North Central PA
Childhood Along the Susquehanna River - Part II
By Charles S. Franklyn
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Life Along the West
Branch of the Susquehanna River
Our shallow wells were always threatened by the floods. Sometimes they filled with mud and river water. But after the water receded, we cleaned things up and resumed regular business. Residents never gave any thought to asking someone for aid and money. After all, if you ask the government for help, it meant you were asking for assistance from your neighbors -- right? Mutual aid between the residents and the fire companies who pumped out our cellars was all it took in those days. That was all that was available. We cleaned up our furniture, hosed off the refrigerator and other motor-driven appliances, let them dry in the sun and went back to living.
With the river as a major focal point, a youngster's activity somehow always took him to the water, or in winter, to the ice for skating. One had to learn to test the ice in early Winter. It is a special skill if you do it right. The groans and sharp cracking noises would often tell how safe it was. Clear sections of ice could reveal its quality. Late on a very cold night, the river ice would crack loudly like a rifle, causing an sharp reverberation across the valley floor. If the river ice was not safe, I would use the old Pennsylvania canal which was full of stagnant water and relatively safe.
The canal also provided some of the best catches of sun fish I ever saw. Fishing was not a favorite sport of mine, however. Fishing requires a positive mental attitude toward unproductive time which I never acquired. A "catch" of a few good-size fish might have changed my viewpoint. We are molded by such inconsequential events.
Youth is a time for sampling, tasting and experiencing. As we emerge from that period of life, we have acquired many likes and dislikes. In spite of my Grandmother's pressures to fish Pine Creek, a large stream near Jersey Shore, I could not adapt mentally to its special demand for patience and passivity. I still feel the same way. My preference for hobbies was building model airplanes and short wave radios. It was those radios that taught me that another world existed beyond the Bald Eagle range. And a wonderful student-teacher, named Mr. Knapp, had pointed me in that direction. I wonder if teachers ever know how much they really do in this world! Or, did.
The trees in the valley are mainly deciduous with sugar maples, locust and water birch the most numerous. When I was ten, I decided to check on the making of maple syrup, a subject taken from a geography lesson at the Model School. There were three large maples on the river bank and I tapped the largest, installed a small drinking straw and set a scrub bucket beneath it. To my surprise the sap flowed freely. I took the first two quarts to the kitchen and Mother put it into a large kettle. I put the bucket back under the straw. Next morning, the bucket was nearly full of clear, water-like liquid. This sap was added to the kettle setting on the back of our large, oil-fired kitchen stove.
Unfortunately, I did not plug the hole in the tree and the following day I found it still running , but slowly. Actually, I had bled it to death. The tree did not look very healthy for many years. The following day my Mother showed me a small brown stain of syrup in the bottom of the kettle. The six quarts had produced less than an ounce of syrup. There was not even enough to put on one lonely pancake! The whole process, I decided, was a great hoax. You had to take far too much from the tree to make it a worthwhile project. There was a lesson in economics there but it took some years to understand it.
So much for science and enterprise, I decided. At ten, I already had the cynicism and curiosity which propelled me into some great projects and, at times, serious predicaments. Many of those incidents were connected to the Brown boys who lived in the Trading Post just across the state road. The most upsetting of such incidents was the day I dropped the hatchet on Robert Miller's head. Actually, the hatchet had fallen out of the notch where I had placed it. Meanwhile, Robert was trying to find a nail that I had dropped -- directly beneath me. I was perched on a limb ten feet above him!
The locust tree was a phenomenal source of indestructible posts and footers for sheds, in fact, even houses. The posts seemed to resist rotting forever. I find great interest in the materials that the Almighty places at our disposal, as if He consciously plans on what we will need. Many years later, similar thoughts returned as I wrote a science thesis on God's Great Easter Egg Hunt. Somehow, the thesis stated, the solutions to all kinds of human problems are within our reach, hidden there by the Great Engineer. Joseph Mayer's wonderful book entitled THE SEVEN PILLARS OF SCIENCE helped to inspire those reflections. Every child should read Mayer's book before he or she leaves high school. Earlier, in fact! Obviously, it is out-of-print today. I have two copies left.
