~ ~ ~ ~Learning All About History Through Hosiery ~ ~ ~ ~
~~~~~~~~~A Brief, Straitlaced History of the Seneca 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 Seneca 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:
retreating glaciers in the Alps
–> pre-Bronze Age hunter-gatherers
–> peppermint, sauerkraut, canal pirates
–> summer festivals.
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.
credit for the old photo of the canal boat: Steamer “City of Fulton,” transporting freight. The Erie Canal Museum. www.eriecanalmuseum.org/
The old lady darning, the Boy Scout, the sauerkraut-makers, and the sketch of the boy in knickerbockers, are from the Library of Congress. The circular knitting machine is from the Patent Office.
The Peppermint & Sauerkraut Festivals are real events, and writing this has caused me to think of the possibility of Peppermint Sauerkraut, and how horrible that would be for our planet. Sadly, the Sock Festival exists only in my mind. Where it has left a considerable amount of lint in the unswept corners. But the local Mill really did make socks for professional athletes and astronauts, and if you’re interested, there are sock museums in China, New Zealand, Alabama, and other foreign places.
~ ~ ~
Sitting on the Socks by the Bay
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