The Legend of “Cherry Tree Joe” McCreery

The Grave of Joseph “Cherry Tree Joe” McCreery

I left the Cherry Tree Monument and headed toward the town cemetery for the second stop I wanted to make before I left the small community. I turned around where I had parked and headed back to the intersection of Front with Cherry and Clarion Streets. Clarion Street narrowed as it wound up the hillside to the Cherry Tree Community Cemetery and arriving at the cemetery, I entered the open gates. Note: More about the Cherry Tree Monument can be found here: Cherry Tree Monument.

Parking near the entrance, I stepped out of the vehicle and looked around. While I did not know the exact location of the grave I sought, I did know two things: 1) it was an old stone and 2) he was a Civil War veteran. Scanning the older stones within the cemetery, I noticed one stone that matched the requirements, so I carefully walked over to the stone and was delighted to see it was the grave of the man I sought. The man resting beneath the American flag was one whose stories have echoed down through history and continue to be told to this day.

I first heard about Joseph “Cherry Tree Joe” McCreery in the collected writings edited by George Swetnam. Cherry Tree Joe was a regional folk figure that some believe may have been part of the inspiration for the mythic lumberman, Paul Bunyan.

“Cherry Tree” Joe McCreery was born in 1805 near Muncy in Lycoming County. His parents, Hugh and Nancy, would settle in Cherry Tree while McCreery was a young boy where he would spend his life – at least when he wasn’t floating timber down the West Branch of the Susquehanna. McCreery would be described as a muscular man who stood a little over six-foot tall, weighed two hundred pounds, and had a full beard.

McCreery began his career as a lumberjack and raftsman around 1827. According to tradition, he was a member of the crew taking the first raft of lumber down the West Branch of the Susquehanna.

When the US Civil War broke out, McCreery joined Company A of the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Cavalry at the age of fifty-six. His service was cut short, when he was discharged in March 1862 after losing a leg. The loss of his leg changed his attitude – instead of his fun outlook on life, he was now described as short-tempered. This new attitude earned him the nickname “Contrary Joe.”

In the July 14, 1870 edition of the Indiana Progress (Indiana, PA), there is a brief article titled “Children Lost,” which mentions McCreery and his heroic actions. The event, which happened on June 30, 1870, involved the two young children of Jonathan Buterbaugh. The two children – aged four and six – had been out in the fields watching the men work when a thunderstorm appeared on the horizon. The children had been sent home, but had become lost along the way.

McCreery was among the three hundred people who gathered to search for them. McCreery discovered the two youngsters the following day near McKeages Dam on the Cush Cushion Creek – the children had traveled almost seven miles from where they had last been seen. McCreery took charge of the children, who were soon reunited with their family.

Around 1871, raftsmen began complaining of the conditions at Chest Falls near Mahaffey. There was a debate what to do and the suggestion was made to build a dam so the rocks would be submerged. McCreery gave another suggestion – blow them up with dynamite. The sad part was he didn’t really know what he was doing. He took a raft to the rough patch of water and tossed the dynamite into the rocky patch of water. According to the January 28, 1973 edition of The Pittsburgh Press, the dynamite made more noise than breaking up the rocks. The raft McCreery was taking through the rough waters, hit the rocks and broke up.

McCreery died November 23. 1895 and would be laid to rest in the Citizens Cemetery.

Although his life ended, his story continued to be passed on through word of mouth. Cherry Tree Joe would be proud of the stories that grew about him – most sources state he actually encouraged the “larger-than-life” stories while he was still alive.

According to word of mouth, he raised moose for milk cows and kept a panther for a pet. The reason he kept a panther for a pet? His house was infested with mice that weighed up to sixty pounds each. How did the mice get that big? They were eating the gigantic crumbs that fell from Joe’s super-sized meals.

One time, Cherry Tree Joe was racing Bob McKeage down the Clearfield Creek. Though McCreery was leading, McKeage was quickly catching McCreery’s raft. Not wanting to lose the race, McCreery grabbed a 150-foot-tall white pine and ripped it out of the ground with his bare hands. McCreery placed it across the creek, preventing McKeage from continuing the competition.

Another time, Cherry Tree Joe was approached by a number of raftsmen to help clear up a jam. After assessing the situation, McCreery took out his knife and began to cut at the beech trees. Before he knew it, the jam was gone and so was the birch tree raft. McCreery had whittled the entire raft into pieces and took them to Philadelphia where he sold them for $5000 more than the lumber had been worth. That is how toothpicks were invented.

Then there was the time Cherry Tree Joe got caught up in a log jam. Seeing no way to get through it, McCreery jumped off his raft, picked up the massive log raft and lifted it over the jam. After tossing it back into the creek, he jumped back on the raft and continued downstream.

Did you ever hear about the time when the river froze over before he was able to take his last two rafts downstream? Cherry Tree Joe did what any lumberman of his stature would do – he tied one raft to each foot and used them as ice skates to go down river.

Then there was the great flood of 1845, when the water was so high that Cherry Tree Joe floated a raft over the great Cherry Tree that marked the corners of Indiana, Clearfield, and Cambria Counties. Note: We won’t mention that the Cherry Tree had been gone for six or seven years by the 1845 flood, because that would just ruin a good story.

Probably the oddest legend involving Cherry Tree Joe, places him in Johnstown during the destructive 1889 Johnstown Flood. According to legend, McCreery watched as a house floated by on the flood waters. Knowing he had to help those inside, he jumped into action. McCreery grabbed the house and lifted it out of the flood waters, saving the lives of two sets of triplets.

I finished paying my respects to Joseph “Cherry Tree Joe” McCreery, humbly remembering the real man, but smiling at the stories that have grown about him over the years. With all those stories in mind, I left him resting on the hilltop high above the community he called home.

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