A train crossing the trestle over the glen.
A train crossing the trestle over the glen.
There’s a story I’ve heard many times, about a couple of my directionally-challenged aunts, getting lost on their way from NYC to visit my family in central NY, many years ago.
They were missing in action for many hours, and finally, late at night, they called from a payphone. “We must be near Waterloo, because we passed Watertown quite a while ago. It’s very dark, and there’s nothing but trucks loaded with logs. The sign says ‘Last U.S. Exit.'”
If you don’t have a map handy, you just have to know, they’d driven north from The City, and neglected to ever turn west, toward my town. They’d just pressed on, northward, like Admiral Peary, and were calling from the Canadian border.
It was assumed by most, they’d arrived somewhere near the St. Lawrence River, and the province of Ontario. But I think people underestimate my aunts’ ability to misplace themselves, and it could’ve easily been near Quebec, or even New Brunswick.
If they ever have time, and a platinum gas card, I believe with all my heart, that they could outdo Moses, who only wandered in the desert for forty years, and they’ve been practicing for almost that long now.
The last time I told this, the listener wasn’t surprised about them getting lost, since they’re related to me, but they asked about the log trucks. And they were surprised when I mentioned logging in New York.
I don’t think these photos are all that special, but they’ll serve as illustrations. Folks who’ve only visited NYC, might not realize, that New York still has lumbering. While not on the scale of the Pacific Northwest or southern states, NY is on the top ten list for producing hardwoods, especially maple, oak, and cherry.
The pine trees in the photos are something different. Government foresters planted them to help stabilize worn-out farmland. That was years ago, and I think all of the pine plantations around the Fingers Lakes, state or federal, are now mature, or a bit past it.
As they were harvested, some were being replaced with red oaks, but mostly it appears to be left to windblown chance – – so it’ll probably end up with the usual suspects – – beech, maple, oak, hickory. Sometimes you’ll see cottonwoods and dense thickets of poplars springing up – – not very valuable for lumber, but good cover for grouse, quail & woodcock.
This region doesn’t have the large-scale chip- and pulpwood farming that goes on in the south, with it’s industrialized pine monoculture. The white pines are in decline around here, between logging, windstorms, a destructive fungus that attacks the needles, blister rust, and pine bark beetles & weevils.
I guess the plantations are “fake forests,” of course, but I have to confess, that walking in these groves, through the orderly rows of pencil-straight trees, has always appealed to me. They’re not that common around here, so it makes a nice change. Almost zero undergrowth, so you can march along inspecting ranks, not worrying about ticks or thorns, breathing that great pine-y air, with chipmunks skittering across your path.
Especially when it’s frosty outside, it’s great to take the path less traveled by, but it’s also nice to not get bent in the undergrowth, always having to watch for trail blazes, and just let your mind wander, knowing you’re on the straight and narrow.
Some people say “husks” for the outer layer, but I was struck by how these looked like ships, sailing across the moss.
So it had to be “hulls.”
I’m now on the lookout for leaves that look like barques.
~~~~~~~~~A Brief, Straitlaced History of the Senecka Sock Festival~~~~~~~~
Wherein You Will Find Socks, Sauerkraut, Peppermint, Canal Pirates & A Frozen Body
So, Upstate New York didn’t have a giant Woodstock reunion.
Also, no Coachella, Lollapalooza, Burning Man, or any of the other celebrity events.
But Upstate carries on with its usual rich pageantry of summertime fairs & jollifications – – mostly little-known, small-scale, and sometimes just plain odd.
One of my favorites is our hallowed Senecka Sock Fest, probably the least-known of our world-famous events.
Just a thumbnail sketch really, although it relates more to feet.
Focused and concise – – a straightforward guide to a typical small town celebration.
I’m telling you this in advance, so no one worries I’ve fallen back into bad habits. You know, that slippery slope of digressions, wandering off on tangents. Mentally gadding about in your stocking feet, instead of getting yourself organized and following a straight line of logic – – trusty Hush Puppies on the well-beaten trail.
Once you start wandering, it’s all downhill. Camel’s nose in the tent door, right? Like sitting on the thin edge of the wedge, while dominoes topple all around you, and the tent’s pitched on that slippery slope, paved with good intentions, along a primrose path.
