Oregonian: "Huckleberry Finn'

From The Sunday Oregonian, March 28, 1915, vol 34, No. 13, p. 10


Character, Made Famous by Mark Twain, Says Now He Would Rather Whip Fish From McKenzie Than Endure Hardships on Mississippi.

Eugene, Or., March 27 -- (Special) -- Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain's famous character, is 90 years old. And even with 90 years behind him, this robust old man, toughened to the fiber of old hickory, his eyes still bright and with the full vigor of a man 20 years his junior, recalls vividly his steamboat days spent with Mark Twain and Tom Sawyer on the Gray Eagle, the fastest steamboat on the Mississippi in its day.

He tells with a thrill of the great boat race as it really occurred, with Samual L. Clemmens himself, as pilot.

For 45 years Huckleberry Finn has been a character of the McKenzie River, in Lane County, Oregon. The entire McKenzie Valley has known him as long as he can remember, and the thousends of fishermen who annually cast for redside trout in its swift waters know Huckleberry. They have listened to his stories, and many have wondered if this character, B. F. Finn, is the same "Huck Finn" of whom Clemmens wrote.

To his intimate friends he tells of his boyhood days on the Missouri farm, near that of Clemmens, of his rough life on the Mississippi before and during the war, and how he finally crossed the plains and the Rockies to find himself on the McKenzie River without money and looking for a place to winter.

He tells how he lived by his rifle, sold hides in Eugene and came out at the end of the Winter with money ahead and so pleased with the McKenzie River that he made it his permanent home. Since then he has erected the largest turpentine factory in the state and sells the turpentine, rosin, and a linament of his own preparation all over the Pacific Coast. He also has conducted a hotel for years, catering to the fishermen who came from all parts of the United States.

Captain Hall Once His Superior

He was first mate under Captain Hall, whose death was noted but a few days ago in St. Louis, on the steamboat Shotwell, at that time, he says, supposed to be the fastest boat on the Mississippi.

Her time up the river was four days and seven hours from New Orleans to St. Louis, he relates. "We could go up the river faster than we could go down because if we got down on the bottom going up we could back off, but if we got stuck coming down we were there to stay.

"Clemmens -- we called him Charley -- was one of the Shotwell's pilots. We got in with Tom Sawyer and we bought the Gray Eagle. She was then on the stocks, building at Carondalette, six miles below St. Louis at that time. We fitted her up and ran from New Orleans to St. Paul. She ould beat anything on the river when we had her ready. We scraped her bottom and sanded it; we made her slippery, and we could outrun anything.

"Two years later we bet Captain Hall $6000 that we could beat him to St. Louis. We won, not because we had the fastest boat, but because Charley Clemmens knew the way. We took the cut-offs and came in two hours ahead. "I was 2[4] years old at the time. I got the name of Huckleberry Finn on the Grey Eagle in a little racket that happened ---". He didn't go into the details of this fight, but started again, "You see, I was first mate, and if anything didn't go right I was the 'huckleberry'. That's what we called a man who gets in between a fight. I jumped down from the quarter deck and knocked them apart."

Here the old man held up two mutilated hands.

Many Fingers Lost Sparring

"I lost many a finger and all the rest are crooked sparring on the boat if a man's going to hold a position as mate on the Mississippi he's got to know how to spar -- he did in my day if they got to fighting. You've got to step in and knock 'em out yourself.

"We stayed on the river until 1860. We were coming up the river from New Orleans, things were getting pretty rough, and we got as far as Cairo, when the Government confiscated her. It cost us $9000, but the Governemt gave us $12,000. But that broke up our business.

'Charley' Clemmens went to Denver and stopped there to write books and he didn't do much of anything else, I guess. Tom went up to St. Paul and lived there until he died. I guess he has been dead for 12 years.

"I don't know where he got those stories about Tom and I," he answered, as his narrative was interrupted. "He used to pick 'em up, I guess -- just something to write about".

But he got back to his story.

"In the war I serrved in the Mississippi squadron -- first on the Carondalette gunboat. It was disabled at the Battle of Memphis, and then I was transferred to the Great Western, and stayed on this boat as quartermaster until I was discharged. After the war I went home to my family at Kalamazoo, Mich.

"I stayed here four years and then traded my place there for a plantation in Missouri. I buried one of my children there, and then I said I'd skin out and get. I sold it for what I could get -- the last part of it I sold for a span of mules and a wagon and $1700. It took that to get here after I rigged up the outfit.

"We came up the Platte to Salt Lake, and came by Boice City over the old Barlow route to Brownsville. We came here in 187[0] and reached Eugene with six children, a wife, two mules, two horses, and $4.10. But I had my old needle gun -- it was the same gun with which the German's licked the French. I was the first on the McKenzie -- old Oregius Pepiot came the next Spring with packhorses.

Hunting Earns Livelihood

"I hunted all Winter, killed deer and hauled hides to the valley. I gave all the money to my wife, and at the end of the Winter she had $350, so we concluded we could live on the McKenzie. That was 45 years ago, and we're still there. My wife died there, and I'll be there when I die.

Mr. Finn has a large turpentine business at the present time, but he has his own ways of doing business.

"I don't ask anyone [to] pay me until I get ready," he says. "When you don't need the money, and can get rid of your stuff, sell it and get your money when you can."

For many years he worked in Eugene in the Summertimes, and hunted in the Winters. He says he built a third of the early houses in Eugene.

"It's a pretty life to look back on," he concludes. "In the Spring of the year we'd start for Lake Pipin, but many times we'd have to lay over at Prarie du Chien until the ice would melt so that we could get to St. Paul. The Carondalette was the second monitor ever built, and she was a dandy. But they punched her there at Memphis and it took the whole crew to keep her afloat. We ghot her plugged, though, and ran her up to Mound City, three miles above the junction of the Ohio and the Missouri. There were no docks then, and we hauled her up on ways.

"But I'd rather whip fish out of the McKenzie any time."