Monday, April 5, 2010

Albion, O Albion

          When I decided to visit Carl Carmer's home town of Albion, New York, it was with the idea of seeing if the place he remembered in Windfall Fiddle bore any resemblance to the Albion of 2010. For starters, I think this piece of Upstate humor is new.

Some things remain the same.

The Courthouse still reaches towards the sky made blue and light by the nearness of Lake Erie. 

The orchards still stand on the ridge north of town.

The Elba Muck of the drained Tonawanda Swamp and Old Orchard still makes rich farmland south of town. (Back in Ithaca I bought some onions grown there; they ought to be called Elba Sweets!)

          Missing were parts of the human landscape that I hoped to find. The Carmer family residence on Main Street is long gone: replaced by a drug store, which in turn sits abandoned for its new clone on the opposite corner. I went to the Mount Albion Cemetary with its fabled viewing tower, in search of the graves of Carl's friend Nikander Strelsky and his wife Catherine, whom Carmer buried there. (Strelsky figures in Carmer's story of the ghostly swans of Olive Bridge.) Search as I would, I found not a trace.

(All photographs by Lucey Bowen, 2010)


Tonawanda Reservation, Lucey Bowen, 2010

           Carl Carmer's chapter, "The World on the Turtle's Back," in Listen for a Lonesome Drum, is for many a beloved introduction into the world of the Iroquois in New York State. I could hardly hope to be recieved as he was by Jesse Cornplanter and the anthropologist William Fenton. Once, I studied anthropology with Anthony F.C. Wallace, who wrote extensively about the Seneca. I think about another literary observer of the Seneca, Edmund Wilson, who wrote about the Iroquois for The New Yorker in the 1950s, as they struggled with the rapacious plans of Robert Moses. 
          On a cold spring afternoon, I drive through the reservation. The hewn log houses, weathered grey and striped with white plaster, still stand, along with trailers and frame houses. What is striking now, however, is the incessant stream of trucks and cars arriving and departing from the gas stations on the fringe of the reservation. Cheap gas and cigarettes draw their white neighbors to the Indian Reservation. I remember the devastating role that rum played in the early encounters of Native Americans and whites, and think there is a certain justice in the gasoline and cigarette sales.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Geneseo-A Town on a Hill

          Carmer wrote "My earliest memory is of a cobblestone inn beside the waters of Conesus, a minor digit of the Finger Lakes about twent-five miles south of the city of Rochester. I was wakened in a second-floor bedroom and carried to a balcony outside a window. Below me, horses switched nervously under blue jacketed riders, and long eared dogs, brown spotted on white, padded about eagerly snuffling the ground. Such images lie far back in an adult's life; clouds surround them, then open only for s split second of sun."
          Carmer continues "I would be a man before I knew that these riders of the Genesee Valley Hunt has eighteenth-century prototypes, that the Wadsworth family, who organized the Hunt in post-Revolutionary times, had chose the blue-and-buff of Continental uniforms for their jackets rather than the conventional "hunting-pink," which former riflemen of of Washington's army might mistake for the garb of a British lobster-back."
          That contrast between fond childhood memory and adult understanding of social structure underlies Carmer's view of Geneseo. Carmer once remarked to a New York Times Book Review interviewer that after World War I, "I went back to teaching in Rochester, married a Rochester girl, and found myself in striped pants and a black coat, the superintendant of a Sunday school. To get anywhere academically, it seemed, I must be a community pillar, and I tried to be. There was nothing natural about it." That is why he took the job in Alabama which led to his best selling Stars Fell on Alabama. Returning to his mother's family near Geneseo, he was invited to ride in the hunt. He "considered the local fences, and rejected the invitation on the ground that I was leaving for New York." I wonder if it was the physical fences, or the social ones created by the Wadsworths and Chanlers, like something out of Gilbert and Sullivan, divorced from reality?
          My visit was anti-climactic: a mediocre beef-on-wick at the local deli, decorated with all manner of hunting boots and crops. What was the Normal School is now SUNY Geneseo, and students are more prevalent than foxes or hounds. And yet, the Genesee Valley still has its wide sweep of open fields bordered with streams and copses. But it was bitterly cold, and I didn't linger.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Ghosts of Dryden

          “Ithaca: 10 square miles, surrounded by reality.” So goes the saying among Cornell loyalists. If so, Dryden is part of reality, but it’s mythical territory to me. Carl Carmer describes his Griswold and Carmer grandparentt’s farm on the banks of Fall Creek, and the shores of Dryden Lake. 
          After a stop at the very active Dryden Historical Society, and armed with their map of the 19th Century township, I found at least one of the farms, I think. I also found the grave of Carmer’s Revolutionary War soldier ancestor.