The slope is probably even more slippery, because of the camel.
Although, on a positive note, whenever I visit an oasis, it’s striking how the primroses flourish near the camel stables, and I read somewhere, maybe an old National Geographic, if you dry and burn it, camel dung is reckoned to be a fine mosquito repellent.
But I suppose, strictly speaking, this isn’t terribly germane, so scat! we’ll reluctantly leave that, on the path, for another day, and on to the History of the Fair.
“Leave what has been passed, and move on to the past”
I don’t get bogged down in that random rambling stuff anymore. We’re just going to stick to the straight & narrow, and logically connect the bare minimum of key factors:
Socks are really the central theme, but the other elements really are relevant and inextricably intertwined, so we’re staying on firm footing, and on point. Or en pointe, as we say in the world of socks and toes.
I know most folks don’t care that deeply about socks – – in this debauched era, many of you probably wear generic ones, that fit either foot! And I really don’t mean to wrong-foot anyone, by swerving off on digressions & doglegs. It’s just that History really does bob & weave, shuttling us to random places, and sometimes socks us in the chin.
Prehistoric wanderers really are part of the warp & weft of this story.
(You can also say warp & woof – – very appropriate in some cases, there actually was a lady up the street from my upstate grandmother, who wove things using her dogs’ hair, no kidding, although I don’t recall that she did stockings.)
Well, let’s start with the Alps, a good place for St. Bernards and warm socks.
Interesting things are reappearing as the glaciers melt. One of the most famous is the Iceman, called Ötzi, who turned up in the Alps about thirty years ago.
We don’t really like looking at pictures of him, because he reminds us, we haven’t cleaned the refrigerator for months, and there must be some pretty awful old meatloaf in there somewhere.
Ötzi is looking even worse, after cooling his heels in a glacier for about 4,000 years. I’d always thought he was from the Bronze Age, deeply tanned like a slightly older version of George Hamilton, but he was actually earlier, so Copper Tone I guess. And he doesn’t seem to be a shining example of CSI crime scene skills – – ten years of study and theorizing on the cause of death, and then someone noticed he had an arrow stuck in his back.
Another twenty years of analysis, and a new theory on his death has emerged.
The man had no socks.
He was otherwise so well-equipped for winter in the Alps. Warm clothes, copper ax, knife, arrows, berries, mushrooms, etc. And quite the hipster – – a bearskin cap, some dried fungus, and plenty of tattoos. Fits right in at any trendy microbrewery in Brooklyn. All he was missing was a Fjällräven backpack and a hemp laptop sleeve.
But he had no socks.
He’d just stuffed some grass in his shoes.
And so, just as his mother warned him, he died.
Here’s the shoes.
We know about the warning, from the tattoos on his legs, a series of symbols spelling out:
“Wear socks when it snows ~~ And don’t talk to any Neanderthals. Love, Mom”
Which brings us, straight as an arrow, to the summer festivals of the Finger Lakes.
There’s a lot of ‘em.
Arts & crafts, motorcycles, classic cars & classical music, balloons & WWII planes, Renaissance & ethnic, antiques, speidies & buffalo wings, fishing, beer & hops, wine, wine & jazz, jazz, all that jazz, etc.
We’re sticking to the stockings, our ever-more-famous sock fest, now so big, it’s sometimes called “The Sock-ness Monster,” but I just want to mention two other locals, for context.
The village of Lyons, about an hour east of Rochester, celebrates Peppermint Days.
People ask, why? Why peppermint?
And the locals respond, with that innate old-fashioned charm that only Upstaters still seem to possess, “Why the hell not? Did ya think we’d make a fuss over bee balm, or lavender, for Pete’s sake?”
People in Wayne County are like that, touchy, and kinda weird. I’m from Seneca County myself.
Actually, the explanation is, starting in the mid-1800’s, the H. G. Hotchkiss Prize Medal Essential Oil Company used to bottle up the finest peppermint extract in the world, and ship it out on the Erie Canal.
I have no idea what they do at their celebration, I’ve always avoided it – – peppermint is meant to relieve headaches, but for some reason, it seems to give me a headache instead.