As mentioned, the locust is a stubborn piece of wood. It is virtually unworkable with a knife. A pocket knife was an essential tool for a boy in those days. I managed to lose them quite often. Knives could be used many neat ways other than for cutting. It is unbelievable how many ordinary things could be used to consume time and teach us something. We had to make our own entertainment except on Saturday--movie night!
At an early age, I became interested in varieties of wood and the trees that produced them. As I would try to build boats and airplanes, certain woods proved to be more useful or workable than others. It seemed to me that people were also more or less workable or useful like wood. And I was in the midst of a virtual laboratory where I came to know all kinds of people. The greatest lesson I learned about People was their preoccupation with Wealth---especially the imagined wealth of others. That preoccupation established the social order and fixed the love/hate relationship between all of us. I did not like that part of my country because people seem too eager to believe others are more fortunate than they. Many among us bear heavy burdens and need our understanding.
Speaking of materials, I recall other plants that provided for one's ingenuity and filled many hours of discovery. The so-called "glassweed" comes to mind. The plant itself grew nearly six feet tall, but when new in mid-Summer it had a light green translucent appearance. The sturdy, fibrous stock was straight as an arrow and hollow inside. Using a section about a foot long, the hollow tube could be made into several interesting devices. One was a whistle or a flute-like instrument to produce musical tones. Another, an eighteen inch long shaft, made an excellent "pea shooter". We did not use peas as ammunition, however. A more plentiful pellet of ideal size was available from the Elderberry bush. Before the Elderberry ripened, the green berry__about the size of a BB__was as hard as a rock and could be blown through the "glassweed" blowing tube with great accuracy. We never aimed at people, only at targets of various sizes, creating our own kind of shooting gallery.
Every boy has an overpowering urge to throw stones, and fling objects at other things__a primordial urge. It is something left over from the days when survival required Man to be ready to defend himself against animals and enemies. I have often contemplated this tendency to reach out with projectiles as another peculiar need of the Human Being. It is our way of trying to extend our sphere of influence and, hence, exercise more control over the world around us. In the modern world, we fling words and epithets, baseballs, basketballs. golf balls, hockey pucks, and more. Remember the old saying: "The more things change, the more they stay the same!"
Once the ice "went out" and Spring began, there was one absolute sign that the new growing season was about to begin in Liberty. It was the shrill whistle and hissing of Floyd Waltz's steam engine. He would begin "steaming the tobacco beds" as soon as the frost was out of the ground. The steam destroyed all the weed seeds so that the fragile tobacco seeds would grow swiftly, free of weeds.
Floyd Waltz was one of a number of sons in the Waltz family. They lived in a large farmhouse about a mile East of Liberty. Nearby was one of the oldest, stalwart brick farmhouses owned by the Bairds. (It is now a Bed and Breakfast operated by Betty Marie Baird.) In that day, a hundred yards from Jim Baird's place was the one-room school house. The teacher was Betty Baird. Since I had started Kindergarten just before moving to Liberty, my Father took me to school, then spent part of his day at his first business, a radio retail store in Lock Haven. His cousin Roy Yoxtheimer, a technical genius, handled all the repair work. Roy later worked at General Armature in Mill Hall as an executive for many years.
On one occasion, I visited the one-room schoolhouse. The fact that I did not go to school there probably didn't "set well" with the local folks. It certainly was not a "snub". The following year, the school was closed and all the kids from Woolrich, McElhattan and Liberty were bussed to the Model School at the Teacher College campus in Lock Haven. Actually, the first Kindergarten was started that year and my Father was intrigued with the Kindergarten concept. Miss Himes was the wonderful lady and pioneer of the Kindergarten. She was the first of a number of teachers at the Model School who became surrogate parents as my family disappeared. Before leaving Lock Haven in 1964, I had lunch with the Himes sisters. Although my learning difficulties were never understood, the teachers in the Model School with a notable mention of Principal Allen D. Patterson, made it possible to achieve whatever it maybe that I have achieved in this long, very diverse Life.
