And so began a story that would enliven the trailside or campsite for those who had the privilege to spend time with Willard Howland. Little has been written about the life of this woodsman beyond bits and pieces of the stories he told. It could even be said that his tales, everything from experiences in the woods, to amazing fantasy creatures that inhabited his wilderness, tell more of who Willard was than anything a written history could reveal.
Willard was born at the very end of a time when life was far less complex and restricting than today, especially for those who lived as he did on the edge of the periphery of White settlement. It is not to say that it was an easy life, but Willard Howland made the most of what came his way. What impressed me most about this man is that time and time again he would surface in written record actively engaged in activities to provide for his family and himself. Yet always something drew him back into the woods. The last line of his obituary from the Potsdam Courier Freeman of October 15th, 1926, summed this up best: “Willard could have succeeded in many things, He preferred the forest.”
As a youngster in the spring of 1867, Willard was first introduced to Cranberry Lake, in the eastern part of St. Lawrence County. It was an encounter he would remember for the rest of his life. The newly completed dam on the Oswegatchie River had flooded the shoreline, killing uncounted trees that quickly became a blight to the eye and a hazard to navigation.
Willard was born January 3rd of 1851, the oldest of seven boys and one girl born to Seth and Alvia Howland of Russell, in central St. Lawrence County. A story is told that Willard’s father, a great hunter, purchased a handmade musket from a Frenchman named Joseph Fortune, who had come to this country as an armorer for Joseph Bonaparte. The double barrelled gun, which cost what at the time was the immense sum of $75, had two triggers and could discharge two bullets at once. The gun was paid partly in cash, with the majority in fur: the skins of four bears, five wolves, eleven foxes, two otters, and numerous mink, martin, fisher, and other pelts. The weapon was used by Howland for market hunting and was so successful that each fall he kept two men employed transporting deer meat to the city.
It was not an easy life for the Howland family. Life in the north country required year-round back-breaking work to stay fed, dry and warm. Willard and his brothers quickly learned the skills of woodsmen and from an early age were guiding sportsmen into the forests around Cranberry Lake. Willard learned woodcraft, hunting, and fishing from his father, as well as from some of the noted sportsmen who spent time on Cranberry Lake, people such as Reuben Wood and Seth Green.
Willard’s Life as a Guide
In 1893 Willard acted as the guide for Governor Roswell P. Flower and his party of fellow sportsmen. An August 18th, 1893 article in the St. Lawrence Herald reporting the trip announced that Howland provided the group with “the choicest sport to be had in this richest sporting region of the Adirondacks.” For over 30 years Willard Howland was in charge of Judge Irving Vann’s Cranberry Lake camp on Buck Island. He grew to become a friend of the family, a guide for the camp’s visitors, and the main pilot of the Vann’s motor boat. Even into his 70s Willard was active, even going to Algonquin Park in Canada with family members and others for at least three winters, 1919-1921, for trapping and building hunting lodges.
As someone who had known and spent time with Willard, Albert Van Fowler remembered him as wearing a slouch-felt hat and a drooping gray mustache that hung over his smile; with only his watery blue eyes betraying any emotion. Fowler called him “a gentleman, one who was able to hold his tongue but when needed his ability at picturesque cussing won him considerable reputation.” A story Willard told about a fishing trip with a minister is a good example:
“I and the sky-pilot was up in the brook by the bog. It twahn’t too good a day, not what you’d call a jim slicker, and the trount wouldn’t take holt. Wal, I was a-baiting that hook a hisn when a two-pounder ker-sloshed right by the sida the boat. That was too much fo him; he was so plomb excited he jerked the hook outa my hand and caught my thumb clear to the barb. Wal, by jim, netty, I guess I said some words I hadn’t ought to.”
Fay Welch, who worked as a guide around Cranberry Lake and counted Willard as a good friend, described him this way:
“A wonderful companion; he never hurried, he never got excited, he never worked too hard. He was always quietly glad to see you. His slightly watery blue eyes would twinkle at the slightest provication, and he was unfailingly optimistic.”
Willard the Storyteller
One of Willard’s stories, retold by Cyril Backus Clark, was of a time when he heard a noise in an old tree stump while out hunting. Curious, he climbed in and found two black bear cubs at the bottom. Soon the mother bear returned and began backing down into the den. Trapped and without any useful protection, he grabbed the bear’s tail, poked it in the rear with his hunting knife, and got a free ride out.
A source of additional stories of hunting bear and other animals from Willard and his brother Nelt, a gifted storyteller in his own right, was told in Frank Kimball Scribner’s 1899 book In the Land of the Loon. In stories based on experiences of sportsmen hunting in the Cranberry Lake area, these tales, often with the truth stretched to the limit, still do reveal the skill and luck of the hunter as well as the attempts of the “cunning critters” to avoid becoming a trophy.