Even closer, and even more aromatic, is Phelps and its Sauerkraut Festival. There’s still quite a lot of cabbages around, many in elected positions, even if the local kraut factories are long gone. But the villagers still celebrate the joys of pickled cabbage, and make a wonderful chocolate-kraut cake.
One of the largest sauerkraut factories in the world was just down the road, in Shortsville, until last year. They make “Silver Floss,” which I’ve always felt, is a most charming and poetical name for canned cabbage.
The company shifted production to Bear Creek, Wisconsin. That’s over a hundred miles from Milwaukee, but I swear when the wind blows from the northwest, I know it’s there. It’s part of why I feel at home in Wisconsin, the invigorating tang of lactic acid and fermenting cabbage in the air.
And so we come directly, as promised, to talk about the Sock Festival.
In Seneca Falls, the National Women’s Hall of Fame is housed in what was, until twenty years ago, the Seneca Knitting Mill (1844 to 1999). One of the few survivors of the first wave of industrialization around here, in the 1840’s, it’s a mellow old pile, made of big limestone blocks, looming over the canal.
The old mill isn’t that big, or scary-looking, but you’ve kinda got to use “looming” to describe a knitting mill.
Back in the day, when people stuck to their knitting, the mill specialized in socks. The Nat’l Hockey League, the Nat’l Basketball League, and the Apollo space program, all came to the mill for their socks.
The “Sock Match” began in the 19th century, as a benefit for retired canal pirates, many of whom had at least one peg leg. Their fearsome boats would sail, or actually, get pulled by mules, right past the sock mill. The pirates would hoot & call out to the “mill girls,” “spinners” and “doffers” (bobbin-changers), and the girls would wave and cheer from the windows. Sometimes, distracted, their clothing would be caught up in the machinery, and they’d be maimed or crushed lifeless, but generally, it was the highlight of their day.
The local villagers got a kick out of those rapscallions – – they were local boys, and yes, they stole stuff, but only from strangers passing through on the canal. And these freshwater buccaneers would always buy everyone a few rounds of peppermint schnapps, and sing.
They weren’t particularly vicious – – most of the “piracy” was just copyright violations, for adapting sea chanteys without permission.
Whenever they became too unruly, the lock-keepers would simply open all the gates, and drain the canal, leaving the pirates marooned, until they wised up.
The Sock Match was a chance to sell or trade socks, especially unmatched ones, and for folks, including quite a few of the pirates, to display their knitting skills.
The event raised funds for the Pirate Home, and the leftover unmatched socks were handed out to the old fellows. Many of them were one-legged, from infected mosquito bites, or when the mules, who pulled the pirate boats down the canal, got testy and bit them. The event faded away, as the pirates died off, or went into politics (“stumped for office“)
, and most of the mules migrated to Missouri.
A few years after the Sock Market Crash of 1929 (overshadowed by the trouble on Wall Street that same year), during the Great Depression, it was revived as a low-cost social occasion, after a couple of summers when the strawberry crop failed. Then and now, it had a practical side to it, as everyone had single socks, especially after 1938, when electrically-operated clothes dryers were introduced.
Surprisingly, until recent times, the Sock Match never seems to have been an opportunity for finding a date. An older neighbor explained that a single woman who admitted to losing socks in the wash, was reckoned to be slovenly, spendthrift, and a poor housekeeper. It was only socially acceptable if you could pin the wrap on a husband or child.
Why is the Fair held in July, when a lot of people are wearing sandals, and not socks?
It’s celebrated on July 15th, Le Jour Après Bastille (“The Day After Bastille Day”), when the sans chausettes (poor people without socks) arrived in Paris.
The day before, the 14th, the sans cullottes (poor people without fancy knee breeches) had stormed the Bastille prison, and kicked off the French Revolution.
The sans chausettes arrived a day late, as they had to walk over cobblestones in their bare feet.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t imagine anything more boring than a sock festival. Woolen goods in July? Itchy! Horribly itchy.
This is why they were used as a punishment in colonial times. Village scolds and gossips would find themselves “placed in the socks,” or “Satan’s ankle-biters,” to be ridiculed, with their hands bound, so they couldn’t itch.
Inevitably, there’s intense rivalry & danger at any sock festival.
