A River Ramble

Saga of the Genesee Valley

by Arch Merrill

Originally published

Chapter Illustrations by
Gerald Maloney

Birth of a Ramble
Mountain Waters
Land of Liquid Gold
A Mansion and A Sage
Ghosts Walk Old Trails
Cinderella Story
The Pleasant Valley
Patricians in Pottsville
Welcome, Stranger
City at the Ramble's End


Arch Arch Merrill is a newspaper man. When you say that with the sincerity I feel, I think it is a compliment surpassing. He is no pet seal; no Fancy Dan. Just a newspaper man. But a good one.

In these days of curiously distorted values, when an ex-burlesque actress can write a terrible play and have Hollywood pay a king's ransom to produce it, when men who happen to have a mellifluous speaking voice, are accepted by radio audiences as seers and sages in the reporting of news that has merely been snatched from the teletype printers of the news services, it is heartening and pleasant to contemplate that some of the very best repertorial work is being done by competent news writers without fan-fare of trumpets. Arch Merrill is this sort of a newspaper man. He has worked well and often brilliantly at his trade-or profession-for years.

He has capacities, it is true, above the average. He is skillful in the performance of many jobs in a newspaper shop. He can fit into the city editor's chair or go out on a beat and be a star. He knows the ropes. He has learned his trade-or profession-well, and from the ground up.

In this series on the Valley of the Genesee which originally appeared in the Sunday Magazine section of the Democrat and Chronicle he has done, it seems to me, a little better than his best. He has made a familiar river a romance; almost an epic. He has given it a personality. He has endowed it with a heritage and cloaked it in tradition and told its tales with a story teller's art. He has dug deeply and conscientiously for his facts.

But, perhaps more than all of this, he has caught the spirit of this river, and caught it irrevocably. And to my mind, what he has done in this series is one of the finest things that has been done in a Rochester newspaper for a considerable time. I have read every line and every word of these stories with ever mounting interest, and I believe that you, who become the fortunate possessors of this little book, will do likewise.

I feel proud to be called upon to write these opening paragraphs of tribute to a fine newspaper craftsman and a fine book.

Henry W. Clune.

Birth of a Ramble

Birth EVEN my best friends laughed when I said I was going to walk the entire length of the Genesee River on my vacation.

Some said: "Be your age."

Others said: "You must be nuts."

They all laughed.

And most of them chirped: "You will never do it."

They were right. I didn't.

I mean I did not walk all the way. Oh, I made the trip all right, the 130-odd miles, plus some detours, from the source of the river, a spring in a farmer's barnyard in the Pennsylvania foothills, to its mouth at Charlotte,

The reason it was not a bona-fide walking trip all the way is because the kind-hearted people who live along the banks of the Genesee were so generous with their offers of "lifts."

At the outset I vowed I would abjure "thumbing;" would not beg a single ride. So I. walked to the left of the highway, eyes front, oblivious of the auto traffic. Maybe that is the best way to get a ride. At any rate, many times a car would stop and the driver would call out: "Wanta lift ?" Not wishing to hurt his feelings, I invariably accepted.

It was always the river dweller who stopped. All cars bearing M, B and S licenses whizzed right by.

Just how many miles I walked and how many I rode I haven't bothered to figure out. Few people in my end of the newspaper business are good at figures, anyway. If they were, they would be in some other business.

I do know that one hot day I walked, save for a two-mile interlude, the 14 miles from Belmont to Belfast, via the circuitous hilly detour to Belvidere Farms and Angelica. I also recall the more torrid morning I trudged the nine miles between Geneseo and Avon. They were the two longest stretches. Aching feet, like aching teeth, have a way of making their presence remembered. The walk is ended but the malady lingers on.

* * * * *

Curiosity is credited with the death of a eat. It has caused lots of trouble-and considerable enjoyment-in this world.

For eight years of my life I have worked "on the river." From the back windows of this newspaper, I have watched the changing moods of the Genesee. I have seen it, a puny thing in the heat of summer, barely covering its stony bed. I have watched it in the spring, a raging giant, tossing great cakes of ice on its turgid crest,

I knew vaguely that somewhere in the far Pennsylvania hills the broad river had its beginning in a little spring. I became curious about that spring and about the countryside that lay between it and the big blue lake at the city's northern gate, and about the people who lived along the river's banks.

So I resolved to go and see for myself.

And that was how I came to seek out the headwaters of the Genesee and to follow its meanderings towards the north star in two states and five counties.

* * * * *

I tried always to keep within sight of Genesee water although at times the highway veered away from the winding stream. I wandered away from the river to see the oil fields at Bolivar and Richburg and to visit Angelica, rich in its historical heritage.

