My first eighteen years were spent in, and thence my roots firmly grounded in or near, the Village of Dundee, nestled among the hills of Yates County, Town of Starkey, in Western New York. The town is situated in the heart of the Finger Lakes Region on the banks of Big Stream, the creek that wanders southeast several miles to Glenora Point on Seneca Lake.
It was then and is now a village of some 1300 souls with five churches: the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, and Episcopalian. As late as 1834 the town was known as Harpending's Corners after Sam Harpending, that happy enterpriser from New York City whose family were early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam. Sam stopped in Genoa, Cayuga County, long enough to learn the hatter's trade, and so did not arrive in Dundee until 1811.
The town used to be called a home for retired farmers, though I never thought of it as a retirement center, or as a typical country town. To me it has a unique spirit of its own, easy going, but still somewhat fierce and independent.
The road (NY 14A) that passes under the one traffic light, curves southward ten miles to Watkins Glen, or northward twelve miles to Penn Yan. If the boys of Dundee heard or sensed any suggestion of their inferiority from their peers in either of these larger towns, they would soon travel to that town to pick a fight to adjust such attitudes. Then, win or lose, they felt better.
Oh, there have been times when the town suffered a reduced sense of pride; the 1960s and 70s saw an appalling decline of most small towns, and as with our nation, recovery was slow. Better times, a renewed sense of history, and the strength and independence of these caring people eventually restored the old positive feelings.
Forty-five years after I moved away, an extended sally into the genealogies of six families refreshed my amazed memory enough to share some of the history, events, and personalities of the town in the first six chapters of this book. The later chapters deal with the people and places of the rest of my life, in part because I noted that little else had been written about me or my friends and acqauaintances. Writing to please myself, the work appears in various forms, from article and documentary to essay and short story.
The tale looks at the Lamoka Indians who lived on the shores of Lamoka Lake, ten miles south of Dundee some 5000 years ago, revealed by scientific excavation in 1925. And the Iroquois, who some 4000 years later appeared on the scene to eventually meet the colonialists from Europe. It pokes about the earliest days of Dundee when my ancestors settled there; moves ahead to the naming of Dundee, and Sam Harpending's story. Then it looks at the town through my curious eyes as I grew up 100 years later.
Memory of the elder generation is sometimes suspect. As a boy of ten I often listened to stories told by my great uncle, Milton Price, on the porch of his Altay home, and from visit to visit I noted variations and expansions in the same accounts. But then, most Prices considered telling a dull story impolite even though they were pious.
More recently writing memoirs led me to look for the current scientific position on memory, specifically elder's long-term memory. I found that neurobiologists and psychologists were working hard on the subject, saying that in the brain the hippocamus seems to process memories, which the cortex and cerebellum store. This did little for my unscientfic mind, nor did it help support the reliability of my memory—which is what I really had in mind.
I was more interested in what Ulric Neisser of Emory University said: "Most of our oldest memories are the product of repeated rehearsal and reconstruction."
Thomas Crook of the Memory Assessment Clinic said, "The more we relive a memory the more permanent it becomes—even if the acuracy is distorted."
Others said that the elderly are more likely to remember the important points in their lives by not saving their capacity for trivia. "Old people know what counts," said Neisser.
Someone quoted Samuel Johnson: "The true art of memory is the art of attention," and noted that to date the specialist had little reason to refute the statement.
Still the search goes on for a memory drug; but before that compound is developed, I wonder how much better we want our memory to be.
A Locomotive in the Study Hall
"Prof" Lyons left our high school, and with him went corporal punishment. Frank Ryan, the new prinicpal retired the heavy wooden paddle that "Old Baldy" used down in the basement on the incorrigibles. In Dundee High School's large, hardwood-floored study hall we assembled at opening bell for Bible reading and prayers by the principal, followed by group singing. The girls sat on the east side and the boys on the west of the center aisle. For study periods, a teacher monitored us from a desk on the raised stage at the south end of the hall.