The air is thick with tension, as well as fibers and lint.
There’s always a “crew” crew, and a herd of others debating “mid-calf” vs “over-the-calf.” The “wicking” and “compression” techies can be a bit, well, technical. And aggressive, with their Extreme Performance Survival Socks (in the wilderness, they’re convertible into a hammock or eel trap, etc.)
Sometimes people snap at the organic wool dudes, if they rub their samples on you, to show it’s not that itchy. Tends to create static on a day with low humidity.
The “Regenerated Cotton” crowd is a bit fervent and evangelical, too.
But I do think “regenerated” is a term that’s got legs. Way superior to plain old “recycled” or “shoddy,” which is what they used to call re-using rags. I read in one of the pamphlets, that the shoddy, sorry, “retro-virgin cotton,” has been “mechanically re-fiberized.”
I think this has been done in the Scottish mills for many years, and in Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth mentioned his wife “knits up the ravell’d sock of care.”
The bulk of the sock’ers, podiatrists, puttee collectors, Gold Bond and Gold Toe salespeople, reflexologists, etc. are a pretty jolly crowd, happy to share their expertise, but you will of course get some snobs. People whose toes curl at the thought of un-pressed stockings, unisex footwear, or socks that don’t differentiate between the left and right foot, etc.
Back in vogue, Argyles have their own dedicated tent. The Argyles tend to be a bit snooty, and totally incomprehensible, when they affect a Highlands accent. They’ve been hiring a bagpiper to play all day, and there’s talk of moving them away from the festival site, to the armory in the next town, with the sock monkey workshops.
A sock fair is a perfect demonstration that not everybody has the same idea of perfection. As Carl Jung once said, paraphrasing some dead sandal-wearing Roman,
“The sock that fits one person, pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases, or fits in all suitcases.”
Or something like that, I couldn’t find the quotation.
Why do they always serve corn-on-the-cob at the Sock Festival?
I don’t know why people always ask me that. Pretty obvious, isn’t it? And it’s got nothing to do with plantar calluses or corns.
Basically, years ago they decided years that, to help preserve the old-time feel of the thing, plastic or Styrofoam feet forms weren’t allowed. The old wooden ones have become quite collectible and scarce, so sock vendors have been using ears of corn to display their wares.
The corn is then rinsed, and steam-cooked, to keep the Dept of Health happy, and sold for a buck an ear.
They also sell coneys and hotdogs – yes, footlongs, of course.
Why are there so many legends of death & hauntings associated with the Sock Festival?
OK, let’s put a sock in this down-at-the-heels myth, and lay it to rest.
Stories of The Spectral Stalker in Stocking Feet along the old towpath, The Baby Bootie Bogy, etc. are just that, stories.
Yes, there have been plenty of scares, incidents, maimings, and wild tales of mayhem, as with any hosiery-related event, but there have never, repeat never, been any fatalities.
And it’s stupid to talk about the Sock Explosion of 1898, and then sightings of Crispy, The Ghostly Sock Monkey, when sock monkeys weren’t even invented until the 1930’s! So clearly there’s no way any sock monkey could’ve been killed in 1898.
There’s nothing mysterious about the disaster. Sock festivals by nature are fraught with danger. In 1898, cast iron wash pots were still in use, heated by coal. A huge coal bin had been left untended since the previous year, and built up firedamp (methane). There were also some barrels of sauerkraut from Phelps, that had gone bad, and were bubbling with hydrogen and ethanol.
Hotchkiss Co. had a booth, full of their highly flammable peppermint extract. It was used to freshen sock drawers, and the canal pirates rubbed it on their peg legs, to repel carpenter ants and termites.
(The pirates, a kindly and attentive crew really, were also known to carry peppermint smelling salts, to revive canal boat passengers who fainted during a stickup.)
Well, just at teatime, someone shifting a pile of socks caused a discharge of static electricity, right next to the cloud of methane from the coal pile, and an open jug of peppermint extract. The resulting explosions set the waxed canvas tents on fire. Then the alcohol in the bad sauerkraut barrels went up.
