Sunday, November 18, 2018

Jefferson County’s Charles Sherman: Huckleberry Charlie (Part 3)

In January 1910, Charlie’s show-biz repertoire was further expanded with “a bunch of new songs and a new spiel” that he performed three times at the City Opera House when an amateur minstrel show came to town. Although he injured his hand working at the paper mill in Great Bend, Charlie continued to rehearse his songs and a monologue about the Pine Plains area, which proved to be a hit of the show. The Watertown Daily Times said, “One of the features not on the program, but which nevertheless called out perhaps a larger share of applause than any other number, was that of Charlie Sherman, Huckleberry Charlie.” Or as the man himself told it, “I made more people laugh than any other two numbers on the program.”

Pine Plains produced a bumper crop of huckleberries that year, sending a wagonload a day to Watertown city markets and keeping Charlie very busy during the summer. But the bulk of the media attention he received was related to the military training maneuvers at Pine Camp, a story that received two quite different tellings. The New York Times described a benign encounter between Charlie and Cavalry Squadron A, led by Major Oliver Bridgman.

“Where you fellows going?” asked the greatest living Huckleberry picker.
“Be quiet, man; we are looking for the enemy, who is believed to be in this vicinity,” replied the leading trooper, who, in this particular case is said to have been Sgt. Clarke, the Vice President of the Day and Night Bank.
“Well, I reckon I can help yer, all right,” said Charley, “for I just seen the enemies scootin’ in the direction of Defereit.”

Thus Huckleberry Charley saved two troops of Squadron A from “annihilation” by others who represented the enemy. But several articles appearing in North Country newspapers offered a much more dramatic and humorous recounting: that Charlie had come tearing down the road, arms flailing, yelling to Bridgman about the immediate danger that lay ahead. “Hey you fellers, you’ll all get shot up if ye don’t git out of here! They’s a big bunch of soldiers and wagons down there and they’re coming up the road, hell bent. They asked me the road and I told ’em wrong.”

The result was an upset victory by Bridgman’s men, and a long-winded upbraiding of Charlie by the brass for interfering in government business. When the harangue ended and he was asked why he did it, Charlie supposedly replied, “Didn’t want to see these fellers get licked. I get my eats from these fellers.”

However it actually happened, thrusting himself into carefully planned war games became part of Charlie’s legend and generated some memorable headlines: Huckleberry Charley On Deck — Saves Defenders From Slaughter By Red Force — Tells Defenders that Reds are Coming Up the Road and Knocked Plans of Umpires Into a Cocked Hat (Watertown Daily Times); and Squadron A Saved from Annihilation; Huckleberry Charley Warns Two Troops on Pine Camp Field Just in Time (New York Times).

If anything, he seemed to revel in all the attention. A week later, in mid-August, Watertown hosted a massive party otherwise known as the state firemen’s convention. Thousands were in attendance for days, a setting that was irresistible to the North Country’s most famous eccentric.

As told in the Daily Times: “Huckleberry Charlie, fresh from the sand dunes and briar bushes of Pine Plains, paid a visit to the city Wednesday to take in the sights and incidentally renew some of his old acquaintances. Early in the evening, as the city fire department was parading through the court of honor, Charlie marched at the head of the band and got rounds of applause from the thousands.

“He strode like a soldier and apparently had been receiving some military discipline from the troops encamped at the Plains. At the Woodruff House shortly after 11, Charlie dropped in and gave the guests one of his speech-making exhibitions. He pulled off all the stuff he always does, and rounded up with his ‘I pick ’em by the dry measure and sell ’em by the wet measure,’ in reference to his berry-picking.

“Later Charlie meandered down to the Hardiman House, and after doing some of his usual stunts, got on a table and delivered several addresses of welcome to the firemen. Twice the legs of the table were knocked out from under him, but it didn’t faze Charlie and he was still at it early into the morning. Charlie says he’s going to spend a few days in town and see the ‘doins.’ ”

And if Charlie Sherman knew one thing, it was how to have a good time. Which is how he found himself at 3:15 am joining the well-oiled Schenectady firemen in a burlesque production of Hamlet. In front of the hotel Hardiman, where they built an impromptu throne from boards and two beer kegs, Charley took center stage. In the middle of his speech, said the Watertown Daily Times, “Someone kicked one keg from under the throne and it tottered like that of Spain. Charley tottered, too.”

Shortly after, they found a mattress, placed it in the street, and went to sleep until police chased them off for blocking traffic. Next, they rebuilt the throne, said the newspaper, where Charlie “reigned for about a minute. Then it rained — or rather someone took a seltzer bottle and sizzled it in his ear.” By old-fashioned male standards for convention-goers, it was a night to remember.

After a brief break to recuperate, it was time for his annual tour of regional fairs, which produced some memorable media descriptions of his getup. The Syracuse Post-Standard, referencing his visit to the New Woodruff Hotel in Watertown, said Charlie was “now wearing a cocky little red hat similar to those Alpine tourists disport,” and carrying a suitcase covered with stickers — not from world travels, but one from the Thousand Islands, and others advertising trains and ocean liners. The Daily Times, mentioning his return from the state fair at Syracuse, added, “His new suit is a stunner. The coat is short, of the military type, and decorated with a border of white. White stripes decorate the trouser legs as well. Charley carried a small cane, and his headgear was a red cap with a shining white visor, which was pulled to a level with his up-tilted nose.”

Upon Sherman’s arrival at Great Bend in mid-October, a reporter wrote, “Huckleberry Charlie has returned to this, his hometown, after his six-weeks tour of the state during the county fairs. Charlie is attired in a turkey-red suit, and when walking along the village streets presents a sight of a bandmaster. Charlie now gives free entertainments to the villagers quite often.”

Next week, part 4: Star of the fairs; a movie role; the music man.

Photos: Charles Sherman (original by Henry Beach, 1908); Pine Camp headline (New York Times, 1910); headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1910); headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1910)

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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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