When Floyd's engine trundled through Liberty enroute to Bob Miller's farm up Fargus Road, Spring was "sprung" absolutely and officially! Another, older man, named Sam Ramm, would help Floyd with the engine. If I ran too close to the wheels, Sam would scowl down at me and holler," Ya wanna watch out there, young fella, or I'll spit in your eye and drown ya!" He had a big chaw of Red Man tobacco in his cheek He would do it, too! These were real people, this was the real America were I grew up!
Yes, these were marvelous, genuine people. In fact, 'genuine' is an outstanding attribute of these folks. Honest as the day is long, you might say. But don't think they were not prejudiced and biased on certain matters. In fact, it was in this small farm hamlet where I was introduced to the Rich Boy/Poor Boy syndrome.
Of course, I didn't begin to understand it until I was about twelve. Although the 1929 Crash wiped out my college money and Mother's insurance money was gone by the time I was 15, the legend that there was "money in the family" never went away. In fact, it only got worse. I could never understand Mother's words on this matter when I would refer to it. She said:" Let them think what they want to think! You can't change people's minds!" I was in favor of trying.
I saw it quite differently. I wanted to be accepted on the same level as any other child. It was part of an early struggle with hypocrisy, dishonesty and fair-dealing with others. It shaped my view of the world. Prejudice and ill-will is subtle and mysterious -- especially to a child.
In spite of these conditions, I wandered through their fields, visited their homes, drank their buttermilk and sweet cider--- absorbing everything that caught my eye. In the Summertime, I would play with the other boys. The names of Boots O'Donald, John Navel, Charles, Paul and Jack Miller, Bill Johnson, Dick Waltz and Robert Miller, the Munros -- all come back and leave me misty-eyed. I never knew a bad boy that came from a farm life. Maybe we need more farms today. Maybe that's what has happened to this country. I did notice, however, that except for the boys who inherited the farms, the others went into non-farm work. There was a message there: farming is a rigorous lifestyle.
It was clear that I was not part of the small community life around Liberty. Even when I tried to attend the Liberty Methodist Church on several occasions. As my Mother fought the first effects of MS, she spent all her time trying to operate the business, which included a number of employees to supervise. Somehow, as "the kid from Quigley Hall"-- I was an "outsider". When my Father died and my Mother began her 23 year battled against Multiple Sclerosis, the chances of my assimilating into this environment were ended.
I had already begun a way of life that would become my role and relationship to others, even as I moved into the business world and later the upper echelons of American corporate life. I traveled within the "interstices" of an organization, an alert observer and an analyst of how things worked and didn't work. I had a hunger to solve problems and understand why things are the way they are. In Politics, as well!
Even though I didn't
understand then why they cooked the tobacco beds with steam, these were
exciting moments especially that hissing steam engine! In those days,
tobacco was king and the tedious process of planting, cultivating,
harvesting and packaging of tobacco began in early May. Since this farm
product dominated the activity surrounding Liberty in that day, I want
to spend some time on this fascinating product that provided an
excellent living for many farmers who also lived in the shadow of the
Bald Eagle Mountain.
Just as a river can provide a unique growing climate for grapes or fruits, the Susquehanna provided a perfect climate for a specie of tobacco to be found in no other place on Earth. The tough savory leaf when fully cured provided the best cigar outer wrapper to be found anywhere. Philadelphia cigar makers regularly trekked into this nondescript land to bid on the limited stock of this unusual tobacco. The tobacco auction took place in the large house near the Second Island bridge later named Quigley Hall by my Father.
In its original form, that building was owned by two spinster sisters named Quigley and a John Miller, probably an early member of the family that lives there today. As noted earlier, the sisters operated a General Store. Miller rented rooms to loggers and other travelers. The farmer's grange may have met there, also. Tobacco auctions were a highlight of the commercial activity in Liberty.
Northeastern millionaires who smoked high-priced cigars were probably never aware that the leaf that touched their lips was from the fields of Liberty. The popular perception has always been that only coal comes from Pennsylvania! Of course, the leaf inside was from Cuba if it was an expensive cigar.
