By Gardner S. Dresser
Taken from the December 1, 1956 issue of “The Rural New Yorker”
In the 1880’s, my brother and I had the rather unusual experience of being city boys who became country boys in the Summer. Every year we went to Angelica, a small town in southwestern New York State, a place near nowhere, a place without summer boarders. To be more specific, we went to Joncy Mills, a village on the outskirts of Angelica.
In later years, we learned that Angelica was settled in 1805 and that it was given its happy name by one John B. Church, who named it after his wife, the oldest daughter of General Philip Schuyler. Joncy was named by my maternal grandfather, John Olmsted, whose oldest son was John C. Olmsted. The settlement was started by my grandfather with the erection of a paper mill which was still operating when we boys went to John cy. The mill was powered by steam and obtained its water from the millrace leading from the dam upstream. Opposite the paper mill was Solon Clapp’s sawmill.
Though we had relatives in Joncy, we stayed at the house of Henry Blickwede, the father of Maria, the nurse who had brought us. Pa Bickie, Ma Bickie, and their family were the salt of the earth. They couldn’t do enough for us boys. In turn, they seemed to like having us with them.
One day, Pa Bickie came up from the garden. Fritz, the dog, welcomed him by vigorously wagging his tail and then by running around him in rapid circles. Pa Bickie playfully kicked at Fritz. His boot came off and flew into the air. Fritz grabbed it and continued to run in circles with the boot in his mouth. When Pa Bickie finally rescued his boot, he was breathless.
“Drat that dog,” he panted. “Hello, what you boys doing? Going fishing?”
When we told him we were, he said, “got your worms yet?”
As we had not, he asked, “Come along, I’ll show you where there are lots of nightwalkers.”
When we had dug up enough of those grandfather angleworms, Pa Bickie hung around. And when, taking the hint, we suggested that he go fishing with us, he jumped at the invitation.
“Got nothing to do and my old pole’s right here. Let’s go” he chuckled.
We fished with long bamboo poles for bullheads in the millpond and for sunfish and chubs in the shallower basins below the dam. We never caught the big fish we sometimes glimpsed in the shadow of the bridge near the sawmill.
But several times during a Summer, perhaps with Pa Bickie, we would walk three or four miles to the Genesee River where there were real black bass.
We learned to swim of our own accord in the swimming hole in Morse’s Woods. We dived and swam from the raft we had built in another part of the “crick”. Besides the raft, we built a shanty from slabs in the pine grove near the crick, although for the life if me I can’t remember we did anything with it after it was built. We also built a miniature piledriver; we called it a “spiledriver.”
Where the spring freshets had carved a bank out of a small section of the Lockhart pasture, we made ovens by digging round holes a couple of feet below the sod surface and then boring a hole down to the inner end of the oven for the chimney. In these ovens, we roasted the potatoes Ma Bickie had given us. Sitting on the bank of the stream, we ate those charcoal encrusted potatoes and enjoyed them more than any table potatoes ever since.
On rainy days, we played in the storehouse adjacent to the paper mill. It was filled with bales of rags and old paper. The raw material of the mill. These bales were carted from the siding of the railroad back of the Davidson’s by the teamster, “Joncy” Dye. He drove old tom along the Plank Road, turning into the main road leading to the mill at Pa Bickie’s, by rounding the flatiron – the Y shaped outlet of the Plank road. In the center of the flatiron was the old wooden signboard, one pointer reading “four miles to Belfast” and the other “two miles to Transit”.
At that time two railroad served Angelica, a broad gauge and a narrow gauge. For some distance, the two operated over the same right of way. Using three rails. The tracks skirted the village of Joncy. At one time, there was a wreck at the siding – the switch, we called it. My brothers and I were very much disgusted because the derailing of the freight train was concealed from us by Maria until everything was cleaned up.
A mile or so beyond the side, the two railroads separated. The narrow gauge turned off on its own toward Friendship and the broad gauge went straight again toward Belfast. Right beyond the dividing point, the broad gauge crossed a long, high wooden trestle.
