Come here to read funny, interesting or just plain odd stories from the area's history. Some of the stories found on this page have been published in local newspapers and some have been written specifically for this website. If you're interested in researching and writing stories to be featured here, please visit the Volunteers page for more information!
The Hermit of Red Bank Island
Compiled by Terri Grady
The Hermit of Red Bank Island. From the Chronicle Express Files May 28, 1928. James H. Pitcher, born near Crystal Springs, now lives on a beautiful island just beyond the Yates County line. His home is becoming a popular show place for tourists. The week marked Jim Pitcher’s 75th birthday, he lives on a lonely island home in the midst of Lake Lamoka.
In describing Mr. Pitcher’s abode the “Finger Lakes Topics” says: Lake Lamoka, which is two miles long and about one mile in width, having a depth of about 80 feet, lies in approximately the northeastern corner of Schuyler County, a short distance from the Yates County line. Despite the fact that state roads of excellent quality carry one to the shore of the lake, the region is comparatively quiet serenity in keeping with the beauty of its surroundings, an ideal vacationists spot.
Practically a mile of water separates Red Bank Island from the mainland, and this may be traversed by any of the innumerable rowboats which are for rent at any cottage along the shore, or by a whistle or sounded automobile horn which will bring Mr. Pitcher from his island in the small motorboat which he used for this purpose.
Or should the party be large enough to tax the capacities of the motor craft, the hermit has provided for emergencies by the use of a large scow which he calls his “transport.” The need for some manner of transportation becomes more apparent when Mr. Pitcher tells of the visitors of his famous “gardens” who number 200 per week and come from all over the east.
Red Bank Island itself is situated near the northwest corner of the lake and contains about three acres of ground fairly low with the exception of a bluff about 30 feet high on the southern end. It is backed by an extensive swamp to the extreme west. From the bluff named Lookout Point, a view into three counties may be obtained, and a glimpse of the towns of Orange, Wayne and Bradford.
Aside from its present attraction the island has a most romantic history and is rich in the lore of the ancient Indian tribes, a lost village of Algonquins being discovered nearby.
When Mr. Pitcher came to the island, following the death of his second wife, the place was practically as desolate as when its shores knew the touch of the bird canoe and reverberated with the whoops and cries of the triumphant Indian hunters.
Showing what a man can accomplish in six full years, Mr. Pitcher cleared the heavy growth of underbrush bringing out the natural beauty of the oak, poplar, ash, willow and chestnut trees, and made his island empire a place of such beauty that flower and nature lovers coming from hundreds of miles away find words inadequate to express their wonder and admiration.
As one approaches the island by boat, the first sight to greet the eye is a tall flagpole on which “Old Glory” is fluttering in cool breezes. Rounding a point, the traveler sees a carefully constructed dock which gives shelter to the hermit’s “navy”, and which is backed by a beautiful archway which is covered with sweet smelling honeysuckle.
Here you are apt to be greeted by Mr. Pitcher, a slight-built man with a drooping gray moustache, and kindly blue eyes, which look on each visitor to the island as a personal friend.
Here permission to examine the island is granted and Mr. Pitcher is delighted to explain its features, never losing patience, although he is asked perhaps thousands of questions in a week. Far from the slouchy, uncouth person one might expect in a hermit, Mr. Pitcher belies his age of 75 in his work and conversation, and reminds the visitor of either the magician in his land of flowers, or a prosperous businessman who has great plans for the future of his little island and has no intention of retiring from the world.
It might be said the charm of Red Bank Island is partially in the owner. Following the clearing of the island in 1922, Mr. Pitcher moved a small cottage, purchased on the mainland, to the island over the ice, and later built another cottage which he rents. Both of the island homes are of simple, but comfortable manufacture and are extremely neat. He derives some revenue from the rental of boats to vacationists.
Fishing in the lake is still good he states, recalling the spearing of many huge carp, which, if properly prepared, contrary to popular belief, are good eating. The island is backed by an extensive swamp which is alive with muskrats, although few trappers attempt to take the valuable little animals. The recent breaking of a dam at Bradford which closed the channel from another small lake and lowered the water to some extent in Lake Lamoka, he says, has spoiled the rat fishing. Years past, says Mr. Pitcher, fishing boats have been so thick on the lake that it has been almost impossible to get through the tangle.
Practically covering the three acres of ground are arbors, scenic paths and flower beds of intricate design, each bed being raised some inches from the soil and each being marked off with pure white lake stones in all imaginable figures.
There are huge stars, the card corner containing beds of diamond, club, hearts and spade shapes, horseshoes, fans, circles, hubs, crescents, squares, circles in squares, etc. There are more than 100 different varieties of flowers on the island, some being of a rare and delicate species, which seldom are found in the gardens of New York State. Mr. Pitcher has arranged numerous rustic benches and tables. Leading from the flower gardens which are near the houses, are two carefully designed paths through the flowers which extend toward the southern end of the island and Lookout Point, of which Mr. Pitcher is very proud. The walks circle the bluff on which a simple rustic seat invites one to linger for the exceptional view.