In those days, I sold White Owl cigars for five cents each at our roadside stand. On Saturdays, we sold gasoline at 7 gallons for a dollar! Our Bar-B-Q sandwich cooked in a glass enclosed, walk-in cooking shed (to avoid road dust and dirt) cost 15 cents. Since you could drive sixteen miles (roundtrip) to the next Bar-B-Q stand and buy one for ten cents, the locals accused us of price gouging! When we converted from Sinclair to Gulf gasoline and put in electric pumps, we began accepting an Honor Card ---the predecessor to today's Credit Card. This was 1930!
When I was thirteen, I was given the responsibility to operate the gas station and roadside stand. It was my first experience keeping records, placing and receiving orders and keeping items stocked. But as the Depression deepened, business worsened and my Mother's incapacitation became complete.
Three years after my Father's death, she lost control of her hands and the baby grand piano fell silent. Both of my parents had a great affection for music. Forced to sell the piano when the government took over the house during WWII, I have never found it since, a considerable disappointment. I understand it is in Harrisburg , PA -- somewhere. In 1943, I sold it to Guy Brown, a second-cousin, who lived in Bellefonte, PA. It was a Baer Brothers 6ft. Grand with an excellent key-action or "touch". When we returned to the Hall in 1938, I began to study piano in my usual self-taught way. Although it was located on the third floor, my Mother could hear it as she lay confined to her bed on the first floor. Symbolically, her inability to play the piano -- which occurred on a cold day in December 1930 while playing a piece called The Wedding of the Painted Doll -- was the end of her battle to overcome the loss of her husband, my Father. It was also the beginning of her courageous. twenty-three year battle against MS, a disease that destroyed -- in those days -- not only the victim but altered the existence of the victim's family in ways that cannot be explained or ever understood.
In those days that followed, the large house seemed to grow ever more silent as I grew older. Before all these events, my sister, Loretta Jayne, my Father and my paternal Grandfather had passed away. Grief stricken, my Grandmother, having lost her husband and son within nine months, packed a satchel and left on the midnight train to Boston. She did not return for many years These poignant human events swirled about me. I could not comprehend them and understood less what the absence of a family would mean by the time I had grown up. At twelve, when Mother remarried, it was clear that I had to move through childhood at a very fast pace.
Though not evident to a
14 year old, my time in this great and wonderful learning environment in
the shadow of the Bald Eagle Mountain was coming to a close. The
Great Depression began to grip the nation as jobs, wages and business
activity slowed, then faltered. It would take a few more years for the
Depression to find this Valley 'where the River Swallows the Sun!
One tobacco farmer, Hans Fritz, ultimately bred the perfect seed "strain" and won State Fair prizes for "best tobacco" for many years. Fritz owned the land where I would go on Saturday hikes, that marvelous "lookout" perch. I tried to buy it years later but without success. Even today I look at it as I pass through the area, still envious of this lofty place where bald eagles once paused as they swooped back toward their fishing spots on Bald Eagle Creek. When will the eagles come back, I wonder? The streams are cleaner today and the great bird's population is growing. Where is my friend Socrates?
When Floyd Waltz had "steamed" a bed for about twenty four hours, it was ready for planting. Seed, taken from the previous years growth, would be sowed in the beds of rich, black earth and cheese cloth would be stretched over the frames. It was not long until the delicate plants emerged and when they were about four inches high, they were carefully pulled out and gathered into bunches and placed in boxes so the planters could handle them quickly.
The planting machine, drawn by two horses, had the driver topside, with two young men beneath, sitting side-by-side on seats that were barely an inch or two off the ground. A planting machine carried a barrel of water brought up from the river. Every evening, when the day's planting was over, Mr. Miller and a helper would take a wagon loaded with four or five barrels down into the river. They refilled them using buckets and they were ready for another day's planting.
As the "planter" moved forward at about 2 or 3 miles per hour, the boys would place individual plants in a slit in the earth made by a small metal plow-like device. Another device swept the earth back over the hole with the tobacco seedling held firmly in place. A small trickle of water would flow into the hole while this process went on. Thousands of seedlings would be planted in a matter of days. It was a labor-intense activity with the heavy work being done by a team of well-trained horses. Planting tobacco was not just work, it was a discipline. In fact, farming is a discipline. Therein lies its great lesson to young boys who were privileged to grow up on a farm. Without self-discipline, we can achieve very little in this world.