All the territory south of Belmont was new to me. The rest of the country I rediscovered. Some of it I had not seen for years-and never on Shank's mare. I renewed some old acquaintanceships and made some new ones. I talked with a lot of people. Down along the river, they look you right in the eye and talk straight from the shoulder. But they are not too garrulous with strangers. For the New England strain persists, especially in the southern sector, where the hills are high and the valley is narrow.

One topic all would discuss was the weather. In some places the farmers did not want rain because they "had hay down." In others, they were begging for rain to freshen the crops. Universally they deplored the late, wet spring, the price and scarcity of feed and the shortage of help. This shortage was more pronounced in the Mt. Morris-Avon area where the field crops are heavy. In the dairy country to the south, the farmers don't crave help that is ignorant of the art of milking cows and handling horses.

The people of the Genesee detested the pleasure driving ban intensely, particularly in the part that is dotted with oil wells and where gasoline rationing seems such a mockery.

They don't talk politics much-with strangers. An overwhelm- ing majority of them are hereditary Republicans. No form of regimentation appeals to the independent spirit of the descendants of pioneers, who, through the forests and over the hills, along blazed trails and over unbridged rivers, came from New England and Pennsylvania to build their homes in the wilderness.

They wonder "what is coming out of Washington next?"

But they are deeply and intelligently interested in the progress of the war. The casualty lists strike closer home to the smaller communities than to the cities. A name on a casualty list is not just a name, known to only a small circle. It is a friend and a neighbor, a boy that everyone in the village knew. Just as they sorrow when tragedy befalls one of "our boys" so do they glory in their exploits.

These people would like to brush aside the bickerings, the confusion, the political maneuverings and echo the words of Douglass MacArthur:

"Let's get on with the war."

* * * * *

I had no thrilling adventures on my walking-riding trip. Even the dogs were friendly. Some of them barked but none of them bit. The only "dogs" that bothered me were the ones that furnished my motive power.

But there were times when I thought I might be picked up by the FBI and made to prove my identity.

Here is a word for those villagers, especially the little old ladies, whose stares of curiosity were not unmixed with suspicion:

The bald headed guy with the funny gray bag and the soiled shoes that once were white, who asked silly questions and stood looking at your old buildings, who sat in your village squares beside your Honor Rolls and Civil War memorials, sometimes scribbling on a pad, the Mysterious Stranger in Your Midst-he was no Axis spy; he was just a vacationing scribe.

* * * * *

Here are just a few random impressions of my jaunt along the Genesee in the summer of 1943 that will linger long in my memory:

The young deer that sprang out of the underbrush when Hubert Bliss, the Wellsville editor, and I were picking wild raspberries on the mountain farm in Potter County where "the water runs three ways" and the rivers start.

The constant chug of the engines pumping oil in the woods around Allentown and the oil wells in the churchyard and on the front lawns in Richburg.

The blackout in Belmont after most of the populace had put out the lights and gone to bed.

The flies in the village hotels-the rope fire escape in one of them (in case of fire, you throw out the rope and climb down on it) -the joy of tilting back your chair on a hotel porch with your feet on the railing just as years ago in your boyhood you enviously watched the traveling salesmen do.

My visit with Charley Whitcomb, the Sage of Belvidere, a scholar and craftsman with a remarkable knowledge of local history and an amazing collection of clocks, guns, pipes, violins, old documents and curios.

The fading glory of the mansion that Philip Church, owner of 100,000 acres of Allegany land, built beside the Genesee at Belvidere 133 years ago.

The old stable in Belfast where Billy Muldoon trained John L. Sullivan for his bout with Kilrain and the iron rings that still hang from its ceiling after these 60 years.

The tales of the old men of Fillmore about the days of the Genesee Valley Canal and the pine woods.

The wild beauty of the three falls and the gorge at Letchworth, now a "ghost park," thanks to OPA.

The trail along the Highbanks to Squawkie Hill that Mary Jemison, the White Woman, trod in the long ago.

The Valley of the Northern Bluegrass-mile after mile of Wadsworth land, dotted with stately oaks, the manor houses hidden among the shrubbery-the cattle and sheep and fine horses grazing in the tall brown pasture grass-the hounds in training for the hunt the historic countryside that has no counterpart in all America.

The ghostly pasture that was once fashionable Avon Springs.

The hospitality of Henry Selden at Elm Place on the River Road that leads to home and the log cabin and other treasures of the past that he showed me there.

The village editors who were so helpful and so versed in local lore. They know their own people as do the village clergymen and village doctors.