After observing the entire island, the thought is apt to dawn on the more practical mind, what is Mr. Pitcher’s object, and what does he intend to do with the island when he finishes his work? This question is very candidly answered by Mr. Pitcher himself, who says that aside from his real love of the flowers, his object is purely business-he intends to sell and to sell for a good price. During a recent visit from a New York City man, Mr. Pitcher was offered and refused $10,000 for the island, it being his belief that the place would be a paying proposition for a private club. However, putting business aside, Red Bank Island and Lake Lamoka, as well as the genial character that has made this place his home, linger in the memory of his many visitors.
The Hermit of Red Bank Island, James H. Pitcher sold the island shortly before his death in 1932 and made his home with his son Hiram in Tyrone.
There are rumors of Canadian hydroplanes landing on the lake and delivering alcohol to the island to sell during prohibition. The story goes that you could ring a bell on shore and someone in a rowboat would bring it to you.
While stories of Jim Pitcher are still remembered, he was not the only hermit of Red Bank Island. Before Mr. Pitcher there was Hank Hand. Hank was not as friendly and welcoming as Jim.
Hank was dubbed by the Elmira Gazette as the famous fisherman and guide of Lake Lamoka in the 1880’s to the early 1900’s. When fish were wanted Hank was the go to man to get them. He knew Lamoka Lake like an open book. He knew all the likely spots to find bass, pickerel, and bullheads. There is one newspaper account that he had caught a thirty pound carp.
He was also known for breaking the game laws of the time period, but he began fishing on Lamoka Lake long before any game laws were written. According to the Elmira Star Gazette, Hank had ideas of his own, and was not slow to express them. If he liked a person he could not do enough to make that fact apparent; if he disliked them, they knew it. Game Constables were classed by Hand in the same category as the carp and many were the stories told about the old fisherman’s encounters with officers who tried to educate him to some of the game laws. It was stated in the Millerton (PA) Advocate that Hank can catch fish when no others can get a bite.
Hank, in his time, was a landmark of the area, along with his home on Red Bank Island, which burnt down in 1917.
Women in the Civil War
Written and researched by Cynthia Marchionda
The document below is a PDF copy of the DAHS lecture presented on July 22nd by Cynthia Marchionda. Her research focuses on the many and varied roles that women played during the Civil War, including spies, nurses and soldiers. Her research is currently ongoing as she works toward a Master's Degree in military history.
Here is an interesting news article pertaining to the research above: http://worldnewsdailyreport.com/usa-confederate-war-general-revealed-to-be-a-woman/ suggested by Tom Packard.
"Ingenious" Device Invented by Reading Center Man, 1893
From the Watkins Democrat, July 1893:
Vernon C. Huey, of Reading Center has invented a "baby walker"- an ingenious contrivance which is a great assistance in the care of infants. It consists of a cloth harness, which is fasted about the child and from which a stout cord passes over a roller that runs back and forth on a wire stretched tightly across the room from wall to wall. This apparatus holds the child upright and keeps it from falling, and as the youngster walks along thus supported, the roller on the wire above moves forward at a corresponding pace. Mr. Huey has made several of these articles and received orders for many more, and he thinks their manufacture would prove a profitable business, as they no doubt would find a ready sale wherever introduced.
The Spectre Boatman Legend
The Spectre Legend from an unnamed and dated newspaper article: Years ago during the so called “Squaw Winter” the old settlers would tell of the spectre boatman, which traveled in the winter mist by day and fire by night. It went over and across the lake beginning its trip from Rock Cabin, near Seneca Inlet. It goes up and down the lake always returning and disappearing in Catharine Marsh—sometimes called Bad India Swamp. Many years have passed since a report has been made of the spectre.
For nearly 37 years the spectre boatman that has wandered up and down the lake has not been reported. The last time that the vanishing boatman was seen was on Friday, June 13, 1949. On that day, the time of the spectre boatman, between dusk and nightfall, two Elmirans reported a boat had capsized in the gloom of the western shore with two persons aboard.
Watkins Glen Fire Department members grappled for a night and two days, it shows in the log book. At the point the water is not very deep. No boat was ever found and no individuals were ever reported missing for the phenomenon some of the firemen say was the spectre boatman.
Memories from Nelson Jones
Originally written by Bill de Lancey in 1958
It’s true that Wilhemus Himrod got the nod when it came to applying a name to the four corners, yet he arrived on the scene later than the Jones and Fitzwater families. Customers were waiting when Mr. Himrod set up store by the brook in early 1800’s.