Mr. Miller lived in the third house out Fargus Island Road. He owned about a hundred acres to the north of Liberty. His fields were so close by, as well as his huge tobacco shed, that I could hear him shouting at his horses early in the morning. He would shout GEE and HAW, which was horse lingo for Left and Right. You didn't have to use the reins on a team once they learned those two words. The days were long, but when the initial planting was in, they could rest awhile before starting the relentless battle against weeds and the big green worms who savored the delicate leaf. Say what you will about the tobacco caterpillar and its voracious appetite, it is a beautiful creature!
Throughout the area, just as soon as Floyd Waltz and his steam engine completed "steaming" the beds, this activity moved at a fast and steady pace. My part in it was that of a young observer, eager to try this and that but, of course, too small ___and, after all, the "kid from Quigley Hall" known affectionately and otherwise as Junior just couldn't "cut it" because he wasn't a farm boy. I was a blue-eyed blond, a scrawny kid who never had any meat on his bones until many years later. But, no matter what was happening, I was close by watching and asking questions. This was my laboratory!
Most of the land to the East of Liberty was owned by the Ramms, Waltz's and Bairds. Ownership has over the decades passed on to the next generation. They still hold the land, a grip that has been made firmer by State laws that now prevent building homes along the Susquehanna. They have always been successful farmers and although they were rock-ribbed Republicans, the agricultural programs brought about by the Roosevelt (Democratic) Administration made them comfortable if not prosperous. Today, it appears that Pennsylvania is a Democratic Party state.
When I was twelve, I decided I would like to share in the wealth, also. I asked George Ramm for a job hoeing tobacco. For one hour of hoeing, I would earn ten cents, which was enough to go to a movie. He gave me an old hoe, took me to the field next to the Liberty Methodist Church and pointed toward the Canal, a half a mile away. It was a hot morning and by the time I had gone several hundred yards, I could see that I wasn't getting any closer to the Canal. I knocked a few more big green tobacco caterpillars off, squashed them and then came to a decision. At ten cents an hour, given the slow pace of the job and the need for some cold pump water, this just was not my day to enter the labor market.
Unable to find Mr. Ramm, I leaned the hoe against a tree and returned home. In the Army, they call it AWOL! A good hoer should never look up. It was that long, endless row that did me in! I never got paid even for the little time I worked though. Frankly, I didn't earn it. I remember George Ramm as a very fine gentleman, his family fine folks as well. I am sure he was much amused by my initially serious approach to becoming a worker in his fields! Diligence is an engine that is hard to start.
When tobacco is ready for harvesting, it is cut down using a special cutter. A sharp pointed tool is slipped over a wooden lath and the end of the stalk is forced over the sharp tool. The entire tobacco plant is slipped down to the bottom of the lath. Additional, plants are loaded, and when the lath is full, it is handed up to a man on a special wagon designed to take the load to the drying shed.
When the wagon is hanging full, the load is taken to the "long shed". The tobacco ladened lath is handed up from one man to another until it is hanging at the very top of the shed, perhaps thirty feet. When the entire harvest is in, the shed is filled with tobacco hanging upside-down and drying or "curing". The sheds have many hinged boards which are opened during the next several months as the tobacco cures into a golden brown shriveled leaf.
One might assume that this is the end of the process. Not quite! A tobacco farmers work is never done! As the Winter months begin, the shed is closed and the farmer begins working in the "stripping" room, a small one-story structure, attached to the long barn with a woodstove. The lath is brought down out of the shed, the stalk removed and each golden leaf is carefully packed in bales for shipment. The remaining stalk is put into the stove, thereby keeping the place warm, but also solving an obvious disposal problem. The smoke from the small shed permeates the neighborhood throughout the winter months.
Mr. Miller's shed was no
more than a hundred and fifty feet from Quigley Hall. Throughout the
Winter, I could smell the smoke from the tobacco stalks as it swirled
about the little village. By the time the harvest was packed and ready
to deliver, Floyd Waltz was out eyeing his steam turbine and watching
for the first harbingers of Spring, the orange-breasted robin. The
process would start all over just as it had for decades.
