A Mysterious Sound

“To one who has never visited Silver Bay and the great conferences which are held there that name has a mysterious sound. It may mean only a small tract of ground hardly shown on most maps of New York State, or it may mean a place where a person is transformed in a few days from a cold hearted indifferent supporter of missions to an ardent zealous worker eager for the success of missions and the spread of missionary education.

“To one who has been there, however, it stands for a great deal. It calls to mind, whenever it is heard, ten of the happiest days of a person’s life. From the time one leaves the train at Lake George station on the southern shore of that great lake and takes the boat for Silver Bay, until he leaves the boat at Lake George and takes the train back to the home places, he feels as though he were in heavenly places.

“It was a beautiful morning on July 24 as we boarded the Sagamore for the trip up the lake to Silver Bay. The sun shone brightly and there was a cool breeze blowing but as we went on and on, stopping at various hotels and resorts on both sides of the lake, we forgot the sun and wind and saw only the beautiful islands of which the lake is full and the mountains with their ever changing shapes and colors along the shores. Silver Bay itself is in one of the most beautiful spots on the lake.

“The bay is made by two thin points of land running out into the lake making a very graceful and beautiful curve in the shore line. Leading up from the boat landing to the hotel is a wide walk over which thousands of people travel yearly to learn more about Christian work. The grounds are beautifully kept and the hotel and cottages are all that one could ask for. In the rear of the hotel and cottages are two mountains, Sunrise Mountain and Inspiration Rock, as well as a mountain lake which afford many a pleasant afternoon tramp.

“From the tops of these mountains one has excellent views of the lake, the mountains opposite the bay, and across them in the far distance the Green Mountains. The woods are thick and the true lover of nature finds plenty to keep him busy during the hours given to recreation. During one of our tramps we had the pleasure of coming upon a large porcupine who politely left us by climbing a tree.

“In short, it would be impossible to find a place better fitted naturally for such conferences as everyone there is interested in Christian work and the beauty of the place is a constant inspiration. It seems to me the words of the Psalmist must have been written with a place like Silver Bay in mind when he said, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth his handiwork.'”

— “The Silver Bay Conference” by Roger F. Etz, Delegate, in Onward, Young People’s Christian Union of the Universalist Church, 1908

Monastery Life

“It is pleasant to be called in the morning by a huge bell on the front lawn. The quiet gathering of the first breakfast people suggests the days of the old monastery life, while the rules and regulations, the notices and good advice given through the megaphone, give a most modern and up-to-date American atmosphere. The boat comes twice a day. Welcomes and good-byes and the right hand of fellowship permeate the whole place… The Life Work meetings under Mr. Fennel Turner held immediately after breakfast in the boat house where the sparkling water and early morning sunlight help to clarify one’s ideals of life are the beginning of many a grand decision.”

— “The Conference at Silver Bay” from The Home Missionary, 1908, Congregational Home Missionary Society, N.Y.

Coming and Going

silver-bay-trunks-up-from-landing

Before people packed light, and in an era when clothing was considerably more voluminous, a stay at Silver Bay called for a steamer trunk, which arrived with you, appropriately, on the steamboat. The trunks had to be brought up from the dock by wagon, and at the end of the summer, brought back down to be loaded on the boat.

silver-bay-loading-trunks

“Follow the Gleam”

rossetti11

In 1920, Sallie Hume Douglas, a widowed, 53-year-old teacher from Honolulu, and Helen Hill, a student from Bryn Mawr College (Class of ’21), met at Silver Bay. The occasion was a YWCA conference; one of the many activities that summer was a song competition.

Sallie Hume Douglas was something of a hobbyist in song writing. She had published her “Garden of Paradise: Hawaiian Love Song” in 1915, and “Her Pink Mumu” in 1916.

sallie-2

Having heard of the song contest, Douglas was probably on the prowl for a lyricist with whom she could collaborate and perhaps even win. She found Helen Hill.

As it turned out, both women were interested in the Arthurian legends, and familiar with Tennyson’s 1889 poem, “Merlin and the Gleam,” about the quest for the Holy Grail, which ends:

“O young Mariner,
Down to the haven,
Call your companions,
Launch your vessel,
And crowd your canvas,
And, ere it vanishes
Over the margin,
After it, follow it,
Follow The Gleam.”

