Saturday, May 1, 2021

What in the Sam Hill?


Lexicographers often trace the origins of expressions in our language and attempt to chronicle their origins.  One such expression is “Sam Hill.”  People would say things such as, “What in the Sam Hill were you thinking?” or “What in the Sam Hill is that?”  Various explanations for its origin has surfaced over time, but one of its earliest uses can be traced back to an early Montour Falls newspaper known as the Havana Republican in 1839.

One theory of origin says that the expression came from a German opera about the Devil performed in New York City in 1825.  The Devil’s name was Samiel, which was perhaps corrupted into “Sam Hill.”  Another possibility was that of a Connecticut representative named Sam Hill, who served in forty-three sessions of the state legislature between 1727 and 1752.  When he died, his son took his place.  Supposedly it led to a popular Connecticut expression to “give them Sam Hill.” 

Two other explanations do not appear to be valid.  One attributes the origin to a merchant of that name in Prescott, Arizona who opened a store in 1877.  Another credits a surveyor in Michigan working for a copper mining operation in the 1850s who was known for his vulgar language.  But both of those possibilities are unlikely given that the term was used in the Havana Republican in 1839, thus proving that its usage pre-dated those alleged origins.

The Montour Falls Free Press (March 29, 1916) reported on an article in the March 1916 Literary Digest written in response to a query about the origins of the expression.  The Digest explained the origin was unknown, but was thought to be from New England.  It further explicated that the earliest known historical usage of it came from the Havana Republican in 1839 in an article called “Major Jack on a Whaler.”  In the article, a character on a whaling vessel hears a sailor shouting something in excitement and asks, “What in sam hill is that feller ballin’ about?”

Although the saying was not the invention of the Havana Republican, the newspaper had a role in spreading its usage.  Although it is a rather archaic expression, the next time you hear someone use it you can explain how Havana, today’s Montour Falls, had a hand in propagating the phrase.

Montour Falls Free Press, March 29, 1916

From the Havana Republican, August 21, 1839

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Ice Saloon


In past years, the Harbor Hotel in Watkins Glen has hosted an ice bar for its patrons.  In February 1875 there was another version of an ice bar.  A man named Richard Knight of Geneva related the story of his saloon on ice during that winter.  Seneca Lake has frozen over on only a few occasions, and that winter was one of those times.  The lake froze solid enough that one man drove a wagon pulled by a team of horses across the lake near Geneva.  People zoomed along the lake on ice schooners, and many people strapped on their ice skates to enjoy recreating on the ice.  Knight figured all those people enjoying the outdoors could use a little something to warm them up, like a shot of booze, so he put a saloon right on the frozen lake.  The operation was highly illegal since Knight had not paid for a liquor license.  His brilliant idea was to put the saloon on runners and park it where the county lines of Seneca, Yates, and Schuyler came together.  Any time he got word of an impending raid on his business, Knight had his saloon pushed across the line to another county, thus thwarting the authorities.  Knight proved to be a slippery suspect as he was able to skate away scot free. 

Source: Watkins Express, February 14, 1912.

Note:  Knight claimed in the article that the saloon was located where the borders of Schuyler, Yates, Seneca, and Ontario met; however, Ontario County does not border all of those counties.

Friday, December 4, 2020

Amos and Teddy


This is a story about Amos Hill, of Tyrone, and his visit with a well-known figure while waiting to catch a train in Washington, D.C. in the early 1900s.  The story was written by one Alderman Gleason.

Ame, as he was known, was a “hale fellow well met.” He made some money by farming and invested it wisely in oil land and oil stocks.

The great event of his life was when he and a friend were returning from a visit to his oil holdings in the south. They learned that they would have a long wait between trains in Washington.  

Ame said, “Let’s call on the President.” It was agreed and they made their way to the White House. They went to the door and a guard inquired as to their errand. Ame said, “Tell Teddy that a couple of old sod-busters from Wayne would like to see him.” It was but a short time when President Roosevelt came to the door with both hands outstretched and his characteristic “dee-lighted boys, come right in."” When they were inside, he continued, “I suppose you boys would like to see where I live,” and he personally conducted them through the White House.