But when the tall, dark-haired, beautiful and aggressive Ruth Dietrich made one of her periodic marches to the girl's lavatory at the southeast corner of the hall, there was usually disruption on the boy's side. The sharp sound of Ruth's high heels striking the wooden floor and the sight of her lovely, undulating, mobile body was too much for the boys to bear passively. It invariably inspired them to keep time with her long stride with their foot stomps that started ever so gently, then gradually crescendoed—until the floor bounded on its wooden beams below. Ruth's disappearance around the corner signaled the double-foot stomping finale creating a roar like a steam locomotive's drive wheels slipping on its rails as it struggles to start a long string of freight cars on a steep grade.
When science teacher Aileen Gage was our monitor, she at first appeared to ignore the ruckus with her head lowered over her work. Finally, as the roar subsided, she slowly raised her head of black, bobbed hair to stare at us with her owlish eyes magnified by her thick-lensed eyeglasses until we squirmed with discomfort. She was a fine, understanding teacher of biology, respected by all, and we slunk down in our seats—hoping not to hear her rich baritone voice saying, "Obviously, some of you people have little concern for your grades, or yourselves."
End of lecture. Resumed was a subdued study hall. Tomorrow, with a different monitor, we would hold the same joyous event again—if Ruth cooperated.
I soon became an indifferent student, with barely passing marks in everything but English and History, the two subjects that I liked. And I developed a nasty ego, unknowing of course until Jean Bulche signed my yearbook with a note under my picture; "The boy with the superiority complex." Father asked if I understood what that meant. The blunt criticism rattled my ego but little; it worsened in fact when English teacher Helen Snow selected me to play leading man to Helen Congdon in the senior's play presented in the Beekman Theater. I was subdued only by the superior intellects of Clarence VanAtta Pierce and Donald Disbrow; the first a noisy extrovert, and Donald an embarrassed but gifted introvert. I envied them both for their powerful minds.
I became a sort of self-taught extension course in pocket billiards on the table in the rear of Ed Curran's barber shop. Here I got my comeuppance as I learned that there were a number of players that could beat me, including my younger brother, Lauren, who could do it one handed, right or left.
Dad, apprehensive about the direction life was taking me, warned of the consequences. "I've made the trip up fool's hill and back myself, so I know."
Now, pool playing brings memories of some summer Saturday nights when the town filled with people for shopping and socializing.
The Dundee Band played from the bandstand—a hexagon shaped, brightly-painted wooden structure that was topped by a conical roof with a flagstaff at the peak. It sat on Seneca Street just west of the Harpending Hotel. Dad was often the vocal soloist, and later my brothers, Lauren and Elbert played the baritone and alto horns with the band.
On still summer nights the sound of Dad's voice easily carried through the open door of Curran's pool room where I played a little nine-ball with some friends. He would sing three numbers during the concert, usually closing with "Silver Threads Among The Gold," or a similar ballad. With one ear cocked to his voice, I listened for the closing bars and when I heard the finale coming I promptly hung up the cue stick to make my way through the crowds in time for the final applause while wearing my best innocent look. I never knew if he knew, but every rare time now, when I play pool, I fancy that I hear his voice and the song.
Five churches served the faithful of this village of twelve-hundred souls, and many others from the surrounding hills. On Sunday mornings at least three of them tolled their steeple bells at the same hour. To avoid cacophony, each sexton manned his bell listening to take his turn. First the Presbyterian, then the Methodist, and last the Baptist. All repeated the round three times. The bells were good ones, and I knew each one by its pitch. Glorious sounds all, still ringing in my memory fifty odd years later.
The responding processional of autos, horse-drawn buggies, and a few fringe-topped carriages like Will Wixons's rolled into town with the clip-clop rhythm of steel-shod hooves, while the town residents proceeded on the dark gray shale flagstone walks. Our family made the three and one-half mile trip in our "Star", a four-cylindered, black touring car that was equipped with button-on side curtains for inclement weather.
The older women were dressed in long black dresses covered by black coats, whether winter or summer, though the coats were of lighter material in summer. This attire was topped by black-brimmed hats secured to the ladies' hair buns with long hatpins. Some of the younger set had begun to recklessly adopt dress of varying styles and colors, evidence of the late arrival to our area of the roaring twenties.
The men generally dressed conservatively, but at the Baptist Church, Oscar Vaughn, a bachelor farmer, often wore his newest blue denim bibbed overalls without creating much stir. Dad said, "As long as they're clean, why should we worry about that?"