          Thanks to the Historical Society, I gained some wonderful reading material that further explains Carmer to me. The best find was the typescript of the memories of Myron Carmer, Carl’s uncle on his father’s side. The Historical Society made me a copy of a typescript of this document which was sent to them by a Carmer descendent in Ohio. Uncle Myron wrote them down in 1934 when he was over 80 years of age.

            Myron Carmer remember the Civil War era and the involvement of the various Carmer and Griswold relatives, and many other aspects of 19th Century life in Dryden. What particularly interested me are those incidents which relate to places described by Carl Carmer in Listen for a Lonesome Drum.        

          Myron describes his Cousin Harriet who was sent away to Sanitorium in Dansville, New York. “This institution,” wrote Myron, “was owned by an eccentric man who called himself a doctor, and he called his place a water cure. He did not employ drugs but combined dieting, exercise, bathing and a daily devotional service with a lecture by himself, which every patient had to attend, as the means for getting his patients well.” Carl Carmer’s Griswold grandmother was “quickly converted to this new fad of curing the sick as soon as the young lady cousin returned in good health singing the praises of Dr. Jackson and the water cure.” This meant that Uncle Myron and Carl’s father, Willis, were raised on a vegetarian diet, hard crackers, no sweetened fruit, and two meals a day. This water cure is the Jackson Sanitarium in Dansville, which by the time Carmer described it in Drum, was the Physical Culture Hotel of Bernar McFadden. A few days later I drove past what is left of it, located above Dansville, on Health Street.

            Cousin Harriet’s “most notable whimsy” was Spiritualism, all the rage throughout the country at the time. Myron writes “Cousin Harriet was a medium. It began before she was married and before she had been sent to the sanitarium. She had a sweetheart whom she finally married, and I imagine this gift was one of the attractions she presented to this young man.” So popular was the movement that a hall was built in nearby Freeville for meetings and conventions of Spiritualists. After Harriet’s death in 1863, the Carmers lost faith and resumed eating meat. A few years later, Spiritualism broke out again in a haunted house in the neighborhood. Myron paid his ten cent donation and heard strange rapping and drumming.

            Myron writes that Dryden folk were not at that time acquainted with the goings on of the Fox sisters in Hydesville. I think I hear the echo of Uncle Myron’s tales in Carl Carmer’s accounts of visits Hydesville and Lilydale.            

A Pilgrim on Carmer's Psychic Highway: Palmyra

            Carl Carmer visited the Hill Cumorah for the dedication of the statue of Moroni placed above the spot where Joseph Smith said he found the golden tablets inscribed with the Book of Mormon. Carmer’s dominant thought was that to him a folksy, homey landscape, was to Mormons, sacred ground. The sense that this is part of a pilgrimage road has grown stronger since his visit. The Hill Cumorah has a solid granite Visitor’s Center with a larger than life size stature of Jesus Christ, multi-media maps and videos. Campgrounds and parking lots surround the steep drumlin which also serves as the stage for the elaborate pageant presented yearly. 

             Just up the road is Joseph Smith’s farm, or a highly sanitized version thereof, with a housing development set down next to it. Up the road is the old Canal town of Palmyra, where the print shop that produced the first editions of the Book of Mormon has also been restored. 

             At the crossroads in Palmyra, five large churches stand as proof of the competing religions that Joseph Smith rejected. Back down the road to Cumorah are trailers and other signs of the rural poverty that was his original birthright. 
          At the Visitor’s Center, I’m welcomed by Elder Hill and his wife. They ask if I’m a convert to the Church. I explain that my interest is historical. Tears come to Mrs. Hill’s eyes and she offers me a copy of the Book of Mormon. As I never met a book I didn’t find interesting, I accept. After all, I’m at the Hill Cumorah. For once in my life, I resist being a smart aleck. I don’t ask about Joseph Smith’s reputation as a forger and diviner that preceded his miraculous discovery at Hill Curmorah. I respect their deep faith.

