A night of terror in New Hampshire’s Ossipee Mountains inspired Robert Frost to write about the incident again and again over 25 years.
He wrote in the spirit of self-mockery, as he was a victim of his own exaggerated fears of the dark.
During the summer of 1895, Frost, 21, was in love with his high school sweetheart, Elinor White. She was less enthusiastic about the relationship than he was.
Both were class valedictorians in Lawrence, Mass., where Frost had moved with his family at the age of 11 after his father died.
He had never lived alone and grew up so afraid of the dark he slept in a cot in his mother’s room until he was 21. It is perhaps a measure of his passion for Elinor that he followed her to the Ossipee Mountains, just south of the White Mountains, and stayed in a half-abandoned cottage with no lock on the door.
Elinor had been invited to visit Weelahka Hall, a manor house built by B.F. Shaw, who invented the Shaw-Knit stocking machine.
She would accompany her sister Leona, commissioned to paint the Shaw grandchildren. Elinor and Leona stayed in a cottage near the house. The Shaws did not welcome Elinor’s suitor Robert Frost had to find his own lodging though he had very little money.
Frost learned there were several dilapidated cottages in the mountains. Weelahka’s estate manager, Henry Horne, agreed to rent Frost his cottage for short money if he would guard his hard cider from thirsty neighbors.
Lawrence Thompson, in Robert Frost: The Early Years, 1874-1915, described the cottage as “a forlorn one-story clapboard cottage with a piece of metal stovepipe sticking through the ridgepole in place of a chimney, with uncurtained windows and a battered, lockless door.”
Mountains and Poetry
Elinor was busy at Weelahka, so Frost spent his time knocking about the mountains alone. Mountains never lost their appeal to Frost, and they appear again and again in his poetry.
To get through the nights, he had a St. Bernard for company and a single-shot pistol, which he occasionally fired at the stove. One night he was sitting in the cottage when someone knocked on the door.
The knocking terrified Frost. He bolted out the rear window and shouted “Come in.” He then spent the entire night wandering the woods half-dressed. The next morning, he returned to the cottage and found a drunken neighbor asleep on the floor.
He returned to Lawrence to teach, and married Elinor that winter. The marriage produced six children, four of whom died before Robert did in 1963. Elinor, who was an inspiration to Robert, suffered bouts of depression and died in 1938 following a battle with breast cancer and heart disease.
In 1920, five years after his night of terror, Robert Frost published a poem called The Lockless Door about it. It begins,
IT went many years,
But at last came a knock,
And I thought of the door
With no lock to lock.
Read the whole thing here.
Another inventor named Thomas Plant built another mansion, called Castle in the Clouds, near Weelahka. Plant bought the Weelahka property in after the turn of the century and tore it down for a nine-hole golf course.
This story about Robert Frost was updated in 2023.