More fascinating to me was farmer Ansel Ferris, who often wore a detachable-collar shirt without the probably-long-lost celluloid collar. Ansel adjusted to the omission by tying a necktie around his bare neck, fastening the knot right over his scrawny but large Adam's apple. When he talked or sang the tie would flap up and down on the apple, and I got belted for making a raucous scene in church with my hysterical laughing.
One of the deacons sitting in the front row was always closed-mouthed with a sad, or pious expression. Curiosity made me ask Dad about the man's grim demeanor. With that slow grin of his he explained. "You would too, if you had to contend with the cud of tobacco he's holding." I was impressed. The last time I had tried chewing tobacco, I spat furiously and still got so sick that I passed out in the pasture—where I had tried to hide out.
At the age of twelve I was baptized in the great water-filled, zinc-lined tank under the raised platform of the chancel, the tank covered by a trap door except for baptisms. Then the wooden steps that led down into the water were exposed. My fright at the prospect of the triple immersion to come, was not eased after I lied a little bit to the deacons who had just severely charged me with the prerequisite questions in the pastor's chambers. I felt the wrong answers to their direct questions would cause the deacons' rejection—and my mother would make me wish I had given the correct ones.
Some kids had fainted when the rubber suited Pastor Carter administered the procedure, but I did not. As I clambered up the steps from the tank with water streaming from my hair, white ducks, and shirt, I heard Lizzie Dailey playing the pipe organ with great verve in her usual fast tempo—I felt a great relief that it was over.
Meanwhile, like any Sunday morning, the unwashed of the town had their own activities. Perhaps a game of poker in the back room of Stew Merritt's pool emporium; a group or two socializing in gas stations; some hunting or fishing, and others working in their gardens or on their farms. Both sides of the prevailing social order studiously ignored each other for the day. As I left church I thought of the two rows of horse sheds at the rear of the building that on school days were the scene of wrestling matches, or grudge fights by the high school boys. Howard and Irish Cunningham were tough scrappers, seldom, if ever, defeated. And Lyman Pierce, a scrawny, cocky little guy, would challenge all comers, regardless of their size.
Social lines, though already changing, were more sharply drawn than now, and of course by the self-qualified "decent people" of the community, called "Satisfied Saints" by some. Typically, they were those who did not sin in public, had church affiliations, voted Republican, and "amounted to something." They believed they made up over half the population. Of course, if you had real money, you were exempt from having to qualify.
The other "Suffering Sinners" felt little pain about the selection and generally were happy to have escaped the higher appointment, convinced that in the long run they would have more fun. A few eclectics, including me, chose to move on either side of the line—at the risk of being suspect by both.
Such divisions were quickly erased in times of disaster or celebration. Fires, floods, life-threatening illness or injury brought all to unrestrained cooperation, as did fairs, national holidays, and the like. And heroism is always above social distinction. For all, the inherited independent spirit was still strong. Authority was suspect, and legal interpretations were ambivalent to say the least. Thus one charged with income tax evasion would be given community sympathy and support. My mother referred to a richer-than-average citizen who was in serious trouble with the Internal Revenue Service when she said, "I don't know why they want to put him in jail, he didn't do anything really wrong, its just a tax thing."
A powerful social force was the work ethic. In the 1930s the word "work" still meant manual labor in most cases, so that when one heard the declaration, "He never did a day's work in his life," it could apply to any sedentary occupation: bank clerk, bookkeeper, musician, or clergyman. A preacher could escape the allusion if he worked part time as a farm laborer as did the Reverend Winkleman of the Altay Baptist Church, he being a strong hand in the fields who needed extra money to survive. Sociality in our town was not unique, of course. Thomas Wolfe published his Look Homeward, Angel in 1929 using fictional names throughout. The book is autobiographical, with his hometown, Asheville (Altamount), North Carolina, the setting. The sights, sounds, smells, and the people, described in minute detail by a gifted writer, explored the heroism and weaknesses common to all. He was horrified when he received letters from people of other towns threatening him with everything from libel suits to lynching, they convinced that his revealing stories were about them.
I choose not to delve deeply into weakness, perhaps because I couldn't muster the guts to reveal as much about myself as Wolfe who was merciless on himself.
© 1989, Edwin N. Harris