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.            

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