June 1996

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The "Fielding" of Penn-Yan Bill


Jane P. Davis

Wynken, Blynken and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.

The generations are fast disappearing that hold dear to their hearts that cradle song by Eugene Field. Our mothers and grannies lulled us to sleep with Field's "Gingham Dog" and "Calico Cat" characters in The Duel. In case our families missed—our grade school teacher in our one-room school helped or insisted we memorize these rhythmic poems to recite at school entertainments.

So, the situation was "ripe." The advertisement in the regional weekly antiques newspaper read: Penn-Yan Bill's Wooing by Eugene Field. Rare. $25." and named the dealer and his address. Double Jeopardy! One, as a life-long resident of Yates County I was aware of the uniqueness of our county seat's name: Penn Yan—only town in the USA, or the world, with that name! And, two, how did my favorite childhood poet know about Penn Yan?

Of course I bought the book! And the mystery deepened. The real name of Penn-Yan Bill was William C. Buskett. The Oliver House Museum provided no further clues. Birketts they had, but no Busketts. The County Historian has always had a lead in historical pursuits, but not this time. The Penn Yan Library let me use material in their historical research Whitaker Room but with no helpful results. I called Ralph Seager, thinking our greatly respected poet from Yates County would have an acquaintance with some reason that Eugene Field would write about a character named "Penn-Yan Bill." But he indicated that no, Buskett didn't ring a bell in his memory. What to do? So I did nothing.

Serendipity prevailed, making a desirable but unsought-for discovery by accident. That's better than a lottery ticket which required money to buy.

A year after the purchase of the fifteen page book containing the clever poem, I was no wiser. The book announced on the title page, "never before having appeared in type," and "privately printed and not offered for sale" and dated 1914. Since Field died in 1895, only more questions arose.

Turning to my own family's history, I searched for 1930's Pulteney items in a scrapbook made by my grandmother, Susie Tyler, and THERE WAS "BILL"!

His name was in the headline, "Who is Penn-Yan Bill?" of a clipping from the Penn Yan Chronicle Express. A second clipping proclaimed, "Identity of Penn-Yan Bill Discovered, Mystery Cleared."

What great foresight Grandma had to save some 1930s newspaper clippings for a curiosity-consumed granddaughter to find in the 1990s, forty years after Grandma's death.

The first clipping revealed that William C. Buskett and Eugene Field were boyhood friends in Missouri. As adults their paths had separated widely, as Field followed his literary bent and Buskett became a mine owner in Montana. They kept in touch, and in 1888 agreed to meet and visit in Chicago.

Field wrote the poem in Buskett's room in the Grand Pacific Hotel in that city in about an hour and a half while Buskett was writing three business letters.

Eugene Field had promised to dedicate a book to his good pal, Buskett, and had shown him the partially completed manuscript during the visit. Field had decided to pen a "tongue-in-cheek" teasing poem to include in the book and to feature his friend, Buskett, as the hero.

Here's the result:

