Monday, November 26, 2018

Huckleberry Charlie: Jefferson County’s Charles Sherman (Part 4)

In fall 1911, Sherman’s gardening skills, which had paved the way for decades of successful peddling, were credited with helping Woodville’s (near Lake Ontario) George Kring develop an especially prolific squash crop, including one vine that yielded 35 specimens. In a strong agrarian economy, such achievements were frequently touted in the press, a welcome bonus for a man with Charlie’s affinity for attention.

For someone who loved being the life of the party, 1913 proved to be a busy and pleasurable year for Charlie, who had entered his seventies. In early June, he joined the festivities as Carthage hosted the statewide convention of the Eagles, a fraternal organization. Said the Watertown Daily Times, “Huckleberry Charlie was much in evidence and was the center of attraction. Mounted on the bandstand and at the head of impromptu parades, he was everywhere to be seen.”

A week later, he made a routine visit to Watertown, where a crowd of more than fifty convinced him to join them on a trip to Syracuse for the Elks’ Field Day. It was vintage Charlie, who, said the Daily Times, “furnished plenty of amusement for the local contingent on the way to Syracuse.” He was cited as “among the most enthusiastic of the fans” when they attended a major-league baseball game between Brooklyn and Detroit. Later in the day, he took in the sights “and was last seen walking up Washington Street with the well-known cigar at an angle of 60 degrees in the left corner of his mouth.”

While it was an off year for the huckleberry crop at Pine Plains, it remained a good year for the site’s namesake. Writers for the Watertown Daily Times, which regularly reported on his whereabouts, tagged him with a pair of additional nicknames, the Sage of Great Bend and the Sage of Pine Plains, both in reference to the oratorical capabilities he demonstrated for anyone willing to listen.

And at the fair in Watertown that September, there were plenty of folks interested in what he had to say. The Times noted that the midway, food booths, floral hall, suffrage booth, and events at the race track were all excellent, “But the greatest attraction of the fair today was the sage of Great Bend, Huckleberry Charlie. Charlie had his go-to-meetin’ clothes on bright and early, and up to noon had sung his celebrated song and delivered the regular fair oration 71 times. He was recuperating for this afternoon when seen by a Times reporter. ‘How is the fair going to be this year, Charlie?’ he was asked. ‘The best yet,’ volunteered the veteran….”

The following day, “The Watertown City band arrived bright and early this morning and rendered selections throughout the day. Huckleberry Charlie was the center of attraction throughout the day, and made five speeches in front of the Times building during the morning. He also acted as leader of the band.”

A few days later, he joined and provided entertainment for about 100 attendees at the annual gathering of Lenawee Club members at Dexter, about five miles west of Watertown. Two weeks after that, he appeared at the annual Ogdensburg Fair and Horse Show: “The advance guard of race horses, high steppers, exhibitors, and vendors reached the city Saturday from Malone and Canton, where fairs were held during the last week. Among the arrivals was the inevitable Huckleberry Charley, who at once became a center of attention. The Jefferson County sage held a levee at the Seymour House Saturday night, and his army of friends took fresh delight in his drolleries.”

It was quite the schedule to maintain for a man in his early seventies at a time when male life expectancy in the United States was just 50, but he remained healthy and was driven in part by a love of attention. In June 1914, his first foray from Great Bend was to Carthage, where, “A large crowd followed Charley about the streets and listened to his dissertation on the weather and the Democratic Party,” said the Times. He was there preceding the arrival of the Jones Bros. & Wilson’s Animal Circus, and served as “the self-appointed marshal for the street parade.”

That summer, Watertown produced a short promotional film to boost the city’s profile. Watertown in Motion: See Yourselves as Others See You was shown for the first time at the City Opera House in mid-June, and included what the Daily Times called, “a true-to-life reproduction of the well-known character of Watertown,” Huckleberry Charlie.

Although he missed some fairs each year as a matter of timing, he still made the rounds every summer and fall, changing his route periodically to “spread the wealth,” as it were, since operators and attendees alike were happy to see him. That year he showed up at Gouverneur’s 56th Agricultural and Mechanical Society exhibition and entertained the crowd.

“The leading feature on the midway during the afternoon was Huckleberry Charley of Great Bend, who delivered several long addresses on various topics, with huckleberries and the Pine Plains as the groundwork of each. Charley has not been here before in three or four years, and he is enjoying himself every minute.”

The following day, with a crowd so large “it was almost impossible to move about,” said the Daily Times, he continued delighting hundreds of attendees. Within a week he was doing the same for several days as Watertown hosted the Jefferson County Fair. After moving on to Ogdensburg, he returned to Watertown in time to join the Labor Day parade. For some appearances, he sported a brightly colored vest with his famous combination of green suit and yellow shoes, complemented by a cane for an urbane effect.

During all the partying he had done over the years with friends, acquaintances, convention attendees, and fans wishing to buy him a drink, Charlie had somehow managed to avoid trouble with the law, but in October, a mission to purchase food items for his wife nearly ended in an overnight jail stay. He later told reporters that Della sent him for “a peck of Tallman sweets and a half-peck of quinces.” All decked out in a city outfit — the green suit and yellow shoes — he managed to get the quinces, but stopped for refreshments while searching for the sweets, and too much ale got the best of him. A patrolman hauled him into court for public intoxication, with Charlie reportedly sobbing over his failed food mission and a possible night in jail. But the judge, after listening to his story — and after all, sober or half lit, nobody in town could tell a story like Charlie — rendered a merciful verdict, ordering him to catch the 5:10 train back to Great Bend and sober up.

It was an unusual incident, but then again, is anything abnormal in the life of an eccentric, which by its very definition is filled with peculiarities? At any rate, his was a life full of surprises, and in December 1914 — in his early seventies, mind you — Charlie came up with a real doozie. After disappearing from sight for a while, he announced his new career as a wandering minstrel. Three days after Christmas, the North Country’s newest troubadour departed for his first gig, at Antwerp, with his instrument of choice, the banjo. During his disappearance, he had somewhere learned to play a quintet of songs, and as he told the Watertown Daily Times, there was money to be made on tour.

“ ‘It’s great stuff,’ says Charlie, referring to his repertoire. ‘When I go into a town, I am going to play the whole five and then take up a collection. Yes sir, and I’m going to send all the money I get home to Dell. I’ve got a thousand pictures of me in my green suit with the music under my arm, and my friends can have them for a slight remuneration.’ The minstrel’s itinerary includes Antwerp Monday and Tuesday, Theresa, Benson Mines, Harrisville, and other points in that section, and then a return to Adams and vicinity.”

(Others who have written about Charlie referenced his readiness to play the banjo for admirers, but in truth, his association with that instrument was short lived. There was no mention of it after his brief tour at the end of 1914.)

Next week, part 5: hair eccentricities; a multi-millionaire friend; helping the fairs.

Photos: Charles Sherman; movie advertisement (Watertown Daily Times, 1915); headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1914); Charlie with banjo (Watertown Daily Times, 1914)

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

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