DUMMERSTON >> When Dummerston fourth-graders learned they were about to be introduced to Britain's greatest literary superstar, they could be forgiven for anticipating the bespectacled Harry Potter.
When a sign on the wall announced their guest was instead the creator of "The Jungle Book," it's understood why they next conjured up thoughts of moviemaker Walt Disney.
That's why caretakers of Rudyard Kipling's former Vermont home opened the late Victorian writer's private hideaway — named Naulakha after a Hindi word meaning "jewel beyond price" — to 200 select youth this past week for a rare look inside.
"It's one of the best-kept secrets," says Kelly Carlin of Landmark Trust USA, which now owns the property. "Education is part of our mission. This is a way to educate people not only about Naulakha but also the fact that someone who was the most famous author in the world lived here."
Kipling, born in India in 1865 and schooled in England, sailed across the Atlantic in 1892 upon his marriage to American Caroline Balestier. Settling on a Dummerston hillside at age 26, the writer — who'd go on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907 — designed a home similar in shape to the vessel that transported him to the United States.
"He imagined he would ride his 'ship' over the mountains, having many wonderful journeys," Carlin says.
Alas, his landing wasn't so smooth. On his first day, he met a pair of reporters seeking comment.
A newspaper interview, Kipling replied, was "a crime — an assault — it is cowardly and vile — no respectable man would ask it, much less give it." American journalism, he continued, had "nothing to admire and less to respect." As for any reader curious about him, "say I am a boor, for I am, and I want people to learn it and let me alone."
But Kipling would befriend such locals as former Vermont Gov. Frederick Holbrook, host barn dances, and travel to nearby Brattleboro — sometimes with snowshoes or skis, the latter given to him by Sherlock Holmes author and friend Arthur Conan Doyle — to drink lager in a basement bar of downtown's cornerstone Brooks House.
"Been in Europe, ain't ya?" one patron was said to have asked the author.
Kipling wrote his classic works "The Jungle Book" and "Captains Courageous" and conceived "Kim" and "Just So Stories" in Vermont. But such professional highs were offset by personal lows.
A border dispute between the United Kingdom and Venezuela over the South American colony of British Guiana, for example, led some in the United States to criticize Kipling's homeland, prompting him to plan his departure.
Shortly thereafter in 1896, Kipling's brother-in-law, drunk on the street, threatened the author — leading to the relative's arrest and resulting publicity that shattered the writer's privacy and spurred his return to England.
Nearly a century and a quarter later, select Windham County students have been introduced to Kipling — in the form of Massachusetts actor Jackson Gillman, dressed in period costume — during private house tours this past week.
"If Mr. Kipling was here today," Carlin tells visitors, "he would recognize the house."
That's because, after the author left in 1896, the property stayed within the family, then sat unused (except for interloping raccoons) for 50 years before the Landmark Trust purchased it in 1991.
The house features large, light-filled windows as, upon its construction, the electrical wires that served Brattleboro had yet to make their way to the outskirts of Dummerston.
"Sort of like we still can't get cable," Carlin says today.
The nonprofit has restored the interior to look as it did when Kipling conceived his "Just So Stories" after his children asked him to repeat a favorite story "just so." Downstairs, visitors can touch Kipling's original dining room table (although they're encouraged not to) and browse his study and its wall of books. Upstairs, they can see not only his bed but also his bathtub.
People who want to learn more can visit the Landmark Trust USA website at landmarktrustusa.org.
"It's a way to keep Kipling and his stories alive," Carlin says, "and educate our community about this amazing resource."
Kevin O'Connor is a regular contributor to the Reformer. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.