On July 8, 1874, The Lowville Journal and Republican ran an article about a party of six men who trekked to Twitchell Lake in Big Moose, NY, for a nine-day stay. They came by horse and buggy up the Number Four Road through Watson Township from some town to the west.
After a brief stay at the Fenton House in the hamlet of Number Four and an overnight at Wardwell’s on Beaver River’s Stillwater, they crossed Twitchell Creek and tramped a mile south off the Carthage to Lake Champlain Road to Wood’s Lake:
“A day and a half baiting here, fishing and resting, and we started for Twitchell’s Lake, five miles farther on over mountain and glen, which was really the objective point of our trip. There we expected to find rest from our labors, fish in abundance, together with all that quietude and repose that one ever imagines can be found amid ‘Solitude’s Mystic Wilds.’ A few hours tramp brought us in full view of the placid water, and nearby, up a little elevation or cliff, stood our humble dwelling, quiet and cozy as solitude’s own ‘sybil great.’ ”
The writer did not identify himself or the members of the party other than by first name. He assigned to each a functional title for this trip, including himself. I had to read this article several times before I realized that the author was not a reporter but a member of the party. The following line was my clue: “By the by, this big woods business was what I had in mind when I started this article, but you see my pen has taken as loose a rein as ever did Tam O’Shanter’s steed, but I know, Mr. Editor, you will pardon me in all this.” I wondered why this writer felt like he needed pardon and who on earth Tam O’Shanter was?
A second clue on this mystery writer was obvious: He was interested in poetry and literature. Besides fishing, he found his party’s need for rest from hectic lives echoed in one or more great literary sources, which I was going to have to investigate if I was going to figure out who this was. That proved to be the easy part. “Tam O’Shanter’s Steed” was the title of a popular Robert Burns (1759-1796) poem about a drunken Tam who angered his wife by his absence from the family. My guess was the writer was apologizing not for dependence on alcohol but for his literary prowess and digressions. I thought perhaps he might be associated with The Lowville Academy, founded in 1808.
“Solitude’s Mystic Wilds” was written by a lesser known 18th Century English Poet, James Grainger (1721-1766), whose “Ode to Solitude” praised the virtues of Repose and Friendship against the vices of Pretense, Corruption, and Dissention so common in his day. Humping a heavy pack basket through the Adirondack wilds, the tramping mystery writer quoted a full 40 lines from the epic 256-line poem. He mocked himself as Grainger’s personified “Echo,” lagging behind as they approached Woods Lake: “You sink to rest… And teach pleas’d Echo to complain”. Eventually, my investigation found six separate sources quoted by this mystery man of letters, including two William Cowper (1731-1800) anti-slavery poems – “Timepiece” and “The Solitude of Alexander Selkirk.”
I must digress, too, to offer a bit of background on this prose genre of Adirondack “Sportsman’s Era,” a chapter of Adirondack history from about 1860 to 1890 when men (and women) flocked to the North Woods for recreation, health, and profit. I have read over 500 articles covering these jaunts into “Fisherman’s & Hunter’s Paradise,” a majority of them from the Lowville gateway to the Adirondacks, used by the tramping mystery writer. A similar collection could be had for the other gateway cities – Potsdam, Malone, Plattsburg, Westport, Lake George and Saratoga Springs, Fonda, and Boonville. At one time or another these places boasted hotels which equipped their “sports” and supplied horses, wagons, and guides for a modest fee.
I categorize these fascinating articles in several ways. Lowville’s Lanpher House copied its Guest Registry to Lewis County papers which promptly published personal short stories listing party members, guides, destination, and length of stay. Another category reported the results of the tramp in numbers of “speckled beauties” caught or pounds of trout and venison taken. Longer articles such as “Summer Days at ‘Brown’s Tract,’ North Woods” were composed by a party member who kept a travel journal and wrote it up for one or more newspapers – this one a serial beginning on May 18, 1864 in The Journal & Republican.
Then a special category for the longer travel reports veiled party members by describing them as characters in a popular literary work of the period. A favorite was J. Fennimore Cooper’s (1789-1851) Leatherstocking Tales, which included The Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans. Readers were left to guess exactly who in the party “played” Leatherstocking, Commissary, Deer Slayer, Hawkeye, Pathfinder, or Natty Bumpo.
The mystery tramping writer’s “North Woods” article fit into this latter category. An important third clue concerned the names of the six party members, listed as follows: Eleazer the gentleman, David his brother, Amos the farmer, Charles our literary man, Alexander the tooth puller, and John the writer. John informed his readers on the makeup of his party, several being “old stagers” or veteran hikers, one on his very first Adirondack tramp, and another humorously termed “very ripe.” John divulged that the trip was nearly canceled before they reached the Adirondacks. Eleazer was so sick that his brother David had to turn around to attend to him before reaching Number Four, but later re-joined the party at Twitchell Lake “accompanied by a military escort” whom they all addressed as “The Major.”
In the consultation over whether to turn around before entering the Adirondacks, John, our writer, admitted to being “the green-un,” but convinced “the farmer” to lead in “the gentleman’s” absence:
“Our literary man says, two of our best managers are gone and there is no one left to fill their place. Alas! alas! but green as I was I suggested that I thought we could get him round so as to enable him to fish some, and he had the good sense to answer by saying, John, if you say you can do it, I will go on, for I never knew you to say you could do a thing but what there was something in it, more or less, and so on our party went, with father Amos for a leader.”
I made a few deductions from a fourth clue I found here. Although he had organized the trip, this was John’s first trip into the Adirondacks. Charles and Amos were the “old stagers” who possessed the leadership qualities and experience to head up a wilderness trip without a guide.
