Sunday, December 16, 2018

Huckleberry Charlie’s Saga Continues

In June 1917, Charlie Sherman showed up as usual in Watertown to apprise his friends at the Daily Times how things were going. After discussing the blueberry crop, he mentioned his new cat, Snowball, who “could roll over three times without stopping.” A surprise once again was his attire, but not in the customary way: instead of a flashy, multicolored wardrobe, “his suit being of a sober, mixed gray, but to the sport type.”

The year played out in typical fashion, with Charlie selling berries during the summer and touring the fairs in the fall. As had become customary, he also played a role in Watertown’s Labor Day parade. “Charles Sherman, bedecked with emblems, lodge insignia, etc., was given a prominent place in the parade, and even preceded the Fourth Artillery band at times when he considered the occasion demanded. The parade was witnessed by a large crowd of Watertown people who lined the Square on all sides, as well as [seven] other streets taken in on the line of march.”

During his 1918 tour of the fairs, Charlie entertained old friends at the 60th annual exhibition of the Gouverneur Agricultural and Mechanical Society. That town’s newspaper, the Free Press, took note of his outfit:

“Before the races were over for the day, Huckleberry Charley of Great Bend came on the stand and commenced renewing old acquaintances, as he had not been here before in several years. As usual, Charley was arrayed in picturesque garb, including a cardinal-colored hat and a vest and tie that vied with the rainbow in their many colors. He also wore a dress coat of the style of long ago.”

He helped draw a crowd at Lowville and other locations, but a month later, Charlie faced one of the scariest incidents of his life. According to Della, her husband’s recent behavior at home was inconsistent with his public persona. Aside from his many eccentricities, he had become “irritable and dangerous,” so much so that she requested his placement in an institution. He was taken into custody, spent a night in the city jail, and was hospitalized the following day for the examinations. As happened to his brother, Robert, 15 years earlier, Charlie’s fate had been placed in the hands of a sanity commission.

While awaiting the results, his old and dear friends at the Watertown Daily Times recounted Charlie’s history, his wonderful apparel choices, and what he meant to so many people in the North Country.

“The sartorial creations of Charley were wondrous. He affected glaring colors. His latest creation was a long coat worn by dandies of the Grover Cleveland era, a scarlet vest, and a hat of vivid crimson…. He affected a cane, and he swung it with an air of abandon as he walked about the streets. His last appearance in Watertown was on Governor’s Day during the fair. In his multi-colored raiment, he led the band to the fairgrounds and paraded around the front of the grandstand. The governor was plainly amused at the actions of his constituent, and his face was wreathed in smiles as he watched the eccentricities of Charley….

“There is not a man, woman, or child in northern New York who does not know Huckleberry Charley or who has not laughed at his actions. He has been a familiar figure at every fair or convention in this section in the last half-century or more. A fair without him would be as incomplete as a race meet without horses. He furnished more amusement than any midway attraction, and the fair management counted itself lucky when Charley took up his headquarters with them.”

No fewer than four newspapers intimated he was going to be confined to the Ogdensburg State Hospital for the remainder of his days. The two men tasked with that decision were Watertown Health Officer Andrew Allen and Dr. Joseph Olin, also of the city. But even after they examined Charlie, the issue remained unsettled, and he was allowed to return home to Great Bend. Dr. Allen then contacted Dr. Charles Hull of West Carthage and suggested that if Hull concluded Sherman should be committed, the town would have to pay the costs. But Hull said that only critical cases were being accepted at the hospital because they were overcrowded and understaffed, reducing the likelihood that patients were being properly served. Besides, said Hull about Charlie, “His condition is not any worse now than it has been for several months. He is not crazy, you know, he is just eccentric.”

While his future had been precarious while in the hands of three doctors, a fourth physician came to Charlie’s aid two months later and may have saved him from an early grave, according to the Black River Democrat. On one of his frequent trips to Watertown, Charlie booked a room at the Crowner Hotel and made a mistake that had proven fatal to countless victims in the past: blowing out the gas lamp before going to bed. Early in the morning, a bellboy detected the scent of gas, broke into the room, turned off the gas, and summoned help. Dr. Harry Pawling tended to the old gentleman for several hours, at which point he had recovered and felt well enough to return home.

In unexpected fashion, portions of Charlie’s life were in a sense immortalized in the May 24, 1919 issue of Argosy and Railroad Man’s Magazine. The article, written by Lee Landon (a pen name of former Watertown newspaperman Olin Lyman), was a fiction-based-on-fact piece titled “One Hundred Percent.” The hero was Huckleberry Henry, referred to as the Philosopher of Poplar Plains. Other installments appeared in future issues.

In June of that year, Charlie took his comedic act to the city hospital, but involuntarily — as a patient, injured while on a strawberry-picking expedition, according to the Daily Times. “ ‘I was going along at a pretty fast gait, when I fell down,’ ” Charlie told the nurses this morning. He said he fell on his shoulder and as a result, suffered a dislocation.

“This is about Charlie’s first experience inside a hospital, and is causing much amusement among the attendants by his humorous remarks in regard to various phases in the art of nursing. Charlie is still capable of rendering his rapid-fire talk on the history of his past life, his relatives, and the fine crop of huckleberries expected at Pine Plains this year, and keeps the inmates of the ward in a state of amusement throughout the day.”

Next week, the conclusion: losing a North Country treasure.

Photos: Charles Sherman; headline (Watertown Daily Times, 1918); headline (Black River Democrat, 1918); Argosy cover (1919),

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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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