Sunday, September 10, 2017

Henry Shoemaker: Folklorist or Fake-lorist?

The grave of Henry Shoemaker
Highland Cemetery, Lock Haven


A special note of thanks: Throughout this article I reference Lou Bernard, a Lock Haven resident who writes regional history for The Express and does wonderful tours of the town. I have had the opportunity to go on a number of his tours and have also had the privilege to do a number of programs with him. A big thank you goes out to him for his insight on Henry Shoemaker.

Resting in Highland Cemetery, at the top of the hill overlooking the West Branch of the Susquehanna and Lock Haven University, is a man who definitely left his mark throughout central Pennsylvania. His stories can be found through the region and many of them continue to be repeated over and over again, becoming a part of the region’s culture.

I arrived early one morning, having made the decision to park at the bottom of the hill and walk to the top; by the time I reached the apex I realized that I definitely was not as young as I was the last time I hiked up to the top. On a previous visit to Highland Cemetery, I met up with Lou who gave me the “Who’s Who Tour of Highland Cemetery,” and though it had been a couple years since that tour I definitely remembered where the grave I sought was located.

After catching my breath, I walked over to where Henry Wharton Shoemaker eternally slumbers next to his second wife, Mabelle. Standing in the grass, wet with the morning dew, I couldn’t help but recall the words that Lou had spoken to me a number of times: “Despite his flaws, you can’t say that he didn’t bring a lot of attention to Central Pennsylvania.”

Henry Shoemaker was born on February 24, 1880 in New York City and as a young man led a life of travel and adventure. After attending Columbia College, he served as a broker, diplomat, conservationist, historian and folklorist. His fascination for the history and lore of central Pennsylvania started with his memories of spending his summers at the family estate near McElhattan.

In 1902 he first published his first article, “The Legend of Penns Cave” and the rest is history. The popularity of the story had readers demanding more.

Shoemaker became a member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1915, serving as the chairman from 1924 to 1930. Also in 1924 he would help found the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, becoming its president in 1935. He would remain in that position until 1956. From 1937 to 1948 Shoemaker would be the state archivist and in 1948 he became the state folklorist, a position he held until 1956. Henry Shoemaker died July 15, 1958 and was buried on top the hill overlooking Lock Haven.

I grew up hearing the stories that Shoemaker had recorded. While I did not believe in all of them, many of them I knew as regional lore. Some of his stories had been called into question over the years, even from the time Shoemaker first published the collections. In the introduction to Tales of the Bald Eagle Mountains Shoemaker addresses the issue, admitting his own colleagues have been asking what is fact and what is fiction. To this very day, I still debate how much of it is fact and how much of it is fiction, in my own mind, there is much more fiction in his stories than fact, an issue I’ve debated often with Lou.

“There are a couple things you need to keep in mind. First look at the names of the people Shoemaker cites. For example, Seth Nelson was known for his unbelievable tales. The man could have caught a minnow fishing, but by the time he got home he caught a monster of a fish and everybody would believe his tale. To be honest, if you get rid of the stories told by him and John Dice we’ve tossed out most of the controversial Shoemaker stories,” Lou reminded me. Seth Nelson was a real person who lived in the mountains of Clearfield, overlooking the West Branch of the Susquehanna. Seth, like many of the early hunters liked to take real events and just stretch them a little. Please see note below about Seth Nelson.

“And don’t forget some stories, like “The Giantess” (Tales of the Bald Eagle Mountains) existed before Henry Shoemaker was around. I found reference in The Clinton Democrat about a similar statue being discovered. The man was good, but I don’t think he was ten years before he was born good,” Lou laughed.

“The best part of his stories is, if he wrote a place, then you know it existed at one time. If Shoemaker describes a cave a mile deep in the woods with a strange rock in front of it, you can bet there is a cave where he said it would be with a strange rock in front of it.” I had to give Lou credit on that point. 

Many of the geographic features Henry Shoemaker talks about actually existed and many of them still exist to this day. A vast majority of Pennsylvania’s forests, mountains, and parks were named by Shoemaker in honor of prominent Pennsylvanians. Shoemaker would eventually name a mountain after himself: Shoemaker Knob in Lycoming County. Please note: Some sources state that Shoemaker Knob is in Union County, but after carefully analyzing a number of topographical maps, I’ve determined that the peak is actually in Lycoming County, close to the border with Union County.

Despite all the good things he did, I could go on and on about the amount of “facts” that Shoemaker created: the Greene Massacre in Sugar Valley which he had a monument erected in memory of the event; the ancient rock fortress covered with hieroglyphic symbols that supposedly exists near the head waters of Moshannon Creek; the legends of Penns Cave, Woodward Cave, Veiled Lady Cave and Mount Nittany all come from Shoemaker’s works.

Lou and I have debated the subject time and time again as we’ve attempted to discover the truth behind many of Shoemaker’s works. Despite all the things I dislike about Shoemaker’s legacy, I have to admit there are a number of things I appreciate. Shoemaker was influential in the development of historical spots around the state such as the Conrad Weiser Homestead and scenic rest areas like Hairy John’s Picnic Area.

No matter what one may think about Henry Shoemaker and his writings, one thing is definite: they caught the attention of thousands. With each printing, more and more outsiders arrived in central Pennsylvania to see the places Shoemaker wrote about. The popularity of “The Legend of Penns Cave” was eventually expanded into a booklet about Penns Cave and more stories about the surrounding region. Shoemaker even created a tour book for north-central Pennsylvania entitled Eldorado Found. He managed to bring tourists into the remote wilds of Pennsylvania.

Whether I like him or dislike him, one thing is for sure: he definitely left his mark on the region.

A note about Henry Shoemaker’s tales: With Halloween approaching I’ll be sharing a number of his stories in this year's “13 Days of Halloween,” which will be posted throughout the month of October. Please tune in as I share some of this stories along with other legends and lore from Pennsylvania.

A note on Seth Nelson: In his stories that are told by Seth Nelson, I’m not exactly sure which Seth Nelson he’s referring to. It could possibly be Seth Senior or Seth Junior. Both men were noted hunters and tellers of tall tales. Looking at the time they lived, my educated guess would be the Seth Nelson who Shoemaker was talking to would have been the son who died in 1932, opposed to his father who died in 1905. But it is possible he was hearing stories possibly from both of them. Either way, both father and son rest in a remote cemetery along the Keating Mountain Road known as Nelsonville, a collection of homes that grew up around his own house.