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?


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