North Central PA

Childhood Along the Susquehanna River - Part I
By Charles S. Franklyn



                          Take me back to the land of my childhood,
                            Where the river flows east to the sea;
                          Where I learned of the beauty of Sunsets,
                            Where sad days once enveloped me.

                          Take me back to the mountains and eagles on high,
                            Where at night the whitetails leap and run,
                          Yes, take me again back to that special place
                            Where the River swallows the Sun!

Life Along the West Branch of the Susquehanna River  
Childhood Horizons -

In the north central part of Pennsylvania is a desolate land identified on maps as Susquehannock State Forest. It is a mysterious, never-never land of forests, large black bear, whitetail deer and rattlesnakes. In its core wilderness, a few hardy Souls have managed somehow to eke out a living. Even today, the area is the most untouched wilderness in the Eastern United States. Few have ever discovered it and its rich history. It remains suspended in Time waiting for the bald eagles to return -- but no one, it seems,  wants them to come back!

This area forms a gigantic watershed that flows southward, gathering itself as it passes through the more benign Sproul State Forest into what forms the West Branch of the great Susquehanna River.

Flowing southeastward, passing such towns as Emporium, Renovo, Sinnamahoning and Scootac, the river makes an abrupt turn towards the East. It has no choice! There in all its Appalachian splendor is the mountain range called Bald Eagle. Located on the bend of the Susquehanna is a town called Lock Haven, once a thriving lumber town, a place inhabited by 10,000 citizens, more or less, depending upon the state of the economy at the time. The main routes of communications and transportation were the Pennsylvania Canal and later the Pennsylvania Railroad. In the days that I speak of, there were crank-type telephones in the better-off homes. One thin highway ran East and West--- Route 220. Roads were not too important then. No one left the area and very few ever had a good reason to come into it.

Just as the Mississippi River had influenced the life of a young Samuel Clemens,  so, too, was the less mighty, but magnificently picturesque Susquehanna River in my Life. With my Mother's help and that great river, I learned to appreciate and love a Pennsylvania sunset. Its reflection in the tranquil water -- as it dipped below the horizon each afternoon -- made it special and memorable. No two sunsets were ever the same. But, to my young eyes and vivid imagination,  the sun always seemed to disappear as if the river was devouring it.

Lock Haven is at the southern perimeter of what I often call the true Twilight Zone of America.  Not only is escape from the area blocked by the Bald Eagle Mountain range on the south, making it physically isolated, but it was and is today as remote as a modern Shangri-La. It is a land of usually passive, self-reliant people whose independence and love of country has no equal on the American scene. Principally farmers, they have been the custodians of a mountain, valley, river and forest domain barely touched and seldom influenced by modern times. You cannot avoid Nature's splendor in this beautiful place. It asserts itself everywhere!

Except, that is,  for environmental crimes against it by industries that had been driven out of the urban areas in the northeast.

Today (1994), Lock Haven-Flemington area is the site of one of the worst chemical dumps in America and a major SuperFund project. I remember well the grotesque images of thin, sickly men whose skin was a bright red and yellow. It was the price they paid to have a job at the aniline dye works. A man with a family will tolerate almost anything to bring home a paycheck
in this remote, usually economically depressed area.

It is in this valley, formed by the Bald Eagle Mountain to the south and the meandering Susquehanna River where I grew up, was educated, worked, married a lovely young lady name Kathryn and started rearing our family, a daughter and four sons.

When my Mother and Stepfather had passed on, I took my family "lock, stock and barrel" out of this area so that my children would become a part of a different, more intellectually energetic, more promising world. My wife and children can bear witness to whether that was a wise move or not. As one who waited for forty-four years to be free to do what I wanted to do, I have a somewhat biased view of the entire matter. At least, we know what's on the other side of the mountain! Happiness in America -- or the world, in fact -- depends on inner peace rather than where you are in terms of latitude and longitude.

To the east of Lock Haven is The Great Island, a body of land of approximately three hundred acres that forces the Susquehanna to divide into two branches. The Island had once been home for the native American tribe called The Susquehannocks. Regular flooding of the river had made the land especially fertile and it was ideal for cultivating corn, potatoes and tobacco, especially the latter. Access to the Great Island was provided by two bridges built in the late 1800s. The bridge closest to town was called the First Island Bridge and the other at the east end was the Second Island Bridge.

At the Second Island Bridge exit was the hamlet of Liberty, the site of three historically important structures: the Indian Trading Post on the south side of old Route 220, " a three story, seventeen room mansion" on the north side and the Liberty Methodist Church a short ways east of the bridge. Liberty, about three miles from the center of town and with the villages of McElhattan and Woolrich a few miles to the East, was home to me from 1925 until 1935. We owned the building, converted to apartments during WWII, until 1964.