After they made the rounds, they came back to his office and started a visit which came to be, according to Ame, a story-telling contest. “I thought I was pretty good,” Ame said, “but do the best I could, Teddy would top me every time.” I suppose that office rang with laughter.

The moments passed and too soon it was time to hurry to the station. The president accompanied them to the door, extended his hand, saying, “Boys, I don't know when I have enjoyed an afternoon more and if you are in Washington again while I am president, I shall consider it an insult if you don’t call on me.” Ame always ended the story by saying, “I am a Democrat and he is a Republican, but if he comes up for office, I'll vote for him. He is a real man.”

This story is from A History of Tyrone compiled by Gary Schrickel and revised in 2020.  The revised edition is now available in the Gift Shop at the Schuyler County Historical Society for $20, plus $8 for shipping.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The Odessa Common School and High School


To the left is a photo of the Odessa Common School taken in 1878.  It once stood in what is the parking lot of the current OMCS high school in Odessa.  By 1907, the small common school had become too small and a new school was built to replace it.  That building is shown below.  If you look closely, you will see there is something familiar about the two buildings.  When the new school was built in 1907, the old common school was raised up and a new story was put beneath it, adding four more rooms  The new school included a  two-year high school by 1910, and it became four-year in 1912.  The high school shown below was torn down when the current building was erected in 1938.  It was not until 1959 that the district merged with the Montour Falls schools.

The photo above shows the bell that once announced the start of the school day from the cupola of the common school.  It was cast in Seneca Falls in 1841.

Friday, June 26, 2020

The Arnot Forest Totem Pole

The photo above shows the Arnot Forest Totem Pole around 1940.

     The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) once had a camp in the Arnot Forest near Cayuta during the Great Depression.  The camp belonged to Cornell University and the university allowed the CCC to make use of the site.  Located within the camp was a totem pole from an Alaskan native village, and the young men in the CCC camp created a strange ritual involving the totem pole.
     In 1899, a wealthy railroad magnate named Edward Harriman took his family and a number of scientists on a cruise along southeastern Alaska.  On board were two Cornell professors, Louis Feurtes, an ornithological artist, and Bernard Fernow, a forester.  The Harriman expedition heard of an abandoned Tlingit village and decided to investigate it.  The party did not realize that abandonment of the village was only a temporary measure by the indigenous people, so they decided to help themselves to the “abandoned” souvenirs. They grabbed blankets, tools, and masks found in the village.  There were also several totem poles.  Some of the passengers balked at taking something as large as a totem pole, but Fernow showed them how to do it, and soon they were cruising away with most of the totem poles on the deck of their ship.
     One of the totem poles ended up at Cornell University.  After being displayed in a couple different locations on campus it ended up at the Arnot Forest location.  The Arnot Forest area was gifted to Cornell in 1927.  A lodge was built there and the totem pole was installed in front of it.  When the site became a CCC camp, the CCC workers spruced up the aging totem pole by painting it.  They eventually created a ritual around the totem pole as a means to haze new recruits.  The new recruits would be awakened at three in the morning, given a lighted candle to carry, and marched to the totem pole.  There they were instructed to knell down around it and bump their foreheads on the ground.
     The totem pole remained at the site until the 1970s.  Over the years the weather and wind took its toll on the decaying relic.  A windstorm in the late 1970s toppled the totem pole and it broke into pieces.  The remnants were gathered up and stored in a warehouse at Cornell.  In 2001, the fragmented totem pole finally went home again  when it was returned to the Tlingits in Alaska.  It is unfortunate that the totem pole had to be reduced to a crumbling mess before the right thing was finally done.  I don’t imagine that the Tlingits knell around it and bump their heads on the ground, but I am sure they are glad to have it back.

