Writings by Folklorist Rowena Peterson

A family friend and teacher, the former Miss Rowena Peterson, was known (to me) throughout my childhood as the lady who wrote for a little magazine called “The North Country Life.” I also remember that she directed the Sr. Class Play at Brownville-Glen Park High School in about 1946. I always thought of her as very talented, so I wasn’t one bit amazed during the past few years to find that Rowena had written a number of outstanding articles of interest to genealogy enthusiasts.

For the past two years I’ve been carrying around an article “Interesting True Stories Of Lake and River Region.” From my sister I had learned that Rowena, now Mrs. Shangraw, was living in Watertown. I then made note of her address and phone number. I just had to figure out a way to let others know of this piece.

Well, it wasn’t until our recent trip to Watertown that I felt compelled to call Mrs. Shangraw and ask her permission to reproduce the above-mentioned article on my website. I knew I was dealing with a very special lady here -- one who wanted perfection -- in a form which I wasn’t certain I could fulfill. But I knew that my passion for her works and my desire to provide to others on-line access of her works, was worth meeting this challenge to my abilities. Rowena’s main concern was that I give her credit for her work -- something which is never a problem for me.

And so it is that I present to you, “Interesting True Stories Of Lake and River Region” written by Rowena B. Peterson (now Shangraw). I know you will all enjoy this article and several other articles I've collected.

If you like this feature, let us know by leaving a message in my guest book.

Shirley Farone

October 16, 2001


Interesting True Stories
Of Lake and River Region

(An undated article found in a scrapbook at Flower Memorial Library’s Genealogy Dept.)


Sinking of “Sir Robert Peel” and Cisco
Fishing at Chaumont Recounted.


From New York Folklore

Swift as an arrow the black bass strikes
Where the Lake and River meet
Where he takes the line with a vicious rush
And you tingle clear to your feet.

When you match your wits ‘against his age-old skill.
Play fair! That’s when he knows
The kind of a heart that is under your vest,
If a man is within your clothes.

When angling days are a thing of the past
And friends their yarns repeat,
You don’t have to lie ‘bout the fish you caught
Where the Lake and River meet.


Karl H. Borland, state highway engineer of Cape Vincent, in the above poem, expresses the love of the people for the fisherman’s paradise where the St. Lawrence meets the waters of Lake Ontario. The title of an article, “Where Lake and River Meet” by Rowena B. Peterson, Holland Patent, formerly of Watertown, which appeared in the magazine, New York Folklore Quarterly, was taken from Mr. Borland’s poem, gratefully acknowledged by the author. The article, in part, is herewith presented.

Many Jefferson county folks have lived near water either in the United States or Canada. My own great-great-great grandfather was a United Empire Loyalist. One time he was dispatched to a place called Fort Lee; on his return 1,500 rebels were in the field against 70 Loyalists. After this conflict, 18 wagonloads of the killed and wounded were removed. In the thick of the fray, a man named Hampton Miller ascended the blockhouse, planted the British flag, and returned unhurt, the story goes.

After climbing the rapids of the St. Lawrence in June of 1784, the greater part of these 70 Loyalists, including Nicholas Peterson, pitched their tent in Adolphustown on the Bay of Quinte. The first crop planted in this wild land was put in by my ancestor.

My interest in buried treasure dates from the story I heard Sam Peterson, who ran a sloop from Adolphustown into Kingston. He had bushels of gold guineas, so the story was handed to me. There was no place to hide them except under his bed. My grandfather and great-aunt claimed to have seen the gold. Sam was a gigantic man; his stature, probably, was inherited from some of his Viking forebears. When Sam was taken sick, he wondered what he was going to do with his coin. One evening the family missed him. Later, when they investigated, the half-bushel baskets were nowhere to be found. Poor Sam was dying. Between the death gurgles, he mumbled, “It’ll pay you well to build the new house over the root cellar.” Like all willful young stock the family did not heed the dying Sam’s advice. The house was built and burned in a more aristocratic setting.

We can’t leave Sam Peterson’s treasure buried in the heart of the earth; neither could the later descendants, who took picks, shovels, and lanterns back to the location of the old root cellar. (The man who used to tell the most hair-raising stories of this treasure hunt died in the poorhouse. I’d like to have heard his interpretation of why the Petersons never found treasure.)

Late one night boatmen set out, reached the shore, and tied the old boat to a sapling nearby. As they approached the sentinel trees, heavy boot-tramping sounds came from the mysterious darkness. It was Sam. As they started to dig, great balls of fire rose out of the earth. Branches snapped and crackled amid the solid tramping of a man who used to run a sloop from Adolphustown to Kingston. Under such circumstances it was impossible to dig. So the men left. Upon returning to their boat, they discovered that their lunch had been stolen. The treasure remains for the 20th century Kidds who care to compete with crackling branches and heavy darkness.

* * *

A French vessel is said to have run up Catfish Creek, near Depauville, to escape the approach of a pursuing ship. A treasure was buried somewhere along the banks of this creek. Mr. “Ken” Whittier, one of the oldest living settlers of the north country, told me that many nights he had looked out of his farmhouse window and had seen men digging far into the night. One of these never did give up the search during his life, but had killed himself by taking paris green. Upon my second visit to Mr. Whittier I inquired avidly whether he thought the digger had committed suicide because he never found the French treasure. Mr. Whittier, a collateral descendant of the poet, John Greenleaf Whittier, smiles, characteristically---the way older folk look at a young whippersnapper prying into the past---and said that he though not for the man lived to be 96---. (The folks won’t turn a tale to suit my fancy. I must be letter-perfect.) The sequel to this French treasure story is that some men from Montreal came very silently into the village one time and as silently left.