On the shores of Lake George, together they wrote a hymn, “Follow the Gleam,” that goes like this:

“To knights in the days of old,
Keeping watch on the mountain height,
Came a vision of Holy Grail
And a voice through the waiting night.

“Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Banners unfurled o’er all the world;
Follow, follow, follow the Gleam
Of the chalice that is the Grail.

“And we who would serve the King,
Keeping watch here at Silver Bay,
In the consecrate silence know,
That the challenge still holds today:

“Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Standards of worth o’er all the earth,
Follow, follow, follow the Gleam,
Of the Light that shall bring the dawn.”

Their song — which tied the legend of King Arthur to Christ the King — was the contest winner, and more. The line “Keeping watch here at Silver Bay” was altered to “And loyally Him obey,” and the song became an anthem that closed YWCA gatherings all over the country, sung at the end of vespers, sung by soloists, sung by the assembled masses, sung at other girl’s camps, even today.

Margaret Flenniken, the national secretary for student conferences of the YWCA, wrote in Missionary Review of the World (January 1921), “The prize song at Silver Bay this summer states what young women themselves conceive conferences to be. Let us beware lest we build at cross purposes with their ideal. To live thus is to be in the vanguard of one’s generation.”

Sallie Hume Douglas said, “The legend of the Holy Grail has been consistently a challenge for piety, purity, compassion, fellow-suffering and the renunciation of low desires.” Her intention was to encourage these virtues.

“Follow the Gleam” now had a life of its own, but in the years to come, its composer and lyricist took markedly different paths.

Living in Honolulu, Sallie Hume Douglas continued to work as a teacher, and was active in the League of American Pen Women, the Honolulu Press Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the National Society Magna Charta Dames and Barons. She pursued her hobby of genealogy, and wrote more songs: “Ocean of Love,” “Idol of My Heart,” “Deep in My Heart” and “Hawaiian Holiday” among them. “Garden of Paradise” was recorded at least twice, once on the Victor Talking Machine label by Keeaumoku Louis, a famed Hawaiian operatic baritone.

sallie-1

Douglas even became the inadvertent composer of the University of Idaho college song, “Our Idaho.” In 1917, when “Garden of Paradise” was popular, a student at the University of Idaho “adapted” its melody for a song contest, with lyrics by another student. The song became a regular feature at university athletic events. New verses were written to create “Here We Have Idaho,” the state song. In 1930, the fact came out that the composer of the melody was, in fact, Sallie Hume Douglas. By this time, stadium-loads of the Idaho faithful knew the songs by heart and there was no turning back. The state’s regents and legislature cut a deal with Douglas and gained formal permission to use the melody.

Before she died in 1944, Sallie Hume Douglas said that “Follow the Gleam” was the high point of her life.

Such was not the case with Helen Hill. She received her A.B. from Bryn Mawr in 1921, a diploma in economics from Oxford in 1922, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Chicago in 1928. She married Francis Pickens Miller in 1927, and traveled and studied in Europe.

In Washington, D.C., she was a writer on the staff of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Executive Director of the National Policy Committee, the American correspondent for The Economist, and Washington Bureau correspondent of Newsweek. She was President of the Women’s National Press Club. She wrote articles on history and economics for the Atlantic Monthly, The New Republic and other journals, and wrote more than 20 biography, history and travel books.

So how did this serious and prolific writer feel about her youthful role in “Follow the Gleam”?

Helen Hill Miller once offered to pay the YWCA if they would remove her name from the piece. From what I gather, it haunted her. She found it overly sentimental, did not share in the sentiment, and wanted it to go away.

In at least one way, her efforts to distance herself bore fruit. In 1933, when Sallie Hume Douglas had “Follow the Gleam” published in Hawaii, the Oahu Publishing Company listed the composers as “Sallie Hume Douglas” and “Bryn Mawr College Student.” And the Internet, perhaps aided by Miller’s ghost, is today filled with incorrect information on the song.

“Follow the Gleam” had a role in the Lutheran Summer Conference as well; this Silver Bay classic was used as the closing song, possibly introduced by Dr. Paul C. White, of the final service until a new chaplain, the Rev. Tom Mugavero, replaced it with “Lift High the Cross” circa 1985.

For those of you who need to hear it again, you can click here.

* * *

My thanks to Dante Gabriel Rossetti for the use of his 1874 painting, “The Damsel of the Sanct Grael.”