And then a fifth clue: John and Charles were actively engaged in politics. “Our literary man” abruptly turned to the “green un” and asked him two pointed questions: Was he not sorry that the towns had appealed the decision of the Board of Supervisors last fall? And did he honestly think that a Watson resident “paid her proportion of taxes?” To try to discover what this current events debate was all about, I consulted archived newspapers. What happened in the fall of 1873 to prompt this animated banter as horse and buggy lumbered along the sandy plains of Watson over “water, mud and stone?”
Soon I had my answer. For much of 1873 and 1874, Lowville papers reported weekly on State tax reforms initiated by a lawsuit filed by four Lewis County town supervisors against the other thirteen. By that action Lowville, Denmark, Harrisburg, and Martinsburg appealed an old tax formula by which their real estate and property tax “was equalized at a higher proportional rate than the other towns of the county,” an inequity they sought to correct (December 24, 1873, Lewis County Democrat).
State Law 851 addressed this and other local tax inequities by which a less populated town like Watson received substantial State aid in the form of tax reductions. So, on their way up into the Adirondacks, John pointed out to Charles the many farm dwellings they passed “painted nicely and surrounded by every sign of thrift and prosperity.” No, John responded, residents of Watson were not paying their fair share. Then he added his “clincher.” “It is time to stop this hypocritical canting by every old croaker.”
The December 24th edition of The Lewis County Democrat included “Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors” for their 1873 Annual Meeting which began on November 12. I scanned the list and fixed my eyes on Denmark’s Supervisor, a John C. Wright. Could he be my mystery writer? Yes, I thought, but needed more evidence to confirm it and then see if I could find out more about his party.
Much of my interest in this article was that I found John to be a kindred spirit, a teacher and learner who loved to write, even transforming this Twitchell tramp into a creative sample for his students, or so I imagined. His opening was very profound:
How very strange what changes a few short years accomplish! I know that “time in his hurried march” has indelibly stamped “change” on every passing event, yet so insensibly do they press one upon another, that it is only by a retrospect that our minds grasp what is constantly passing before our eyes.
Plato or Aristotle could have written this. Expertly did John relate “the poet’s state of mind” to his party’s quest for recreation, health, and fishing, substituting several words to fit this Adirondack “wild retreat”…birch for oak (line 83), hemlock for poplar (line 87), and spruce for cypress (line 107). A search of Lewis County papers confirmed my hunch, John “the writer” Wright served for many years as President of the Lewis County Teacher’s Association, the faculty of the Lowville Academy first in its ranks. In 1859 John presented a creative essay to help teachers teach the fundamentals of writing (June 19, Lewis County Banner). This was the man!
In other stories about Twitchell Lake and two more party members listed from the 1876 season: Amos and Charles. “Off for the Woods” further revealed that this Adirondack retreat had become an annual tradition for this group of men chiefly from Copenhagen- a hamlet in the Township of Denmark, 50 miles due west of Twitchell (May 24, Lowville Journal & Republican). In 1876 Charles A. Chickering (1844-1900) had replaced John as President of the Teacher’s Association and for many years served as the County Representative in the Albany Legislature. His brother Amos Chickering (1819-1880) was no less noted as a leader in agricultural circles.
I quickly found the rest of John Wright’s 1874 party in local newspapers and directories, all of them Lewis County movers and shakers. At that time the hamlet of Copenhagen had one Dentist or “tooth puller,” Dr. Will Alexander. “The Major” was one Sanford Coe – cousin to Eleazer’s wife Sina Coe – and the Lewis County Coroner. Eleazer and David Spencer were from a small town south of Lowville, listed as surveyors, hops farmers, and advertising a business titled “Stump and Rock Pullers.” When not in Albany, Charles Chickering ran a hardware, stove, and farming implement business in Copenhagen while John C. Wright farmed, manufactured butter tubs, and was proprietor of Copenhagen Mills, producing several brands of flour for local and state use.
John C. Wright’s first summer trek to Twitchell Lake was a big success. Here is how John summed it up: “Right here, however, I will just say, as for fish, we had a plenty, for our literary man more than sustained his former prestige as a fisherman, for no one brought in more than he did, and to beat father Amos was no mean job. David done well, and the ‘military’ was fully up to snuff.
“The Dr. succeeded beyond all expectations, and the “green un” not much behind…In due time we arrived home, feeling renewed and invigorated as if we had a new lease on life, well satisfied that our sojourn in the woods was not without profit and pleasure.”
Further digging turned up new discoveries about this mystery party. Three of its members were related to the Copenhagen family of Twitchell’s believed to be the namesake for Twitchell Lake. Amos and Charles Chickering and John Wright were all related by marriage to Charles Erastus Twitchell (1845-1922). Not a close one, yet kinship, nonetheless.
An 1857 map showing every homestead in Lewis County had three Twitchell families on bordering farms along the Deer River just south of Copenhagen center. The arrows on the above map point to Erastus Eames (E. E.), Urial Adam (U. A.), and Jerome (Jer.) Twitchell. The farm starred in the middle of these family farms was owned by John (J. C.) Wright! Interestingly, he introduced us to his party’s destination as “Twitchell’s Lake,” because he knew why their family name was so memorialized.
Illustration from above: S. & R. S. Taintor Jr. & Co. Publishers’ Topographical Map of Lewis County, New York, made from surveys by A. Ligowsky, 1857; The James Fenimore Cooper Two Cent Stamp, 1940 Issue; and “Off for The Woods” Short Published in The Lowville Journal and Republican, May 24, 1876.