Thursday, March 20, 2014

Ode to Spring: Moonshine and Horseradish, the life and wisdom of Joyce Gaumer

There’s a certain constancy that lingers here, in pockets of woods and runs, in places where time is trapped in the ticking calls of the chickadee above gurgling springs, where kingfishers work the same worn beat as their mothers and grandmothers. 

Mountain life included getting what you
could from nature.  Which meant
harvesting what was available: Root
vegetables and greens in springtime
and black bear in the fall.  This hunt is
from the Ahner clan of Franklin Township
who had kin ties with the Eckley clan of
the mountain.  This shot from 1922.
Author's note: I've been sitting on this story since last spring (2013).  Like many of my stories, I often need some final push to finish them.  In this case, I've been waiting to hold in my own hands that copper pitcher her grandfather caught drips, alternating between wintergreen oil and moonshine, from the coil of their still.  It was a hard winter. I'll be sitting with Joyce tomorrow, but today is the first of spring.

Read the companion piece to this Post - 'Lost Stills of the Pine Swamp' detailing the wintergreen industry of Carbon County.

It’s a steady rhythm, the Lehigh waters resound today as they did when the hardscrabble immigrants first gathered around her to work, developing a distinct work ethic unique to these woods and valleys.  

The Great Pine Swamp was home to virgin hemlocks, oaks and pines.  Development though, soon followed with sawmills and tanneries.  Then came Josiah White’s Upper Grand and the railroads and soon the forest was deflowered.

It’s not certain whether the Great Depression ever left from here, it’s embedded in a culture of remembrance, of self-reliant resilience.

Joyce (Eckley) Gaumer just remembers being poor and moving around a lot, between Meckesville to Stoney Creek.  Her Stoney Creek home for the last fifty-four years once held the postal address “Christmans.”  Today it’s Star Route Jim Thorpe or Penn Forest.
One view of the Great Pine Swamp of Northern Carbon County.  Photo
courtesy of PA Department of  Conservation and Natural Resources

Something can be said for keeping one’s roots here, connected to a land largely unchanged, though surrounded and increasingly permeated by an electronic grid that frazzles the senses and breeds an aversion to sinking one’s fingers into the earth. 

Mountain top living was austere, honest and tough.  Its people were bound to the earth, in timbering and tanning jobs.  But they also found work on the canal and the railroad as boatmen, brakemen, mule boys and firemen.
Archie Eckley's Bethlehem Steel photo.

Joyce's father was “Archie” Eckley (Archibald was born October 19, 1898).  As a young man, he worked in a stave mill along the Stoney, making slats for barrels.  

There were many sawmills here around the Great Pine Swamp, there was one where Yellow Run and Stoney Creek come together.  (Joyce's grandfather Eckley's sister Lillian married a Schock who ran Schock's sawmill at Mecksville.) Archie’s kid brother Isaac too worked at the same mill, doing the timbering.

One of the Pine Swampers or Ridge Runners, as people the mountain were known, was A. W. Smith (Anna Smith's father, Curtin Gaumer's grandfather).  He was a railroad track walker and also was a "distiller of wintergreens."

Always making do, Alexander Wilson Smith (known as "Willis") and his wife Anna secured contracts from New York City firms who procured an agreed upon number of gallons of extract a year.  the 1918 letter from Joseph H. Bowne of New York City states his firm would take twenty-five to fifty pounds at $5.25 per pound.
"A. W." and his wife Alice Smith - He was Alexander
Wilson Smith, but everyone called him "Willis."  He
worked a still but was also on the Drake's Creek
School Board.  They were parents to Annie
Smith who married Martin Gaumer, Curtin's parents.
Alice had 19 brothers and sisters.  After their daughter
Annie became an early widow, they moved into her home
in Christman's, which is today near Stoney Creek, just
up Route 903 from "This Old House."