* * *

Bill Johnston was the Cap’n Kidd of the North Country.

The incident referred to in “The Burning of the Sir Robert Peel”, occurred during an unfortunate fracas called the Patriot War. Johnston, leader of a band of 20 men, had his headquarters in a cave in Devil’s Oven. He knew the waters of the upper St. Lawrence better than any other man of his time. At times he paraded up and down the main streets of border towns his belt heavy with bowie knives and pistols. He was a close friend of William Lyon MacKenzie, grandfather of the former premier of Canada. During the trouble on the border, the arsenal at Watertown was broken into. Arms were stolen.

On the night of May 30, 1838, the British steamer “Sir Robert Peel,” accompanied by John Armstrong, with 19 passengers and gold for paying off the troops, was taking on wood at McDonnell’s wharf above Alexandria Bay. Led by Pirate Bill, a desperate company of men, disguised and painted like savages, came on board shouting, “Remember the Caroline!” The passengers, most of whom were asleep, were ordered on shore; then the steamer was burned.

The hull of the “Peel” is till visible. S. Kelsey Ainsworth of Cape Vincent saw the anchor after it had been raised. About the first thing Ross Gray of Clayton told me was that there is some talk of removing the skeleton from the river.

After the Peel incident all of Canada and the United States were out for Johnston’s hide. After the Patriot War, Pirate Bill was captured, imprisoned at Auburn, and was recaptured after he had escaped. He was taken to a prison in Albany, but he managed to flee from there, too. After the excitement had subsided, Bill returned to Clayton and was appointed keeper of the Rock Island lighthouse.

Before the burning of the “Peel” newspapers were bristling with accounts of the fireworks along the border. Shortly after Christmas in 1837, the British Royalists and their Indians had landed on Grand Island near Buffalo. Excitement was at a peak, for Grand Island belonged to the states. The Royalists (sic) had come from their station on Navy Island, a British possession, two miles above the Falls. Overnight, excitement reached a higher peak, for the American steamboat “Caroline,” loaded with visitors, was set on fire, towed into the current on the Canadian side, and found lying at the American village of Slosser, opposite Chippewa. Those familiar with the locality will realize that the “Caroline,” made its way over the Niagara cataract.

All this activity and feverish navigation along the St. Lawrence-Ontario region must have been disheartening to the pious grandmothers who believed that lake or river left its moral effect upon their children.

* * *

Cap’n John Carter lived for many years on Paddy Hill. In the summer he sailed from Ogdensburg to Duluth with a crew from the neighborhood---Farmers, Wilsons, Wilders, Lees, Witts, Sattimores, and Dorans. Mrs. Effie Starkweather Warn of this section remembers Captain Carter:

We could see the upper part of his house from our upstairs window. In the fall we would look every night for the signal light his wife would put in the upper window to tell us Cap’n John was home. All the near neighbors would gather up pans of apples, nuts, fried cakes, and cookies and go to hear him tell his experiences of the terrible storms on Superior and Erie. One time in Lake Michigan he had to jettison a load of western horses. One story he told was about the Indian Drummer sometimes heard as they would pass through the straits of Mackinaw. The sailors were superstitious, refusing to go across the lake while they could hear the “drum.” Captain John explained that it was caused by wind, waves, and the hollow rocks that made a booming sound. A severe storm usually followed; so he was always willing to lay over a couple of days. Another of Captain Carter’s stories concerned his cook, David Gibbs, who used cooking butter for the crew but managed to have some extra good butter on hand. He would put a lump of this good kind on the side of the butter dish and then serve the captain himself. Every meal he would slap the extra piece down on the captain’s plate and say, “Do have some butter, Cap’n Carter.”

* * *

Jerry Meagher shipped aboard the “Empire” on the first line of steam-propelled passenger ships between Ogdensburg and Toledo. He was cabin boy at eleven to Captain Denner of Chaumont, then a flourishing ship-building center. A bearded man smoked a cigar in the stateroom. This was against the rules; young Jerry tapped him on the shoulder:

“See here sir; you’ll have to smoke on deck, sir.”

The man looked at him oddly but obeyed the order. Later, the lady accompanying the gentleman became violently ill, and the bearded man hailed Meagher.

“My boy, have you anything for seasickness?”

“I mixed ‘im a sour lemonade,” relates Jerry, “and give it to ‘im.”

Meanwhile Lake Erie calmed. The bearded man beamed, too.

“That lemon did the trick, my boy,” and he handed Jerry a two-dollar bill. The boy said that he hadn’t any change and returned the bill. The man laughed heartily, “Why keep it, my boy!”

Said Jerry, “Aha, he didn’t know that it was the calm sea that did the trick, but just the same, b’gorra, I prayed for rough seas all the time after that.”

Captain Denner and the bearded man were talking as they went by “Puddin’ Bay,” Jerry heard the captain tell why Perry had called it “Put-in Bay.” Young Jerry tried to get his captain to tell him who the distinguished man was. Under oath that he would keep the secret, Jerry was told that the man was General Grant.

