap – as Admiral Burrage was apt to call Lindbergh – made a personal visit to the town of Contoocook to see the crate in the summer of 1927 as part of his post-flight tour across the nation. Larry Boutwell, a town resident, was 10 years old and remembers it keenly: “I looked across the road and saw a tall man talking with the neighbor. It wasn’t often that we had strangers in town so I ran over and stood in front of him.””Eventually the man took a lifesaver out of his pocket, put one in his mouth and handed one down to me. I ran back to the house and my mother peeked out of the curtain. She gasped, ‘My god! That’s Lindy!'”After decades of use as a cabin, the Lindbergh Crate, as it came to be known, was passed down through the Burrage family and eventually moved several miles away to the edge of another melodic river, the Blackwater.As a form of security against vandals, the owner decided to let local residents live in it, rent free.In 1972 my father made it his home. He was in his early 20s, working as a construction worker by day. The set-up was perfect for him. He feasted on baked potatoes and warmed cans of cod cakes on the tiny woodstove installed in the crate’s corner. He collected water from a nearby spring and caught fish in the river. At night, the slapping of otters or creaking ice kept him awake.The New Hampshire snow piled up outside, and he filled the small stove with whatever cord wood he could transport, using his father’s fiberglass boat to haul it from the road. To recall his first winter in the uninsulated crate, Rideout shutters. “I was the first one to spend a full winter in that thing, and I froze myself solid. The stove would only keep heat for two hours, so I’d wake up in the night and be shivering like you wouldn’t believe!”He built a makeshift outhouse from a cardboard refrigerator box, with a hole cut in it for a door. The next summer my dad would construct his first real outhouse and a woodshed that he filled with fuel. Soon there was a fire pit, a sweat lodge and vegetable gardens. He adopted a pet rabbit, who was house trained and “a great watch rabbit – he had such good hearing he’d start thumping when someone parked up on the road.”Rideout knew his father thought he was “crazier than a rat” for living in the crate. A Dartmouth graduate and account executive for Esso, his father couldn’t fathom why his only son would prefer a wooden shack to a college dorm room. Maybe it was the gardening lessons given to Rick by his dad in the backyard or his job at a tree nursery in high school, but my father just felt more comfortable in the company of nature.In a biographer’s eyes, certain moments of a life sift out from the millions of seconds lived and become significant. The changes that took place during my dad’s years at the crate can be followed like a thread through the rest of his life. Before my dad could explain his motives for rural living, his father passed away on a cold January day during Rick’s first winter at the crate, leaving a forming man with a gaping hole. “I learned a lot about myself during that year,” he remembers. “I’d just sit in that crate and shake my head. I’d just say to myself, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do?'”That summer he carried twigs and wildflowers back to the crate and began identifying them. He stocked up on botanical books and let them consume him. Of course, a few parties were had but the majority of the time was spent alone in the woods. “I realized at a young age, if you don’t do it, it doesn’t get done.”The following winter he applied to the Plant Science department at the Thompson School of UNH. “One Sunday afternoon my mother, who had never been to the crate, came walking up the path yelling my name. Well, my dad had died and my dog, too, so I figured ‘What else could it be?’ She said, ‘You got accepted to Thompson School!’ I was thrilled. I’d gotten to the point where I was either going to leave that crate or stay there for the rest of my life. I was getting a tad odd.”After Rick moved on several more people joined the tiny club of crate residents. A young woman lived there the longest, bringing her daughter into the world within the box’s four walls. The little girl was aptly named Amelia, in part for another aviation legend. The waltzing tune “Amelia” was composed for the 3-year-old girl by a local folk musician, to commemorate the unusual story from the woods of Contoocook. Years later it’s well known by contra-dancers and fiddlers across the country.In 1990 the crate went up for sale. It had fallen into disrepair and had sat as an abandoned shack for at least 10 years. It was sold to Larry Ross of Canaan, Maine, because of his noble wishes for the pile of wood: to educate and inspire the public through Charles Lindbergh’s story.Larry had spotted the “For Sale” ad in a local paper and drove down to New Hampshire to gather the rotted wood pile. Everyone thought he was crazy, including the local Concord Monitor, which ran a headline “Maine Resident Pays $3,000 for Shack.”To Larry this was a childhood dream materializing. He’d always loved roadside attractions and wanted to build one of his own. With the help of local Contoocook residents the crate was rolled onto a trailer and carted more than 200 miles. On a humid day last summer my father and I pulled into Larry’s driveway off the unmarked dirt road and I finally saw the crate in all its glory.The shack sits on the edge of a hill, overlooking a panorama of distant mountains. To stay true to the crate’s past, Larry has reconstructed the porch that the Burrages once enjoyed. A bit of an eccentric, Larry has incorporated his large yard and outbuildings into the visitor’s experience: inspirational quotes about plotting and accomplishing your dreams – as Lindbergh did more than 80 years ago – decorate the property.Inside the crate Lindbergh portraits and ephemera cover the walls and fill shelves and chair seats with their mass. For the last 20 years this has been Larry’s passion.As my dad entered his old home, I watched his face, looking for a sign of recognition. It’s his nose that brings him back first. “That smell! I had forgotten about it, but after 36 years, I would recognize it anywhere!” The musty smell reminded me of a summer cabin. The dark wood interior felt cozy and the woodstove was in place in the corner. I could finally envision his bed, his shelves of records, his fireside botany lessons.The solitude and self-reliance found during that time molded who my father is today. His company Three Season Landscaping is now more than 30 years old and is based in a historic train depot that he refinished near Contoocook. Where he feels most at home is sitting in the woods, looking out at his garden.As I looked around the crate, I realized that this legend was a true story, but it wasn’t the crate itself that made me glad I’d finally uncovered this myth. Unexpectedly, I’d found the starting place for my own parent’s personality – a rare event in any one’s life. NHEditor’s Note: Just as this issue was going to press, Rick Rideout passed away. In honor of his personal and professional contributions, the New Hampshire Landscape Association is in the process of establishing a scholarship or fund in his name. People interested in making a pledge may do so by calling (800) 639-5601 or by e-mailing to firstname.lastname@example.org.