In summer 1920, as he had done for at least 60 years, Charles Sherman was out on Pine Plains picking huckleberries. His usual tour of North Country fairs was in the works, a highly anticipated journey by Charlie and his admirers alike, but he began feeling poorly and decided not to go. He remained active until early October, but from that point forward was confined to the house as his health deteriorated. It was finally determined that cancer was gradually taking his life.
An outline of his unusual history was published in the Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, reviving fond memories of the good times had by all whenever Charlie came to town.
“His presence here always meant innumerable speeches, in which he recited that he was born in Watertown, lived at Pine Plains, and was the champion huckleberry picker. He always said the Plains was good only to ‘raise hell and huckleberries.’
“At each clothing store he would be given an unsalable article of dress. At the end of the tour, he would be decked out in the colors of the rainbow. Joseph’s coat of many colors was tame beside Huckleberry’s duck trousers, checkered pongee coat, brilliant red necktie, and college boy’s panama. Added to this, Charlie was certain to have a stogie poised at the Joe Cannon angle.
“At the county fair he was always a visitor — his entrance was gratuitous for he was one of the midway attractions. Lucky was the vendor in front of whose stand Sherman took his position. The crowd followed him and listened avidly to the time-worn theme. Charlie talked so fast it required three renditions of the speech to comprehend the ideas and sequence. If one remained any length of time he would hear the third speech.
“He came to Watertown last summer and was apparently as lively — and voluble — as ever. He was thin, but he was always so, and no one thought he was afflicted with a fatal ailment. Around Public Square he made his visits. A cigar pointed skyward from his mouth as he stopped at the American corner. Until nearly train time, he told the familiar story of his life, and then he went to Great Bend to hike from there back to his humble home, where an ever-faithful wife was waiting.
“Never since has he come out. It will cause genuine regret to old and young alike that his days are numbered.”
Charlie’s memorable lines included two that were often used by him and frequently quoted in one form or another. When asked how things were going, he liked to say, “Slippin’ fine, jut like soap suds down a sinkhole.” And his most oft-quoted line was instantly confusing, seemingly sensible and nonsensical at the same time — “I didn’t git as many berries this year as I expected, and I didn’t expect I would.”
He survived through the holidays and passed away at his home on the afternoon of January 13, 1921, about a month shy of his 79th birthday (presuming the birth date he gave, February 15, 1842, was accurate). When we go, few among us will be as sorely missed as Charlie, who brought immeasurable joy and entertainment to countless thousands.
As word of his passing circulated, several newspapers paid homage to his legacy, but none felt the loss more than his friends at the Watertown Daily Times, who outlined his life before eulogizing Charlie on a personal level, as in the following snippets:
“He traveled all over northern New York selling his wares, and he was a familiar figure in every village of the North Country during the huckleberry season…. For a half century he had sung the same merry song, ‘High bush or low bush, High bush or low bush.’ … He had a penchant for brightly colored clothes and he was a conspicuous figure in any crowd…. He liked attention.
“He had the history of the early days of Watertown at his tongue’s end, and could give figures and dates with no hesitation. He could tell the date of the erection of nearly all the older buildings in the city, and facts connected with their building. He was equally as conversant with the early history of Great Bend….
“Though eccentric in his appearance and manner, Mr. Sherman was a man of keen discernment. Attempts to make fun of him resulted disastrously for those who attempted it. He had a caustic wit, and when he loosed his tongue on his tormentor, Charley always came out victorious. He was a man of kindly heart, however, and those who knew him as he was, greatly admired him.”
“This particular section of the world benefited by reason of the presence of Huckleberry Charley, for he always brought pleasure wherever he went. Three counties will deeply regret his passing, for our country roads and country towns without the happy presence of this most unusual man will never be the same.”
It can’t be said much better than that. Charles Sherman was a unique character — interesting, fun, offbeat, eccentric — and literally one of the best Good-time Charlies in North Country history.
Photos: Charles Sherman (original by Henry Beach, 1908); headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1920); headline (Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, 1920); headline (Ogdensburg Republican-Journal, 1920)