The friendliness of the people on the roads and in the villages all along the winding Genesee.

"I was a stranger and ye took me in."

Mountain Waters

WatersTHE city of Rochester grew out of a swamp.

The University of Rochester began life in an old hotel. The Eastman Kodak Company had its beginning in a kitchen sink. And the Genesee River starts in a barnyard.

True, it has its origin in a setting of rare beauty-green wooded hills, punctuated by cultivated fields even on the peaks, that are arrayed, tier upon tier, as far as the eye can see, like the phalanxes of a mighty army whose strength is "defense in depth."

The water that bubbles out of the spring that is the birthplace of the Genesee is cold and crystal clear. The swiftly running mountain brook it feeds sparkles in the sunlight and is full of wily, darting trout.

But nonetheless, the Genesee begins at the southern extremity of Merle Hosley's barnyard near the hamlet of Gold, Pa., 15 miles south of the state line.

I know-for a fortnight ago I walked down the cattle lane that leads to the side hill from which Genesee water first emerges.

The Pennsylvania hills were bathed in brilliant sunshine the morning that Hubert D. Bliss, Wellsville editor, and I drove into Merle Hosley's yard, seeking the headwaters of the Genesee, where I was to begin my projected vacation walking trip back to the river's mouth in old Charlotte.

Everybody in the neighborhood knew where the Genesee spring was. "Hosley's farm, second place beyond the railroad tracks," they said. The Hosley place stood out because the farm house was trim in a fresh coat of yellow paint and the barns were large and bright red. Too many of the farm buildings in the Potter County hills are sadly in need of paint.

Merle Hosley is no typical Potter County farmer. He was born on the place where his father lived before him. But he spent many years in many places in the construction business before returning to his native hills. There was an air of the cities about his brisk decisiveness.

"The spring where the Genesee starts? Sure, right down the lane there. I'll show you," he said.

He led us to the spring over which a wooden shelter had been built. Otherwise it was like hundreds of springs in the hills around Rochester.

But to me this was no ordinary spring. This was the headwaters of the river that flowed under the office building where I worked, more than 130 miles to the northward. I felt like Ponce de Leon, like Balboa, like Fremont, the Pathfinder.

Into my mind flashed a picture of the other end of the river-the wide channel where it joins Lake Ontario, the car ferries, the Yacht Club, the old lighthouse, the lift bridge, the sailboats.

There was a cup hanging by the spring. Bliss and I drank of the cold, sparkling water.

"It tastes better here than it would at the other end," I wisecracked. Bliss and the farmer grinned politely but feebly.

Right at its start, the Genesee is useful. A few feet from the spring the water is caught in a small, round, stone-walled dam whence it is piped to Hosley's barns and house. He has no worry about monthly water bills. The dam also supplies the nearby water tank of the Coudersport and Port Allegany Railroad at Gold station. The rest of the water forms the wild brook that eventually becomes the river Rochester knows so well, one of the few rivers in America to How northward.

"People used to stop by quite often to see the spring-before this gas rationing," Hosley observed. "Some of them were from Rochester."

Then he told of his scheme of converting the running brook and the natural basin through which it flows into a fish hatchery- "if I had the funds to start it." He said the brook yielded plenty of trout for his table in season. "Plenty of deer in the hills and in Pennsylvania a farmer can shoot as many as he pleases on his own land."

We asked about snakes. "This is no snake country," he replied, a bit curtly. "There are snakes, rattlers, too, in the mountains ten miles south of here."

* * * * *

Bliss, the blond, scholarly editor of the Allegany County Democrat, who had worked on newspapers in the big cities but returned to his native hills, proved to be a veritable mine of lore about the upland country. He told me about a nearby mountain farm that is the meeting place of three great watersheds. In his booklet, "Peaks of Allegany," a compilation of a series of articles about the countryside, he had cited this phenomenon.

He told how drops of water from a single rainstorm falling on this Potter County farm in the Allegheny foothills eventually reach the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. On the summit of this farm is the big divide that marks the line between the Atlantic and Mississippi drainage systems.

The water flowing down the northward slope feeds the Genesee, which finally reaches the Gulf of St. Lawrence by way of Lake Ontario. On this same farm are the headwaters of the Allegheny, which, coursing westward, eventually reaches the Gulf of Mexico after mingling with the Ohio and the Mississippi. And down the eastward slope run waters that through tributaries join the Susquehanna which empties into Chesapeake Bay and finally the mighty Atlantic.

A marker on the Roosevelt Highway near Coudersport tells the passing traveler that four miles away on a summit of a Potter County farm is the "meeting of three great water sheds."

