The death of Henry Shoemaker

It’s been 60 years since Henry Shoemaker died.

I’ve written about Shoemaker plenty of times. It’s safe to say the man’s become something of a hero of mine. Henry Wharton Shoemaker, who lived in McElhattan, was a writer, folklorist, environmentalist, ambassador, and plenty of other things. He wrote quite a few books, available at the library: stories and old legends from Pennsylvania, tales of ghosts and curses and magical items.

A guy who loved Clinton County and wrote about the neat paranormal legends. You might be getting the idea that Henry Shoemaker and I had a lot in common.

If you pick up any three or four of my columns, chances are you’ll encounter Shoemaker somewhere in there. He told a lot of cool stories about the area, and I like to convey them to the readers. I have to mention here that his reputation has taken something of a beating — he has been accused of fabricating his stories. There may be some merit to this, though I really think the accusations don’t do Shoemaker justice. Shoemaker himself claimed that he wrote the stories down exactly as they were told to him by local men, and I believe that. Men like John Chatham, Seth Nelson, and Daniel Marks were known to tell tall tales, and they were often his sources. Someone may have made up the stories, but it likely wasn’t Shoemaker.

I’ve told his stories, written about his accomplishments.

I’ve never really written about the end of his life, though.

It was in July of 1958.

Shoemaker had suffered his first heart attack almost a year earlier, in August of 1957, and spent seven weeks in the Lock Haven Hospital. By October, he was doing better, so he was released to his second home in Harrisburg. This was when the final public photograph of Shoemaker was taken — on Oct. 16, 1957, he was being loaded into an ambulance to go to Harrisburg, and even took a moment to wave at the cameras.

He spent months recuperating in Harrisburg, but as summer approached, he wanted to come back to Clinton County and stay in his primary house, the McElhattan mansion known as Restless Oaks. He wanted to come home.

He insisted to his wife that he was well enough to come back to Clinton County. So he moved back to McElhattan, where his house stood. The grounds also contained a huge barn, which was filled with his collection. Shoemaker collected old artifacts, and often stored them in the barn.

Henry Shoemaker was proud of his collection, and loved to show it off. I’ve talked to men who grew up in McElhattan, and they tell me that they had to walk home from school past his house. Knowing that if he saw them out there, he’d invite them in to see his stuff, they’d all walk really slowly past the barn, to maximize the chances of that happening.

It was among this collection that he spent his final morning.

On July 14, he was in the barn, looking at his artifacts and books, when he had his second heart attack. He was rushed to the Williamsport Hospital, but died half an hour past midnight, on July 15, 1958.

The Express ran a huge obituary on Shoemaker, and he was buried at the top of the hill in Highland Cemetery. I’ve stood by his grave many times. During the cemetery’s fundraising tours in October, I’ve waited there and played the part of Henry Shoemaker, talking about his life as I pretend to be him.

As I’ve said, Shoemaker and I have some stuff in common.

Shoemaker’s grave overlooks the Susquehanna River and the valley he loved so much. He is remembered in local books, on the monuments he established, in my articles and public speeches.

And me?

We’ll just see. Maybe I’ll live as long as Shoemaker did, and maybe not. But if there’s an end to my story, I don’t need to know it.

Clearly, I’m going to die one day. I’ll have a similar story. But that’s for the future — for whatever young writer comes forward to document the local history after me. I’ll be remembered, I’m sure… But that’s not my story to tell.

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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.

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