            In the early 19th Century, Joseph Smith felt compelled to people North America with the lost tribes of Israel. In the 21st, it feels like the intervening centuries have aged the land. Story, sacred and profane, populate it for me. Thank you Carl!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Songs from Carmer's Youth in Albion

Count on Carmer to give us a little bit of ethno-musicology!

His Uncle David and the musical Adelaide play Schubert's Marche Militaire and Schumann's Traumerai, but the first tune they teach him is Pop Goes the Weasel.

Of course, down by the Erie Canal, he hears someone singing four choruses of "When I came to this wonderful country..." For the fiddle, his father teaches him Such a Gettin' Upstairs, Nellie Gray and Bright Mohawk Valley. At the commencement dance, The Houghton Brothers play The Irish Washerwoman, with Mr. Minette calling. As they return from the lettuce fields, Bob sings with the workers: Juanita, I Was Seeing Nellie Home, Wait for the Wagon and Sweet Adeline.

Bob dreams of being able to play Portland Fancy, Fisher's Hornpipe and Hull's Victory.

Finally, for Uncle David and Adelaide's wedding, the Houghton Brothers play How Can I Leave Thee, Maid of Athens Ere We Part, and Then You'll Remember Me.

Friday, March 12, 2010

A Labor of Love for the Town of Albion, New York

     In 1950, Carl Carmer published Windfall Fiddle. It was a prize winning children's book, but it isn't much read these days. "Writing it," he said, "was a labor of love." Frankly autobiographical, the book tells us a remarkable amount about Albion, New York, the Erie Canal town where Carmer grew up, and his father was Superintendant of Schools.

     Story-telling and fiddle playing, Decoration day at the Cemetery, the County fair, the volunteer fire departments, one-tent-circuses and peddlers without licenses constitute the social life of the town as the 20th Century came on and they made an impression Carmer didn't forget, even after a half century. It is the kind of place extolled by my patron saint of Upstate New York, James Howard Kunstler. It had a human scale.

     Carmer's avatar, if you will, is a young man, Bob Carson, anxious to earn money to buy a fiddle. His vocational sorties take him from one side of the town to the other. From the orchards on the ridge to the north near Lake Erie, to the black earth farms of the Tonawanda Swamp, east to the sandstone quarries of Medina, west to the fairgrounds and back to the Canal running through the middle of town, Bob maps Albion or White Spring, as he thinks of it, for the reader. After finishing it, I feel I have a mental map of the town. It's a world as adventure filled as any Narnia or Hogwarts.

     There's a kind of moral geography that runs through Windfall Fiddle, as well. After Bob has earned some of the twenty dollars he needs to buy his fiddle, he meets a mysterious vendor of patent medicine who styles himself an Indian. He's arrested for peddling without a license. If Bob will give him the money to pay his fine, he promises to return from Rochester with twenty gold coins. Motivated by kindness and his desire to have the fiddle without the work, Bob gives the peddler the money. Bob soon realizes that his greed had gotten the better of him.  I guess Carmer would have said that Bernie Madoff is as American as apple pie.

      Besides his father, Bob's chief mentor is a Civil War veteran and florist, a Frenchman, loquacious and sage. Bob enjoys Mr. Minette's stories, which teeter towards tall tales, in spite Mr. Minette's protestations to the contrary: "If it is not true, why should I be telling it to you?" Mr. Minette is Carl's muse; imagine learning the craft of story telling from a raconteur like him.

     The imagined town of White Springs has other characters, based on Albion's citizens. The Erie Canal had brought Italians, Poles and African Americans to the region, and Bob Carson seems to have made friends among all these communities. A fire at the lumberyard brings out three volunteer fire companies who engage in a water fight after their work is complete. The hero is an African American, Jake Garlock, whose full time job is as janitor at the bank. The 1910 Census for Albion lists 71 year old Jacob or Jaboc Carter, Black,  from Virginia,  as janitor at the bank.

     No doubt Carmer remembered Albion. I think it was the basis of his fundamental faith in the ordinary people of New York State. I'm going to visit Albion this March. Who knows what stories I may find?