Mill Guards Played Checkers While Dam Went Out So They Named Bradford County Town Checkerville
Ever hear of Checkerville, Bradford Co., Pa.? Do you know where it is, how it received its unique name?
Undoubtedly, the reply of many Elmira Sunday Telegram readers will be “no”, for the community isn’t on present day maps and is so small motorists can pass through the place without knowing it has a name. Yet Checkerville has had its share of romance and industrial importance in lumbering days decades ago and residents retain their community pride even though maps make no mention of the place. Checkerville is a little cluster of homes along the blacktop highway connecting Gillett and Bentley Creek. The former village is four miles away, Bentley creek three.
More than 50 years ago, Buck Creek, tumbling its way past the hamlet toward Bentley Creek, had a large dam for a grist mill. There were times, during floods, when the dam had to be watched. It appears that while one man was detailed to make sporadic inspections, his mates played checkers. Thus came the name – Checkerville.
To the Sunday Telegram office some time ago came a description of Checkerville history, bearing the inscription, “Written by Sarah Mason, now deceased.” The writer was the wife of James H. Mason, 75 year old Checkerville farmer. Before her death about two years ago, she had penned a sketch of Checkerville which so well describes the little community, it is published herewith”
“Many years ago, so the story goes, there was a little hamlet in a valley; a pretty spot with hills on both sides and a large stream of water running through, which furnished plenty of fishing, an old swimming hole, etc. In those days, where there was a good-sized stream of water, you would see saw mills every few miles, operated by water power. Of course, each mill had to build a dam to have plenty of water to run the large water wheel.
“The fences were stone, stumps, split rails, and boards. Wire wasn’t heard of. Lumber was very cheap and board fences were used to a great extent. The farmers cut logs every winter and took them to mill. Every mill had a yard where the logs were put in piles.
“When the sawyer was ready for yours, you had to put them on the skidway and, as they were sawed, you took care of your own lumber. The usual price of sawing was $2 a thousand.
“So we came back to our hamlet, where we find a class of people who are satisfied with little means; law abiding citizens, all with big families. We find one of the saw mills here with plenty of logs in the mill yard. It is the spring of the year, so the mill is running full blast. As the snow is melting from the hillsides, the water is reaching flood height. The sawyer called in the men at night to help watch the water. All dams had a sluicegate, built in, and when the water reached that it was still rising. This gate was removed so the water could go through, thus saving the dam. This gate had to be raised by man force so quite a few men were in the mill to watch the dam.
“The evening was spent in a social way, drinking sweet cider, according to the custom of the time, and playing checkers. During the evening, each took turns going to the dam to watch the water. Around midnight, no one was playing checkers except the two champions, whoever they might be. The others were watching very intently. Not a word was being spoken as they watched the game get down to the last few moves. The players themselves were working their brains to decide the next move. Just a couple more moves would tell the tale.
“A roar was heard. The checkerboard dropped to the floor. The dam had gone out! The little hamlet at last had a name – Checkerville.”
The late Mrs. Mason, writer of the above article, was the former Miss Sarah McKee of South Creek Township, in which Checkerville is located. Her husband operates a 200 acre farm.
Mr. Mason cannot recall the builder of the saw mill referred to above. One, he says, was Alonson Fuller, Mr. Fuller was grandfather of John and Jair Fuller of Elmira Heights; Sam Fuller of Sylvania and Guy of Troy.
How Checkerville, up to a few years ago, had a little store, is related by Mr. Mason. John Fuller and William Drake were among those who ran it. Mr. Drake now lives in Elmira.
Two buildings remaining give identity to the place; they include a two-story frame building by the highway, home of Checkerville Grange, and site of community meetings. Higher up the hill is the Checkerville school with 14 pupils, taught by Mrs. John Mason.
From the neighborhood hillsides, pine and hemlock bark was taken to tanneries in Troy and Wellsburg. The road through the place was made into a macadam highway four years ago. Another former resident of Checkerville is Charles G. Elliot, 237 Kingsbury Ave., Elmira, N.Y.
