Saturday, August 13, 2016

Bobcat Ranney and Howard Zahniser: An Exchange of Letters

Bobcat Picture from Adirondack MuseumIn Summer 1946, at the invitation of Paul and Carolyn Schaefer, Howard and Alice Zahniser and family made their first trip to the Adirondacks, from their home in Maryland where Howard had begun work with The Wilderness Society. Zahnie, as he was known, had met Paul Schaefer and Schaefer’s mentor John Apperson that February at the 1946 North American Wildlife Conference in New York City. There, Schaefer and Apperson showed their film about dam threats to Forest Preserve wilderness in the western Adirondacks.

It was Wilderness Society policy that any threat to wilderness must be considered a national issue. Accordingly, at the Conference Zahnie offered Schaefer the Society’s help to fight the series of dam proposals in what became known as the Black River Wars. Paul had suggested then that Zahnie and family visit the Schaefer family and their Adirondack camp off Edwards Hill Road out of Bakers Mills, New York, the coming summer. It was there that he met Archie “Bobcat” Ranney.  The day the Zanhisers left Washington, D.C., a letter arrived from Ranney, addressed from Bakers Mills:

Dear Mr. Zahniser

Yours of the 19th inst reached me last night. I shall be indeed pleased to make you welcome to our mountain abode. Paul Schaefer has delegated me to regale you with some mountain music with my banjo-guitar and we can go into the subject of forestry and stream pollution to a more or less extent.

Living in this back district for the past 12 years, I seldom come in contact with city life but read quite extensively.

As the time seems so short before you come to our north country, it seems best that I should defer acting as you suggest until your arrival.

However, anything I can do to promote [sic] the further pollution and destruction of our forests and erosion of land, I shall indeed be glad of your suggestions thereto. [An attached newspaper clipping makes it clear that Ranney meant prevent not promote]

The enclosed clipping from the Binghamton Press will if the sewer is built help clean up a portion of the Susquehanna river.

Our three day rain found some leaks in my roof and some tarring will be in order as soon as the sun shines.

They are no longer hiding bread under the counters but have upped the price to 14 cents per loaf. I had a porcupine for meat, over the week-end. One less bark-eater, at any rate.

Sincerely, yours,
Archie C Ranney

I live in the last house on Edwards hill, two miles north of Bakers Mills. “The furder you go de tougher dey git.”

Ranney appended to the letter his ballad The Tale of a Sourdough, Depicting Life In the Adirondacks as Experienced by Archie C. “Bobcat” Ranney. Composed and written on the eve of his 73rd Birthday, December 28, 1945.

Two entries in Zahnie’s journal, published in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser (North Country Books, 1992), record visits with Ranney. The first, on August 3, 1946:

“Archie (Bobcat) Ranney and his visiting son came over to the porch and with Paul talked on the porch and told yarns. Mr. Ranney sang some of his mountain ballads, and I read aloud some of Martha Keller’s Brady’s Road and Other Ballads.”

And again on Wednesday, August 7th: “Just as we [Zahnie and older son Mathias] were starting for an overnight hike on Eleventh Mountain] Mr. Ranney came over to talk about Boy Scouts and to give me $1 for a Wilderness Society gift membership for Donald McCarty . . . a scoutmaster.”

A letter from Zahnie, dated September 20, 1946, followed:

September 20, 1946
Mr. Archie C. (Bobcat) Ranney,
Bakers Mills, Warren County, N.Y.

Dear Old Lynx:

With a carbon copy of this letter, our previous correspondence and your ballad “The Tale of a Sourdough” are going into the Wilderness Society files to await a resurrection on some sunny day (or rainy) when I get a chance to write something about the Adirondacks. You have become in my mind — not a correspondent to answer promptly — but a part of the Adirondacks along with Crane, Eleventh, Height-of- Land, and Gore. I think of all of you often, and I wish I could hear your banjo-guitar this afternoon.

For a month I have been hoping to get something written about your high spots up north, and I have kept your letter and ballad lying on the desk handy to the purpose. But now I’m giving up for the time being. Too much to do. But I want you to know how savory my re-collections of the Adirondacks are and how much of the seasoning came from you.

Sincerely yours,
Howard Zahniser

P.S. I suppose you know that Alice and I bought Harold Allen’s place, and the next time you see me you’ll have to tolerate me as a neighbor. Who know[s], I might even some day aspire to succeed you as the Hermit of Cragorehol — even if I can’t spell it yet.


Zahnie’s P.S. refers to Cragorehol, the name of the extended Schaefer family’s camp originally owned by Paul Schaefer’s parents. The camp name combined the names Crane, Gore, and Height of Land. From that lead, my parents named their new camp — Harold and Pansy (Dalaba) Allen’s place — Mateskared, combining first syllables of their four children’s names: Mathias, Esther, Karen, and Edward. They bought the place in August 1946 with Paul Schaefer acting as their agent.

Ranney responded as follows:

Bakers Mills, N.Y.
October 3, 1946, 3:15 pm

Mr. Howard Zahniser,
Washington, D.C.

