Keating, PA

Keating in the Plush  by Georgo S. Furst


1953 - when you drive from Renovo to Emporium you go through Westport in three minutes, Driftwood in four. In between lies Keating which you never even see, because the new road curves around the northside of the hill above the river, cutting off the view of The Point where the Sinnamahoning joins the West Branch. Nor do you see the old Keating Hotel - About all that now remains of a once flourishing settlement.

But one hundred years ago - 1853, Keating was the busiest spot in West Clinton County - the Mecca for lumbermen, miners, hunters, river pilots, to say nothing of runaway slaves, mountain whites, back woodsmen; or of the Irish, German and Hungarian immigrants who came to work on the railroad, in the lumber camps or mines, and who stayed to prosper - to become some of the county’s best pioneer stock, whose descendents today are making good, for the most part in other localities - as Keating offers little incentive to ambitious young people.

In Linn’s "History of Center and Clinton Counties" is found the reference that Keating Township lying in the extreme Southwestern part of Clinton County was erected in 1844, but its history goes back to 1785, when as part of Northumberland County a survey of 285 acres was made for John Strawbridge of Philadelphia, who a few years later sold the land to Patrick Lusk, who in turn, to hold the land, sent his son and daughter to settle on it, eventually giving to his son the land on the south side of Sinnamahoning Creek and to his daughter the land on the north side. It is this small area that comprises the Keating under discussion.

In 1819, Martha Lusk marries John Kryder of Dunnstown. (Someone should write a book on "The Life & Times of John Kryder"; it would be a best-seller.) He was as great a character as Colonel Shoemaker’s favorite, Seth Nelson. Besides being a famous bear hunter, river pilot, mill wright and lumberman, Kryder was an expert carpenter. Many of the fine old buildings still in use along the Susquehanna from Renovo to Lock Haven are his work.

Kryder’s daughter married Wallace Gakle. The original house was swept away in the flood of 1847, but John Kryder soon built another more substantial one. That Gakle house and the hotel were centers for fun. The Gakles had a large family, both boys and girls, and there was always some activity afoot.

John Kryder’s granddaughter, Mrs. Kate Gakle Russell is now living in Williamsport and at 84 is still an astute business woman, continuing to look after her coal and gas leases with vigor and acumen. But perhaps Keating’s most prominent person is Kryder’s great-grandson, Wallace Gakle Clay, who during World War I developed the "tracer bullet" while serving as Army Ordinance Officer and specialist in the Small Arms Division. Colonel Clay who is now retired lives in California.

If this meeting of the Historical Society had been in the afternoon, in summer, Mrs. Russell and my aunt, Mrs. Lillian Merrey Purdy of Sunbury might have come in person to tell you, first hand, of the Keating they knew as little girls. Also Mr. George W. Armstrong, Centenarian of Westport and Pittsburgh, whose daughter married a Callahan, one of the more recent families to own the Keating Hotel, might have been persuaded to reminisce about early Keating.

At this point it might be well to mention that Keating was named for Capt. John Keating, a young Irish soldier who came to Philadelphia in 1782 with letters of introduction to Washington. One authority is Espenshade’s book "Pennsylvania Place Names" which states that Capt. Keating became agent and manager for the Ceres Land Company and bought 300,000 acres in Northwestern Pennsylvania, in the present counties of McKean and Potter. In fact, Capt. Keating named Smithport in honor of his banker-friend in Holland, DeSmeth of Amsterdam. There has always been a dispute about the correct pronunciation of the name Keating. The old-timers said "Kate-ing", not "Keet-ing"; no doubt like the English "Derby" or "Darby". At any rate the captain pronounced his name "Kate-ing". There was a little settlement (and still is today) between Kane and Mt. Jewett called Keating Summit. It never was a town but very early had a post office; when Keating in Clinton County wanted a post-office - the preferred name was already taken - so a substitute, Nasby, was chosen by Colonel Noyes, it is understood.

