by Bill Batson
Once upon a time, a couple who wrote and illustrated children’s books built this fairy tale house. Berta and Elmer Hader used the materials they had in abundant supply: imagination, stone from the quarry on the property, marital bliss and a love for the environment. An exhibit in the display cases of the Carnegie-Farian Room of the Nyack Library explores their life in Grand View-on-Hudson and their internationally celebrated work as writers and illustrators. Nestled into the steep slope of a hill above the Hudson River, the house still stands as proof that dreams do come true.
For over 50 years, the Haders held creative court on Willow Hill. The couple met at an artists’ colony in San Francisco in 1912. When Elmer went to Europe to fight in World War I, Berta came to New York to work at McCalls and Good Housekeeping magazines.
A lifetime of Art
The art and literature of Berta and Elmer Hader
An exhibit entitled “Berta and Elmer Hader – A Lifetime of Art,” is on display in the cases adjacent to the Carnegie-Farian Room of the Nyack Library through November. The collection of books, text and images was curated by Pat Condello, Karen Kennell and Betty Perry.
The couple illustrated over 100 books, including the Caldecott winning “The Big Snow.” John Steinbeck asked Elmer to illustrate the jacket covers for “The Grapes of Wrath”, East of Eden,” The Winter of our Discontent” and “The Long Valley.”
“Berta and Elmer Hader, A Lifetime of Art” (Joyful Productions, 2013) is available for purchase at the Circulation Desk of the Nyack Library for $25.
Berta and Elmer Hader’s “Mother Goose Picture Book” is also for sale for $20.
The couple married in 1919 upon Elmer’s return from the war. Berta wore a wedding gown embroidered by the daughter of writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Haders helped Wilder publish the first volume of her seminal series, “Little House on the Prairie.”
In a column for a local charity journal in 1962, the Haders described their love- at-first-sight reaction to Grand View-on-Hudson. “Every bend of the road disclosed green lawns, flower gardens and clapboard houses – Many of them like pictures in Godey’s Lady’s Book (the most widely circulated magazine in the period before the Civil War)…We sat down to rest on a low stone wall, where we could see the river. A few young people in canoes paddled along close to the shore..we decided this was just the place.”
The land was purchased for a pittance because it was believed that the grade of the hill was too steep for construction. According to Grand View historian Terry Talley, “part of the down payment was paid by Elmer by doing a portrait of the lady who owned the property.”
Between 1921 and 1925, the Haders welcomed a steady stream of friends to help build their story book home. When completed, the dining room/studio was, according to various estimates, 60’ by 40′ feet with a 25’ ceiling. A stage was installed at one end of the grand room for skits, readings and musical performances. Apparently, Elmer did not require much convincing to produce and pick his banjo, that like his bohemian bungalow, was built with his own hands.
During the week, the stage served the Haders as their illustration studio. The light from floor to ceiling windows illuminated their work space. Even though the dwelling was designed for the artist owners, the accommodations were also ideal for their myriad friends, of both the human and woodland variety.
Interior features included seven working fire places and a table that could seat 25, where Berta would ladle out her famous soup. Nineteen bird houses were built into the exterior walls of the house, encouraging their avian acquaintances to linger and perhaps pose. A hand-fed baby bird became the muse for “The Friendly Phoebe.” Field mice, squirrels and chipmunks also got their own titles.
The vistas, neighbors, flora and fauna that the Haders encountered each day became the motif for over 100 books. Nyack is the template for a generic village depicted in their book, “Little Town.” In “The Big Snow,” two pheasants, who may have walked through Willow Hill are in the foreground of one panel, with geese in flight above the iconic silhouette of Hook Mountain in the distance.
For the Haders, the house was like a painting that never left the easel. It was a work in progress that was always being revised and refined. In a 1950s letter the Haders wrote, “Life moves along in the same groove in Hader’s Hovel. A nicely balanced diet of work and play and work keeps us a step ahead of the sheriff and not too busy on book work to prevent patching and repairing the little cottage we started to build a quarter of a century ago. Just a little progress since you last saw the place..we now have door knobs and locks on most all of the doors. Our friends have to be taught how to use them.”
In the fantasy world that the Haders created and occupied, you can just imagine a possum reaching into its pouch to pull out a key that the couple provided their marsupial friend.
For fifty years, the Haders held their ground in their forested fortress of creativity. For forty years they produced a book a year for MacMillan Publishing. In 1948, they won the Caldecott award for “The Big Snow.”
Elmer applied the same zeal into the protection of the environment that he put into its depiction. Hader became a vocal environmentalist, serving as the Vice President of the Hudson River Conservation Society and Zoning Administrator for Grand View for over 40 years. On September 7, 1973 Elmer Hader passed away at the age of 85. His wife, Berta, died three years later at the same age.
Sitting above a well traveled road, the home that Berta and Elmer built tells a story to all who pass. Anyone who catches a glimpse of the little stone house is entranced and transported. The stones that form steps, wells, walls and the dwelling seem assembled by playful hands. In a seasonal game of hide and seek, the main structure is camouflaged by a forest of maples, ash, oaks, aspens, pines and tall sycamores. The ground concealed by a carpet of honeysuckle, elderberries and vines. For people who slow down and look closely, the fairy tale house reveals itself, affirming the virtues of a life dedicated to fable-making.
Special thanks to Historical Society of the Nyacks for mounting this exhibit.
A Nyack Toolbox – Implements from the Past is currently on display at the Historical Society of the Nyacks Museum, 50 Piermont Ave. located in the historic DePew House directly behind the Nyack Library and across from Memorial Park. Implements in the exhibit include hammers, chisels, and drills as well as a doctor’s stethoscope, a pharmacist’s mortar and pestle, a bootblack’s footrest and machinists tools. The exhibit features work by William Rauschenberg. Open Saturdays through November from 1-4p.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Authors of Children’s Books Built Fairy Tale Home” © 2014 Bill Batson. To see more, visit billbatsonarts.com