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Hickory Hill, petrified bodies, and a birthday

A year or so ago, my column was scheduled to print on my wife’s birthday. So I let her decide on the topic, as an odd sort of birthday present. I told her I’d write about whatever she chose. This is called “Tricking my spouse into doing my work for me.”

She asked me to write about the Logan Mills covered bridge, and then when I got about three paragraphs in, she changed her mind and wanted me to write about a Henry Shoemaker story instead. Deciding not to scrap the original, I simply kept those first few paragraphs and then changed course. So if you recall a column in August of 2019 that started with a covered bridge and took a screaming left turn into folklore about fairies, well, that’s how that happened.

So anyway, today is my daughter’s birthday. So I made the same deal with her, because sometimes I just run out of ideas. And she requested a column on Hickory Hill.

Hickory Hill is a mountain up in Keating Township, largely settled by escaped slaves on the Underground Railroad. My daughter has always been interested in the Underground Railroad, so happy birthday, Tif. (Also she requested I make Yaka Meins for dinner.) Coming up mostly along the Susquehanna River, some of the slaves went north and made it to Olean, New York, but a lot of them took a look around Keating Township and decided that nobody was going to find them there, because it was so remote. As Keating Township even today has a population of like six people and maybe a few cats, they weren’t wrong.

Two of the early settlers were Jeremiah Gaines and George Schmoke, who escaped slavery in the south and hid out in present-day Clinton County. They married in the area, and George Schmoke and his wife Rachel had twenty-eight children, because recreational opportunities were not largely available in the township back then.

And that’s as far as I got in this column before my daughter read my new book, and said, “There were bodies that petrified here? Write about that!”

Like mother, like daughter. This will teach me a lesson about making my family come up with my ideas.

She was talking about Great Island Cemetery. Established in the 1700s, Great Island Cemetery was nowhere near the actual Great Island; it was along Bellefonte Avenue roughly between Highland and Pearl Streets. For over a century, it was a big burial area, the oldest and biggest in Lock Haven.

But by the early 1900s, it was in bad condition. It hadn’t been well maintained, and by 1918, the decision was made to close it up and move the bodies. City crews spent about a year digging and moving bodies to other cemeteries — Highland, Dunnstown, Cedar Hill, and Flemington all got some. And some didn’t get moved at all — Not all of the bodies were found, which means that houses got built over a few of them.

One of the unfound bodies was John Michael Conley, partner to the notorious villain Robber Lewis. Conley had been killed in 1820, and then later his body was dug up and his skull removed to be used for a Phrenology class. So somewhere up there is not only an evil skeleton, but a headless evil skeleton. If you live in that neighborhood, sleep well tonight!

But the ones my daughter is so fascinated with are Madeline Yost, aged sixteen, who died in 1896, and Catherine Baker Phillips, no dates listed. Both bodies were petrified. (My daughter loves true-crime shows and things like that, so this is not a big surprise.) The Clinton County Times reported on Oct. 11, 1919, “In the case of a woman interred eighteen years ago the petrification was complete, even the clothing and a corsage of flowers being in a good state of preservation. The body weighed about 800 pounds and much difficulty was experienced in removing it.”

So there you have it. Escaped slaves and petrified bodies. In my family, that’s pretty much all you need for a good birthday.

——

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 loulhpa@gmail.com or 570-660-4463.

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