It went into all kind of flavorings from ice cream to cough syrup.  
This is Abraham Ahner, son of Amos Ahner of Franklin Township.  He was a brother to Herman Ahner.  This
photo certainly harkens to the Bonnie and Clyde days.  Herman did know his way around the still.  In fact, our home
today still bears the scorched joists in the cellar from the day Herman's still exploded.  According to family lore,
the oil cloth on the kitchen floor above lifted off the ground and Herman's wife was scalded.  Nearly all the men
on this branch of the Ahner clan distilled spirits.  Amos had public square dances on his property during Prohibition.
Those he knew and trusted got the Applejack.  All the rest got Near-Beer.  Earning extra money with a still even ran into
Herman's offspring.  One of his sons lost all his firearms after the ATF descended upon his property in the 1980s for
operating a distilling operation.

Today, teaberry goes largely untouched here on the forest floor, synthetic flavoring being more convenient. 
The Drake's Creek School ran from October 3, 1910
to April 25, 1911 and ran for 140 days.  The calendar
was more reflective of the closeness the people of the
area held to the land.  Children were needed for farm
work from May through September.  A. W. Smith was
a school director and Annie was a student.

Joyce remembers picking teaberry leaves with her mom and grandmother Amanda Eckley (both Adam and Amanda were first generation German-Americans) at an early age.  

The sliding around on the stony forest floor on her hands and knees was tough work.  They would use a short handled wooden rake with two-inch long dowel rod tines to pull leaves and twig debris away for the five-inch tall teaberry or winter greens.
A distiller's home - Alexander "Wilson" and Alice Smith's
home near Drake's Creek.

They would take it to Paury Green who also distilled and he would sift through their burlap sacks for any foreign material, especially rocks that would drive up the cost he'd pay.  

Joyce recalls being paid five cents per pound of teaberry.  She and her cousins would try to pick at least five pounds worth for spending money for special events like their community picnics.

Other than a few times a year when they looked forward to the pin-money, most times she and her cousins would cringe when their mother of grandmother announced it was a day for picking.  It must have been difficult and dirty work, for knowing Joyce now you know how hard she works and cleans.
Annie and Martin Gaumer in early 1930s
with their only child Curtain.  Martin
died young before the start of WWII.  Annie
helped make do running a "speak easy"
on the mountain. 

Her mother would say, "Dirty windows, a dirty house."  (As well as "A dirty kitchen door sill, a dirty house.")  Note: Joyce's house is spotless.

Wintergreen can still be found in many places in Carbon County forests.  But like the huckleberry, the terrain is lacking.  Joyce cites the source of the problem due to lack of the once intentionally set brush fires.  The now frowned upon practice would burn off enough undergrowth that allowed these low growing cash crops to thrive.

Later on, once A. W. Smith gave up the still and took on the job as a bonded supervisor of the township, they would take their teaberry greens to Paury (pronounced "Purie") Green’s grocery store, who also ran a still on the side. 
An early courtship letter from Martin to Annie.  Martin's family left the mountain for the "city life" of Weissport.
This letter offers to take Anna back home Sunday if she can find a way to Weissport on Saturday.  The postcard
of 100 years ago has been replaced by more instantaneous messaging of the tweets or texts of the cellphone.

And as the Smith-Gaumer family lore goes, Curtin's grandfather would occupy his still’s slack time by making Moonshine between the wintergreen and apple harvests.  Applejack season was his favorite.  Many a hunter lodging around Lake Harmony in the late fall came calling for his cider spirits.
Joyce Gaumer poses with Curtin Gaumer's grandfather's
distilling pitcher.  The copper container caught the
drips from the copper coil, whether those drips were
from wintergreen or other mountain products.

An early picture of the Martin and Anna Guamer home.
It still stands today, relatively unchanged, near Stoney
Creek, along Route 903. 

Though some considered it bootlegging, to them it was a plain matter of making do.  Curtin’s father Martin (born May 13, 1896) died near the start of the war when Curtin was just 17, leaving both he and Anna with an extra burden.  Anna like many others on the mountain enhanced her small grocery business with a little speakeasy, selling ‘shine and beer.'

