If you love Adirondack legend and lore, you’ll love this gem of a poem that first appeared in 1846. Since then it has appeared in print several times, often with revisions, and with the removal of certain stanzas. It’s the exciting story of a man-versus-bear encounter. The man was Anson Allen, whose colorful past included a fifteen-year stint as owner/editor of the Keeseville Herald, the village’s first newspaper. After moving to Westport in the early 1840s, he edited the Essex Co. Times and Westport Herald for four years.
He later published a monthly titled The Old Settler, covering stories and reminiscences from the region’s earliest history. The paper literally defined him, for Allen became known widely as “the old settler.”
In 1840, he was appointed census-taker for Essex County, and was soon traipsing about the countryside and the Adirondack wilds, counting heads. One family he encountered – a mother bear and cubs – caused quite a ruckus, leaving Allen with a story to tell, which he often did. Six years later, it was immortalized in print by an anonymous poet.
The Bear Story
Of all the wonders of the day,
There’s one that I can safely say
Should stand upon the rolls of fame,
To let all know bold Allen’s name;
The greatest sight that e’er was seen,
Was “Allen’s bear fight” up in Keene.
In eighteen forty, as I’ve heard,
To take the census, off he steered;
Through bush and woods, for little gains,
He walked from Keene to Abram’s plains;
But naught of this, it is not well,
His secret motives thus to tell.
As through the woods he trudged his way,
His mind unruffled as the day;
He heard a deep, convulsive sound,
That shook the earth and trees around;
And looking up with dread amaze,
An old she bear there met his gaze.
The bear with threat’ning aspect stood,
To prove her title to the wood;
This, Allen saw—with a dark frown
He reach’d and pull’d a young tree down;
Then on his guard with cautious care,
He watched the movements of the bear.
With upward gaze and longing heart,
He asked the Lord to take his part;
For aid he called in anguish deep,
In wails that woke the woods from sleep;
“Oh, God,” he cried in deep despair,
“If you don’t help me, don’t help the bear!”
Although not noted for his zeal,
The approach of death soon made him feel,
To escape the fight with two whole eyes,
He claimed protection from the skies,
Affairs above being thus set right,
He bared himself to the fight.
Into her mouth he drove the stick,
That touch’d the old bear to the quick;
’Twas hard to tell, I do declare,
The cubs from Allen or the bear;
’Twas rough-and-tumble, tit for tat,—
The nut-cakes fell from his old hat.
Against the rock with giant strength,
He held her out at his arm’s length;
Then from his pocket, forth he drew,
A large jack knife for her to view;
He raised his arm high in the air,
And butcher-like, he killed the bear.
Let old men talk of courage bold,
Or battles fought in days of old,
Or courage tried in these dark nights,
Of horrid ghosts, or other sights,
Ten times as bad, but none, I ween,
Can match the bear fight up in Keene.
Photo: Sketch from painting of Allen-vs.-bear encounter