A Passion for the Past

by Ellen S. Wilson

Henry Wharton Shoemaker wrote 4,000 of those historical markers you probably pass on the highway with only a casual glance but rarely have a chance to pull off the road and read. When you do read one, say at a scenic overlook or along a path through a state forest, you learn some little bit of history or lore about the spot you're standing on, about a person who lived or died there, or a spirit that haunts the place to this day. Henry Shoemaker made it his mission to save this information from oblivion.

Those markers are only a small part of his contribution to Pennsylvania, most of which you won't see if you aren't looking. His efforts, however, did change the place Pennsylvania holds in the nation's idea of itself. As the first state folklorist, and long before he had any official title at all, Shoemaker would pack a willow hamper with food for a week, trek into the woods, and listen to the people who lived in small cabins there, asking about their families or any stories of the area. And when they talked, Shoemaker wrote it all down, occasionally smoothing out the diction or romanticizing what he heard, and eventually published volumes of these tales, a dozen of which can be found in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

Pennsylvania is practically "a cultural region unto itself," according to biographer and folklorist Simon J. Bronner. Between historically rich New England and the distinctive South, Pennsylvania has a character that both the late Shoemaker and Bronner, Distinguished Professor of Folklore and American Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Penn State University - Harrisburg, have been drawn to document. Bronner's meticulously researched biography of Shoemaker is more of an academic look at the collection of folklore than an intimate study of the details of Shoemaker's life. In some ways this is a shame, because Shoemaker's life was dramatic, and the vision that led him to conserve the old stories was strong.

Shoemaker was born in New York in 1880, the first son of a wealthy family who made their money from Pennsylvania coal, railroads and banks. They lived on West 53rd Street, next door to the John D. Rockefeller family. While he grew up in Manhattan, his maternal grandparents owned an estate in McElhattan named Restless Oaks, on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania, where young Henry spent his summers and found his calling. Here the family escaped the city to live "naturally," according to the Victorian ideal, and to allow Henry's sickly mother to indulge in wilderness cures for her nervousness. Henry loved the natural setting so much that his grandmother arranged for him to inherit the estate.

Henry had two siblings, a brother who died as a young man, and a sister, who became an accomplished poet as well as the first woman motorcyclist in New York, or so she claimed, and probably merits a biography of her own. Henry, who had a tendency to refer to himself in the third person, claimed he was born with "an insistent longing for the woods and mountains," and for the stories that seemed as much a part of them as the trees. But more importantly, he found moral worth there, and the belief that truth revealed itself in history.

Shoemaker didn't immediately follow his inclination to devote his life to collecting folklore, and instead served as a delegate to the 1904 Republican convention and as third secretary of the American embassy in Berlin. He was a military intelligence officer in France during World War I, and tried to tend the family fortune, for which he had little interest and no talent. A Progressive with classic liberal and conservationist views, he owned the Altoona Tribune, and papers in Jersey Shore and Reading, Pennsylvania, as well as in Bridgeport, Connecticut. When he lived in New York, he was an active member of the Pennsylvania Society, which was led by Andrew Carnegie, among others, and which was dedicated to promoting "the good name and fair fame of the State."

In 1930, Herbert Hoover asked him to be minister to Bulgaria. Shoemaker admired the country's diverse wildlife, as well as the folk dances and traditional costumes preserved through state-sponsored programs, an idea he thought well worth emulating at home. When Franklin Roosevelt requested his resignation in 1933, the event was marked by unusual testimonials in Bulgarian newspapers, proof of his popularity. Throughout his tenure, however, he had continued to work on tales of Pennsylvania folklore and had Pennsylvania pretzels shipped in to ward off homesickness.

Shoemaker had been instrumental in founding the Pennsylvania Folk Lore Society in 1924, became state archivist in 1937, and directed the State Museum in Harrisburg in 1939 and 1940. Most of the family fortune had been lost in the Depression, but he had managed to hold on to Restless Oaks and made Pennsylvania his home after his return from Bulgaria. There, while still owning and writing regularly for his newspapers, he made collecting folklore his profession.

When he became state folklorist in 1948, a position that was created for him and that should have been the fulfillment of a dream, he was suspicious that the move was really intended to reorganize the state archives "professionally" and more or less kick him upstairs. The field of folklore itself was changing, meeting challenges from academics who thought people like Shoemaker had no business collecting stories, and that their very presence corrupted the field. And Shoemaker himself was getting old, maybe too old to go out and sleep under the trees in his buffalo robes and write down stories the way he used to. He was dismissed shortly after his 76th birthday, after relieving himself in an office sink rather than climbing down three flights of stairs to the bathroom. He died in 1958. Bronner ends his book with his own collecting voyage, a trip to McElhattan in search of Restless Oaks and some lore about Shoemaker. The breezy, casual tone of this epilogue is a nice change from the somewhat pedantic earlier chapters, but Bronner is less interested in personal details than in Shoemaker's importance to the field and to the state. He includes four of Shoemaker's best-known stories in the appendix to the book, and directs the reader to those first, in order to appreciate the labor of love that went into collecting them. And it was the labor of a lifetime, done with no thought to profit long after the family money was gone, inspired by Shoemaker's vision of the moral value of the natural world, old times and the stories about them.

At a meeting of the Ohio Valley Historical Association in Pittsburgh, Shoemaker once described the tellers of those tales, and what they might say "of wolves and wolverines and panthers, of bison, moose and elks, of wild pigeons, paroquets and cross-bills, of Indians, hunters, soldiers, witches, outlaws, sang [sic] diggers, lumbermen and traveling preachers, of Jack O'Lanthorns, tokens and ghosts, of the past, the dark, mysterious trackless past, that age of plain living and high thinking that is soothing to ponder over to the spirit which cannot reconcile itself to sky-scrapers and white lights. It will bring you close to the simple life, which is the heart of the world."

Ellen S. Wilson is the book review editor for Carnegie Magazine.

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