Saturday, February 20, 2010

Listening for Carmer, Part I

From East to West, Krebs, Physical Culture Hotel, Covenanters, Genesee Valley Hunt, Tonawanda Reservation

     Homer's Odyssey is the mother of all travel narratives, the hero's journey. After the Trojan War, Ulysses' trip back to Ithaca brings him to the many curious corners of the Mediterranean, and finally home to Penelope. Often forgotten is that Ulysses had to wonder again, further inland, before he was allowed to return home for good.
     Carl Carmer's traveler's account of the deep south as a foreign country, Stars Fell on Alabama, was an enormously successful travel narrative. Carmer was encouraged, certainly by his sister Katherine, and probably by his publisher, to apply its trope to his native York State. This he does in Listen for a Lonesome Drum, which purports to be the account of his travels after returning from Alabama to his upstate home. Drum doesn't disappoint, informing the reader of the folkways of Upstate New Yorkers from one end of the Erie Canal to the other, and from the Adirondacks to the Helderbergs.
     I'm curious to know what remains. A Carl Carmer Road Trip is called for. Drums is our guide, the internet, our vehicle for this expedition. Carl might approve, as long as we did the driving.
    "I passed another lake, Skaneateles, and rolled to a stop at a curb where dozens of cars had already drawn up. Eagerly I sought the door of a pleasant white house set in a row of others a quarter-mile away from the water. In front of it hung a simple sign-but all habitual travelers of York State know that here is the spot where the poetry of the countryside is to be forsaken for that of cruisine." Carmer is speaking of Krebs, established in 1899. His description of the upstate food they cooked the upstate way makes your mouth water, even across the years. Between May and October, Krebs serves that same traditional meal, family style, from a buffet cart: prime rib, fried chicken, two kinds of potatoes, gravy, with homemade pies, brownies and sherbet for desert. Or at least it has for the seventy three years since Carmer visited. In December, 2009, the restaurant was put up for sale. It has had only three owners: the Krebs, their adopted son Fred Perkins, and Jan and Jerry Loveless. The Lovelesses want to retire, but hope the new owner will keep Krebs as its been for more than 100 years. In truth, some reviewers of the restaurant don't care for its timeless cuisine, but I would love to relive Carmer's meal. (The asking price is less than two million, and that includes the restaurant, two other houses and two and a half acres. Contact Linda Roche if you are interested.)
     Thus sated, Carmer heads west to his sister's home. Other peregrinations take him south to the hills above Hemlock Lake, where the weird Caleboguers were said to live. Northwest of Conesus Lake another group, the Covenanters, who hold to the religion of the Second Reformation in Scotland, and took refuge first in Ireland before settling around Caldonia, NY. The Presbyterian Stone Church there seems a fitting trace of their steadfastness.
     Carmer himself acknowledges that the most picturesque of dwellers around Geneseo are the scant circle of landowning families, the Wadsworths, the Chanlers, the Stowes, the Chandlers and so on. He describes them as avid hunters. "In hunting season," he writes, "the valley distances echo the sound of the horn, the pink coats glow through the morning mists." "The whole relationship between the landed gentry and the countryside is cordial and amusing," Carmer continues, "but a little as if it were the creation of Gilbert and Sullivan."
      Can such traditions continue into the 21st Century? Why yes, in 2010, the 134th season of the Genesee Valley Hunt will open as usual in September, at one of the manors, The Homestead, that Carmer describes. Presumably, it will again be led by a member of one of the landowning families. As in years past, the Valley will give the impression of "divorce from the rest of living."

     Even older than the Genesee Valley Hunt is the Tonawanda Indian Reservation. Carmer seems to have stayed there for several weeks, and describes the dances he witnessed. He went there at the invitation of Chief Jesse Cornplanter, a most remarkable man, a pivotal figure in 20th Century Indian affairs. Whatever you may think of Carmer's techniques as a folklorist, ethnologist or historian, he conveys in these chapters his appreciation of being invited into the Seneca world, as well as the immediacy of what he saw and felt. An artist and author, Jesse Cornplanter was the last direct descendent of Cornplanter, Seneca war-chief. After the American Revolution, and with his half-brother, Handsome Lake, Cornplanter tried to lead the Iroquois to return to traditional Indian ways of life and ceremony. In spite of the best efforts of some of those landowners in the Genesee Valley Hunt, the Seneca managed to hold onto some of their land and avoid removal to Kansas. In his own time Jesse Cornplanter served both the United States, in World War II, and the Iroquois nation, by documenting and preserving traditions. How to recapture Carmer's experiences with Cornplanter? You could visit the New York State Library, where Cornplanter's drawings are kept. Or you could visit the Four Corners Cemetery, on the Reservation, where he's buried.
     The last stop on this Carmer Road Trip will be the place Carmer passed on his way to Chautauqua. "I had stopped for lunch at the dignified old red brick building on the side of the great hill that rises above Dansville. It is one of the earliest recollections of my childhood, this long many-windowed institution which adults call the Jackson Sanitorium." He soon discovers that it has become the Physical Culture Hotel, under the direction of one Bernarr MacFadden, the Jack LaLanne of his day. Carmer found the guests a little too enthusiastic. The hotel-spa closed in 1971, and in spite of rumors of restoration , appears in this picture from Google maps, a ruin.

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