It had been a busy year, but if anything, Charlie Sherman was more active in 1915, receiving ample media coverage for his many exploits — and more than a few surprises. In January, the Ogdensburg Journal reported on his visit to Watertown’s relief kitchen located on Jackman Street. He dropped in, looked things over, was offered supper, and accepted, afterward offering effusive praise of the food, facility, and staff, and rewarding them with brief and witty speeches on a number of topics.
At the end of the month, he showed up at Watertown High School and was guided to the auditorium, where he took the stage to perform several songs and a clog dance.
In February, the Journal and Republican of Lowville reported that Edgar E. DeGraff, a talented Watertown artist, had publicly displayed his recent depiction of the area’s most beloved eccentric. “A full-length crayon caricature of ‘Huckleberry Charlie’ Sherman of Great Bend, perhaps the best-known character in Jefferson county, has been placed in a local show window. It was drawn by E. E. De Graff, a well-known artist of this city, and is a perfect portrait. The face is especially true to the subject, and the characteristic manner in which a cigar is held attracts much mirth from passersby.” (In October 2018 — more than a century later — Edgar’s 89-year-old nephew, David DeGraff of Florida, brought Edgar’s remaining portfolio to the Watertown Daily Times, hoping to learn more about the artist. Included were several renditions of Huckleberry Charlie.)
At the end of February, he visited Watertown for several days, ostensibly to see the sights, but it was Charlie himself who was a sight to behold. The Daily Times reported his new haircut as “a close-cut pompadour. It is close, very close on the back, so close that every corrugation of his skull is clearly shown” — and it was blonde! Topping off his colorful wardrobe and newly styled locks was a derby far too large for his head. To make it work properly, he stacked folded newspapers inside the crown, making it ride high and proper.
In early March, he fulfilled a promise to students and returned to Watertown High School for an encore performance. With teachers and pupils watching, he gave speeches, sang, and danced until the tardy bell rang and everyone headed for daily classes. He accompanied a small group down the hall, apparently hoping to extend his performance in some way, but was intercepted by the principal, who escorted him out so as not to disrupt the regular school day.
In early May, he was once again on the big screen at the City Opera House, where the promotional film, Watertown in Motion: See Yourselves as Others See You, returned for a three-day engagement. Among the several names featured in advertisements for the show was Huckleberry Charlie.
At an automobile parade held in the city in September, suffragettes sponsored one of the participating vehicles. After the awards ceremony, Charlie gave a speech titled, “The Effect of Woman Suffrage on the Warring Nations,” proving a grasp for gravitas equal to his penchant for comedy. Of course, there was never any doubt about his intelligence, a necessity for creating effective humor — Charlie’s forte.
In September, he made headlines of a different sort thanks to a charming story that was widely disseminated by the Associated Press. Back when he was a teenager, the circus had come to town, and Charlie paid the admission fee for a young friend eight years his junior who lacked the necessary fifty cents. A half-century later, that boy was widely known as multimillionaire Frank W. Woolworth, founder of the famous F. W. Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores.
Among those to greet the businessman on a visit to his hometown was Charlie, and when mention of their childhood connection came up, Woolworth good-naturedly settled the “loan” from long ago. As he explained to reporters, Charlie had once done him a wonderful turn, and he was happy to pay the debt. “We are from the same town, you know. It seems good to see Charlie once more, even if it has cost me half a dollar. Anyway, that [the circus] was the best show I ever saw.”
In October, Charlie showed up in Carthage sporting black hair, quite the change from his recent experiment with blondness. After visiting villages in the town of Denmark, including Deer River, to offer entertaining orations on different topics, he returned to Carthage with another surprise — bright red hair! Charlie seldom gave reasons for his unusual behaviors, but in this case said he thought the crimson locks would make him look younger.
In early 1916, there was a birthday-related trip to Watertown (he claimed to have been born there on February 15, 1842, although a slight majority of census records cite 1843). Descriptions of his attire for the special occasion appeared in several newspapers: “Charlie was wonderfully arrayed. One of his purchases was a pair of bright yellow shoes and a pair of new rubbers…. Charlie believes that they are not wearing trousers long this season, and he rolled his up so that they answer to the latest dictates of fashion. He has also gone in considerably for jewelry and had three cameos and other pieces of pottery adorning his necktie. There wasn’t room enough for the medals on his tie if he tucked it inside his vest, so the brilliantly colored cravat waved to the breezes.”
Another said, “He had the rainbow blushing as regards coloratura as he passed along the Square, ‘the cynosure of neighboring eyes.’ He wore a derby hat on part of his head and over the left half of his face. A regulation collar supported a flaming scarlet flowing tie, which shone out vividly over a white waistcoat. His overcoat was opened and flung to the breezes in order that the accoutrements might be better viewed by the enthusiastic spectators.”
In early March, during an auto show in the city, he wore another colorful outfit in the crowded lobby of the New Woodruff Hotel. He was there to entertain attendees, and gladly accepted multiple offers of free cigars; it was hard to imagine him without one tucked in the corner of his mouth. While delivering his spiel, several pennants pinned to Charlie’s overcoat touted the advantages of different car models.
In April, after visiting Philadelphia and other area villages, he arrived back in Watertown with some additional facial hair. His appearance, with a small, furry clump between his chin and lower lip, was likened to that of noted composer and pianist Ignacy Paderewski, for both wore what today is known as a soul patch. His look was further enhanced by flowers added to his “coat, vest, and pants of many colors … so he looks like a posy out for an airing,” said the Daily Times.
While hanging out with old friends, Charlie had a bit too much to drink, and was seen weaving down the street late at night towards City Hall, where he was surely the most dapper among 26 other “guests” who spent the night there in the local lockup. After warnings the next day by police to go easy on the ale, he returned to Great Bend.
In late summer he began touring the county fairs, where his presence was more appreciated than ever in 1916 because of attendance woes at most events. The reason was a state-wide ban on all patrons under the age of 16, which had a domino effect because when children couldn’t attend, the parents who normally brought them also didn’t attend. At issue was an outbreak of polio, or possibly acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), a similar affliction, both of which cause paralysis in children. Numbers at the Jefferson County Fair epitomized the impact on attendance, which, after the first two days, was down by 43 percent from the previous year.
When Charlie arrived on day three, the Watertown Daily Times wrote the following: “The board of directors heaved a sigh of relief this morning when Huckleberry Charlie appeared on the grounds. They had begun to think that perhaps Charlie was mad about something and had determined to take his patronage away from the fair, but he explained his absence the first two days by saying that he had been too busy picking huckleberries [more than 500 quarts!]…. When he arrived on the grounds, he looked about, struck a pose with his thumb in the arm hole of his vest, and dissertated on fairs past and present. A scarlet tie makes him conspicuous. Though not adorned with buttons and pennants, he will look like a Mexican general before night, with all his medals. Charlie is raising a long thumbnail this year, which he says is very handy to scratch his head…. He proved to be a pretty good drummer, for his speeches brought several of the sideshows good crowds.”
Next week, part 6: vintage Charlie; new stylings; questions of sanity.
Photos: Charles Sherman (original by Henry Beach, 1908); advertisement (Watertown Daily Times, 1915); headline, Chicago Daily Tribune, 1915); headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1915)