To have made Grant remove a cigar from his mouth still gives young Jerry -- now 96 -- great satisfaction. (I call him the “Dauber;” he has a picture of his own schooner which he did in oils.) After Jerry married, he decided that the sea was not the place for him. Now he lives in Whitesboro. He told me that for some time after he had left the haunting sea, he had to hire someone to throw pails of water on his window at night so that he could be assured of a good rest.

* * *

Stories of wrecks are many and varied. In fact, some of the best fishing in the St. Lawrence is over skeletons of wrecks. Old guides will say to other guides, “Did you fish the wreck today?” Perl Phelps of Chaumont, brother of the famous shipbuilder, Frank D. Phelps, informed me modestly that he had saved a man’s life when he was captain of the “Frank Phelps” which was towing the “John S. Parsons.” A nor’wester arose. The barge was getting the worst of the storm. With a pike pole Mr. Phelps reached the drowning Ashton Adams just in time. Mr. Phelps, a quiet man, used to like to fish around the bays and inlets.

“This is Cisco Bay. The New Yawkers told me once,” said Clifford Bowman of Pillar Point. L. H. Johnson and his father were among those in Chaumont, who used to sing:

We hail from Chaumont,
Habitat of the cisco
Down where the lake winds blow
From Ontario.
We’re sailormen, fishermen, happy and gay,
Cisco-chasers are we,
We sing at our work and make our work play,
For cisco-chasers are we.


Frank E. Smith, a resident of Dexter and for years principal of the Brownville-Glen Park Central school, writes:

The story as I “heered” it is this: “About 70 years ago the principal industry in Chaumont was cisco fishing. They used hoopnets or gill-nets and sailing boats. The means of carrying the fish from the boat to the cleaning shed was to shovel them into a basket, hoist them to your shoulder or back, and horse them to the table. This left a man’s clothes somewhat messed up; so the upper crust of the village, who looked down on the fishermen, would call those of the lower level “cisco-backs.” Also, when the young bucks of the village met up with others of another town at a dance or a church supper, a bit of rum on the side might start an argument. Then the boys of the neighboring town would call those from Chaumont or Dexter “cisco-backs” whether or not they were fishermen. This was sufficient to start a full-sized brawl. So the name became commonly a term of derision.”

Men were either rich or poor with the season’s catch. One man had 200,000 pounds of fish at one time. A buyer came along and offered him $10 a barrel for them. The fisherman would not accept the paltry sum. The price of fish went down, and the next spring that man had his thousands of pounds of ciscoes drawn out and spread on his land. They tell of one man who bought a farm and went out to his old, battered buggy, pulled out an oat bag, and handed the goggled-eyed farmer $12,0000---spot cash.

Lester West, barber of Chaumont, speaking:

Bill Horton, a man who hardly ever lied, told me a story. Wa-al, it wasn’t him but two other fellows told it. Years ago they used to fish pound nets that had to be driven in with a spile driver. The basket would be ‘bout as big as this room. Yessir, I’ve seen ‘em. One night in the fall not a breath was stirring. It was as still as death. Around the point between Cherry Island and Point Salubrious they noticed a wake of water coming around. Breathlessly they waited, knowing that it was a huge school of ciscoes. At that time the men and women lived in shacks along the banks of the inlets. That night the men went around and engaged every man and women (sic) to clean and pack the hogsheads of ciscoes which would be in the drag the next morning. Next morning, how many do you think they got? Guess. Old Bill hardly ever lied. How many do you think? Eighty barrels out of one haul! These were big hogsheads--probably altogether would hold 639 gallons.

* * *

(end of the article as I found it in the notebook)




The Folks Aren’t All Gone Yet

By ROWENA B. PETERSON, Associate Editor

This article has been drawn from the first chapter of the author’s thesis on Jefferson County folklore, which she wrote in fulfilling the requirements for a Master’s degree at Cornell University. In this, the introductory chapter of her thesis, she chats about some of the Jefferson County people who aided her in her search for folklore.

AMUSING AND PITIFUL is the sophisticated “sniff-sniff” of the supercilious person who has no time for folklore. More pathetic than amusing, however, is the fact that admissions of interest in the folk are made sometimes from eyes peering sheepishy from behind finger-bars of scholarly convention. Steele, as well as Addison, confesses to a keen interest in ballads. Steele says that his “unhappy curiosity is such” that he has to take a coach to avoid the temptation to loiter with the ballad-singers. Poor, hampered individual! Think what a big “kick” he would have had with a recording machine, a voice, the people, and the company of Sandburg, Lomax, Thompson, and Jones. Frustrated folks might well turn to folklore for fun.

I am not concerned with the defense of folklore. My aim is to record a little more of the folklore of New York State, particularly of my own county of Jefferson, partly because I have always lived there and partly because someone made the statement that there was no folklore in that county.

In my search I have discovered the strength of our pioneer, who could bury the massacred remains of the loved one after a white-man-propelled Indian raid, and whose descendant could gather the family around an old reed organ in the living room at night and sing after a day’s toil in kitchen and field. The strength came from utter devotion to a greater power outside himself.

Wherever I have visited, someone remembers that a mother or a grandfather had time to tell him stories or sing him songs that vibrate even now in his memory with quiet energy and sympathetic appeal.

