Happy birthday, Henry Shoemaker

On a shelf at the Ross Library, not far from my desk, there is a set of books. These are filed under the “398” category in the Dewey Decimal System, sort of a catch-all for folklore. All of these books contain stories and old legends about the area, and they were all written by one guy.

And I’m wishing him a happy birthday.

The books were all written by Henry Wharton Shoemaker. Now, if you’re a regular reader of my column, feel free to skip a couple of paragraphs down — you’ve heard me mention Shoemaker before. If you’re new to my column, however, here’s the explanation.

Henry Shoemaker was born on Feb. 24, 1880. He was born in New York but had the sense to move to Clinton County as a young man. He inherited his grandparents’ home, which still stands in McElhattan. Shoemaker loved the area, and gathered old legends to write them into these books. He told some of my favorite stories about the area, stories that have led me into some cool adventures over the years.

It is worth noting that Shoemaker’s work has been considered somewhat controversial. He’s had his detractors. Some people have accused him of flatly making up the legends and not really recording them from another source — an important distinction, I admit.

I’ve probably studied Shoemaker’s stories more than anyone, and personally, I think he told the truth. I believe that he wrote them down as told to him by the people he interviewed. Now, some of those people were tellers of tall tales — men like Seth Nelson, John Chatham, and Daniel Marks all were known for stretching the truth and making up stories. So I believe that someone embellished the legends, but it wasn’t Shoemaker.

Why don’t I tell you one? You be the judge.

In his book “Tales of the Bald Eagle Mountains,” Shoemaker tells a story called “Birth of the Bald Eagles” in which he explains how both the mountains and evil came into the world. It happened at the same time, evidently.

In the story, the Native American tribes living in the Muncy area were content. They had food and water, they had a nice place to live. What they didn’t have was courage — they’d never had to. There was no evil in the world. There was nothing to challenge them. They’d never been tested.

So the Getchi-Manitto, which was how Shoemaker referred to the “Great Spirit,” decided to challenge them. He sent a Machtando, a great wormlike, horned demon, to prove their bravery. It crawled under the ground toward their community, pushing up the ground as it went. This is what created the Bald Eagle Mountain range, through Clinton and Lycoming counties. (For all I know, this is true. I’m not a geologist.)

One wise man gathered the tribe together and explained that they were going to have to show courage. They had never heard of such a thing, and he explained the concept to them. He said that the Great Spirit had created the Machtando to test them. They asked who had created the Great Spirit, and he told them to shut up and get to work. (As with almost every time I write about Shoemaker, I’m paraphrasing here.)

They built a spear. A giant spear, long and solid, on wheels, with a huge stone point. They put it into place, and when the Machtando broke through the ground, the people rammed it forward, killing the evil spirit and proving their courage.

“Let none of you forget the spear,” said the wise man, and it became a sort of saying.

That, according to Henry Shoemaker, is how evil and bravery first came about. Also how we got these huge mountains.

Shoemaker wrote down this type of story until his death in July of 1957. The last known photo of him was taken just after he had his second heart attack, when he was being loaded into the ambulance and actually took a moment to wave to the cameras. The guy had a certain style.

And he wrote down a lot of great legends and stories. I’ve basically spent a career being fascinated by them.

So happy birthday, Henry. We won’t forget the spear.


Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 570-748-3321.