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Sen. Hillary Clinton's girlhood home (sort of)

The Rodham cottage in Lake Winola, Pa., where the young Hillary Rodham Clinton spent time each summer. Her family still owns the property near Scranton.
The Rodham cottage in Lake Winola, Pa., where the young Hillary Rodham Clinton spent time each summer. Her family still owns the property near Scranton.Read moreED HILLE / Inquirer Staff Photographer

LAKE WINOLA, Pa. - Ice still covers the lake. Shades darken windows of many homes along its 2.5-mile perimeter. A summer flotilla of pontoon boats sits scattered and tarp-shrouded on narrow gravel driveways muddied by the early-spring thaw.

It is not yet the season in Lake Winola.

Likewise, any buzz in this vacation hamlet over its tangential claim to a presidential hopeful has yet to really percolate.

"You're the first to ask," the local postmaster said on Friday with a smile.

But just give it a few weeks.

Hillary Rodham Clinton's Pennsylvania roots are here in this mostly seasonal Wyoming County community of less than 1,000, about 17 miles north of Scranton.

Her father, Hugh Rodham, grew up in Scranton and is buried there. And each summer, Rodham would haul his brood from their suburban Chicago home to the modest, two-story cottage he and his father built here in 1921.

With Pennsylvania's April 22 primary suddenly pivotal for Democrats, it will surprise no one if Clinton points repeatedly to those admittedly long-ago ties before the prolonged statewide campaign runs its course.

"It's definitely a moment of pride," said Mary Stoko, past president of the Lake Winola Cottagers' Association, who lives year-round in her lakeside home. "She is a part of us - that's the way I believe most people think of it."

Clinton's family still owns the yellow, wood-sided cottage on a hill overlooking the lake. Her brothers, Hugh and Tony Rodham, visit each summer, locals say, whacking golf balls on the nearby course and turning up in the local eateries.

Hillary Clinton's time there has been portrayed as fleeting, yet formative.

As a teen, she chose Wellesley College over Smith College in part because Wellesley's Lake Waban reminded her of Lake Winola.

And it was in a series of letters written at the cottage in the summer of 1967 that Clinton - reared by a staunch Republican father - first began referring to the GOP as "they," not "we."

At the time, that would have been heresy for Hugh Rodham, the gruff, authoritarian head of the family.

Descended from Welsh laborers who settled in Scranton, Rodham played football at Penn State and went on to success as a salesman and textile supplier in the Midwest. Nonetheless, he refused his children allowances and ruled the home thermostat with an iron finger.

Even in prosperity, Rodham clung to his hardscrabble past, a part of which was the cottage, originally built with no heat or inside plumbing. Each August, he piled the family before dawn into the family Lincoln - "the barge," according to Clinton - and set off for another two weeks at Lake Winola.

In his new biography of Hillary Clinton, Carl Bernstein writes that Rodham "meant the vacation to connect his children to a past not as privileged as the one they knew in Park Ridge, as well as to maintain a strong sense of family."

On one trip, Rodham insisted the family visit a coal mine. "Whatever her discomfort with such gestures at the time," Bernstein writes, "Hillary's later political identification with working-class values and the struggles of average wage-earners was not something acquired at Wellesley or Yale as part of a 1960s countercultural ethos."

In an interview last year with the Allentown Morning Call, Clinton said her family "didn't go anywhere else for vacation." Lake Winola, she said, was where she learned to shoot a gun, to fish, and to swim.

"Their cottage was not on the water, but she would saunter down here to the dock," said Fran Mollusky, a retired middle school teacher whose home faces the docks. "She hung out and did a lot of reading there."

Clinton also has told of learning to play pinochle with her father and his rough-edged friends. They were characters with names like Old Hank and Old Pete, who would curse and upend the table when their luck ran bad.

Today, even as property values along the lakefront have soared to $500,000 and beyond, a touch of "Pennsyl-tucky" remains amid the area's rolling hills, wafting wood smoke, and ubiquitous pickup trucks.

From the brown wicker loveseat on the Rodham's front porch, a gorgeous view of the lake can be seen just beyond a rough patch of land that includes a rundown, cinder-block structure that once was a grocery.

The only entrance to the cottage, around back, is blocked by a charcoal grill atop a sodden hunk of plywood that serves as a stoop. Down the back driveway, a sticker on a neighbor's motorcycle trailer asks: "Have you hugged your Hog today?"

"It's not much to speak of," Stoko said. "When they all came a few years ago, the bathroom wasn't working, and they had to use one across the street."

A few years ago, the cottage also offered grist for a minor area scandal that drew national publicity.

In August 2001, a local man was arrested after breaking into the house and attacking Tony Rodham, kicking him in the head and body. The man told police that he had climbed onto the cottage's porch at 5 a.m. and had seen Rodham having sex with the assailant's girlfriend.

The man later pleaded guilty to trespassing, simple assault and terroristic threats.

But not before Rodham created more headlines by testifying that he "might have" smoked marijuana with the suspect several hours before the attack.

Hillary Clinton last visited the area in May. She attended the baptism of her niece in the same Scranton church where she and her brothers were baptized, then made a quick stop at the cottage.

"They had a little open house up at their place," Mollusky said. "We went up and shook hands with Bill and with Hillary, and they were very gracious. I was thrilled."

Many locals are hoping the high-stakes primary will bring the Clintons back to town.

"It would be great if Hillary came in here for some homemade bread," said Linda Norsen, owner of the Lake Road Cafe. "Last time they were here, I was driving all over with my grandkids, trying to find them, but they never announce where they're going to be. Most Americans can't afford a $500 ticket to a dinner to go meet them."

Francesco Stuppino, who accompanied a friend to a Clinton fund-raiser last year, proudly displays photos of himself with Clinton at the Blue Pelican, the tropically appointed bar and restaurant he runs with his longtime companion, Maureen Noone.

Clinton's brothers, Stuppino said, "have been in here a number of times. They golf, they enjoy a cigar, and they get along with the local people well."

With spring coming on, Stuppino wonders if his deck, overlooking the lake of her childhood, might not be ideal for a Clinton fund-raiser.

"I hope she comes by," he said. "I'd do anything for her."