THE FIRST TIME I visited Miss Florentine Vincent of Cape Vincent, who has lived in one house for over 80 years, she sang a song that her mother used to sing to her. Miss “Tinnie,” as she is known throughout the county, is a retired school teacher, whose collection of Americana is the envy of antique dealers.

HAD IT NOT BEEN for Ross B. Lowe I should never have found Miss “Tinnie.” Mr. Lowe lives in Watertown and collects early American books. Mr. Lowe and his wife have never been too busy to go on pilgrimages with me. The people and the places that they know to be rich with folklore are legion.

I WENT TO ADAMS to the house which used to be the first bank of the county, the present home of C. W. (Ken) Whittier. Mr. Whittier not being home, I followed the suggestion of a neighbor and drove to Depauville, where the object of my quest has a small summer cabin next door to the farm that he used to work and where the famous Cyrus McCormick found his wife, the former Nettie Fowler.

Mr. Whittier sat in a rocker by an oil-cloth covered drop leaf table on which was a kerosene lamp. There are eight fireplaces in Mr. Whittier’s home in Adams, but here was only a make-believe one. For the benefit of the scholar, Mr. Whittier is a collateral descendant of the Quaker poet, John Greenleaf Whittier. The home-like voice and the strong, sure accents of Ken Whittier reminded me of the poet’s hymns and his unswerving faith. I wasn’t mistaken.

Mr. Whittier used to play the ‘cello. He used to attend the singing school that Steve Slater held. He used to play in the band, and now in his eighties he rocks--oh, yes, he drives his gray horseless Chevrolet--but he rocks and thinks of the nights when German cheese makers and hotel keepers used to holler, across the muddy road: “Keen! Keen! Come ofer. Seeng!” He told me that he used to know many German drinking songs.

“YOU’LL NEVER GET to heaven if you don’t collect antiques,” declared Chris Irvine of Chaumont. When I told him that I wanted to leave and go over to visit another old-timer in the area, he shook his head, pointed his finger at me, and grinned: “Girl, let me tell ya something. Ya don’t wanta b’leeve a word he says! He’s the biggest liar in the county!: Later, upon visiting another of my informants, he said, “I sure scared hell outa that little school teacher, but I like her; bring her down again sometime.”

“Ten dollars and you don’t hafta take it,” is one of the favorite phrases of this antique collector. Chris might well begin all his years, “Now, this is a true one and you don’t hafta b’leeve it!” He said he woke up in the night trying to think of stories for me, but anyone knows that “the tarnal ole liar” can tell them sleeping or waking. His sister Bertha looked at him and me sitting on an ox yoke and said to Mrs. Warn: “Now, what’s that Chris up to now? Telling that poor girl a pack of lies, I suppose.”

THEN THERE IS Lester West, barber and farmer of Chaumont, who responded well at the Rogers’ old seed farm. We turned out all the lights. His grandchild was squealing, for it was she who had been assigned the task of getting him to tell how Fred Sternberg plugged the drain that served as the cloistered thoroughfare of the ghosts in his house, and how “Hogeye” tried to fool the ghosts. “Didn’t s’pose anybuddy these days was int’rested in ghost stories.”

NOT FAR FROM CHAUMONT beyond Three Mile Bay lives an old warrior who has seen the fields grow into cement highways, the skeletons of ships and docks sink slowly into the quiet waters of the bay, the tallow candle and the oxen give over to electricity and the locomotive. Milton Lance, better known as “Met,” had just come in from hoeing a thriving garden. It was dusk, and who wouldn’t be flustered to have a city whippersnapper drop in of an evening and peck at his Past?

As he stood by the old kitchen range waving his arm and flashing his eyes, I knew that I had found a prize. He launched into a lively discussion concerning “Prusshy,” “Russhy,” Napoleon, and the English. At the age of 100, his Polish “Grumpa” never minded walking from the Toadhole up to the old farm or to the town every day---a distance of twelve miles. He managed to get away from the Sicily Isles in 1815. Somehow he made it from there to Quebec to the Mohawk---finally to Point Peninsula; his tombstone informs us that he lived to be 104. And thereby hangs a tale, a long-fascinating tale......

CLIFFORD BOWMAN met Mrs. Warn and me at the door, dressed in light gabardine slacks and soft shirt. We must have known each other though I swear we’d never actually met before. No preliminaries, and he didn’t mind if I took notes. I started to tell him some yarns in a quivering falsetto; suddenly like an oath in a prayer service he boomed out, “All right, git your damn pencil out!” He changed his cigar to a pipe, his shirt to a red and black checked hunting outfit, and began. About 11:30 he was still going strong, and I meekly mentioned the fact that I had a friend in the car that had been waiting two hours. Out went Clifford, opened the door of the coupe, and yelled: “C’mon! Git out! We’ll thaw you out.”

OUT ON POINT Peninsula----the richest land in the county----lived farmer John Becker, whose ancestors were all seafaring men and whose grandfather came to the county with a horse and one blanket. One uncle was piloting the Comanche the time it was partially wrecked. The wind, strangely enough, heaved the ship right into the little cove just back of the farm. Corn was pumped out of the ship, dried, and sent to Kingston.