The mansion was a rugged building with solid 18" thick walls of sun dried brick. Built between 1848 and 1854, this imposing three-story building had  2,000 square feet on each floor. Among its many features was a beautiful spiral staircase  It became my home in 1925. For all previous owners, with the possible exception of those who built it, the house had always been a White Elephant -- an economic disaster. Unique and a historical treasure of pre-Civil War architecture, the State tore it down to make way for a new bridge in the '70s -- an unnecessary and shameful condemnation that the local Historic Society should have stopped! When we sold it, so it would not set empty, we had hoped to return to it after retirement and fully restore it as a residence. Today, although we still own the original site of the building, state environmental regulations have prevented us from using it.

When the lumber industry thrived and the river would carry thousands of logs to the saw mills in Williamsport and points south, loggers would stop over in this area and enjoy some "liberty" or time off. Thus, the name of Liberty is believed to have originated.

Since it is not far to the East that the Tiadaghton Elm stood along Pine Creek, where on July 4, 1776 local free citizens called Fair Play Men signed a resolution declaring themselves free of British tyranny, I suspect that the name Liberty had a far loftier genesis. That independent action under the giant Elm, without any knowledge of what was happening that same day in Philadelphia, is testimony to how remote and self-sufficient these people were both mentally and physically. They had  created their own Declaration of Independence, their own country, free of England. Many parcels of land even today are held with deeds bearing the name of William Penn, the first grantor.

It is the countryside, the land and its People in and around the hamlet of Liberty that I want to describe in this vignette.
It will serve as the first in a series of stories in what I call the Living in America Series.

The Great Island and the Susquehanna are nestled against the base of the Bald Eagle Mountain. Almost directly up the side of the mountain is a rock formation which the local people have always called The Bare Spot. In an indistinct sort of way the rock formation, covering a number of acres, looks like the North American Continent. It looks down ominously onto the Great Island, a fact that gave rise to a legend as to how the rocks got there.

Legend indicates that when the unfriendly Logan tribe tried to attack the Susquehannocks, the squaws loaded their leather aprons with stones to be used in the attack. As they moved down the mountain at nighttime, a squaw's apron broke loose, spilling her stones and causing the other squaws to let loose of their aprons. The stones cascaded down the mountainside, spread out over a wide area. Having lost their heavy weapons, the warriors abandoned the attack. The stones are the size of   automobiles !

Delicious blueberries are abundant in this same area provided one is willing to deal with copperheads__a snake whose presence is detectable only by the odor of cucumbers. Beware ! Unlike rattlesnakes, they give no warning.

The Susquehanna was, and still is, a lazy river, two to four feet deep under normal conditions, except in certain spots where the Bald Eagle Creek and the Susquehanna join. The Point, situated at the southeast corner of the island was such a spot with swift currents and a depth of twenty feet or more.

The Point recalls a time and a incident of considerable significance to me. I was five years old when my Father took possession of the big mansion which he turned into a tea room. He named it Quigley Hall. Quigley was the name of the two unmarried sisters who were half owners of the large building. They owned and operated The General Store that served a wide area.

On the day we moved there__a Saturday, as I recall --  the 'Benjamin boy' drowned while swimming at The Point.

One of the boys ran into the village giving the alarm. The young man could not be found in the swift water. Andy Miller, one of John Miller's three sons was summoned. He was a well-built,  capable swimmer. Along with my Father and several other older men handling a row boat, Miller dove repeatedly and finally found the boy's body. He had developed a leg cramp and could not handle the swift current, his companions said.

They brought his body back to the village.  Since the boys always went swimming in the nude, my Father had placed his new coveralls over him. He was about eighteen years old. It was the first of four tragedies to occur in Liberty during my childhood days.

The Susquehanna was a "dead" river because the sulfuric acid from coal mines upstream had killed all the fish years before. But swimming and boating could not have been better provided one did not mind the occasional annoyance of sewerage. A choice swimming hole was located at the middle pier of the bridge where a large sandbar made for a comfortable though small beach. Young daredevils jumped from the bridge floor level. A few --- the more reckless --- boys would climb to the top of the bridge and plunge in.

"Showing off" among the young boys and other forms of brashness and downright stupidity, was a regular occurrence. These episodes influenced the younger children to try the same tricks once they reached the age of experimentation which seemed to be fifteen and up. These activities were part of the rites of passage into manhood.

Sometimes, those rites led to deadly results.

