Tales of “Witt” Cook
Everyone has stories to tell. Here we recall some tales from the pen of Arthur Carr, one of Ticonderoga’s better known contemporary recorders of history who was a good fellow and faithful member of the Ticonderoga Historical Society for many years. We share some of his stories as he recorded them in 1962 concerning an unusual man that had been told by two generations of Ticonderoga folks whenever they have been engaged in discussing “The Good Old Times.” Not impossible Paul Bunyan yarns but the recital of actual events and the participation therein by actual people —
Perhaps you are one of the countless number who have traveled Route 9N (North) when driving north into the eastern Adirondacks of upper New York State. If so you have followed the western side of Lake George with occasional vistas of water beauty and continual loveliness of mountain and forest.
As one nears the northern end of this Queen of American Lakes one is sure to notice two similar houses of brick some five hundred feet apart and on opposite sides of the highway. Between them runs the northern boundary of Warren County which is thereby the southern line of Essex County and the township of Ticonderoga.
These spacious homes were built about one hundred and forty years ago, reputedly of brick made on the premises by two brothers who were the sons of one of Ticonderoga’s early settlers. The larger of these homes is the one on the Warren County side of the boundary. It is now in excellent condition having been restored by it’s present owners and occupants, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Stanley (Dr. James A. Mack). It was built about 1822. From near its date of construction until 1892 it was the home of William Cook Jr., who knew no other home as he was but three years of age when it was built by his father. The property came to him and his good wife upon the death of his parents.
In 1847, when twenty eight years old, William married Caroline Moses the daughter of another pioneer family. Their children were two, a son and a daughter. They had no grandchildren.
The second of the two brick homes built by the Cook brothers. Hague -Ticonderoga road looking north, just as one passes the Warren – Essex County line. Once known as “Ledgewood House.” Today the home of Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth Engler.
In common with eighty per cent of the population of 1850 William gained his living from the soil. The cleared land of Friend’s Point and his home place near the County line yielded pasture and crop land, the adjacent forest lumber and fuel. The conduct of his business would not merit fame above his neighbors. His memory is preserved because of personal traits and idiosyncrasies. The tales of his ways and foibles are now folk tales in the country side about Ticonderoga and are the subject of this writing.
Physically, William was a somewhat ponderous person. Of good height, heavy of body, not paunchy but great of girth. There are those still among us who, now advanced in years, can remember him being a large man, round of face and somewhat stern of visage. His voice was commanding, described by one who remembers him as “booming”. Why he was universally referred to as “Witt” is not known. Perhaps it was in part to differentiate between the Sr. and the Jr. Williams. Perhaps it was, like many such cognomens, fastened on him in youth without reason and clung to him thru life.
His farm was scattered along the shore of Lake George for some distance. Friend’s Point was then an area of considerable pasturage and the southern extreme of the Cook property. The residence was about two miles to the north. This distance gives point to one tale that illustrates Witt’s exaggerated idea of the obedience necessary upon his commands. Having need of two animals from the pasture on Friend’s Point he sent a man on horse back to fetch them. His instructions were that the man should lead the cow and allow the calf to follow. This method the man found to be difficult but by leading the calf the cow easily followed. Therefor in this manner they arrived back at the Cook residence. Witt observed the reversal of his orders and in imperious tones ordered the man and cattle back the two miles to return with the cow being led as he had instructed.
A man and his snuff
This matter of obedience to his orders seems frequently to have resulted in ridiculous situations especially when Witt was over exposed to alcohol. One such occurrence was upon a summer day when Riley Palmer was engaged in shingling Witt’s horse barn. The old shingles had been removed and the new ones were nearly in place when rolling up from the west came one of those violent thunder showers that at times disturb the Lake George country in summer. This one threatened a heavy downpour and Riley was bending every effort to complete the covering before the storm broke and drenched everything. Now Witt was habituated to the taking of snuff and in its use was inclined to generosity always insisting on companions sharing his snuff. Arriving on the scene of the shingler struggling to complete the job before the storm arrived Witt had the sudden urge to take a pinch of snuff. Calling up to Riley on the roof the told him to come down and have a pinch of snuff with him. Riley desisted calling his attention to the approaching storm with it’s imminent danger of wetting a part of the interior of the horse barn. The exact language of Witt’s reaction has not been preserved but the essence of it was that Witt was paying Riley and if he wanted him to come down and have snuff with him he had best do it.
