Tuesday, August 16, 2011


Donald A. Windsor

This article is reprinted from Chenango Archaeologist 2009 Winter; 2(7): 1-2,  in order to make it more widely available and to position it in this blog along with the other canoe related postings.

   So now we know!  For many years that big dugout log canoe has been with us while we met in the Indian Room of the Chenango County Historical Society Museum in Norwich.  Like the 800 pound gorilla in the room, it sat there, largely unheeded.  A plaque hanging on the wall tells a story about it.  Dan Noble often told me the story was false, because David R. "Dave" Walker discovered it in 1946 and Dave is not mentioned in the plaque. 

   But now, finally, we have the true story of this dugout canoe.  Dave Walker addressed our Thursday 3 September 2009 meeting and revealed everything.  To record his testimony, Josh Sheldon videotaped Dave's narration on the spot, right at Deer Pond, on State Route 23, across from Camp Pharsalia.  A copy of the video will be donated to the Museum.

   One July evening in 1946, Dave went to Deer Pond to get some frog legs.  The water had been recently lowered by the bursting of a beaver dam.  He noticed a log protruding from the mud at the edge of the pond.  Upon examination he observed that it was hollowed out.  Suspecting that it might be a dugout canoe, he told the owner, Lester Small, who said he could have it.  Dave got some of his buddies: Howard Welton, Bill Walker, and Joe Walker.  After some frustrating attempts, they were able to extract the canoe from the mud.

   They managed to load it onto a truck and haul it down to the City of Norwich.  This was a harrowing experience because the canoe was so long and heavy that it raised the front end of the truck off the road.  To force it down, Howard rode on the hood.  Deer Pond sits at an elevation of 1780 feet; Norwich is 1015, an overall drop of 765 feet, with many steep ups and downs along the way.  Dave drove about 5 miles per hour.

   They unloaded the canoe in Mae Lewis's yard on Front Street.  Mae's father, Willard Alpheus Lewis, was the owner of the truck they used.  He was a historian and stored antiques and boxes of historical material in his house and barn.  Dave and his crew propped the canoe upside down on sawhorses, and covered it with metal roofing sheets.  A year and a half later it was still wet, but lighter.  Mae married Harold Smith and went on to be the County Historian, serving from 1965 through 1997.   She had the canoe installed when the Museum opened in 1962.
The canoe is 17 feet 8 inches long and 2 feet broad.  It has a depth of 9 inches.  Its hollow is 5 inches deep.  Its hull is at least 3 inches thick.  The bottom has been flattened.

   A persistent question throughout the years has been what was such a big boat doing in such a small pond?  The 1943 topographical map (East Pharsalia 7.5 minute) has the pond as oval shaped with diameters of about 700 and 400 feet.  Deer Pond was dredged in 1980 and is now much larger. 
(Continued on page 2) (Continued from page 1)
   Dave says that Lyle Perkins, a DEC forester, told him that two more, much shorter, dugout canoes were found while dredging and were placed atop a pile of mud.  Unfortunately, they disappeared and no one knows where they went.  This dredging led to the erroneous notion that Dave's canoe came to the Museum two decades after Dave's discovery.

   I often wondered if it was indeed a canoe because it looks so unseaworthy.  It has a very shallow hull and no keel.  I used to canoe and I would never take this thing in a river because it could easily tip to the side and the current would capsize it.  So what good was it?

   Dave said the canoe was not used for river travel but for harvesting wild rice.  Which begs the question, is wild rice native here?  Sure enough.  See the following article.

   Dan Noble says that the rice harvesters did not ride in the canoe, but rather walked in the water beside it, pushing it along as if it were a floating basket.  With no riders, the canoe would probably have floated high enough to not take in water.  Dan stressed that three questions remain about this canoe.  What kind of wood is it?  How old is it?  Was it built by Native or Euro-Americans?

   Dave pointed out that the area around Deer Pond is still quite wet and probably was much wetter in the past.  History certainly bears that out, because roadbeds, draining, and confinement of streams to channels have drastically changed the hydraulics of our landscape.  Dave pointed to Perkins Pond, which is two miles to the north.  Several other ponds, named and unnamed are  within two miles of Deer Pond.  Among them are Jackson Pond on John Smith Road, and the CCC plus the former CCC/YMCA ponds on Elmer Jackson Road.  These ponds are dammed up streams.  But before the settlers changed the landscape, they were broad, multibraided streams dammed by beavers.  Perkins Pond is not depicted on the 1855 map but appears on the 1863 map.

   In spite of its high elevation, the area around Deer Pond is full of streams, most of them unnamed.  The area south and southeast of Camp Pharsalia is a huge wetland, called Barlow Swamp on the 1863 map.  We snowshoed through it last winter.  It consists of balsam and hemlock swamps interspersed with marshes.  Travel is difficult when these wetlands are not frozen.  If the water level were just a foot or so higher, the trees would drown and the whole area would be a massive marsh, suitable for wild rice.

   Dave emphasized that the Deer Pond area is a watershed that feeds into the Otselic River, the Brakel Creek, the Canasawacta Creek, and the Genegantslet Creek.  A glance at the topographical map confirms this.  Chenango County has 6 peaks above 2000 feet, 3 in Afton, 2 in Pharsalia, and 1 in Otselic.  The latter 3 are the high points of Dave's watershed.

   Then, as he was concluding his talk, Dave dropped a real bombshell.  He believes that somewhere in the Deer Pond area was an Indian village.  I am very familiar with that area and Dave's statement took me by surprise, because it is so wet and at such a high elevation.  But it does have plenty of dry spots.  I am now very excited about trying to find that village.  Dave has a remarkable record of finding old things, so I have learned to rely on his guidance.  Rumor has it that someone may have already found it, but never got around to publishing anything.  We shall see.  But for now, I want to thank Dave Walker for giving us a very interesting presentation, one that will certainly keep me intrigued for a long time.