Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Cook Mrs. Carlson

The Cook Mrs. Carlson

It is very true that the Erie Canal opened the west to economic prosperity and settlement, fueling further the great migration into the continent of North America.  With that flow of human traffic, came an unsettling number of transient criminals and rapscallions.  A diverse population blossomed within the growing canal towns and cities and eventually the seedy underside of any metropolis could carry themselves along the waterways. 

While passenger traffic had waned by 1867 with the increasing success of the railroads and western settlement, it was not all that uncommon for a cargo barge to take on a passenger for a fee.  In the era of company barges, captained by a man whose wife operated as the cook, this could be advantageous – especially if the company didn’t find out. 

Such was the case of the Carlson family, who as the husband captained the “Vuilmoord” for the Blair Barge Company, his wife – the good Mrs.  Gehenna Carlson was the cook. 

As was the typical custom of the Carlson barge to pick up travelers for short stretches from town to town as they hauled cargo (from the salt of Syracuse to the finished European furniture wares picked up in Albany fresh off a steamer that traversed the Hudson).  Their only condition beyond the fee paid was that those that purchased their fare kept mum the name of the barge so the company accessors wouldn’t discover their extra income. 

In mid-summer of 1867 the Vuilmoord picked up a transient whose name remains unknown but his deed that day unforgotten.  Half way between Lock 31 and 30 traveling east, a thrashing was heard aboard the barge and a thudded splash upon the canal disturbed the quiet air.

While making biscuits the good Mrs. Carlson was set upon by the wayfaring traveler and stabbed with her own bread knife.  The scoundrel took her broach and several items from the boat before leaping off the stern to the berm of the canal, reportedly from witnesses – dropping the broach as he went.

A dismayed Captain Carlson discovered his wife dead upon the floor beside the stove.  His melancholy set fast and no longer was he able to work the canal; blaming himself for her terrible fate.

This tale could fall into the many forgotten occurrences along the canal if it were not for the apparent continued search of the Cook Carlson ghost to retrieve her broach.  Many in the area have reported in the years since, seeing a ghastly figure – translucent in the wispy air – along the banks of the old canal bed.  To today’s travelers pedaling the bike trail just like those that continued labor along the canal, a cold hand often touches them as they stop for a moment to take in the smell of freshly baked biscuits wafting from an unknown source.  This cold touch upon them often leaves behind a small imprint, that of flour from hands so long ago cut down upon the waters of the grand Erie Canal.

The Witch of the Ditch

The Witch of the Ditch

For centuries the specter of witchcraft has hung ghastly over the new world.   Children’s tales are full of knobby fingered, warty nosed screeching witches that devour them if they are allowed to be lead astray.  But what if the threat of witchcraft came to them?  What if it came at night, when they slept in their beds at home?

   Iroquois for centuries believed in the fearful ways of witchcraft, and sentenced those among them thought to be a witch to a gruesome death.  Those beliefs did not change greatly as European settlers from the Netherlands, England or Palatine began their migration into the valley.  In fact, those Europeans brought their own set of witch tales with them, along with “superstitions” about those that practiced the craft.  Seldom openly discussed and nearly void in the archival records, witches were feared and indeed a part of New York history.

   Long after the sensational and now infamous trials in Salem, Massachusetts, New York proposed to dig a canal across the state; across land which held spiritual meaning for more than just the remaining Native American population.  It is said that there were others on the land that were cast off for their beliefs and, choosing to live a life of nearly total isolation, had fled into the unsettled stretches of the Mohawk Valley.  For them the River was a life force, the blood that sustained their practices and gave power to their conjuring ways. 

   Once that grand canal, the Erie Canal, opened across the state, it meant the decline of the relative spiritual peace that had existed along the Mohawk River.  Some have said that the natural world screamed out as it was cut and dug for the canal, and the harbinger of death hung like the smoke of burning sulfur all along its path.  Those witches that for so many years hide themselves along the waterway harkened to the call and placed a curse on the canal.

Many who did not ply their trade nor work along the canal could never fully realize the horror that the curse brought along the artificial river.  Seldom brought up, the murmurs of laborers along the canal that the witches grasp on their souls was strong would be faint and often hid by those who wanted to see the canal succeed not matter what.  Disease and declining morality along the stretch from Albany to Buffalo was seen as a result of progress, the necessary evil in creating a booming economy and freer society overall.  Gradually the wisps of that sulfur smoke would overtake the Valley…

The Witches' Chimney
at Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site
   To protect themselves, people settling into the new towns and cities that grew from the fertile canal subtly employed the superstitious into their practical designs.  All along the Canalway there are architectural remnants of such things, from shoes concealed within the walls of the building to salt and witches bottles and tobacco pipes to the ever interesting witches’ chimney.  In Fort Hunter, a hub of canal activity and even the location of several broom manufacturers, there is evidence that those apotropaic magic designs existed. 

   Within the building that now houses the Schoharie Crossing Visitor Center, a witches’ chimney still protects those that are inside from the dreadful prospect of broom welding witches making their way in through the chimney.  A Witches Chimney is slanted from the top downward as a way to keep flying witches from entering.  And with so many fine brooms being made in Fort Hunter, perhaps they were frequent customers!

A portion of that original canal, or DeWitt Clinton’s famous “Ditch” remains in the now sleepy hamlet of Fort Hunter, NY and while the locals may not speak of it, if you are there you can sometimes hear the fading screeches of the witches …………..