Witt was not built for heavy or protracted labor. Of necessity he at times attempted field work. It is told that one of these necessities was upon him in that he was hoeing corn with his hired men near the highway. His speed was not enough to keep abreast of the men. A neighbor was seen approaching down the road. So that he did not seem to be a slow follower Witt turned about and rehoed his row while the neighbor was passing. To add to the deception he shouted to the other hoers when the passerby was in best hearing urging more speed if they intended to keep up with him.
Several of the tales that have come down to us illustrate one of Witt’s splendid traits. Even this was over developed. This was a sense of honor and strict adherence to his word. Orlando Rowell of Ti was a buyer of raw furs and hides. One spring day Witt brought in a calf skin for sale. He first ascertained what Mr. Rowell was paying for such hides. This being fifty cents he told the buyer that he might have it at that price. As he unrolled the skin Witt remarked that one of the men skinned the animal and therefore perhaps there was a hole or two in it. “In that case,” said Orlando, “I’ll have to deduct ten cents for each hole.” The hired man had indeed been careless. So much so that six holes were found. Witt had agreed to the price and terms. He therefor left the skin and paid the dime due because of the excess holes.
One autumn the Cook farm was faced with an over abundance of apples. A buyer stopped and offered ten cents per bushel for the crop. The price was low for those times but there were a lot of apples so Witt finally agreed to the bargain. Although he was later offered twice the price for his apples it is recorded that he stuck to his word and the buyer had the crop for ten cents per bushel.
As he was unfaltering in keeping his word so he expected all with whom he dealt to be. Perhaps it was the same fall that he sold his crop of apples for ten cents per bushel that he agreed to furnish an unnamed householder in the Lower Village with a bushel of apples for one dollar. When he delivered the fruit the housewife argued that a dollar was more than the market. Witt said not a word but picked up the sack of apples and started to depart. The customer thereupon called to him that she would take the apples even if the price was high. Witt kept right on with his leaving while over his shoulder went the suggestion that she buy apples where she could get them the cheapest if she did not wish to stand by her bargain. Nearby was the barber shop of Charles Liberty. Entering this with the burlap sack of fruit the following conversation between Witt and Charles is told.
“Witt: Hi Charlie. Want some apples?
Charles: Sure Witt but I’m short of money today.
Witt: Who said anything about money? I asked if you wanted any apples.
Charles: Certainly I’d like some apples, but –“
By this time Witt had advanced to a back corner of the little shop, had untied the sack and up ending it in the corner had set apples to rolling all over the shop. The apples he gave but not the sack.
The one tale that reflects dishonesty upon Mr. Cook is one of “come uppence” that converts slick dealing into a balancing of accounts. In those days there were dealers in a multitude of items that drove their peddling carts from house to house. Among these there was one who would exchange goods for old rags, old iron, pelts, etc. He had stopped at the big brick house, had dealings with the proprietor and was off to other parts when Witt discovered that he had been cheated. As this particular peddler usually called about once a year Mr. Cook bided his time in silence on the subject of the swindle. Long before the year had passed a black cat attached to the farm checked out its nine lives and went where black cats go. Witt carefully skinned the dead pussy and skillfully strtched its hide on a shaped board as was usual for saleable pelts. When Mr. Dealer arrived on his next trip Witt dealt as usual, but as a sort of after thought asked him if he bought mink hides. The reply being affirmative the cat skin was produced, paid for and packed away in the dealer’s wagon. Another year rolled around. Again our fur dealer called at the big brick house. This time he began by demanding satisfaction for a cat skin sold him as mink. Mr. Cook explained that he only asked if he bought mink as that was the name of the cat. Further he suggested that the deal only offset the shady practicice of two years previous.