Sometimes the revenuers would come to claim their share in raids and stings.  But the Pine Swampers went on about their business, in full knowledge of those possible setbacks, just as one looked upon the coming of a hard winter, taken as a matter of course, as something one simply endured.

The final raid came in November of 1950.  The agents, dressed in the clothes of house painters, were escorted by a here to be nameless man married to Joyce’s sister Marie.  Legend says the licensed inns on the mountain paid the said man $100 to help root out the speakeasies.

Curtin Gaumer was a veteran of the Great War, surviving the beaches of Normandy.  And when he came home he reacquainted himself with Joyce, the girl next door. They married in 1949.
Curtin and Joyce Gaumer homestead next door to
Anna Gaumer's home.  Joyce and Curtin built this home
side-by-side, like that did so many other things in life.

Joyce and Curtin were as natural together as the cool beneath the pines.  When he went fishing, Joyce fished too.  They loved to fish together, occasionally traveling to Canada.  When his old Dodge truck needed a tune-up, she stood across the fender, taking care of the plugs on her side of the block just as well as Curtin took care of his.

In 1959, the wooded lot of pines and oaks next to his mother’s home and store was cleared by Curtin and Joyce with their two-man saw.  Together they drew up the prints and took the timbers to Milton Schock’s sawmill. 

Curtin loved to make homemade wines, like dandelion wine, from oranges, lemons, currants, raisins and of course sugar and dandelion.  He was a foreman on the railroad and Joyce worked in Dr. Thomas’ office and after his passing she continued working in Attorney Carol Walbert’s office.

When they both retired, they took a cross-country trip, across the north, through the Badlands, Yellowstone, to the space needle in Seattle and along the Puget Sound.  They enjoyed salmon cooked on open-grills by the Northwest Indians as well as fresh caught tuna in Oregon. 

They returned through California, saw the swallows of Capistrano, then onto Texas, and the Grand Ole Opry.  They saw Lincoln’s log cabin of his birth in Kentucky.  Joyce was struck by its primitiveness, lacking windows.  
Spring emerges with promise of life.
The horseradish emerges during the
dogwood winter in the Gaumer back yard.

Joyce set the “Dogwood Winter” as our appointed date to meet to make some horseradish, a time of the first warm days just after the last of the snow is gone, when the blooms of the Dogwood set.  Had we waited too long past the early, hoped for Spring, the horseradish would otherwise become too “pithy.”

I waited for Joyce to come home, she arrived in Curtin’s old black Dodge, her “fishin’ truck.”  Once again she showed up the men at “the Pond” up in the Swamp, catching four meaty brookie’s in less than two hours.  She soaked them in the kitchen sink while she went to work chopping up the horseradish roots. 
Joyce once again shows up the men at her favorite
fishing hole.

We saved the peelings and the tops to replant, most of which ended up on my patch, the former farmette of Herman Ahner in Franklin Township, who also knew his way around a still.  And along with it, comes the hope that the tradition will carry on. (Click here to read more on the Herman Ahner family.)  

And now, just a few weeks later, the green leaves are already reaching into the air, to produce white flowers by June.

One of the smaller roots to go into our horseradish.
The peelings though, were transplanted to the Rabenold
homestead in Franklin Township so the tradition can be
restarted at the former Herman Ahner homestead.
In talking of these old habits, of reaping sustenance from these springtime offerings, Joyce laments, as perhaps only a Dutchwoman of her generation can, of how “young people today don’t take the time to do the simple things,” like picking dandelion greens for salads and making home-made hot bacon-dressing for on top.  (The key is to pluck the leaves before the flowers emerge.) 

She was always told how dandelion was good for “cleansing the blood.”  Of course there is science today that supports this Dutch wisdom, citing dandelion’s plentiful iron and antioxidants.   