Friday, October 30, 2015

Recap Last Years Halloween Spooktacular Tales

Freshen up, get ready and check out the Spooktacular Tales from last Halloween on our blog!

Ghost Barges – The fog hides a lot when you are walking out there alone.

Falling Into Insanity – Watch your step!

Dead Men Still Seeking Escape – Toil through the muck and soil.

Canal Break of Men’s Souls – Never finished work.

Flesh Eater – Don’t go out into the woods! 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Autumn 2015 Friends Newsletter - Autos on the Towpath & More!

Check out our 2015 Autumn Friends of Schoharie Crossing Newsletter:

If you have enjoyed this newsletter and want to contribute to the success of the Friends group in supporting Schoharie Crossing, please consider joining us.

Thank you!

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

More Small Details - W.K. Lewis & Brothers Gherkins

  Last month we explored the Small Details on the mural in the Putman Canal Store at Yankee Hill Lock – part of the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site.  In this post we will examine another interesting piece of that artwork and its historical context – W.K. Lewis & Bros. Pickles.

   The W.K. Lewis & Bros. Company is featured on the mural as the manufacturer of a container of gherkins.  This jar seems destined for ill-fate as a canal cat is trouncing its way across the shelf – a bit of whimsy included by the artist. 

William K. Lewis
   W.K. Lewis was established by William K. Lewis around 1835 after several years apprenticed to and partnered in Boston, Massachusetts with William Underwood – the first pickle manufacturer in America and whose company is more noted now for the devilishly handsome cans of Deviled Ham.  Shortly thereafter Lewis associated with his father on the enterprise and later the addition of his brothers into the business brought about the addition of Brothers to the company name after the death of William Sr. in 1859. 

   Lewis took what he had learned from his time with the William Underwood Company and implemented the production of processed meats, preserves and sauces in a building on Broad St. in Boston – right next to his former employer.  The company expanded in 1842, including a facility in Portland, Maine – Lewis’s hometown – that was producing “hermetically sealed meats, soups, fish, vegetables, poultry and milk.”  These items were in an increasing demand as west-ward expansion flourished.  Most particularly, the mass movement of people to California in 1849-1850 as part of the gold rush brought prosperity to canning companies like W.K. Lewis.  Between the years 1849 and 1854 the company retained the Broad Street building but added to its capacity a factory on Purchase Street as well as three other buildings near the Broad Street storehouse & offices as part of the Tilden Block. 

  In 1859 W.K. Lewis purchased the right, under the patent of Gail Borden, to manufacture condensed milk; for which the company developed a factory at Shirley Village.  1865 saw the building of another condensed milk factory at West Brookfield.  These factories utilized what was at the time the most state of the art machinery and technology to manufacture and can such products.  By the late 1870’s the monthly production of the West Brookfield factory was at 36,000 one pound cans of condensed milk, as well as 6,000 quarts of what was dubbed as “plain condensed milk.”   

The W.K. Lewis Company added a factory in Maine on the Isle au Haut, specifically to can lobsters, in 1860.  This operation was enlarged several times and more factories were added to the ever growing company holdings over the successive years within Nova Scotia and Halifax – as well as other towns along the coast.  By 1879 they were collectively putting to market over 9,000,000 lobsters by this method. 

   The pickle production of the company was increased in 1869 when they established another processing factory in Lincoln, Massachusetts – a “noted pickle producing region.”  In 1873 the Broad Street facilities moved to Somerville (a hop across the Charles River) and employed nearly one hundred men whom produced over ten million pickles a year. 

The New Orleans Daily Democrat
September 01, 1877
There is a slight indication that by the later part of the decade the pickle enterprise hadn’t worked out that entirely well.
“Among the canned baked beans on the market were those of W.K. Lewis & Brothers, of Boston. The product spread quickly to distant points. An ad appearing in the Galveston (Texas) Daily News on Feb. 23, 1878 announced that three-pound cans of they beans were being “Sold by All First Class Grocers in Galveston.”
Had it not been for Lewis, the baked bean “freak*” would not have occurred in the late 1870s. A Gettysburg, Pa., newspaper, the Star and Sentinel, noted on Aug. 21, 1888 that “W. K. Lewis of Boston received the first patent for canning beans, in 1877.”
Lewis had gone broke as a pickle dealer in Boston in 1875, being able to pay creditors only 50 cents on the dollar, according to news accounts of the time, but apparently rebounded because he knew his beans. - ROGER M. GRACE, Metropolitan News Company 2006

*freak in this context & form outside of today’s colloquialism means “whim” or “fancy”

W.K. Lewis Company
Ketchup Bottle
The Hawaiian Gazette
April 04, 1877
Honolulu - Oahu, Hawaii
   The W.K. Lewis & Brothers Company is represented on the mural at the canal lock grocery as part of an interpretation of how the stocked items of the Putman family business may have looked somewhere around the 1860’s within the first decade to fifteen years of its operation at that location.  While pickles were only a small portion of the items the company produced or imported, the gherkin bottle is there as part of a larger story that is included in the overall narrative of westward expansion and the inter-connectedness of people and commerce. 

The New Orleans Daily Democrat., January 27, 1878

 Check out this really interesting advertisement for W.K. Lewis & Bros. Baked Beans

Northern tribune., September 01, 1877 - Cheboygan Michigan
-Click to enlarge-

The New Orleans Bulletin., November 22, 1874


D. Brooks - Education Coordinator for Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site

Schoharie Crossing 
PO Box 140
129 Schoharie Street
Fort Hunter, NY 12069

(518) 829-7516