I VISITED AUNT Minnie Conklin and asked her if her father, too, was mild-spoken. Sitting back in her rocking chair, she told me that her father never raised his voice that she remembers. In correcting a child, his silence was eloquent and powerful. Men who worked with Mr. Gladwyn attest the fact that here was a prince of men. Aunt Minnie writes poems, playlets, and hymns for the church. Her aim, I am told, is to leave a hymn book of her own as a monument to inner life.

JERRY MEAGHER of Whitesboro, 97-year old cabin boy, began immediately by showing me the housecleaning he’d been doing---”learned it all on board ship.” Jerry shipped aboard the Empire on the first line of steam-propelled passenger ships between Ogdensburg and Toledo. He was a cabin boy at 11 to Captain Denner of Chaumont. He has a picture of his own schooner he painted in oils.

IN LOOKING OVER the tally of students who assisted me, I find among them the only two I exempted and four who had the lowest grades of all. One of the best stories is from a boy who failed my English exam; another student-informer was buried June 3, 1936 (sic*). This boy liked old-fashioned people and old-fashioned things. One of the husky football fellows said to me, “Miss Pete, Keith was a pioneer.” He knew he could not live, so he speeded up his program by taking and passing Regents exams in January instead of June. It was he who chose the class motto: “Look backward for guidance forward.”

*Typist's Note: I believe the author is speaking of Keith Connell who was to have graduated from the Brownville Glen-Park High School later in the month of June, 1946 (not 1936 as the article states).

THEY MAY SEARCH a long time for your and my resting place, pull back the long, sharp, tough blades of grass and read, “Gone but not forgotten,” but it won’t be quite so difficult a search for proof of the unselfish sharing the one’s life with his neighbor’s weal and woe.

It makes little difference whether I conclude with Aunt Minnie’s quiet hymnology:

Through thoughts that are worthy
And words that are true,
Through earnest endeavor
Thy bidding to do,
With love never failing,
To lighten the way,
Lord, make me a channel
Of blessing, I pray.

Or with Uncle Herm’s favorite uproarious ending to every story:

Along came Jack
With a bucket of blood
To make it all
Grim and gory
And they lived in peace
And died in grease
And were buried
Under a cake of tallow----

Both are vibrant examples of words that live through the SPIRIT of those who say them. As long as there are people, there will be words -- ideas -- symbols and SPIRIT.

Note by typist: As I typed this, I was enlightened about Rowena’s relationship to Mrs. Warn and Aunt Minnie Conklin. Perhaps Mrs. Shangraw (nee Peterson) was related to Mrs. Warn and I shall endeavor to find out. I do know that Mrs. (Effie Starkweather) Warn was the mother of my Aunt Edith Warn Hasner, wife of Mom’s brother, Martin Hasner. Consequently, she was my cousin, Charlie’s, grandmother. As to Aunt Minnie Conklin -- well, if you have been travelling around my website, you know that she was my grandmother. The hymn about which Rowena writes is on my website. I was amused that Rowena called my grandmother, Aunt Minnie Conklin. I think this was a term of endearment which evolved from Rowena’s acquaintance with a teacher and church associates who were indeed, the nieces of my grandmother, Mrs. Minnie Gladwyn Conklin. (by Shirley, your site hostess)

Golden Rule Days


This article is part of a chapter of
a Master’s thesis, entitled “The Lore
of Jefferson County, New York” and
presented in 1946 to the faculty of
Cornell University. The author is
a former teacher of English and
library science.

THERE WERE ALL kinds of teachers in the old days. A small boy was kept after school in one community because he had failed to hand in the required lines of original poetry. The teacher, tired of waiting for his poetic muse to burn, told him to go home and to return Monday with his creation. The entire family turned in to help. On Monday the teacher read the results:

Dear Lord above,
Look down with love
Upon us poor scholars,
For they hired a fool
To teach our school
And paid her three hundred dollars.

One version changes “us poor scholars” to “the school committee,” and there is a still less modified version which some of the “old boys” may remember --- self-addressed, stamped envelope and it’s yours for the asking!

This particular schoolmarm must have forgotten that more flies are caught with molasses than with vinegar. On the other hand, she might not have been looking for flies.

Speaking of poetry may remind the older folks of the poetical sums, problems, and riddles. A tinker himself, Uncle Hermon might have remembered the old “tinker sum” recorded by Frank Rogers in his Folks Stories of the Northern Border:

One evening I chanced with a tinker to sit,
Whose tongue ran a great deal too fast for his wit,
He talked of his art and abundance of metal,
So I asked him to make me a flat-bottomed kettle.
Let the top and the bottom diameters be
In just such proportions as five is to three;
Twelve inches the depth I proposed and no more,
To hold in ale gallons seven less than a score,
He promised to do it and straight to work went,
But when he had done it, he found it too scant,
Thus altering it often too big and too little,
The tinker at last quite spoiled his kettle.
He says he will bring his and promise to pass,
Or else he will spoil every once of his brass.
Now show your skill, you learned youth,
And by your work this sum produce.

And the tinker’s pot would be at times too small and often too large. What was it that the pioneer son wrote on his slate?

The tinker man’s problem I’ve failed to settle.
May Old Nick catch him and his flat-bottomed kettle!!