So much for the brief and sketchy background of Keating at large; now for Keating-on-the-Sinnamahoning, bustling pioneer center. You remember that Patrick Lusk gave to his daughter, Martha, the Kryder-Gakle contingent, all land on the north side of Sinnamahoning Creek. The land on the south side he gave to his son, young Patrick Lusk. This land changed hands after young Patrick sold out and came nearer to Lock Haven. Eventually it was owned by my grandfather, Joseph Merrey. We like to think that Keating owes its heyday partly to him, though historians will say that lumbering and rafting caused Keating’s rise to prominence.

To the best of my knowledge there is no one living today except Mr. George W. Armstrong who knew my grandfather as a young man. Colonel Shoemaker knew him but it was the Colonel who was the young man and Joe Merrey was about 55 and the Assemblyman for this district at Harrisburg at the time. He did some little kindness for Colonel Shoemaker and made enough impression on him to carry over 50 years, because when the Historical Society met at McElhattan in 1951 and Colonel Shoemaker found out I was Joe Merrey’s granddaughter, my stock went up 200%, and ever since he has occasionally sent articles and stories mentioning Keating and Joe Merrey.

In order to recount briefly the background of the man who, along with floods and log-jams, put Keating on the map, it will be necessary to shift the scene to the England of 1847 in late December, when Joseph William Merrey was born in city of Burton-on-Trent. The name Merrey comes from the Anglo-Saxon, meaning happy; it is spelled withy two "e’s", and is pronounced Merry, not Murray (Scot.). Little Joe had a fair education for 19th century England. He went to grammar school until he was twelve. At that time all the children had little jobs on the side. There were many ways to pick up a tuppence or ha’penny; helping with boats on the Trent River, holding horses for hucksters who came to market in the city. On rare holidays it was a memorable experience for the boys to walk a few miles to the woods which were said to be all that remained of Sherwood Forest, there to play with bows and arrow at being Robin Hood. (Hop-a-Long Cassidy was still a century away. ) Probably that was the beginning of Joe Merrey’s love of land, trees, woods, and of his passion to own many acres of his own. When he began to grow tall at the age of 13-14 he took on several jobs and saved his money. He was among other things a "tea-taster" for Hargreves Ltd., of London. He also worked in his uncle’s store. One duty of the store was to stand outside and "cry the wares". All his life Joe could rattle off a list of the things sold in that shop such as "Tripe and Trotters, Turpentine and Beeswax, Peppermint and Tansy". (According to Webster, "tripe" is the lining of an ox’s stomach, not very desirable meat, could also be pork. "Trotters" means pig’s feet, pickled or plain.) Evidently meat was meat, and nothing was wasted. Later on in Pennsylvania he enjoyed many Sunday breakfasts of kidney and sweetbreads which the butcher "threw in" free of charge, with the roast of beef.

By 1865, Joe Merrey had saved enough money to come 2nd class to New York. He was 17 years old, 6’3" tall, a nice looking boy with curly dark hair, and the beginnings of a beautiful moustache which he cultivated assiduously to make himself appear more mature. He had either self-assurance of ability because he promptly got a job with the New York Evening Post, and soon convinced the Post’s editor that he was a young man of parts, or else the other reporters wanted him to get such an impossible assignment that he’d fluke it. Anyway, he was sent to Harrisburg to report on flood conditions in the Susquehanna. It seems that an earlier flood in 1861 had done great damage to rafts and New York business men who had large lumber interests in Clinton County had lost heavily. So Joe Merrey came up to Lock Haven, then to Keating because it was there that logs, piled up for rafts along Sinnamahoning Creek, were being swept away.

He never forgot his first sight of Pennsylvania mountains and rivers, nor was he to see again as great destruction because the flood of March 17, 1865 was the worst on the Susquehanna until the St. Patrick’s flood of 1936. Not even the flood of ’89 did as much damage in general. Heavy snows in the mountains, early thaws and spring rains had caused the three chief branches of the Sinnamahoning Creek and seven tributaries of the West Branch to rise in a flash flood which swept away several houses and drowned much of the livestock in low lying areas.

Joe Merrey stayed at the Keating Hotel run by John Bailey and his wife, Liza. Bailey too had left England for a more adventurous life, though he wasn’t forced to "make his fortune" over here. Being the oldest son of a Country Squire he would have inherited a good estate in England. Instead he signed off to a younger brother and eventually came to Keating, bought Patrick Lusk’s land on the south side of Sinnamahoning Creek, built a hotel and store, and married a young German girl. Bailey, about 35, took a liking to his young, robust compatriot and let him act as extra helper in the hotel, and clerk in the store. Everyday the new arrival, Joe, telegraphed his reports to New York concerning the lumber business, the condition of the rafts and of the flood water.

