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Haven History: Wayside destiny

By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment

October 13, 2011

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Lou Bernard/Eagle Eye

Ninety years ago this month, a group of people gathered to begin the Clinton County Historical Society. Most of them would not live to see it acquire a museum forty-one years later. None of them would live to this year, when the society celebrates it’s ninetieth birthday.

But Henry Wharton Shoemaker, who was a trustee of the CCHS, may have seen both. Even though he died in 1958, that didn’t necessarily stop him. If anyone is still haunting the Heisey Museum, it’s Shoemaker.

You may recognize Shoemaker’s name; I’ve written about him before. He was a writer, historian and folklorist from McElhattan. His stories of ghosts, curses, and monsters were taken from oral legends of the area, which he gathered by interviewing people and writing them into books. The carriage that he rode to these interviews is on display in the museum today. And it wouldn’t surprise me if his ghost was still hanging around.

At the time the historical society was founded, Shoemaker was running the Altoona Times Tribune and working as a staff writer on Gifford Pinchot’s campaign for governor. In a letter to Sidney Furst, first president of the society, Shoemaker wrote, “Just a line to inquire if you sent announcements to the papers calling for the organization of the Clinton County Historical Society….As we want to get this young society going!”

At the time, Shoemaker was also working on his book, “Allegheny Episodes.” This book contains stories of the fountain of youth, the killer gorilla of Woolrich, and Black Agnes Dunbar. It also contains another favorite story, “Wayside Destiny.”

The story begins not long after the Civil War, and involves a traveling salesman in the lumber industry, Ammon Tatnall. Tatnall often had to travel by train to get to his destination, and on one route, passed a graveyard across the river from the train tracks. In this small, old cemetery, he often saw a girl in gray kneeling by one stone. When he commented on this to the people sitting next to him, they could never see her.

Tatnall eventually understood that he was seeing a ghost, drawn to that lonely grave for some reason. For five years, Tatnall saw the young woman, and wondered about her. Finally, he decided to investigate.

He took a train to the area, and walked to the river. He paid a man to take him across in his boat, and approached the graveyard. Nearby was a small general store, and Tatnall stopped in.

Inside the store, he saw a woman working. It took him a moment, but he realized she looked remarkably like the girl in gray from the cemetery. After the customers cleared out, he introduced himself, and asked about the ghost.

“Yes, I know all about it,” said the woman. “I’ve seen her, too. She was one of my ancestors, and her name is the same as mine: Elma Hacker.”

She proceeded to tell Ammon Tatnall the story, what had happened to create a ghost.

“It was a sad and curious story,” she said. “Elma Hacker lived in a small stone fort in pioneer country with her parents. She had a sweetheart who lived across the Gap, named Ammon Quicksall.”

“That’s almost my name,” came the response. “I’m Ammon Tatnall.”

“There was an Indian named Chansops, who loved Elma,” continued the girl. “In a fit of jealousy one day, he shot Ammon Quicknall, who died immediately in Elma’s arms. Elma was brave, but she pined away and died. They were buried in the cemetery, and the ghost you see is Elma Hacker, at the grave of Ammon Quicksall. How curious it is that we have an Ammon and an Elma together again. It is strange that you should have been interested enough to come and solve the mystery.”

Tatnall took her hand.

“Let us feel that everything that went wrong in the old days is to be righted now,” he said. “I believe in destiny, of chance and opportunity. Nothing that is started is ever left unfinished. And we of this generation become unconscious actors in the final scenes of a drama that began long ago.”

The two of them fell in love, and stayed together.

And the ghost of the girl in gray was never seen again, now, apparently, at peace.

This is one of the stories Shoemaker was writing as he helped to begin the Clinton County Historical Society. I’m not sure he knew how prophetic his words would be, ninety years later: “Nothing that is started is ever left unfinished. And we of this generation become unconscious actors in the final scenes of a drama that began long ago.”

Most people love a good ghost story. So did Henry Shoemaker. I think he’d like it that the historical society has not been left unfinished, and that my generation is working on what he helped to begin. I wish he could see it.

And who knows? Maybe, somehow, he can.

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