“We have one more stop to make,” I announced as Mike and I returned to the roadway at the top of the historic hill known as Highland Cemetery.
“Just one?” Mike asked.
“Just one more on this trip,” I replied. I knew I could easily spend a day visiting all of the graves of the notable people resting within the borders of the cemetery, but this trip was coming to an end. But before we left Highland Cemetery, I wanted to stop at the grave of a man who I have a love-hate relationship with.
We paused at the graves of those buried in the Soldier’s Circle in the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) plot, before continuing to the small grouping of cedars standing nearby. Beneath this grove of cedars stands the memorial to a man whose legacy still echoes throughout central Pennsylvania. The monument marks the resting place of Henry Wharton Shoemaker and his second wife, Mabelle.
Henry Shoemaker was born on February 24, 1880 in New York City and as a young man led a life of travel and adventure. After attending Columbia College, he served as a broker – an occupation he left after the tragic passing of his brother. In the years after, he served as a soldier, diplomat, conservationist, historian, folklorist, newspaper owner, and author.
Shoemaker’s fascination of the history and lore of central Pennsylvania started with his memories of spending his summers at the family estate near McElhattan. This fascination with the region would send him on the path of writing the stories about the mountains and those living in them. In 1902 Shoemaker published his first story in regional newspapers. “The Legend of Penns Cave” was popular with the readers and they demanded more. Without knowing it, the readers inadvertently created a collection of stories that would become a part of Central Pennsylvania’s folklore.
Shoemaker became a member of the Pennsylvania Historical Commission in 1915, serving as the chairman from 1924 to 1930. This organization would be the basis for the Pennsylvania Historical Commission and Museum, which maintains various museums around the state and remembers notable people, places and events with the familiar blue historical markers.
On April 23, 1917, Shoemaker would help create the first environmental club in Pennsylvania, which was known as the Alpine Club. The purpose of this organization was to promote the conservation of Pennsylvania’s natural resources through exploring the mountains of Pennsylvania and studying the ecosystem found within.
His love of the outdoors would help him gain a position in the Pennsylvania Forestry Commission, a position he held from 1918 until 1930. During his time there, a vast majority of Pennsylvania’s forests, mountains, and parks were named by Shoemaker in honor of prominent Pennsylvanians. Shoemaker would eventually name a mountain after himself: Shoemaker Knob in Lycoming County. Please note: Numerous sources state Shoemaker Knob is in Union County, but after carefully analyzing a number of topographical maps, it appears this peak is actually in Lycoming County, close to the border with Union County.
In 1924, Shoemaker would help form the organization which most know him for – the Pennsylvania Folklore Society. Shoemaker would become the president of the society in 1935. In addition to leading the Pennsylvania Folklore Society, in 1937 he became the state archivist, which he held until 1948. Shoemaker would take his final state position in 1948 as Pennsylvania’s official state folklorist, a position he held until 1956.
In 1956, Henry Shoemaker retired from all his positions and duties and returned to his home in McElhattan, where he died July 15, 1958. His body was taken to Highland Cemetery and placed at the top of the hill overlooking Lock Haven and the West Branch Valley.
While Shoemaker was instrumental in preserving Pennsylvania’s history and oral traditions, there has been debate on how much of Shoemaker’s history and lore was based on fact and how much of it was a product of his own imagination. To this very day, I still debate which of his writings are fact and where the fiction takes over. In my own mind, there is much more fiction in his stories than fact, an issue I’ve debated often.
This debate had its origins while Shoemaker was still alive. Shoemaker addressed this in the introduction to More Pennsylvania Mountain Stories (1912). claiming he had gone out and found these stories. By the time he published Tales from the Bald Eagle Mountains (1913), he appears that there were issues between Shoemaker and other region historians, due to their version of facts and Shoemaker’s did not match up.
In reading the introduction to Penn’s Grandest Cavern, Shoemaker himself gives the reader a clue to the origins of the story: “the amplified story appears in these pages for the first time.” Only a couple lines before this he admits that he only had fragments of the story. So where did the rest of the story come from? How did the story get larger and louder? The answer is simple: Shoemaker invented the story. In the introduction to Black Forest…Souvenirs Shoemaker continues to reveal the origins of his stories. As a child, “all kinds of fancies flashed through his mind, dreams of strange races of people,” and as an adult, he brought those fancies to life in his writings.
But it’s not the folklore and the creation of his own stories that mars his contribution to Pennsylvania’s history. In his attempt to make his mark on history, Shoemaker created his own version of history. His most notable alternate history is the infamous Green Massacre in Sugar Valley which he had a monument erected in memory of an event that never happened. Note: more about this story can be found here: Sugar Valley Massacre.
Despite all the things I dislike about Shoemaker’s legacy, I have to admit there are a number of things I appreciate. Shoemaker was influential in the development of historical spots around the state such as the Conrad Weiser Homestead and scenic rest areas like Hairy John’s Picnic Area. He helped push natural conservation in a time when Pennsylvania was destroying it lands and creatures within.
No matter what one may think about Henry Shoemaker and his writings, one thing is definite: they caught the attention of thousands. With each printing, more and more outsiders arrived in central Pennsylvania to see the places Shoemaker wrote about. Shoemaker even created a tour book for north-central Pennsylvania entitled Eldorado Found. He managed to bring tourists into the remote wilds of Pennsylvania to explore the places he wrote about. Whether you like him or dislike him, one thing is for sure: he definitely left his mark on the region as his stories have become a part of regional lore.
Mike and I finished our visit and we left those we visited on the hillside to slumber eternally on the historic hillside known as Highland Cemetery.