Like any sock fair, drinking was part of the occasion, and by 4:00 pm, most of the attendees from the knitting mills were weaving, and they panicked, stampeding away from the exploding sauerkraut, but it wouldn’t have mattered – – the local firemen were all sloshed, playing in a brass band, or helping put up tents, and by the time they ran back to town, hitched up and got the pumper to the canal, the fair was a total loss.
The burning wool socks, sauerkraut, and peppermint caused a dense cloud of smoke, with an appalling stench, which panicked flocks of sheep all over the county.
The elderly pirates, fragrant and highly flammable, “steeped in sin and gin,” were hustled away from the flames, and there was no loss of life.
The next morning, villagers surveyed the smoking ruins, the desolate scene rendered even more distressing by the pervasive pong of burnt wool, singed pirate, and overcooked sauerkraut, which even handkerchiefs soaked in peppermint could not completely allay. But plans were immediately afoot to reboot the festival, and placards sprang up, “Pull Up Your Socks & Shoulder To The Wheel,” and the festival stalwarts began to organize next year’s event.
The Singles Meet
The biggest draw is the three-day International Singles Meet.
It’s a chance to meet other collectors, and just regular folks, who have a lot of unmatched socks, and try to find mates. Generally for the socks, not the people. They sell cutesy plaques with sweethearts exchanging darning eggs, etc. but that just seems lame to me. I suppose some romances might’ve started here, but I’ve never heard of any.
There were a couple of hiatuses, during the Depression and the sandal-wearing ’60’s, but the Singles Meet has been going on since 1918, and keeps growing. There’s the usual “celebrities” – – the guy who found a rare and incredibly valuable 1851 Knickerbockers stocking in the freebie bin, and sold it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown . Usually there’s an Albert Einstein re-enactor walking around (he never wore socks, did you know that?), and some guy in a stocking cap, selling O’Bunion’s Brown Malt Porter. I think one year, a Shoeless Joe Jackson. The kids they get to play Pippi Longstocking are invariably obnoxious, I do not know why. Every year, Little Feat is invited to play, but they’ve never accepted.
Well, it behooves us, even in this digital age, to pay attention to our digits, and watch our step. The continued success of these fairs, shows that a lot of folks still crave face-to-face, and toe-to-toe interactions. There’s a warmth to these get-togethers, like a sock fresh from the dryer. We could go on, talking about “wicking, “antimicrobial,” Spandex, microfibers, and hemp – – we’ve barely dipped our toes in the subject, but good grief, that’s quite enough about socks for one day. Alright, best foot forward, and see ya.
~ ~ ~
A poignant old pirate song by Captain Otis Redding:
I left my home in New York
Headed for the ‘Frisco bay
Cause nothin’ ever matches
Looks like a pair is never gonna come my way.
I’m tryin’ on the socks day by day
Watchin’ the tide roll away
I’m tryin’ on the socks day by day
I am re-posting an article from three years ago, about my hometown, and Memorial Day
Forty-five years ago, Memorial Day became a national holiday.
But in Waterloo, NY, my hometown, this year will be 150th observance of Memorial Day.
Often called “Decoration Day” in some parts of the U.S., it was conceived after the Civil War, as a call to remembrance of the soldiers who died in the war.
It now commemorates the soldiers who have died during all of America’s wars.
The residents of Waterloo first held the ceremony in 1866, and have never failed to mark the event since then.
Fifty-eight villagers had died fighting for the Union Army.
Many of them fell on the same day, holding the line at Gettysburg.
Some were draftees. A good number of them were immigrants. German, English, Irish, Canadian, they died along with the native-born.
In 1966, for the centennial of the event, the village was recognized by gubernatorial, Congressional and Presidential proclamations as
“The Birthplace of Memorial Day.”
Waterloo’s ceremonies were not the earliest memorial services, nor were they the sole inspiration for our national day of commemoration. Nonetheless, the village should be recognized as a “birthplace,” because it was the first community to institute a non-sectarian, community-wide, official event. All businesses in the village closed that day, and the commemorations have been consistently observed, in peacetime and wartime, each and every year since 1866.
In Waterloo, it was never “Decoration Day;” it has always been called “Memorial Day.”
In 1866 the entire country was already in mourning, and trying to come to terms with the loss of hundreds of thousands of citizens.