An Allegany County scholar long ago dubbed the place "The Heads of the Mighty."

Potter County folk simply call it "the farm where the water flows three ways."

Merle Hosley directed us to this farm, higher up in the hills and adjoining his own land. The beginnings of the three water sheds, he said, are all in a radius of two miles.

So Bliss and I began the long steady climb up the hillsides, through underbrush and second growth timber, along cow trails, over barbed wire and stone fences, through rough pastures, in search of "The Heads of the Mighty." On the way we found another spring, nearly dry, which because of the contour. of the land, Bliss reckoned, must also feed the Genesee. We decided to stick to the one with the roof. over it as the principal spring.

Later on, I found there were at least three springs in those hills that vie for the title of headwaters of the Genesee. But the one in the Hosley barnyard is the one that immediately forms the mountain brook, that after a few miles, fed by tributaries, assumes the proportions of a river. But the East, Middle and West branches all share the glory of starting the Genesee on its northward journey.

After walking what seemed like ten country miles, we came to a farmhouse. As we scrambled, panting, up the hill (Bliss and I are both veterans of World War I and our wind is not what it used to be), a grinning, thirtiesh farmer greeted us with:

"Well, must be gas is rationed."

He was Charles Torok, joint owner with his brother, Albert, of the "farm where the water runs three ways." He was busy getting in his hay but showed us generally where we might find the headwaters of the Allegheny. By this time we had abandoned the Susquehanna contributor.

Bliss and I wandered over several more square miles of rough terrain but we never did find the Allegheny. We found a dry creek bed, Maybe that was it. Probably we will never know.

At the summit of the farm, Bliss, who is a "bug" on altitudes and who has an altimeter in his car, estimated we were at least 2,400 feet above sea level. In the Hosley yard where we had left the car the gadget said 2,200 feet, We figured the Genesee rose at 2,250 feet.

Lunch time came but there was no restaurant in the mountains. So on the way back to Hosley's, Editor Bliss and I picked wild raspberries and blackberries which grow in profusion in the woods. They were delicious-and we were hungry.

While we were thus engaged, I heard a crashing in the underbrush a few feet away. A young deer sprang out-a thing of beauty and rare grace. Rochester and its crowded buses and polluted river seemed far away, indeed.

Finally we reached the Hosley barnyard and the Bliss automobile.

Heaven knows how many miles we had tramped, looking for the "Heads of the Mighty." At any rate I had found the start of MY river. Bliss was disappointed about the Allegheny and the Susquehanna. I was, too tired to care.

So we drove back through Gold, whose name is derived from its early prosperity in lumber boom days, back along the wild and narrow brook that is the Genesee, back through the seemingly endless tiers of hills the 12 miles to Genesee, Pa., where Bliss had business. I was to walk the remaining 10 miles to Wellsville.

* * * * *

The Potter County countryside is one of the wildest and most romantic in the Alleghenies. There is a nearby community called the Irish Settlement where once everybody spoke with a brogue so thick you could cut it with a knife and where an Orangeman would be about as welcome as Himmler, the Hangman, at a memorial service of Yugoslav patriots.

Some superdillious New Yorkers have dubbed their Potter County neighbors "leek eaters." Leeks, which are of the lily family yet have a most unlilylike odor, grow wild in the hills. Bliss told me of the annual "leek dinner" served at Shinglehouse, Pa., which attracts people for miles around. The requisite is that everybody eat the leeks.

In Potter County the memory of Ole Bull, the great Norwegian violinist, is still green. In the 1850's the virtuoso bought thousands of acres of land in the Black Forest and founded a colony for his countrymen which he called Oleanda. On it he lavished much of the fortune he had amassed on concert tours. But the colony was a complete failure and only the ruins of one of its prin cipal buildings remains. It is called Ole Bull's Castle. The Black Forest is a paradise for hunters. It is notable also for its look-out tower from which legend states one can see three states. This, of course, is some miles from Genesee water.

The village of Genesee, about five miles south of the state line, has a chemical plant and a widely known furniture store. There a creek joins the Genesee and it is no longer a mere brook. It is a reasonable facsimile of a river.

There lives in Genesee a widely known and venerable fiddler named M. F. McCarns, called "The Ole Bull of the Genesee." McCarns owns a considerable geological collection, Although he has fiddled for innumerable dances in the mountain-river country to the accompaniment of "Swing Your Pardners" and "Promenade the Hall," he really prefers church tunes and is considered an authority on hymns.

