Above, left: newer trade paperback edition cover; right: illustration for “Restoration” from the first edition of Winter Count.
Barry H. Lopez
From Winter Count, 1981.
Just over the Montana border in North Dakota, north of the small town of Killdeer, there is a French mansion. It is part of a frontier estate built in 1863 for a titled family called de Crenir, from Bordeaux. When the last of the de Crenirs died in France in 1904, the two-story Victorian house, its contents, and the surrounding acres were bequeathed to the nearby town. Looking incongruous still in the vast landscape of brown hills, it has since stood as a tourist attraction.
There are various explanations for why the house was built in such a desolate place, after the fur trade had passed on but before the Indian wars were over and settlement had come. In time, the Great Northern Railroad reached it, but the first de Crenirs had to come up by boat seven hundred miles from St. Louis and finish the journey by horse. According to a pamphlet given to tourists, the family had had thoughts of establishing a cattle empire, but their visits were irregular and short. In spite of the rich furnishings freighted in and installed and the considerable expense and trouble involved in construction, only one, René de Crenir, ever overwintered there. His visits began in the spring of 1883 and he arrived each spring thereafter, departing each fall until he took up permanent residence in 1887. Seven years later, in the summer of 1894, he left abruptly, and no de Crenir ever came again. This young de Crenir, too, the pamphlet goes on to say, was the only one of the family to visit regularly with people in town, or who rode more than a day’s journey into the surrounding country.
The gray and white house gives the impression now of being a military outpost on the edge of an empire of silence and space, the domain, at the time it was built, of buffalo, bear, antelope, wolves, Hunkpapa Sioux, Crows off to the west, and others. Today there is little of value left beyond the house itself and a few pieces of period furniture except a collection of extraordinary books.
In the summer of 1974, this collection was in the process of being restored by a man named Edward Seraut. I was driving east and saw a highway advertisement outside Killdeer—HISTORIC FRENCH CHATEAU • 12 MILES • ICE CREAM • COOL DRINKS • SOUVENIRS—and had stopped and toured the mansion with other people on vacation. Afterward, with a guard’s permission and anticipating a conversation, I went back to the library on the second floor and introduced myself, somewhat hesitantly, to Seraut.
I had been struck right away by the sight of him, sitting still and jacketless in a straight chair with a broken book in his lap, as though bereaved. He was perhaps in his sixties. He seemed gratified by my interest, though I startled him when I came up. He showed me, still with a slightly quizzical look, a few of the books he had been working on—an oversized folio of colored prints of North American mammals by Karl Bodmer, and a copy, I recognized, of La Mettrie’s L’Homme Machine. He described a technique he was just then using to remove a stain called foxing from a flyleaf. I was drawn to him. When I asked if I might take him to dinner, he said he would be glad—delighted.
“I’ve been here for months,” he said, “and I’ve hardly looked out the windows.”