A widow and her teenage son lived across the road from Quigley Hall. I knew her only as Mrs. Chambers. Her husband had been dead for a number of years. The boy was part of a local group of boys who went swimming, boating and deer hunting together.  While returning from a hunting trip out on the Coudersport Pike,  the Chambers boy was "joking around and acting the fool" with his 12 guage shotgun. He was in the back seat in the crowded car, when he peered down the barrel of the shotgun. He had forgotten to unload it.  Suddenly, he blew his head off!

In those days, there was no counseling by psychologists. Life was simple and harsh. Foolhardiness and recklessness often carried a high price. Mrs. Chambers was one of the few people with whom my Mother had friendly contacts. They were both widows. Since my Mother was suffering the early symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis, she seldom ever left the house.

Before the devastating flood of March 17, 1936, the fields surrounding Liberty were  "happy hunting grounds" for kids looking for "Indian" relics. I spent many hours looking for them and learning the tricks to finding arrowheads, stone knives and tomahawks. Once the plowing or harrowing was done and a good rain storm passed through, I would go out to the fields  along Fargus Island Road (its present name) and find beautiful arrowheads standing up on small mounds of earth. The eroding action of the rain would expose the arrowhead. To avoid the strain of bending over all the time, I crawled on my hands and knees, sometimes completing only one row in a morning. The row was a half mile long, however__a long way to crawl !  I learned patience and concentration from such activity. As a young boy, unable to learn like others, I applied a similar approach to school work over the years.

Actually, my interest in Indian relics was sharpened by archeologists from Columbia University who lived at Quigley Hall the first year it was operated as a tea room and tourist home. Their excavations in the McElhattan-Woolrich area uncovered fantastic tools and artifacts that they stored on window sills, on the floor and under their beds.  As a young, detached observer and analyst of all this activity, I became an enthusiastic searcher until the summer of 1935 when I had to go to live with my Grandparents in Jersey Shore.

The arrowheads I found were perfect specimens.  I would frequently trade these beauties with Dr. T.B. Stewart, the local dentist who had a very large collection. I would give him perfect, black or grey arrowheads and he would give me a white arrowhead in trade. They were not as perfect as the black ones. But 'white' arrowheads were very rare.  His collection, I believe, was given to the Ross Library after he died. Some of my findings were in his collection. Most of my collection, stored on the third floor of the Hall, was stolen after I moved to Jersey Shore. Sad to say, every time the big house was vacated for a period of time, vandals broke into it and helped themselves. The prevailing philosophy was simple: "Finders keepers, losers weepers!"

This great, natural  treasure store of relics ceased to exist after the 1936 flood. Either they were washed away or covered by that flood, no doubt the muddiest in History. I remember vividly the damage caused by that flood, having walked from McElhattan to Liberty when the water had receded. Dead cattle were everywhere and chicken sheds from upriver, still full of screeching chickens, dotted the landscape. It was a 'true, no-man's land', unreal and pathetic beyond belief.

During these early years in this rich, natural world, I learned to work alone. focusing on things that captured my interest.  The Hall soon became a very busy place with cooks, gas station attendants, waitresses and hostesses handling an ever growing business. I was immersed in an adult world that had little time to notice that I was there.  Neat, in a way! Watching the behavior of people can be very informative. The experience shaped my personality, making me a detached, some say aloof, observer of the world around me.

A seven course Chicken dinner on Sunday was our specialty. I always carried chicken salad sandwiches in my school lunch. I traded them for baloney sandwiches!

Since my Father's Will could not be found, the Court's made me a half-owner of Quigley Hall, a distinction having very little practical meaning since it was never profitable, yet it required considerable time and  attention over the years. A far more practical settlement of the estate in which we retained the radio retail business would have been better for us since Mother was forced to run a business that served the Public, which  was not to her liking.  Its primary function was to provide a home and a small income for us and  later, my step-father, William Smart, who lived until he was 96. She passed away in 1953. She had been the first resident at the new Hamburger Nursing Home on Water Street.

The floor of the valley was barely one mile wide. On the north side, the foothills rose sharply for several hundred feet, leveled out briefly then climbed again to about about 600 feet. These were the north hills where people began to build homes as they moved away from the valley floor that seemed to flood almost every Spring.

Directly north of the Great Island was an excellent lookout point that I discovered when I was about 13.  It was a morning's walk. On an occasional Saturday, with my Mossberg .22 caliber rifle in hand, I would climb to this marvelous perch. I could see up and down the valley easily twenty miles and look directly into The Bare Spot. From that point, I could see the tree-lined ridge of Bald Eagle standing 1700 feet above the valley and even catch a glimpse of a rocky place said to be an Indian cave.