Maria also kept from Jack and me for some time, and pledged my brother Will not to tell, the story of an exciting experience that occurred on that trestle. We ultimately learned that Will and George Blickwede, who were then about 14, had been caught on the trestle by a train. When the boys were in the middle of the bridge, they heard a warning whistle. Of course, the train might be a narrow-gauge train which would turn off and they would be safe. If not, what then? There was no footpath beside the rails. Just a sheer drop of some 70 feet. Just as the locomotive shot into view, heading for the trestle, the boys realized they were too far from either end of the trestle to make a hazardous run over the ties to get there in time. They had to act quickly. All at once, they spied a crossbeam which extended some five feet or son on each side beyond the sleepers. Perilously they got on and straddled this beam, one on each side. Just in time, for as they clung to it, the train reached them. It rolled past, shaking the wooden structure.
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked Will when Jack and I heard of his adventure.
“’Course I was. That is, until we saw that crossbeam”, he answered. “then there was nothing to it.”
“But you were out on a beam and awfully high up”, I persisted. “I’d have been scared to look down.”
“Maybe you would have,. But I wasn’t”, Will said, rather boastfully I thought.
Angelica was to us a place of varied and pleasant smells; the hayloft of the Schenck barn – the dust-covered ferns by the sunny road near the trestle – the smoke of wood fires in the kitchen stoves – the fresh, damp sawdust at the sawmill – the clean coolness of the grist mill.
Probably they are all gone now, but when I was a boy, spending my summers in Allegany County, New York, there were many fields surrounded by stump fences. Must of that country was cleared land. It is said that the section had been so thickly wooded that the pioneers had to climb to the tops of high trees in order to see, over the green roof of the forest, where the hills were and to determine their position otherwise.
As time went on, the big timber was cut down. Some of the trunks were hauled away to the sawmills for lumber, but much of the cut timber is said to have been burned because of lack of facilities for making beams, planks and boards. The remaining stumps were dug around and pulled out by horses or oxen and dragged to the boundaries of the field. There they were placed side by side, with their roots perpendicular, or as nearly perpendicular as the ends of the trunks resting on the ground would allow. The spreading roots intertwined and made a fairly practical barrier. Stump fences were fantastic.
Late in the afternoon, we would get a cooling drink at the Indian Spring which bubbled up in Morse’s Woods, across the mint-scented pasture on the way to take the cow home to be milked. When we got home, we’d clean up for supper, washing our hands and faces in the tin basin of water on a bench outside the summer kitchen. We had our Saturday night baths in that same kitchen, sitting rather cramped up in one of those round wooden washtubs intended not for boys but for clothes.
After supper, we would sit on the fence and watch for Is Jacobs and his buckboard returning from the cheese factory, turning off our road at the flatiron and going along the Plank road to his father’s farm. Or we would sit on the little porch and let Fritz, the shepherd dog, bite off the sticktights and other burrs from our stockings. He liked to. But Fritz liked better to chew gum. That dog would actually chew it with great satisfaction without swallowing it.
If there was time, we’d walk up to the red wooden bridge that crossed the millpond to the Dugway. We got quite a kick out of the sign on the bridge which read: “Five dollars fine for driving or riding faster than a walk.”
On Sundays, they took up to church which was just a mile away. We walked on the bridge over the millpond, through the Dugway, over the “high walk” (the boardwalk on stilts over the cattailed marshland skirting the road), and along the main street to the park. There, the four churches and the courthouse – and jail – were located around a circular green, shaded by elms and maples, with a bandstand at the center and a hard-dirt croquet ground at the side.
After church, we walked back the mile to the house. We often had ice cream for Sunday dinner. Having been away to church, we had escaped the chore of turning the crank of the freezer, but we were in time to lick the dasher. It was always vanilla ice cream, made with real cream and real vanilla. I never have forgotten that flavor, nor have I ever been able to get it in manufactured ice creams.