It was a nation of widows, orphans, bereaved parents, lost families, and countless veterans left maimed physically and mentally, and sometimes, shipped home only to continue dying from wartime injuries, diseases, and drug addictions.
There was a common impulse, North and South, to pay tribute to the dead, by formal observances, floral tributes, speeches, parades and poetry.
From Maryland to New Mexico, Florida to Pennsylvania, soldiers’ remains were gathered from shallow graves near battlefields, camps, prisons, and hospital yards, and re-buried in orderly plots, some of them laid out uniformly in huge federal cemeteries, and some designed as beautiful community parks .
A new industry was born, as sculptors began to create thousands of monuments.
Robert E. Lee’s “Arlington” estate was transformed into a vast necropolis.
It was at Arlington National Cemetery, in 1868, that General John “Black Jack” Logan and the G.A.R. (which became the largest Union veteran’s group) initiated the ceremony which became the national Memorial Day.
Logan began his political career as a pro-slavery racist, but during the course of the war, was transformed not only into one of the best of the politician-generals, but also into a “Radical Republican,” supporting the freed slaves.
My favorite story is from Columbus, Georgia, also during the spring of 1866, because the townsfolk there decorated both Confederate and Union graves.
“Decoration Day” had long existed as a custom in many communities, when the grass at burial grounds was trimmed, and evergreen boughs and flowers were brought graveside.
The association of greenery and flowers with memorial services long predates the Civil War, or even the existence of the United States. Flowers and garlands have been found in Neolithic graves and Pharaohs’ tombs.
For many people, especially in English-speaking countries, poppies are now associated with the First World War and remembrance of “Flanders fields”. But for many centuries before that, they served as a symbol of sleep, death, oblivion, ease of pain, and for some, resurrection. Poppies are mentioned in this way by Roman poets and Shakespeare, and you’ll see them carved on old tombstones and monuments from the Civil War.
On Boston Commons, there is a beautiful bronze sculpture by Saint-Gaudens, portraying Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment, comprised of free blacks and escaped slaves.
Above the soldiers, hundreds of whom died in a hopeless assault at Fort Wagner, is the figure of a woman, not a Winged Victory, I think, but a gentle-looking angel of death, carrying an olive branch and poppies.
In a sense, Memorial Day is “kept evergreen,” as the old folks used to say, because generation after generation has produced a new crop of fatalities to mourn.
A few years ago, another shrub and another piece of granite were added to our village green.
A “Rose of Sharon,” the national flower of South Korea, was planted as a remembrance of what some call “The Forgotten War”.
I don’t think our climate will allow a pool of lotus flowers for Vietnam, but we can grow hardy varieties of roses (Iraq) and certainly tulips (Afghanistan).
And so it goes.
Reminders are everywhere.
The bronze Napoleons on our village green are from the Civil War. The most popular cannons of the war, they could shoot a twelve-pound iron ball for nearly a mile, or shred infantrymen with grapeshot and canister.
The V.F.W. has a “Huey Cobra” helicopter on their lawn, to evoke Vietnam. Over 3,300 of them went down during the war.
The American Legion sports a 37mm M3, a little antitank cannon, from WWII. It’s shells proved effective against lightly-armored Japanese tanks, but bounced off the Nazi panzers like marbles.
Driving around this area, you’ll find a Revolutionary cannon, a Korean War jet, an armored car…it will just be a matter of time before they ship us a Humvee or a Bradley in desert paint.
It would be nice to have more flowers around here, too.
There are poppies in the garden at home.
They blossom this time of year, but last a very short time, before the petals fall to the ground.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Well, are we tiring of ice photos, ready to turn a cold shoulder?
I continue to be distracted by bright shiny objects, including ice. I saw this little waterfall on a very icy day, and managed to take this picture by the skin of my teeth. Or, to be more scientifically accurate, after sliding down a shale bank to the creek, there was some missing skin from another part of my anatomy.
I’ve been looking through the files, and there must be a couple thousand winter photos on my computer. If life gives you lemons… well it’s too cold for lemonade, but we could stir up a little antifreeze – – if you’re going to the store for lemons, please pick up some more bourbon and a little Cointreau – – we’ll slap a few Fats Waller records on the Victrola and drink Sidecars until spring gets here.