I am told by Effie Starkweather Warn that one of the favorite pastimes of a caller in the old days was to corner an unsuspecting child and say fiercely: “Spell circumlocution, Constantinople, archipelago, Popocatepet....” Also: “Where is Puget Sound? How much is nine times eight? When did Columbus discover America?” A family lost face if its offspring was not able to answer any and all questions the meddle quidnunes asked.

Mr. Henry W. Ciegler, one of the older School Superintendents of Jefferson County, let me borrow a clerk’s record, which Edward Evans had carefully preserved. This record is over a hundred and thirty years old. (Reference is made to this early record in Minutes of Meetings 1895-1950 for the Muscalonge School District No. 3 See Minutes of the Muscalonge School District No. 3 on this website.) Many problems had to be discussed at special meetings --- “appendages,” “rate,” “discharges,” “summer school,” and so on. In 1822 a “necessary” had to be provided. As far back as that, specifications were made that “it” should be ten feet long with a five feet wide roof to be shingled and sided “ruff” board. There must be a “petition” in the middle and two doors with “six-foot” posts.

Always there was the struggle as to who would bring the “fewel” --- in fact, there was more said about “fewel” and “vendue” than the “shollars” or where the schoolman or mistress was to board. However, in one entry the Board specifically designated that “a mistress be hired to keep the school that will bare inspection and that she shall board among the employers and begin to board where the trustees see fit and take them in rotation.” I can remember my Grandmother Dolin, who began teaching when she was eighteen, saying that even in Canada there were some places where she did not care to “board out,” and that she was always glad when it came time to board at “Rindy’s.”

In 1814, according to this clerk’s record, trustees could “exonerate” any person or persons in the district from paying his taxes “according to the law in cases of their being unable to pay the same.”

Evidently some “shollars” broke windows, for one action was to make whoever sends the culprit to school pay for the glass broken.

When it came to weighty issues like building a new school, Congressional votes were never more specific. If John Phillips, Solomon Livermore, or Erastus Potter voted “aye” -- “aye” was recorded after his name, and nobody could claim that he had voted “nay.” Not always were the votes recorded in this manner, but our pioneer schoolmen were not to be intimidated when it came to building projects.

As to specifications, no million-dollar building today is discussed any more than was the little schoolhouse in the Muskellonge District back in 1827. The record shows that the following specifications were voted:

“That we do not build a schoolhouse on the site where the commissioners set the stake last fall.

“That we won’t move the old schoolhouse.

“That we build a new school in this district provided the commissioners are agreeable to the petition in their hands<.

“That we plan the sit (sic) on the peice (sic) of land survayed (sic) by Mr. Waldo this day for that purpose.

“That we build a schoolhouse and finish it on the inside on the same plan that was adopted last fall.

“That the school house be ten feet between the floors.

“That if we build of stone the workmanship to be as good as E. J. Potter’s house, the front be coarst with stone not less than four inches thick, the front be of blue limestone.

“That if we build of brick that the walls be eight inches thick, that the doors and windows be cut stone, that the gabolends and roof be like a barn, that a stone be plast in the schoolhouse for the stove to stand on four feet wide six feet long.

“That the trustees are authorized to levy a tax sufficient to build the schoolhouse.

“That Nehemiah Gale collect the money for 1%.

“That the schoolhouse be finished by the first Monday in October next and the trustees are authorized to collect the money by that time.

“That the trustees get a new stove and the old stove be set up to the highest bidder.

“Stove sold for $1.25.”

Often the record urged that “good hard seasoned wood” be brought according to the number of “shollars” sent to the school. Indeed the “free holders and inhabitants” of that district had many problems; the book shows the preciseness and independent judgment of the Corneliuses, the Eliakims, the Daniels, the Ebenezers, the Shubals, and the Jothams, who undertook to provide “readin’ and ‘ritin’ and ‘rithmetick” for the pioneer child.

Books were important even in 1839, for a librarian was appointed at this school. But not until 1893 were there any recorded instances of funds appropriated for books; on August 22 of that year, the trustees voted to appropriate five dollars for “book or books” to be used in the school.

Teachers today think of school and military lore in terms of students who sat in their classrooms with them through the years: Smiling Al, now in the medical corps; Walt, whose plan crashed in a fatal bombing mission over North Africa in 1943; Bill and Bob, still fulfilling Uncle Sam’s requirement; modest, Fred, whose plane didn’t return to its base; scapegoat Wally, who cooked for the Navy; and other lads with their Silver Star pulling them up Long Hills---still others who tread through new wilderness trails.

Yesterday’s teachers also like to remember the human cargo that sat on long benches and recited lessons and spelled long words. Mrs. Jennie Hayes of Brownville used to recall one time “back there in Sackets” when she taught a chubby Italian youngster who became New York’s “Little Flower” ---bumptious Fiorella H. LaGuardia.

I am not interested primarily in the little red schoolhouse for its four walls, a pail-and-dipper, the tawse or leather strap, the barn red paint. To be sure, I have seen in another county the checkerboard schoolhouse that folklorists tell us about whose Board of Education disagreed so violently on the paint job that the school stands today in alternate checks of white and red.

Some people may be interested chiefly in the salary of the master. They will like to know that another entry of the clerk’s record states: “. . . voted to receive the estimate of the trustees of $120 for teacher’s wages including publick money . . . There shall be eight months of school.” Many teachers worked for less than this amount; I have heard of some who worked for two dollars a week. By this account one worked for $3.75 a week in the employ of the public. Not all these things count---primarily.