The young rowdies who came to the store on payday soon found that when Joe was around brawling in the hotel was taboo. He had what is the equivalent of a right upper-cut which he had learned on the boat coming over, and with his unusually long arms, he had the advantage over a more sturdy opponent. Also while on the boat he had added ten years to his age and now was 27; no one ever suspected he was only 17.

For several years Joe Merrey stayed as Bailey’s chief assistant and continued to write weekly reports for both New York and Philadelphia papers, saving every dollar he could to buy land when it was offered cheap by the state.

There had been for years a lawless element around Keating, several peculiar so-called "accidents" had recently occurred in mine and lumber camps, but they were quickly hushed up. Bosses thought any man who came there to work should be able to look after himself. Men carrying money usually traveled in pairs, but for some reason one winter night John Bailey came home from Westport alone. He was waylaid, robbed of his watch and papers, and was left in a snowy ditch unconscious; he was found the next day but he lived only long enough to ask his friend Joe to look after his two little girls, aged 7 and 3. There was just one way to do that. Within the year, Joe Merrey married the young widow, Eliza Bailey. My grandfather was partial to the early American writers, Cooper and Hawthorne. He liked to say that he himself resembled one of the heroes in "Twice told Tales" who became clerk in a rich merchant’s store and "all else in natural succession". Practically overnight, at the age of 20, he became a husband, father, landowner, merchant and innkeeper. He kept his promise to John Bailey and took care of his family being particularly indulgent toward his elder adopted daughter who as a result of a mastoid became deaf at an early age. When the child showed a talent for drawing he sent her to art school. She did very well in charcoal and water colors, but Ella Merrey’s masterpiece in oils was no doubt her large 7 foot by 10 foot painting "The Prodigal Son" which was given to the Episcopal Church in Lock Haven and which burned, with the church in ’36 flood.

For eighteen years Joe Merrey and Keating flourished together. When the hotel and store burned in 1870 he rebuilt them on a larger scale and with better materials. Lumber was cheap and the sawmill at hand was owned by Noyes and Bridgens. His store became the trading post for that end of the county, providing everything needed by a miner, hunter, lumberman.

There was one popular "industry" he didn’t quite condone - "moonshining". He was no tea totaller but he thought the law should be upheld. Distilling whiskey was a chief source of income for some remote mountaineers who lived by hunting and fishing. Practically everyone kept whiskey on hand for snake bite and various other "ailments". The story goes that when one old-timer was caught by revenue officers with a barrel of whiskey in his house, he said, "What is one barrel of whiskey in a family with seven children and no cow?"

The Keating store was the Men’s Club and the children’s paradise, though there was little candy as we know it. The old fashioned "lick-rish" sticks, tough and bitter, made good "tobacco-juice" if properly hoarded in the cheek. Small boys could thus imitate the masterly "bullseyes" scored by their fathers in the saw-dust box at five paces. Or there might be copper-toed boots to look at longingly on the shelves , perhaps to try on and wear home. Only boots so reinforced were practical, and were for winter use only. Both boys and girls wore "copper-toes" as ordinary shoes were not equal to the rigors of Keating life.

The station at Keating was a business in itself especially after a railroad spur was added to bring down coal from the mountains back of Driftwood and Karthaus. A day and night operator, and a telegrapher were on hand, as well as several men called "freighters" to unload boxes, barrels, kegs and hogsheads of coffee, flour, sugar, molasses, and the other staples which came in bulk. Many ambitious young men came to Keating to learn telegraphy, often working in lumber camps during the winter, and usually going on to better jobs in Sunbury or Erie, taking with them a pretty wife from the Sinnamahoning.