In the latter years of Witt Cook’s life one of the big events of each summer was the coming of the circus. The employees of these traveling shows were noted for their artistic short changing of customers. One such ran afoul of Witt when he paid his fifty cent admission fee with a five dollar bill. The change returned to the big fist of the Tuffertown farmer was but a single half dollar. Witt called attention to the fact that he had given him a five dollar bill. The sharper insisted that it was a single. Witt moved closer and with vehemence stated his certainty that it was a five. “Get along” said the ticket seller, “you’ve got your change and all you’ll get.” Witt stepped back and in his full throated, commanding voice addressed the queue waiting for tickets. “Folks, this scoundrel has short changed me four dollars. There wont be another ticket sold here until he makes it right.” Most of the waiting folks knew Mr. Cook and knowing him knew that it would be dangerous to even attempt buying a ticket. The others respected his booming voice and healthy bulk. Ticket selling stopped and remained so until the foiled and engraged seller realized the futility of his case and with muttered curses yielded and gave Witt the four dollars.
Circa 1950s print of Ft. Ticonderoga point with steamer dock
Horse with halter
Like most of agricultural Ticonderoga in the 1850s and 60s the Cook farm produced some light draft or speedy trotting horses. One of these animals took the eye of an out of town customer who offered Witt a top price if he would deliver him to the Lake Champlain steamer which then called at the Fort Ticonderoga dock. This was agreeable and the bargain was made. On the day appointed Witt and the horse were at the steamer landing near the site of the present wharf south of the Pavilion. Here the buyer appeared, and Witt, holding the horse by his halter received and pocketed the purchase price. He then proceeded to remove the halter. This, of course, raised loud cries from the purchaser as Witt was in effect turning the horse loose with no means left his new owner of either guidance or detention. Witt calmly finished the removal of the halter with the remark that he had only sold the horse, not his halter. We are required to imagine that the horse did not take advantage of his new freedom during the time that the onlookers, who knew Mr. Cook, took to persuade the new owner that his best interest lay in buying the halter as well as the horse.
Witt’s sense of fair paly was attested by a neighbor whose little farm yielded such a scant living that he regualarly worked out during the high wage season of haying and harvest. This neighbor, a Mr. Covill, was an expert with a scythe. An ordinary worker was expected to mow about one acre in a day for which he received one dollar. Mr. Covill was able to double this “stint’ and leave two acres of smoothly mown meadow behind him in a day’s work. He worked several summers for Mr. Cook and left the testimony that Witt always gave him two dollars a day explaining that as he did twice the work he should get twice the pay. This act is better viewed when we realize that one hundred years ago the idea of piece work was not general. A man was supposed to work his best for his dollar a day.
Witt Cook was not a religious man. Certainly not in the thought of the day. Church attendance he left strictly to his good wife, Caroline. Religious services were not at all regular in Tuffertown, as South Ticonderoga was then know. The school house doubled as a meeting house when preaching was available. In the 1860s and 70s the devoted Hibbard Ingalls from Streetroad, some nearly ten miles distant, used often to walk those miles to hold religious services in the school house near the Cooks. One Sunday as Caroline returned from such a service Witt inquired as to the preacher. Knowing the Reverend Ingalls and that he walked to the appointment in Turffertown Caroline’s husband inquired how much he was paid. She confessed that the good man received no salary whereupon, in high dudgeon, Witt produced five dollars and told his wife to see that Hibbard Ingalls got that the next time he came out to preach. It is said that his remarks on this occasion were highly derogatory of the religionists who asked him to walk way out there with no compensation. In those days five dollars was quite a sum of money yet thereafter five of Witt’s dollars found their way to Hibbard Ingalls’s pocket whenever he preached in Tuffertown. A follow up of this tale I think is in order. Hibbard Ingalls survived Witt Cook by but two years. It may be possible that Hibbard officiated at the Cook funeral. The story is that on the day Witt was buried a resident overtook Hibbard trudging along the road to South Ti and gave him a lift. Upon inquiry the neighbor learned that the old man was on his way to the Cook funeral. “Isn’t that quite a way for you to walk?” asked the neighbor. “Do you know” replied Hibbard “If I had to I would crawl the distance on my knees to honor that man.”