Rather, I am interested in the spirit that fills a human heart---that makes white whales out of black ones; victories out of Dunkirks; that makes a man able to break into virgin forests and clear the land for a living; that makes him able to handle flame throwers, muskets, packing boxes, lecterns, gavels, books, throttles, scalpels, hammers, plows, and ships; that makes school people turn their backs on more lucrative “propositions: than the training of boys and girls.

Through the lean and full, fat years there have been school men who have attained the million without the sacrifice of the unit. I can not take the credit or the blame for this study of the pioneer school of the Golden Rule Days. Historically speaking, those whom I shall mention are not pioneers---unless I may have the privilege of defining pioneer to suit myself, hurdling all the dates in the books. A pioneer, then, is one whose spirit surges beyond what is seen; breaks new trails through cool, stubborn forests; makes old trails immortal because he passed over them---triumphant in the face of defeat. I present four pioneer school men as examples to confirm my conclusions that the past is important only as it continues in the present.

A church was no place to hold Gary M. Jones’ funeral, and yet I suppose there were some who kicked, because they wheeled his rose-blanketed casket up the narrow aisles of the Watertown High School auditorium---not dignified, some said, but Mr. Jones died in the harness. I can recall the anxious looks on the faces of the students when the Board were bidding him in for a higher position in the city. He didn’t know me, but I saw him after school hours wandering up and down the hall, smoking his old corncob pipe; I suppose he was trying to make a wise decision. There was great rejoicing the day of assembly, after he had called order with the dark gavel, stuck it back into his coat pocket, pulled out the little black books and read us a Psalm---we said the Lord’s Prayer, and then Gary told us he guessed he’d stay on as our principal.

Let me, a Jefferson County enthusiast, go out of my own region to recall, the keen, orderly, mathematical mind of James Seymour Luckey, who refused an offer to teach at Harvard and cast his lot with a rather insignificant Christian college in Alleghany County. It was at Houghton College that I first me Dr. Luckey, who died during my sophomore year. I can not forget his smile nor his characteristic pose---thumb tucked in the armhole of his vest, head down, thinking, I fancy, in terms of infinity. He needed all four walls covered with slate, for he used to have to walk around the room solving one problem, beginning at the left, winding up over at the right, never with quite enough room to finish his calculation. How he would step back, survey the pretty figures, tuck his thumb in his vest, smile---look at the class---and say, “Now, isn’t that beautiful!” Art and science are not so far divorced in the minds of men like President Luckey.

Let me go again---this time into Tompkins County for my third pioneer. My manuscript was messy--full of carets, blocked-out phrases, and some that should have been blocked out had I been able to put better ones in their places. While waiting for the busy professor to return, I “took in” the revolving bookshelf near his desk. On one of the shelves I noticed the thick spine of a beautifully leather-bound volume whose hand-tooled inscription bore these words: A SCOTTISH MAN OF FEELING by Harold W. Thompson---written, I suppose, during some advanced study he had made at the University of Edinburgh. I looked at my manuscript once more. I have had the good fortune to study under Cornell’s man of feeling, not only a teacher but a fellow-traveller who points the way a little ahead of himself---and rag content---for the thousands of students who have known him. As a rule, automatic applause doesn’t follow college professor’s lectures. During my first year of graduate work at Cornell, while taking the “snap-course” in American folk-literature, I was impressed by what followed Dr. Thompson’s reading of the lonesome song “Southern Road” written by the colored poet, Sterling Brown. The spontaneous applause that resounded throughout the old Museum of Casts from a hundred and fifty pairs of hands can scarcely be called “apple-polishing” or “boot-licking.”

My privilege it was to teach for eight years under a man who began his career in a little country school where at times he had to carry the smaller children like Cora Case through the deep snow drifts. For twenty-seven years Frank E. Smith---or “Big Joe” as the students often called him---was principal of the Brownville-Glen Park School. Every boy today likes to tell Mr. Smith that he received the traditional annual “trimming,” but Mr. Smith doesn’t believe that he trimmed every boy that walked into his office.

I can still remember the teacher who had a little difficulty with a “maladjusted” little boy. She took the youthful offender to the office. Mr. Smith was quite busy with the monthly requisitions of us teachers. However, in a little while out from the office came Professor Smith---a twinkle in his eye---and at his heels the “little tyke,” grinning now, because he was going to help Mr. Smith carry supplies to the Big Teachers.

Few know about Frank E’s youthful escapades. To look at his stern countenance you’d never suspect that he had played “hookey” or had stolen watermelons. If you were to ask him about these escapades, he’d reply, “It takes a thief to catch a thief.”

I like to remember the small problems and confidences that he shared with the younger boys and girls. You might not hear the story about the little child who picked the attractive tulips on the way to school one Spring day. The irate owner called the office and expected Mr. Smith to put the posies back upon their green haggared stems. Mr. Smith used to have a lot of problems like this -- he could handle math and history, too, but it is a little more difficult to put cut tulips back on life-giving stems. All that I remember is that he took the little tot by the hand, walked her to the tulip house, and waited while the child asked the lady to forgive her.