In the 1870-80’s, education in Keating was a rather spasmodic affair. School was held for a few months in the Spring and Fall as deep snow made mountain roads impassable in the Winter. Most of the teachers were men. Their only necessary qualification was to be able to handle rough boys who were too obstreperous for "lady teachers". Then too the school, for most pupils, could be reached only by the railroad bridge, as there was no wagon bridge over Sinnemahoning Creek, thus the children had to compete with long freights on their walk to school. In spite of hair-raising stories concerning children caught on the bridge no one was ever killed "walking the ties", thought the morning session frequently didn’t begin until the trains had gone by. If the teacher was a bully, as sometimes happened, he took his spite out on little girls who being compelled to stand on one foot for "talking", often went home with bare legs covered in red welts made by a willow slip.

Before leaving masculine interests, I should mention Keating’s Silver Mine. All of the families living there in the 1840’s and 1850’s knew of it - the Gakles, Delaneys, Moores, Huffs, Nelsons, Keplers, Conweys and Callahans. It seems that around 1840 a dozen Indians or so came down the North Branch in canoes, beached them on "The Point" and took off into the hills up Moccasin Run. After a day or so they returned, each with a heavy bag on his shoulder, and asked Mr. Gakle’s permission to stay for the night beside their canoes. When one sack broke open, rough lumps of stone fell out, which proved to be silver ore. Many people have since hunted for the mine, searching every possible opening not only on Moccasin Run but on Grass Flat and Round Island Run as well. No trace was ever found but some strip miner of the future may find silver mixed with coal.

Now I come to my grandmother, Eliza Margaret Bailey Merrey. I wouldn’t feature her where it not that she added an "industry" to the above mentioned masculine prerogatives of mining and lumbering, and also changed and improved the economic conditions of Keating, especially for the women.

Were she living in this century she would no doubt be either a doctor or nurse, perhaps with her own clinic. In Keating which had nothing, she was the First Aid, Red Cross, mid-wife and for children often the undertaker. Many of the mountain people refused to consult a doctor preferring to rely on their own home remedies or on those of Liza Merrey. She grew her own herbs or gathered healing bark and roots used for burns, fevers, cuts, dyspepsia or gout. For bandages she always had a ready supply of old soft linen at hand and when she set a broken arm and bandaged it to splints the break usually healed perfectly. One day in a mountain cabin where she had gone with some of her healing oil for burns to try to save the fight leg of a two-year old who had stepped in a pan of hot apple butter, she noticed a box of dirty crooked sticks drying behind the stove. "We are curin’ ginsin’", the mother told her. "You mean those thick roots are ginseng?" asked my grandmother, as wall she had seen were small and thin. "Sure", said the mountain woman, "The whole hillside over yonder is full of it".

That was the beginning. Nearly all the hills around Keating had ginseng roots. Women and children could cut them with a small ax or sharp cleaver, wash them in the creek and bring them to the store, in trade. These roots were dried in the loft above the store for several months, then shipped to New York at $5.00 a pound. An exporting firm sent ginseng to China tin return for quinine. Many children had shoes for the first time with their ginseng money or the family had a barrel of white flour, or mom had new calico for a dress.

In the Autumn before the snow fell and in the Spring after it melted, Liza Merrey always kept extra bread, cookies and jam on hand for ‘twas than that the women and children came to Keating with "the mister". On this semi-annual spree, the family usually took the shortest mountain path to the railroad track, the older ones carrying the younger. The boys went with their father to the store and the girls with their mother to the hotel. The baby, and the one year old, and the two year old were given milk and put to sleep on a broad couch in the back parlor. The little girls had cookies and either played outside with Josie and Lillie Merrey or under the large "family" table in a corner of the dining room. Each little girl had a "stocking doll" with yarn hair and shoe-button eyes and a curled piece of birch bark for a cradle. The tired mother then enjoyed the luxury of tea and apple cake and a bit of "woman talk".

By 1885, realizing that with the passing of the county’s virgin timber, Keating’s commercial value was on the wane, Joe Merrey moved his field of operations and his family to Beech Creek. According to Mrs. Russell, Keating was never the same place after the Merreys left. She might well have added "when the shad and salmon left the Sinnamahoning, and the rafts disappeared from the river, Keating was changed".

That may well be, however, there are some deeply wooded areas around Keating which have never changed, which are the same today as in 1853. To such a Keating, the centuries matter little, for in the mountains "Time is not".


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