He owns a violin that is the apple of his eye. On its back is what at first glance appears to be a painted picture of an Italian village. Closer inspection reveals it is made of cunningly inlaid pieces of wood in natural colors. It also bears the coat of arms of Italy and the carved head of a patriarch. McCarns got the violin from a doctor of violins, famous up and down the river, Charles Thurston of Transit Bridge. For years he tried to buy the fiddle from Thurston. Just before he died, Thurston expressed the wish that the Genesee man have the instrument.

McCarns thinks it is a rare violin. Its fame has spread. Rubinoff recently wrote him concerning it. Of course, the Ole Bull of the Genesee could determine its value by sending it to an expert. But he is an old, old man-and maybe he fears his dream might be shattered.

Days later when I ran across Charles Whitcomb in his "House of a Hundred Clocks" at Belvidere, 25 miles up the river, I found he knew all about McCarns and his fiddle. So the Genesee is after all, "One River."

* * * * *

When Bliss dropped me off at Genesee, I fully expected to walk the 10 miles to Wellsville. But some three miles out, a red haired young man hailed me. He was a school teacher in Genesee, working at the oil refinery at Wellsville during the vacation, and a companionable and understanding chap. So I rode on rubber back to Wellsville, Capital of the Oil Fields.

On the way we passed through the little village of Shongo, named after an Indian chief, and lying just north of the state border, Its chief claim to fame rests in a disaster that long ago nearly destroyed it.

Although Shongo nestles in the protective shelter of the hills, one summer's day in 1884, a sudden cyclone descended upon it from out of the skies. In two minutes, half the settlement was razed. Two stores, a blacksmith shop, a school house, residences, 26 buildings in all, in the path of the tornado, were carried away. The wind even picked up a tombstone from the village cemetery. Three persons were killed and 42 injured. Many of the injured were not found until the next day. Some of them were crippled for life.

* * * * *

Busy, friendly, prosperous-that describes Wellsville, metropolis of the lower Genesee. It is set in a narrow valley, hemmed in by towering hills. South Hill, which stands like a tall gate keeper at the end of its long, straight and not too wide Main Street, has an altitude of 2,300 feet.

It was named after Gardner Wells, an early settler. According to legend, when a group of 20 pioneers met to select a name for the settlement, Wells was absent so he was honored. Seventy years ago there was a determined but futile effort to change the name to Genesee.

The depression of the 1930s all but skipped this village of more than 6,000. For the revival of the oil fields preceded the slump and today, Wellsville, with its huge oil refinery and two other major plants, is a pushing, progressive town.

Over it is written in heavy letters the word OIL-but that is another story to be told in another chapter.

From my notebook I singled out some random impressions and facts I picked up about the Capital of the Oil Fields.

It has a democratic spirit-in the lobby of the venerable Fassett House, oil millionaires rub elbows with weather beaten farmers from the hills - three strains predominate, Yankee, German and Irish - there are many survivals of an old way of life - cheese factories, maple sugar groves - much talk of hunting and hunting dogs - Victory gardens, some of them reaching skyward up the steep hillsides.

A keen sense of civic pride was exemplified in the person of Bill Hanson, the old time baseball star who now works in the Postoffice. Bill resented the slurs cast on Wellsville by the New York sports writer who accompanied the New York Yankees on a recent exhibition game with the Wellsville Yankees of the Pony League. The scribe called it a "tank town" which the Yanks should have skipped. "What did he expect, the Yankee Stadium?" demanded Bill.

Picturesque Island Park, at the junction of the Genesee River and Dike's Creek, the latter named after the Yale College graduate who blazed a line of trees and built a cabin on its banks in 1795 to become Wellsville's and Allegany County's first settler.

The magnificent, heavily endowed David A. Howe Memorial Library.

Around Wellsville is the highest arable land in the Empire State. Fine crops of potatoes are grown at 2,540 feet, The Catskills and the Adirondacks may be higher but the Allegany County peaks are far more fertile and more settled.

People live to great age in those hills. Bliss told me of a woman still living at 102 on the far side of South Hill. His own grandmother died recently at 101. I told him of our Grand Old Man of the Grand Army at the other end of the river, James A. Hard, just turned 102.

And whenever I told Wellsville people I was from Rochester, they would ask: "Know Ray Ball? He is quite a fellow up there, isn't he ?" I told them that Raymond N. Ball, native of Wellsville, president of the Lincoln-Alliance Bank, regional chairman of War Bond drives and all-around civic leader, was indeed "quite a fellow" in Rochester.

I hated to leave friendly, bustling Wellsville. My visit there will always be a pleasant memory.

And I will never forget the spring in the hillside and the cold, clear water where the Genesee begins nor the mountain farm where the "water runs three ways" and the blackberries are so sweet.

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