One Summer, our Joncy people were stirred with excitement. Word had been received by the Browns and the Lockharts that their Buffalo relatives - my relatives also – were coming to visit. They would drive the 70 miles or so from Buffalo to Angelica and, because of their number, it would be a kind of caravan.
When the day came for the expected arrival of the Buffalo people, all the Browns and Lockharts and Dressers gathered on the veranda of the Lockhart house. We began our wait too early, but then, we did not know when the travelers would get there. After several false alarms, we could distinguish unmistakably the approaching party descending the hill. And soon they appeared around a turn in the highway. They came on, rolled past and into the driveway, with grownups waving, children screaming, and dogs barking. First came the tally-ho, or drag, with people on top and more inside, then a fringed top surrey with more relatives. Flanking the vehicle were three horseback riders.
With so many adults and children added to our Joncy group of relatives, we had a busy, happy week or so. We showed the Buffalo boys and girls all our haunts. We frightened the girls by going high in the big swing. We played croquet on the Lockhart lawn. At night, we played games in the parlor or had charades. One of the charades represented “Angelica”. Dainty Aunt Lucy Olmsted, all in white, appeared first – that was “Angel”, of course. Then my brother Will came before the gathering. He had just been stung by a swarm of yellow-jackets, mostly around his eye – and that was the “I”. Finally, Albert Brown’s dog was led on, stretching the charade a bit, to stand for “cur.”
The visit ended and, for a while, we felt lost. But there was always something interesting to do in Joncy.
Angelica! Angelica, in the heart of a rolling country. Modest houses, with plants huddled in a window; vegetable gardens with borders of sunflowers; fields, pastures and woods; board fences, rail fences, snake fences, stone walls, barbed wire and stump fences.
Angelica, with its creek flowing through Joncy on its way to the Genesee, in a varied course of millpond, milldam, cascades over smooth flat rocks, stone basins, pebbly shallows and quiet pools.
Angelica, with its hills to climb, its barns to explore, its dirt roads to scuff along, its woods to roam through.
Angelica, with its sturdy boys and girls to play with.
Angelica, with innumerable outdoor places for boys and girls to play in.
Angelica, with it pure fragrant air, sweeter than the air of any other place.
Angelica! Angelica was Paradise.
The fifty-fifth reunion of the Class of 1900 at Cornell University was over. The alumni were leaving Ithaca by motor, plane and rail. But my wife and I had something in mind.
I approached the bright, courteous young man who had been operating the elevator in our quarters in Sage Hall. “Do you know some young fellow who has a car and who would motor us over to a town about a hundred miles from here?” I inquired. He thought a minute. “I’d like to myself”, he said, “if I can get off.” “Can You?”, I asked. “I’ll see.” In five minutes he returned, beaming. “It’s O.K/” he told us. We agreed on terms and at one o’clock he was at Sage with his car.
Gordon – that was his name, Gordon Fenner – knew part of the way to Angelica. The road map I had enabled me to direct him on the rest of the trip. Ithaca to Horseheads, to Corning, to Painted Post, to Addison, to Wellsville.
We came to Belmont, to Belvedere and dropping down a hill, we were in Angelica. We immediately found a tourist house. They offered us a large room fronting on the green, and we took it.
We said goodbye to Gordon Fenner and then we walked down the village main street. Not more than a few steps below the park, we came to a restaurant; nothing pretentious about it but it looked like a good place.
Now we had intended to only walk around the immediate neighborhood but we came to where the “high walk” had been, and we saw a new bridge before us. While that should not have been unexpected, it gave me forebodings. Afraid of what we might find, I nevertheless went on. We walked to the bridge. It crossed the creek flowing shallow over flat rocks. The old millpond had disappeared. The bridge led us into what had been Joncy.