Along with the tales of hunting and woodland adventures, Willard loved “the ragtag and bobtail of native myth and superstition.” It was his telling of the fantasy creatures that were said to inhabit the north woods that would carry his name as a storyteller into the next generation and beyond.
Harold W Thompson, in his book, Body, Boots & Britches: Tales and Ballads of Upcountry America (1940), a wonderful volume of folklore covering every part of New York State, highlights our story-teller alongside Paul Bunyan as the representatives of St. Lawrence County:
“Personally I am much more interested in those numerous creatures of fantasy described by guides, such as the Side-Hill Gouger, or Walloper, which has legs short on one side so that he can manage the steepest hill. Willard Howland of Cranberry Lake has an assortment of these creatures which one of his clients put into an amusing long poem; it tells about the Vociferous Antissmus, the Swamp Auger, the Moon Crumbler, and the Wooly Nig–which has five legs and two tails.”
Some of these hidden denizens of the north woods had been told of in tales shared over campfires since the frontier was first explored, and others came from the vivid imagination of Willard himself. His Swamp Augur, a creature that slid like a snake and could bore through logs with its twisted nose, was described elsewhere as a large, duck-like sporting a corkscrew bill.
The Whirling Whampus, noted as well in at least two other sources, was said to strike their victims while spinning at high speeds (noted in one place as 2,150 rpm), creating a syrup that is quickly consumed. The Vociferous Antissmases, Moon Crumbler and Wooly Nig were some of his discoveries, and who knows how many more were never put down on record.
Accounts and stories of these creatures were known and told by others throughout the north woods as well, possibly from others hearing the stories directly from Willard. One example is found in Charles E. Merrill’s The Old Guide’s Story of the Northern Adirondacks (1973), where a guide spoke of his encounter near the Salmon River, “Why, you-uns must a heerd that air swamp auger yell. Sounded right over here,” said George, “They’re dangerous!”
The most detailed account of his storytelling was written by Albert Fowler and published in Cranberry Lake 1845- 1959: An Adirondack Miscellany (1959). In a chapter titled “Miss Kitturithy and the Animals,” Willard offered in his colorful language this caution to his young listeners about the creatures they could encounter in the forest:
“Mebbe it don’t sound right to you, Miss Kitturithy. You ain’t never see a Wooly Nig come a chasin’ after you up a steep path like Jacob’s Ladder to Curtis. He jes’ can’t slip down backward cause jis hind legs is twice as long as his front, an he can make it pretty hot for you. He lives on one hill mosta his life running up and backin down for a new start. You ask any a the old guides round the lake, and they’ll tell you I ain’t stringin’ you. They’s see a lotta young girls chased by them critters. An when you get a Wooly Nig an a Sidehill Gouger on the same mounting a gal don’t have much a chance.”
To close, we will have Willard the story-teller share a bit about another of the north woods criters, this one published in the January 8th, 1913, Malone Farmer:
“Well, they aint seen very often because they never come out ‘til midnight and when they do there’s always blood on the moon. They had a long toon that runs clean through the upper jaw and when he gets a good hold it bends over and clinches. It starts in the middle of the lower jaw and shines in the night like ‘lictricity.’ I never seen one exactly but I heard one onc’t on an awful dark night near the big sink hole on the Bog River. It sounded like forty loons yellin’ their dambdest all to once. It whas the night the spider bit me and Judge Seeley gave me some whiskey. War Bullock seen one on Tooley Pond one night when it was so foggy you could see it on your boat. It had five legs and War said, he used the longest to punch in the ground to keep from slippin down the mountains. He was drawin’ things for Bishop’s Hotel and the horses was scart so’t they run away and throwed out the keg of whiskey. They never found it. The one I heard sounded as if he jumped fifteen feet at a jump. I jumped twenty. They’s afraid of rotten eggs and if you carry one in your pocket they dassn’t touch you. I tried it for a while, but I fell of a log deer-huntin’ and then I didn’t carry one no more. The eye tooth of an old he wolleyneed soaked over night in the fresh blood of a swamp-auger is just as good. I guided one of them scientific cusses one fall, he was a perfesser in Cornell or somewhere, an’ he said that why they were called moon-crumblers was that they was bred by a comick strikin’ the moon, and sort o’ crumbling it up. He said the shootin’ stars was the dust.”
Illustrations, from above: drawing of Williard Howland courtesy Sun newspaper August 30th, 1896; and illustration of the side-hill gouger by illustrator Karen Baumgartner for this story.