Old Songs, Songs, Stories

From Rowena’s Column
North Country Life

HAVE YOU ever heard these saying that I found in an old scrapbook that belonged to Mrs. Lena Saunders Miller:

Whoever reads epitaphs loses his memory.
When children play soldier on the hillside, it forebodes the approach of war.
He who has teeth wide asunder must seek his fortune in some distant land.
A child grows proud when suffered to look into the mirror if he is less than twelve years old.
White specks on nails are luck.
To rock the cradle when empty is injurious to the child.

* * *

ERT GILMORE and Will Congdon had words. Words over an old punt that ‘peared to belong to both families. Back in the old days differences were settled, and Will Congdon says he well remembers the night he sawed the punt clean in two. Asked if he minded if the folks of the North Country knew about this, he declared, “Certainly not! We got along fine after that.”

* * *

MRS. MICHAEL BURNS of Antwerp gave me the following information: Outside of Oxbow is Pulpit Rock. It is a cliff seventy feet high with a hollowed-out inclosure, containing a granite desk resembling a pulpit. It was used, they say, as a place of worship by the early settlers. In this place, also, medicine men and seers of old are said to have chanted incantations long before Columbus sailed.

ROSS LOWE of Watertown remembers a story he heard: On the road to Clayton from Watertown there is a little shack that used to belong to a man whose name no one seems to remember. Years ago, when the land was first cleared, there being no horses in Jefferson County, this man traveled all the way to Utica to buy one. The country was full of bears, deer, squirrels, and pigeons---maybe elephants, too. One night after the Utica trip, the man heard queer tramping in the creek bed near his shack. He picked up his shotgun and silently crept toward the sound. The man fired and to his dismay discovered that he had shot that horse he’d traveled so far to get. From that day to this the creek has been known as Horse Creek.

* * *

MRS. JAMES A. BRENNAN remembers hearing her father-in-law recite the following ballad of tragedy, the details of which are distorted in Dresier’s American Tragedy. Mrs. Eleanor Waterbury Franz of Dolgeville has reported the story simply in the summer issue of New York Folklore Quarterly under the title, “The Tragedy of the North Woods.” Commenting upon the case, a prominent attorney in Watertown said, “Oh, yes. Isn’t there a tennis racket and some hair mixed up in it somewhere?” Herewith follows the ballad as Grandpa Brennan used to recite it:

The Grace Brown Tragedy

The trial at Herkimer is finished,
The scene has been closed at last,
The jury has brought in their verdict,
The sentence on Gillette is passed.

All eyes have been turned on the drama,
Watching the press night and day,
And reading those sweet pleading letters,
And wondering what Gillette would say.

Two mothers are weeping and praying,
One is asking that justice be done.
The other is praying for mercy,
Asking God to save her son.

He is in Auburn’s dark prison,
He will soon give up his young life,
Which might have been happy and sunshine,
Had he taken Grace Brown for his wife.

On that hot sunny day in the summer,
When all the forest was aglow,
They started out on their vacation,
To the lakes in the mountains to go.

But Cupid was too strong for young Gillette,
It was playing too strong with his heart,
The girl that was loving him dearly,
From her he wanted to part.

As they were seen on the clear crystal waters,
Of the beautiful Big Moose Lake,
None dreamed that man could be guilty,
The life of that girl to take.

Did she think when they gathered the lilies,
That grew on that beautiful lake,
That the hand that plucked sweet lilies,
Her young and sweet life could take?

But as the boat glided over the waters,
Near at the close of day.
He with the girl that did love him,
They drifted out on South Bay.

Away from the view of the people,
Where none could hear her last call,
No one knows just what happened.
But Gillette and God who know all.

* * *

WILMA HOOVER of Theresa, commercial teacher in the Clayton Central School and daughter of a pioneer family of Jefferson County, tells a story of her grandmother who remembered the time they lived on the Oxbow road in a log house. There were two little boys in the family: Charles, a toddler, and an older one. A panther also lived on the Oxbow road. One day the mother missed the other child. Taking Charles by the hand, she went toward the cornfield where her husband was working. No child. Together the parents went to the woods. There approached the little fellow, followed by some distance by the panther. Needless to say, it was a case of a little child’s leading; also an occasion for all to run quickly to shelter in the log house. They arrived just as the panther reached the door. Next morning they actually found claw marks about the door and window panes.

* * *

THE RED MORNING happened over 65 years ago. One farmer awakened his wife and asked her to hurry and get up to help with the milking. As the regular time for daylight came, the blackness began to be replaced by fiery redness. The sky remained dark and heavy, but the shadow on the earth was red. Mothers took their children to the chipyard to watch the sky. Everything, they tell me, looked as if you were looking through a red glass. The color gradually paled into pink; by eight o’clock (some say nine) the sky was natural. Mrs. Doris Hasner Conklin remembers her mother telling about this phenomenon. The mother talked to a Watertown attorney about it. He said that he was traveling in Europe at the time. Strangely enough, there was a volcanic eruption in Italy, which spread a red reflection in the sky there, too.


As nearly as I can determine it, the date of this strange occurrence was September 6, 1881. Mrs. Mattie H. Bergen says she was teaching at Perch Lake at the time. Mrs. Jennie Devendorf Phelps and Mrs. Fred Warn both remember it. The latter’s mother would not let her go to school that day.

Have any of our North Country readers heard of the “red morning”? May I please hear from you?