By Lou Bernard in Arts & Entertainment
February 23, 2012
It’s that time of year again—Time for Henry Wharton Shoemaker’s birthday. Born on February 24, 1870, Shoemaker was a writer and historian. He was the first state historian in Pennsylvania, and made great strides at preserving history and creating monuments. And he was from right here in Clinton County, with a home in McElhattan.
I’ve talked about Shoemaker’s work before, and told several of his better-known stories. He is well known for stories such as The Giantess, The Headless Trackwalker, Indian Steps, and others. But he wrote much more than that—The man was a vending machine for bizarre stories. For his birthday this year, I decided to promote some of his lesser-known stuff. I chose the best of these through a scientific survey that involved asking whoever wandered through my office.
My boss, executive director Anne McCloskey, campaigned for the Dancing Cupboard. This was one of Shoemaker’s early works. It began with a young man visiting his girlfriend late at night.
This is a common theme in many Shoemaker stories. If you were visiting your girlfriend, the absolute worst thing you could do was to go home. This invariably led to an encounter with the supernatural. In this case, the young man was walking over the Pine-Loganton Road, and saw a fully stocked cupboard dancing around in the path.
Shoemaker, it may be assumed, was channeling Disney movies with his story of dancing furniture. The cupboard, however, turned out to be inhabited by a murdered servant girl who had lived in the area. Why she should choose to possess a cupboard specifically is not clear, much like so much else about Shoemaker’s work.
My sidekick Taylor Walizer suggested her favorite, the story of Gaston Bushong. Bushong was a Frenchman during the French and Indian War. He was known as a brave warrior in the area that later became McElhattan.
In a series of events too convoluted to even remotely fit into one article, Bushong wound up leading an attack on the Indians near what would today be the Mid-State Trail. His men lost the battle, and one of the tribe beheaded Bushong and threw his head into the river. To this day, it’s said, Bushong’s spirit still wanders through the area, looking for his lost head. (I know the feeling, sort of, but generally mine comes back to me after a few cups of coffee.)
Temporarily out of victims for my survey, I called my daughter to ask what her favorite Shoemaker story is. She responded with enthusiasm. “I don’t know, Dad,” she said. “Wasn’t there one about, like, a ghost or something?” (My children are going to rebel against me by getting nine-to-five accounting jobs.)
“The Deserter’s Cave!” I said. “Good one!”
This story was about a Civil War deserter who bailed before he could even get near a battle. Running up into the mountains of McElhattan, he took refuge in a small cave. Late at night, however, he was abruptly awakened by the spirits of Indian warriors who inhabited the cave. The bravest of warriors haunted this cave, and they told him that he was not worthy to be among them. He ran, afraid, found a train, and turned himself in.
Over lunch, my neighbor Mackie McKay suggested the story of the Lost Chord. This is another interesting one of Shoemaker’s lesser-known stories. It involves a man from Beech Creek, who saw a woman while traveling. He immediately fell in love with her, fascinated with her beauty, and then was too shy to speak with her. (I have literally done this.) In efforts to find her later, he discovered a small, porcelain statue that looked just like her. He purchased it, brought it home, and placed it on top of his piano. When he played the piano, he found out that the statue would move, slowly, in the direction of wherever his lost love was in the world.
And me? One of my favorites is the Killer Gorilla. This was said to have happened around 1915, in the Woolrich area. The thing I like about this story is that even Henry Shoemaker admits the gorilla was a guy in a suit. His name was, I’m not kidding, Hornbostl. Needless to say, he wasn’t from around here.
Hornbostl fell in love with a girl who had no interest in him—She was interested in another guy. So Hornbostl found a gorilla costume, and dressed in it while he shoved the other guy off a cliff, on the basis that a random gorilla would be blamed. Because they’re apparently so common in Clinton County. Nobody is saying Hornbostl would have confounded the CSI unit.
After the murder, however, Hornbostl felt so guilty that he couldn’t take off the costume. He lost his mind, and was last seen running around the forests outside Woolrich, attacking people dressed as a gorilla.
Ghosts, gorillas, haunted furniture….Shoemaker told a variety of stories. But one common theme runs through them all—There is magic in each one. And even though Shoemaker died over fifty years ago, the magic he gave us remains.