I have described in some detail the story of tobacco as I know it first hand. I did so for a reason. Some of you know my assertive position opposing the use of tobacco in the work place and in public places. I grew up at a time when few young men could avoid smoking tobacco in some form. Not only did I live in a village where the principal crop was tobacco, but I lived in a hotel/restaurant/dance hall where adults puffed on cigarettes night and day. The smoke filtered up into my room constantly.
As I watched them use tobacco, I could not believe how ridiculous they looked fumbling with the packs, the matches, etc. Every one of them had been induced into the use of tobacco when very young. It was a rite of passage into manhood, they believed. Eventually, they all craved whatever it was in tobacco. Once, hooked, few ever stopped smoking.
Even my Father, who was regarded as one of the brightest men in his hometown, had not been able to avoid "the vile weed". The habit was a contributing factor to his death from double pneumonia in 1926.
During the Summer of 1929, Robert Miller, a playmate a year older than me, and I decided that cigarettes and cigars must be a great treat. Since I had access to the roadside stand and gas station, I collected some Camels and several Blackstone cigars. We went to the Bar Lot and in two hours smoked all the items mentioned. He was ten and I was nine years old. I returned home, used a number of lozenges to cover the tobacco odor on my breath. My mouth was so parched I drank a tin cup full of cold well water, then sat on the swing along the river bank. Things began to turn fuzzy!
I was in bed several days
with acute nicotine poisoning. While Mother probably knew what happened,
she made no issue of it. The lesson had been a severe one. I had been
near delirium for hours but I insisted it was something I had eaten. The
event created a physical intolerance for smoke and the odor of tobacco
that remains with me to this day. This sensitivity forced me to avoid
people and places where smoke was present which had a considerable
effect upon my ability to mingle in social groups and corporate
When I completed 9th grade at the Model School, located on the campus of a local teacher's college, my Mother announced that they were no longer able to operate the business. My Father's life insurance was gone as well as money's invested for my education--the latter due to the 1929 Crash. At 14, I had several options: 1) Children's Home, or 2) go with them to a new town south of Pittsburgh. Quigley Hall could no longer operate without a malt liquor license, thanks to the action of the residents in Dunnstable Township.
Only one neighbor (Miller) lived near the big house. With their help, the voters had been persuaded to destroy our business by a couple who leased and operated the restaurant in 1934. When we learned that the couple misrepresented themselves, used fictitious signatures, the man was a fugitive in another state and they were not married, my Mother advised them the lease would not be renewed. In reaction, the pair aroused the local people to dry-up the township and destroy our business! Not one neighbor ever cared to know the real truth about the matter. Such is the behavior of people toward other people in the USA. Especially true, when neither side ever tries to develop some communications between them.
My Grandmother Kennedy insisted that I come live with them until I graduated from High School. However, I would have to find a home for my dog, Pal. It was a tough proviso. When you don't have many friends to begin with, giving up your best friend is not easy when you are fourteen. The day after I arrived in Jersey Shore, I took him to the Bobst farm located at the south end of Main Street. Yes, he became a farm dog and a champion herder of cows! He was happy there and a year later, when I visited him, he had forgotten me! Sometimes, a short memory helps, I guess. He had come from nowhere, a stray at the city dump. But he was as fine a friend as one could find anywhere! In my many years traveling in the world and associating with thousands of engineers, scientists and specialists in many fields, I found that most of us come into this world much the same way.
I began to understand the most important part of learning to live in this imperfect world: it is called "adaptability"!
Here, then, are the memories of a boy who lived in "the deep country', in the shadow of the Bald Eagle Mountain, where Man and the River still compete for the Land.
Childhood has many worlds, each with its own unique horizon. And each horizon defines the limits and possibilities of One's Present and One's Future. Such visions persist forever, worn and clouded by Time. They remind us where we came from and how far we have traveled, if at all. These are the images I still see when I remember a Susquehanna sunset and the Land that is no more! They are. in great part, the beginning of my Long Journey to Somewhere.
- Part I -