But Joncy Mills had been almost completely effaced. There was no Dugway, no red wooden bridge, no dam, no grist mil, no iron bridge for the road from the “nine great hills of Nunda”, no flatiron in front of what remained of the Pa Bickie house, no hill in the road, now graded, below it, no Brown house, no Lockhart house, no paper mill, no sawmill. It could be seen that no successor of “Joncy” Dye drove an old Tom along the Plank Road to the railroad siding. The Plank Road was now a dead end and there was no railroad, broad or narrow gauge. We hadn’t seen a dog.. Where were the descendants of all the neighborhood dogs I had played with?
On the way back to the park circle in Angelica, we saw an apparently young man with a growth of black whiskers almost obscuring his face. A little farther on, we saw a group of young men, all of them bewhiskered. Arriving at the Home Restaurant, we noticed that the proprietor, too, had a goatee. What was all this? Country indifference or the start of a new fashion? Our host enlightened us, The men were preparing for a pageant which would be a part of the sesqui-centennial celebration of Angelica beginning in a few days.
Having found a good room and a good place to eat, my wife and I stayed for the celebration. And what a celebration it was for little Angelica – from the church services on Sunday and the community picnic in the Park to the firemen’s and veterans day on Saturday. During the long week, there were contests of every variety – archery, ‘coon-dog racing, woodcutting, rolling-pin throwing, square dancing, and catching the greased pig. The big day was that of the parade and pageant. My wife and I were two of about five thousand visitors present that day in that town of around a thousand population.
The pageant at the fair grounds consisted of five episodes based upon the history of Angelica. The first was Widow Smith’s School started about 1803. Then, the first Town Board Meeting in 1805 was reenacted. The third number represented a party at the home of Madame Hubert d’Autremont, a French royalist who fled the Revolution and finally settled in Angelica. The fourth was the pantomime of the wedding of Marcus Whitman to Narcissa Prentiss of Angelica. The narrator told how this couple went as missionaries to Oregon and were massacred there by the Indians they befriended. Narcissa Whitman was the first white woman to cross the Rocky Mountains. Her husband rode on horseback, through a bitter Winter, to put before the President the plea to save the Northwest Territory for the Union. The last episode of the pageant was a Lawn Fete, depicting the bazaars frequently held in the Park around 1900 to raise funds for the town library.
The great beard epidemic reached its crest on Friday and rewards were bestowed. We saw Joe Herdman walk off with the prize for the best beard of all. Obviously pleased with the honor, he nevertheless made a beeline for the barber shop. We saw prizes awarded for saddlebeards, goatees and full beards. And then we watched the judging for the prize offered for a novelty beard. Robert Gordon took it. He must have been the man we had seen on the first day of our visit, the man whose face was so bushy that he looked like a black sheep dog. Now, it was different. He had had the beard cut to form the figures “1805” on one side of his face and the figures “1955” on the other cheek!
Every afternoon that week tea was served to visitors in the town library. There my wife and I made the acquaintance of a nice couple, the Carpenters. We met them again on Main Street that Saturday morning. In the course of the conversation it came out they had formerly lived in Angelica and had heard about Joncy Mills. They now lived in Belmont.
“Belmont!” my wife exclaimed. “Why the surprise?” Mrs. Carpenter asked. “Oh, nothing”, my wife replied, “She means”, I interrupted, “if you will pardon the directness, did you drive over and are you going to drive back?”
We were told that the Carpenters planned to leave in their car at noon and, when we explained how we were marooned in Angelica and asked if they would give us a lift of Belmont, where we could catch an Erie train, they said they would be happy to have our company.
The Carpenters took up to Belmont and to the railroad station in time for us to arrange to have the New York Express flagged. We found our seats and as I handed the conductor our tickets, my wife, her thoughts still lingering on our visit, said to him:
“We’ve just come form the sesqui-centennial at Angelica.”
“Angelica?” asked the conductor. “Where’s Angelica?”
Little he knew how Angelica, indeed, was everywhere that memory was. Angelica? It was the capital of the world.
Taken from the December 1, 1956 issue of “The Rural New Yorker”; Transcribed by Mary Rhodes