Another story was told many years after it occurred by a lady of the vicinity who remembered as a girl stopping at Cook’s when soliciting funds to start or to aid an already started Sunday School. She had hoped to see the kindly and benovelent Caroline and was scared stiff when confronted with the bluff bulk of Mr. Cook. She stammered out her request. Mr. Cook told her to stand on the opposite side of the room. He then took from his pocket a silver dollar which, in those days, was the price of a whole day’s work. “Here” said he ” I’ll throw this. If you catch it you may have it. If you miss it will still be mine”. The teller of this incident said that she never knew how she was able to catch the coin in her trembling state but catch it she did and Witt bade her add it to the fund. Even in his charity he would not conform.
It may well be that non conformity is the key to his character. Perhaps his oddities were but a form of rebellion against the conventional. “The thing to do” seem to be exactly the thing that he refuse to do. Even in the mater of that small edifice to the rear of the house then often called the “Necessary” and now eleveated in not so fond retrospect to the place where it is the subject of humorous literature – Witt Cook was different. Tradition does not agree on the number of holes that Witt provided. The best evidence indicated that there were seven. These ranged in size from an almost impossible smallness to one so huge as to be oversize even for the master’s avoirdupois.
The brick house in which the Cooks resided is of generous extent. When built it was among the finest homes of the region. It is still a lovely home. Spacious, mellowed by time and carefully guarded by its present occupants. In each of its rooms, at least on the lower floor, the Cooks had a clock. I do not know that they were all alike but they all had one thing in common. They were all equipped to strike the hour. One of Witt’s foibles was to keep these clocks so adjusted that all struck the hour as nearly as possible at the same instant. This must hae required much of Witt’s time but repayed him with a most unusual sound effect some twenty four times per day.
The foil of all this hatred of convention and stubborn queerness was Caroline, the soft mannered, even dispositioned, hard working wife. At times Witt must have exasperated even Caroline. Such a time is recalled when swappers of yarns get together. It was on a summer afternoon. Caroline had taken her buttermaking equipment out in the refreshing shade beside the house. Here she had worked the butter and was moulding it into golden spheres for stoarage until used. Witt had been to Ti. To steady himself for the journey home he had visited one of the many grog shops of the village. He may have been over steadied. At any rate he arrived home in a jovial state more inclined to play than to serious talk or work. Having “put up” his horse he rolled up to where his weary spouse was pyramiding the balls of butter. In his playful mood he ceremonitously removed the top ball and making his heavy way to the nearby pig pen tossed it to the occupants. This was too much for the long suffering Caroline. Without a word she also took up a ball and with equal ceremony marched to the pen and consigned it to the swine. It is said that this display of unheard of waste on the part of his wife did what no amount of verbal rebuff could have done as far as Witt was concerened. The effect upon the pigs, history does not reveal.
Witt and Caroline grew old in the fine brick house where Witt was taken by his parents when but a baby. Caroline survived until 1906. Witt passed to his reward in 1892 leaving as his most important legacy the remembrance of his many odd doings that amused or interested his contemporaries and thereby assured their retelling and happily their being passed on to a generation then unborn.
Arthur A. Carr 1895-1967 Photo taken on the Adkins & Scotts store steps 1928
Dedicated to the memory of Arthur A. Carr, an active Methodist Church member, a Masonic Leader & Past President of the Ticonderoga Historical Society. Born in Wilton, NY he moved to Ticonderoga in 1920 and worked at Adkins and Scotts General Grocery Store, which his grandfather was a partner. Later in life he was the operator of a poultry and truck garden in Streetroad. Arthur was active in the church and community, member of the school and hospital boards. He was also active in Society For the Preservation of Indian Lore, later better know today as the Forest Theater/Indian Pageant. He was a past member master of Ticonderoga’s Mt. Defiance Lodge F&M and its past district deputy. Arthur also was one of the principal researchers for the Society’s book: “Ticonderoga Patches and Patterns from its Past” that was published in 1969. Copies are available.
Over the years Art and his son, David, have donated a quantity of artifacts and archival material to the Society. Recently in memory of David, his family gifted a large collection of genealogical material to the Society of the Carr family.
Have an interest in folk lore and a “collector” of yarns in relation to the Adirondacks and the Lakes George and Champlain region? If so we would like hear from you.
During our last fiscal year we expended over $10,000 in donated funds towards archival equipment and supplies with nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer aid in the preservation of the Society’s collections. All financial and volunteer aid in the preservation of the collection is most welcomed.