The Great Island spread out below, most of its acreage fully planted and green with tobacco. At the west end were the two Cress farms; at the east end was a large farmhouse and a sharecroppers house. Midway were two small farms, one belonging to the Sorgens, the other, Haze Dory.

A rather mysterious concrete block structure was located at the northeast side of the Island.  It was part of a new, experimental tobacco program involving Rustica tobacco. The processing plant would make an insecticide from the tobacco--an interesting application given the fact that hundreds of acres of surrounding land was planted in tobacco, a different kind, sold for human consumption. Before the insecticide project was fully underway, the building was destroyed by fire. Over the years, I have observed that perhaps the first form of "urban renewal' in this out-of-the-way region was a well-set fire.

The island was exactly one mile long and three-fifths mile wide. The bridges were quite narrow and as cars became wider, passing on the bridges became a problem. Many a timid driver would stop midway and wait for the other vehicle to pass. Many times, accidents occurred at the entrances to the bridges causing some very bloody scenes. The road --- Route 220--- was the only road east to Jersey Shore and Williamsport until after 1938 when 220 was relocated along the foothills to the north out of the river's reach. When that happened, Quigley Hall could no longer be a restaurant/dance hall and tourist home.

Actually, however, our place of business had been effectively shutdown several years earlier by the Dunnstable township citizens who voted to "dry up" the township, an action instigated by a group of neighbors intent on denying us a malt liquor license. Beer in a roadside restaurant was an essential beverage and most customers went to eating places where they could get beer. Nor could we lease the property to other proprietors due to the lack of a malt liquor license. This occurred in 1934-35. With my Mother now completely helpless, the Hall was closed. During these periods, the house was vandalized and everything of value taken from the house by 'local folks', as reported to us years later.

I looked forward to the excitement of watching the river rise to flood stage each Spring. Sometimes when the January thaw caused the river ice to break up earlier than normal, we would have a far greater scare : an ice flood! An ice flood is far more damaging, tearing away buildings, gouging huge holes in the land and carving away tons of topsoil that can never be replaced. When ice flows become jammed, the river stops flowing and the water begins to back it up! Within less than an hour or two, the land is inundated! There is no chance to escape unless you sit along the bank and listen and watch the ice flow--day and night! Those of us who lived by the river learned to watch the snowfall, the ice build-up. Each Spring we would have a personal estimate of what would happen. In time, river people develop an uncanny sense of what will happen when the 'ice goes out!'.

My usual routine during a flood alert would be to put a stake in the ground to mark where the water was, then check it in an hour and move the stake.  My Father had died in December of 1926, so this was one of many things I did that he would have done had he been alive. The men from the other houses would do the same thing, then we would offer theories as to whether the river would come over the bank and at what time. Albert Miller and I would meet at the river's edge and offer such theories many times.

He, his brother John Harris and Andrew all lived in Liberty most of their lives. Their father, whom I called Mister Miller, bought a penny box of safety matches from me nearly everyday at our roadside stand. He smoked a corn cob pipe and Prince Albert tobacco. He and Harris frequently reminded me that they could have purchased Quigley Hall for $500.00 at one time. My Father paid $3,500 and somehow in that oft repeated tale by the Millers there was more than a hint of sour grapes and envy.

Such emotions reflect in a man's eyes, a certain furtiveness, a mysterious glint. This strange unfriendliness and deception by grown men did not go unnoticed. I have seen it grow more and more in America as I grew up. But I saw it first in Liberty and wondered why. Is that what Freedom does to people: magnify their envy, their pettiness and sometimes, their hatred of one another? Over the years, as a writer and a business man who has traveled extensively in this world, I often wonder if there is not something wrong with the much touted description of our wonderful Nation: Land of the Free and Home of the Brave!?  There are many things, as yet, from which we must Free ourselves!

Today, our politicians are exploiting such sentiments and this kind of conflict. Ill will between our many diverse people continues to grow. We should be concerned! As a part of the human mosaic, each of us can fit into our place: a place of our choosing, a place of our Dreams.  Finding that wonderful place is the search each of us carries on as we make that personal  Long Journey to Somewhere!

Such sentiments and attitudes toward our business place persisted through the years.  Neighbors never patronized our gas station, stand or restaurant. We purchased many farm products from the local residents at premium prices. But they never reciprocated in any way. When we invited the entire area to attend -- as our guests -- the first authentic New England Clambake in 1933, not one of the hundred, who were formally invited, showed up.

- Part II -