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The justification of Henry Shoemaker

PHOTO PROVIDED This public domain image shows an illustration of Henry Shoemaker, circa 1914.

It’s been no big secret that I’m a fan of Henry Wharton Shoemaker, the writer and folklorist from Wayne Township. Now, I’ll admit that not everyone is a fan. He’s had his detractors. Almost every time I write about him, someone points that out. His biography contains this whole essay from some college professor trashing him.

The core of the controversy seems to be this: Did he make up his stories entirely, or were they actual legends, based in fact, that he wrote down?

Shoemaker himself claimed to have gathered the stories from other people — descendants of the Native Americans, old men from the lumber camps — and written them down himself. He said that, though he provided the occasional dramatic exaggeration, he mainly wrote them the way they were told.

There is a certain plausibility to this. He named a few of his sources, and they were often the kind of guys who told tall tales. One of them, for instance, was Seth Nelson, who also claimed that he was immortal, had gone blind and recovered his sight through sheer willpower, and survived being bonked in the head by an entire meteor shower. I mean, if anyone was making up stories, Seth Nelson is a good bet.

Were the rest of his stories based on actual legend? I mean, obviously they weren’t entirely factual, as they involved ghosts, curses, and healing springs. But could they have been based on something real? Let’s discuss it.

Feb. 24 was Henry Shoemaker’s birthday. To celebrate, I thought I’d try to clear his name a bit by comparing his stories to the history book “Otzinachson” by J.F. Meginness, which was published in 1888, when Shoemaker was a child.

Meginness lists some of the fascinating artifacts discovered in Clinton County, and it’s surprising how many of them match with the Shoemaker stories. On page 78, he writes about a sword that was discovered on the farm of a man named Callahan, near Pine Creek. Corroded and sticking out of the ground, it had clearly been there a long time. This coordinates nicely with Shoemaker’s legend, “The Sword Of Pine Creek,” from the book, “Indian Steps.”

In the chapter, Shoemaker writes of a battle between settlers and Native Americans, during which one of the men took off his sword and stuck it into the ground in order to pass as nonthreatening. The disguise didn’t work, and he was killed. Shoemaker even mentions that a farmer named John Callahan discovered the sword in 1850.

Meginness also describes a “remarkable curiosity” plowed up in Wayne Township. It’s described as “a female figure sitting on a pedestal, cut out of a hard piece of stone, about six inches in length and highly polished.” This is obviously a sculpture carved in the legend “Rock Of Ages,” also from “Indian Steps.”

The story is a sort of sequel to “The Giantess,” one of my favorites. The whole thing involves a Native American prince, his wife, a cursed statue, and the death of the prince. After his death, the local sculptor went to the prince’s wife and confessed his love for her, but was rejected. So he sealed himself in a cave and carved a small statue of her before killing himself. Shoemaker also writes about a man named Adam Steck plowing that up by accident, and donating it to a museum.

Now, I’m sure someone’s going to contact me with the theory that Shoemaker learned about these artifacts, and tailored stories around them. Of course that’s possible. But it’s equally possible that there were actual legends in the old days that sprung up around these incidents, Shoemaker heard the legends and wrote them down, and the artifacts are evidence of the legend.

Either way, Henry Shoemaker did something that a lot of people didn’t do, especially in his time — he documented Clinton County as an exciting place to explore, full of mystery and magic. And today, as the guy who does the same thing, I’m grateful to him — he left me a lot to work with.

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

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