My Dear Zahniser:

Welcome, indeed, to our Northlands. And the wife and kiddies also.

Two days and a night of snow and wind transformed our landscape into winter scenery.

Preceded by a day’s rain, much of it melted. I estimate six inches of snow fell here. Other sections, farther north, 12 inches. It cleared off during last night and the sun has left the ground bare and green.

My condition seems to be improving. I now walk to Hitchcock’s for milk and sit up a greater part of the day. The leg ulcers are healing slowly.

Secured a bottle of Zanex, the army remedy for Athletics’ feet, consisting of iodine, sal[i]cyllic acid, boric acid in alcohol. That should kill the germs and help heal the ulcers. An Endicott Scoutmaster sent it to me as his good turn, Dominick Rossi. Rossi is a fine Italian, much interested in nature study. He is employed at the Endicott post office, since his army discharge.

As for becoming a part of the Adirondacks, I am indeed deeply rooted here. I have much in common with the natives here, having fished, hunted, slept in the woods and camps with them, eaten in their homes and shared their joys and sorrows.

My great-grandfather, Captain John Marsh, of Or[o]no, Maine was Indian interpreter to the Massachusetts legislature for the Penobscot tribe of Indians, was adopted into the tribe by all the rites of blood brotherhood and the Indians gave him Arumsunkhumgen (Marsh island) in the Penobscot river, containing 5,000 acres of fertile land for 30 bushels of corn and other considerations. My grandfather, Jeremiah Marsh, was a Maine circuit rider. Indians visited our home in Maine. I can just remember being afraid of a squaw who came selling baskets and mats to our home. Great grandfather married Sarah Colburn, the fair haired daughter of a miller to whom he sold mill rights on the island. My grandfather John Ranney, a Lowland Scot, emigrated to New Ireland, Canada, and later brought his family to Northern Vermont. My father moved there after his marriage and after I was born went to the Dodlin stone quarries in Kenduskeag, Me., as a tool dresser. I left my Vermont home at the age of 9 years, with my mother, to live in Athens, Pa.

I early acquired a thirst for adventure and in the outdoors found my greatest pleasure. From these tendencies I became known as the Indian of the Marsh family among my mother’s kin.

Then, is it any wonder that in my latter days I have sought the solitude of the last vestiges of the once great forests I have seen hewn down and destroyed by the ruthless axe of man?

As the Hermit of Dogtown (Bakers Mills) I hope to hold forth until The Great Spirit of the Universe shall call me to the Happy Hunting Grounds — and a worthy successor, such as yourself, take my place, to carry on the fight for the preservation of the last remaining vestiges of our once rich forest heritage.

With my best regards to your wife and the dear little kiddies, I remain

Sincerely yours
Archie C. “Bobcat” Ranney

P.S. — John Dalaba saw a large black bear last week in his back lot. When the bear saw John he ran for the tall timbers.

Leaves are turning to glorious fall colors as the scarlet maple, wild cherries, etc., but few have fallen as yet.

John Hitchcock dug a Green Mountain potato last week. Annie [Hitchcock] cooked the knobs on it for supper and had some left over besides three pounds of the main potato. Some tater, what.

The above letter would seem to be the last of the correspondence between Ranney and Zahnie. About 1950 or 1951, as our family and Grace Oehser paused our car below our steep, dirt approach road to Mateskared, Ranney joined us from his nearby cabin. Ranney was by then what we called “stone deaf.” His hearing disability caused Grace Oehser to lie about her age — and to lie upward not downward, as is often one’s wont. She was in her late 40s but finding it impossible to communicate her specific, three- or four-syllable age to Ranney. Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs “FIFTY!” Ranney got it.

In those days we sometimes had to get a running start to get our car up the steep part of the dirt road to our cabin. In my father’s attempt to express this need to Ranney, he pulled out his editorial blue-leaded pencil, made a quick, freehand upward-slanting line on a sheet of paper, and yelled “LIKE A BLUE STREAK!” Ranney got that, too.

Many years after Ranney’s death, Carolyn Schaefer and son Francis “Cub” and youngest daughter Monica; my friend Larry Strausbaugh and I; and Don Oehser essayed to clean out Ranney’s cabin. We didn’t get very far. Carolyn had been entertaining thoughts of fixing it up to rent out to skiers. The cabin has now disappeared from view—if not from the material plane — in the inexorable recovering vegetation characteristic of Adirondack land formerly cleared for agriculture.

Photo of Archie “Bobcat” Ranney courtesy of Adirondack Museum.

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Ed Zahniser retired as the senior writer and editor with the National Park Service Publications Group in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. He writes and lectures frequently about wilderness, wildlands, and conservation history topics. He is the youngest child of Alice (1918-2014) and Howard Zahniser (1906–1964). Ed’s father was the principal author and chief lobbyist for the National Wilderness Preservation System Act of 1964. Ed edited his father’s Adirondack writings in Where Wilderness Preservation Began: Adirondack Writings of Howard Zahniser, and also edited Daisy Mavis Dalaba Allen’s Ranger Bowback: An Adirondack farmer - a memoir of Hillmount Farms (Bakers Mills).

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