All that pioneer history of Himrod’s Corners, as it was known then, is recited with ease today by John Nelson Jones, 64, farmer, dairy plant operator, and staunch fighter for the fundamental rights of American citizens.
He built the first milk pasteurizing plant in Yates County, and has re-built it four times into one of the most modern processing and distributing establishments to be found.
Bellview Farms Dairy is located at the northwest edge of Himrod, on the Penn Yan Himrod Rd. It’s surrounded by 1,000 acres of farms the present owner has inherited from his ancestors back to the time of the “Potter Location” or original grant.
J. Nelson Jones is a tall, big man, who can square back his shoulders and pierce you with a look when he talks about this nation’s drift toward socialism, and the increased squeeze, as he sees it, on the small dairyman or other farmer. He is headed for Washington in a few days to attend an agricultural hearing, and present the views of the “tillers of the soil, the founders of American economy.”
This farmer came by his attitude naturally. Let’s look at his family background on both sides: From England came Joshua Jones, in 1780, to settle in Massachusetts and then migrate, around 1800, to the likely farm sites on Seneca Lake. He arrived here soon after the George Fitzwater’s moved in from Pennsylvania. The latter family had traveled north in a buckboard hung on leather straps. This interesting relic, with its dish shaped wheels, remained in the Jones’ barn until a hurricane in the late 1940’s destroyed barn and wagon.
The first 20-acre patch cleared by the Fitzwater’s was considered one of the earliest clearings in Yates County. Then they threw a dam across Plum Creek, and there built a mill to saw their logs into lumber. Their Fitzwater Tavern became the halfway house on the crude forest road between Elmira and Canandaigua.
Joshua Jones’ son, Seth, married a Fitzwater daughter, and by that union there were five sons, each of whom picked up farms of nearly equal size, joined together, and dating back to the “Potter Location.” Their father, Seth, was a character of whom the family tells stories to this day. His dry humor extended to a peddler, who asked if he wanted to buy anything. Well, Seth would look, so the peddler spread everything from all his packs all over the porch, with no response from the prospect. Finally, the peddler said, “did you have anything particular in mind, Mr. Jones?” “I was looking for a plow point,” said Jones.
Seth’s wedding, too, was memorable. The day and hour came and Helen Fitzwater was waiting at her home a half-mile away. All the guests had arrived in their finery, but there was no Seth.
The young men in their lacy cuffs went to find him, and discovered him in his potato field, hoeing. When they asked him if he know what day it was, and that Helen was waiting, Seth said, “Well, if you fellows are so interested in my welfare, you could take hold of some hoes and we’d soon be done with the potatoes. Then I’ll go get married.” They did and he did.
One son of this marriage, Seth Nelson Jones, established a grain fertilizer and coal business in Himrod. George L. Jones became a lawyer; Asa L. Jones, a farmer-schoolteacher. He taught in the “old Stone Jug district.” He walked about five miles round trip a day, for $5 a week.
Loren G. Jones, in 1880 built the home occupied by Nelson, as today’s dairyman is known. It stands opposite the dairy plant. Loren was station agent at Himrod, on the Fall Brook Line. Allen C. Jones was a farmer. The two bachelor brothers were Asa and Loren. Seth, grandfather of the present Nelson Jones, eventually acquired all the five brothers’ farms except Allen’s.
Seth married Margaret Raplee, daughter of Miles Raplee, whose farm is now owned by Henry Roenke, of Geneva. Seth and Margaret had one son, Herbert, a farm and grain merchant, who died in 1945. He had married Josephine Platman, daughter of John Platman a nurseryman, in 1880.
Their issue brings us to the present generation, of which J. Nelson Jones is the only one remaining. He had a brother Leslie Gordon and a sister Marie Margaret. In 1948 Nelson Jones married Daisy Marquis, of Pittsburgh. Her father was an oil man associated with J. D. Rockefeller, Mr. Jones explained.
A bit of history was made in 1919 when Nelson Jones built the country’s first pasteurizing plant. It is still expanding, with two offices being added on the roof, and a complete repair and storage garage in the planning stage.
A new ice crushing machine allows the milk bottles to ride packed in ice to the customers. Every modern improvement has been installed, including a bottle washer that gives each bottle 14 treatments before it is filled. Four delivery trucks, with another to be added soon, deliver the products all over the area, including Hammondsport and around Keuka Lake. Butter and cheese are manufactured, requiring 14 employees for the plant and the farms with 100 milk cows. The herds are Guernsey and Holstein.
The background of J. Nelson Jones is little different from that of many of his neighbors, for miles around. The area stands for old fashioned Americanism, and when this eagle-eyed native of Himrod tells the Washington hearing what he thinks about today’s farm economy, they may listen. He gives it straight from the shoulder.