Joyce also remembers how the Swampers would forage through the hills for early spring teaberry sprouts, coming up in a deep burgundy color.  These were sought after because they too were good for the blood.

It’s the same wisdom that tells her to put bay leaves in her cupboards to keep the ants away each spring.  It’s common sense. 

We placed the pieces of horseradish root into her food processor, adding “enough vinegar (only use white vinegar) to hold it together, to make it wet.”   

We underestimated the power of our creation, it having thoroughly cleared our sinuses to such a degree that the open window wasn’t enough.  We had to finish bottling it out on the porch. 
Joyce reels from the vapor.

We took to the porch as we were overcome by the strong horseradish vapors.

We took our rest at the kitchen table, reflecting on our productive day over a glass of Curtin’s last bottle of dandelion wine.  It was labeled “1984.”  

We were warmed not only by our friendship and our little homesteader’s project but also by Curtin’s labors of so long ago.  

We drank a toast, to spring and to the many springtime gifts, to Curtin, and to all good things that had passed, to the simple things, to the goodness of life to come. 

If you have the pleasure to talk to Joyce you won't miss the joy in her voice when she speaks of her departed husband.  The two were surely happy.


The following account has been transcribed word-for-word from The Miami News of Palm Beach, August 18, 1928 describing the wintergreen industry in the Pocono Mountains:

Waning Wintergreen
The old mountain industries die out as we progress.  The wintergreen still, under pressure of the black birch, in on shaky legs.  A few wintergreen distillers may be found up in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania and in several adjoining states, but they grow fewer. 

The evergreen teaberry, or checker berry, is one of the commonest of mountain herbs.  It is a pretty plant.  Its flowers are white and bell shaped, its leaves of a leathery texture.  Pleasantly flavored red berries follow the blossoms, but the wintergreen is distilled from the stems and the leaves.  The checker berry grows in great abundance in the mountains of the Atlantic states and once yielded a fair income to collectors.

The remaining stills not infrequently afford a means of livelihood to several families each.  Wintergreen oil was once a common cure for rheumatism.  It is widely used now as a flavoring in cooking, medicine, chewing gum and confections.  The distiller finds a market for all he can produce, but his small-capacity plant cannot compete with the chemist who produces synthetic wintergreen or extracts, as a substitute, the oil of the black birch.

Most of the gatherers of the checker berry herb are women.  An efficient picker can collect 200 pounds a day, but the average is 125 pounds.  This is brought to the crude outfit of the distiller, who pays about $3.25 for 100 pounds.  The plants are put into the still with water.  The container is sealed airtight.  A fire beneath the great kettle boils the mixture.  The condensed vapors drip from a coil into a jar.  The oil sinks to the bottom, and the waste flows off the top.  Then the oil is filtered and sold.  The day’s production averages from two and one-half to three and one-half pounds of oil.

The distiller as a rule makes little more than 250 pounds of oil in a year.  More energetic and larger operators have produced 600 pounds, but that output is rare.

The extracting of the oil from the bark of the sweet or black birch is a forest industry which has supplanted, to a great extent, the picturesque figure of the wintergreen distiller.  In time it will be crowded out by the artificial product.  The dawning synthetic age is due to bring many changes.  It will be a more efficient, but hardly as colorful, era.


  1. Wow love it.. My grandparents My mothers father(Clinton Ray Knobenberger) now spellled Knappenberger and his brothers and sisters are students listed... Also my father mother Sadie Dotter And her family are listed. Is there any more info on this available...Thanks so much for sharing.. Terry Helmer

    1. Glad it could be some help to you. I have one other Drake's Creek School from around that time and that's about it. I want to say there also could be some personal notes on backs of about 40 postcards I scanned from the same lady, Joyce Gaumer. Are you in the area still? If you know the prolog suffix on emails, use just my last name and the prolog suffix and email me direct. I can fwd you a higher resolution of those Drake's Creek posters.