In gallus old Kentucky where the grass is very blue,
Where the liquor is the smoothest and the girls are fair and true;
Where the crop of by-gawd gentlemen is full of heart and sand
And the stock of four-time winners is the finest in the land;
Where the democratic party in bourbon hardihood
For more than half a century unterrified has stood;
Where nod the black-eyed Susans to the prattle of the rill—
There—there befell the wooing of Penn-Yan Bill.
Down yonder in the cottage that is nestling in the shade
Of the walnut trees that seem to love that quiet little glade,
Abides a pretty maiden of the bonny name of Sue—
As pretty as the black-eyed flow'rs, and quite as modest, too;
And lovers came there by the score—of every age and kind,
But not a one (the story goes) was quite to Susie's mind;
Their sighs, their protestations and their pleadings made her ill—
When, all at once, upon the scene hove Penn-Yan Bill!
He came from old Montana, and he rode a broncho mare—
He had a rather howd'y'do and rough and tumble air;
His trousers were of buckskin, and his coat of furry stuff,
His hat was drab of color and its brim was wide enough;
Upon each leg a stalwart boot reached just above the knee,
And in the belt about his waist his weapons carried he;
A rather strapping lover for our little Susie, still
She was his choice, and he was hers—was Penn-Yan Bill.
We wonder that the ivy seeks out the oaken tree
And twines her tendrils round him, tho' scarred and gnarled he be;
We wonder that a gentle girl, unused to worldly cares,
Should choose a mate whose life has been a constant scrap with bears;
Ah, 'tis the nature of the vine—and of the maiden, too,
So, when the bold Montana boy came from his lair to woo,
The fair Kentucky blossom felt all her heartstrings thrill
Responsive to the purring of Penn-Yan Bill.
He told her of his cabin in the mountains far away—
Of the catamount that howls by night, the wolf that yawps by day;
He told her of the grizzly with the automatic jaw,
He told her of the Injun who devours his victims raw!
Of the jayhawk with the tawdry crest and whiskers in his throat—
Of the great gosh-awful sarpint and the Rocky Mountain goat;
A book as big as Shakespeare's or as Webster's you could fill
With the yarns that emanated from Penn-Yan Bill!
Lo, as these mighty prodigies the mountaineer relates,
Her pretty mouth falls wide agape—her eyes get big as plates!
And when he speaks of varmints that in the Rockies grow,
She shudders and she clings to him and timidly cries "Oh!"
And then says he" "Dear Susie, I'll tell you what to do:
You be my wife, and none of these 'ere things dare pester you!"
And she? She answers, clinging close and trembling yet: " I will"—
And then he gives her one big buss—does Penn-Yan Bill.
Avaunt, ye poet lovers, with your wishy-washy lays!
Avaunt, ye solemn pendants, with your musty, bookish ways!
Avaunt, ye smirking dandies, who air your etiquette
Upon the gold your fathers worked so long and hard to get!
How empty is your nothingness beside the sturdy tales
Which mountaineers delight to tell of border hills and vales—
Of snaix that crawl, of beasts that yowl, of birds that flap and trill
In the wild egregious altitude of Penn-Yan Bill!
Why, over all these mountain peaks his honest feet have trod—
So high above the rest of us he seemed to walk with God;
He breathed the breath of heaven as it floated pure and free
From the everlasting snow-caps to the mighty western sea;
He's heard the awful silence that thunders in the ear:
"There is a great Jehovah, and His abiding place is here!"
These—these the solemn voices and these the sights that thrill
In that far-away Montana of Penn-Yan Bill!
Of course she had to love him, for it was her nature to—
And she'll wed him in the summer; if what we hear be true;
The blue-grass will be waving in that cool Kentucky glade
Where the black-eyed Susans cluster in the pleasant walnut shade
Where the doves make mournful music and the locust thrills a song
To the brook that through the pasture scampers merrily along;
And speechless pride and rapture ineffable shall fill
The beatific bosom of Penn-Yan Bill!

The writer of the Chronicle Express article found a copy of the poem published in 1905 by M. A. Donohue of Chicago, included with poems called Hoosier Lyrics, even though the New York Times had indicated that it was among Field's unpublished works. This seems contradictory to the title page of the single-poem book which I had purchased, which said, "never before having appeared in type" and dated 1914. The Chronicle Express article had asked their readers for help in identifying "Penn-Yan Bill" as it was likely that few men went from Penn Yan to Montana.

The second newspaper clipping showed that the plea for help produced results later in 1932. Mrs. R. W. Hoyt of Main Street in Penn Yan had been on a cruise around the world. She became acquainted with a passenger who was surprised to find that Penn Yan was Mrs. Hoyt's hometown. She told Mrs. Hoyt the story of Penn-Yan Bill and further related that she was the "Sue" from Kentucky in Eugene Field's poem. Penn-Yan Bill had never been to his name-sake town. In the early 1880s Buskett was asked to name a mine claim in Montana in which he had shares. He used a directory of towns and cities in the United States opened at random, then closed his eyes and ran a finger down the page and stopped at Penn Yan. The mine yielded rich ore and Eugene Field attached the mine name to his good friend as a bit of ribbing.

Sue told Mrs. Hoyt that she had the poem in Field's handwriting in her possession for a time. However she married a judge from North Carolina and Penn Yan Bill went back to Montana. She had asked Buskett to request Field not to publish the poem at that time.

From the letter in the preface of "Penn-Yan Bill's Wooing" Buskett indicated that the book Field had wanted to dedicate to his boyhood pal had never progressed past the manuscript stage. Buskett had borrowed the incomplete manuscript to show to his friends in Missouri and Kentucky. As Bill arrived in St. Louis to meet Field and return the manuscript, a telegram informed him that his business partner had died in Montana. Buskett left at once for Montana, taking the book with him. Circumstances prevented the restoration of the book to Field for completion. Penn-Yan Bill never saw Field alive after that Chicago visit.

Ships that pass in the night and generations that don't keep a thread of communication going miss a great reward. It was a pleasure to re-discover the source of the "Penn-Yan Bill" mystery and the tenuous connection of Eugene Field to Penn Yan. At least the reader doesn't have to ponder what message the poet was giving. Field's good-humored persuasion of his reticent friend to pursue the Kentucky beauty is clear. Who knows, in this fast-paced world of the '90s if the present generation has ever had a chance to become acquainted with the gentle word "wooing"?

1996, Jane P. Davis
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