For a more thorough telling of the story of the totem pole check out this website:

Sunday, May 17, 2020

The Mysterious "Citizen-Soldier"

     In the vault at the Montour Falls Library is an old photo of a monument that has been a mystery for a long time.  The monument is a Civil War monument called “The Citizen-Soldier,” dedicated to the men of Montour Falls who served in the war.  Written below the photo is a note that says this was a monument at Gettysburg.  The problem is—there is no such monument at Gettysburg.  So where was the monument?  As I researched this further I discovered that the monument was intended to be placed in a park to be created in Montour Falls in front of the waterfall, but it never arrived.  The reason was that its donor, Halsey Ives, a distinguished citizen from Montour Falls, who helped form and lead the St. Louis Art Museum in Missouri, suddenly died in 1911, and his estate did not leave enough money to ship the statue to Montour Falls.
     Ives had commissioned a well-known sculptor named George Julian Zolnay to create the statue.  Zolnay, known as the “sculptor of the Confederacy” for the many Confederate monuments he made, used some rather unusual license in making the monument.  At the top of the monument can be seen the bust of a man.  Incredibly, when I began investigating other works by Zolnay, I recognized a similarity with another statue.  Zolnay’s statue in Nashville, Tennessee dedicated to Sam Davis, a Confederate hero executed as a spy by Union forces, has the same head as the statue Zolnay planned for Montour Falls.  Zolnay put the bust of a Confederate hero on top of a monument intended to celebrate Union soldiers from Montour Falls!
     The monument never made it to Montour Falls, but it did exist at one point as attested by the photograph.  The monument was subsequently dismantled.  The bust of the man still exists in the archives of the St. Louis Art Museum.  When I contacted them they showed me a picture of it, and it was simply labeled as “the head of a man.”  What happened to the rest of the statue is unknown.  I can only wonder that if Ives had lived longer and the statue had been shipped, what would have happened when the citizens of Montour Falls discovered that their statue memorializing their Union patriots was topped by a Confederate hero?  Zolnay’s deceit would have been—busted.
(left click on the photo above to see a larger image)

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Gibson, the Glen Guide

     In the 1880s, visitors to Watkins who wanted to see the famous glen often had a most unusual guide.  A dog.  His name was Gibson, a large furry fellow who for nearly twelve years gladly showed the tourists through the glen, as long as they rewarded him with his favorite treat: ice cream.  Gibson was described as a “remarkable animal” with “almost human intelligence.”
     Gibson made his home at the Jefferson Hotel in Watkins, which once stood at the corner of Franklin and Fourth Streets.  He innately knew who was a tourist, and would make his presence known by walking up to them to touch his nose to their hand or touch them with his paw.  He would never take local people to the glen, only the tourists.  All one had to say was, “Gibson, I want to go to the glen,” and their canine guide was ready to go.  He would lead them to the glen on foot or hop in their carriage and ride sitting upright on the seat with them.  Once at the glen, Gibson would lead his charges along the pathways to show them the spectacle of the glen.  If they began to take a wrong path, Gibson would stop and sit, until they came back to him so he could get them on the correct route once again.  If a path was somewhat dangerous, he was known to grasp their clothing in his mouth and pull them the right way.  He would even pause at certain spots as if to get the tourist to enjoy the natural beauty before them.
     Once Gibson began his guided tour, he did not abandon his escorts.  He was not distracted by other people, or even by other dogs—he kept to his mission.  If the people wanted to stop into a place to have a meal or shop, Gibson would lay down outside and wait for them.
     Gibson was very protective of his escorts, and he seemed to exhibit some class consciousness.  He was known to growl at workingmen who came near dressed in shabby clothes and was even known to spring on them to make them move away as he gallantly protected his tourists.  He also was not fond of salesmen, who he instinctively ignored.  But Gibson was gentle as a lamb around the tourists, especially the ladies who gleefully pet and pampered him.
     Many were saddened in December 1888 when they learned that Gibson had died at the Jefferson House.  I hope that those of us who walk the glen today will remember how Gibson’s paws once joyfully tread the same path, regaling in his favorite job.  And have some ice cream at the end of the journey in memory of Gibson.