Reprinted from an article which appeared in the Oct. 9, 1938 edition of the Sunday Telegram. An inset to the article told of a large grist stone found by workmen digging a foundation for a bridge which was brought to the home of John and Leda Lewis and placed in their rock garden. Its mate was used in the Checkerville Grist Mill, but could not be found. The stone weighed about 400 pounds.
[Alexander D. Yeomans photograph]
It was 84 years ago that Alexander D. Yeomans went to the goldfields of Alaska and the Yukon. This picture taken in 1937 shows him with several souvenirs of his adventure. In his hand he is holding a nugget found during his prospecting days, a watch chain made of bits of gold ore and a poke partially filled with gold dust.
Story of Frozen Klondike
Lure of Gold Led Fassett Man to Spend 10 Years in Quest of Precious Yellow Metal
When a Grange or Church gathering – or any other social event in Fassett, Pa. – starts getting dull, folks begin to look around for Alexander D. Yeomans. Mr. Yeomans, 60, and raconteur par excellence of stories, verses and his own experiences, is veteran of gold rush days in the Yukon, Alaska, and British Columbia. Stories of the Klondike, El Dorado; gambling and hard drinking in the mining camps; tales of 50 below zero weather and of pokes of gold dust flow from his lips. Listen to him a while and the glare of the Northern Lights unfold before your eyes; you hear the roar of ice breaking up as spring strikes the Yukon; dog teams mush through mountain passes and over frozen wastes and wolves howl dolefully in the night air.
Yeomans who now operates a farm at Fassett – there are 300 acres to his properties – spent more than 10 years in the mine regions of the Far Northwest. He and Mrs. Yeomans have lived in Fassett more than 20 years. Born at Millerton, Yeomans went to New York City when about 16 to learn the machinist’s trade. An ambitious youth, he went to night school and rose to a foreman’s job with R. Hoe & Co., printing press manufacturers. He was 22 when the lure of gold called him.
A brother, Edwin, now living near Los Angeles, California, went west in 1897, an older brother, Stanton, left in 1898. Stanton was to die at Skagway years later. Edwin had gone to Seattle with plans to go to Cook’s Inlet and had forwarded supplies to that destination. He never did catch up with the shipment, for hearing of the Klondike, he changed his plans. He formed a partnership with two ship captains and went to Skagway. At Skagway, Edwin and Stanton met in 1898. They went to Atlin, British Columbia. In 1899 Alexander Yeomans left New York for Alaska, joining his brothers at Skagway. The other brothers had staked claims at Pine Creek and Spruce Creek.
The present resident of Fassett reached Skagway just in time to miss the shooting of “Soapy” Smith. Smith, according to Yeomans, was an outlaw and a group of citizens, after a meeting, agreed to run him out of town. A man named Reed volunteered to do the job. Edwin and Stanton were among the Skagway residents who saw Reed and “Soapy” shoot it out. The result was two corpses.
“My brothers had written me,” relates Alexander, “not to take an outfit but to wait until we brothers joined together. But I saw a fleece-lined sleeping bag at Skagway. It looked fine and I bought it for $12. When they saw it,” continued Alexander, “my brother laughed. ‘that will never be warm enough for winter up here,’ they said.” Alexander admits he was wrong. The cold quickly pierced the skin exterior of the bag. He then bought a Siberian dog rug, eight feet square which proved much better.
“It was funny how the cowboys at Seattle would know a green prospector,” says Alexander. He relates how they would advise the greenhorn to buy a horse. The horse purchased, would be shipped by steamer to Skagway. But when they tried to saddle the animal it would be too wild to pack or use.
Stanton Yeomans had a huge Newfoundland dog which he used instead of a team of smaller dogs. When ice cut the dog’s feet, moccasins were placed on them. The dog later was purchased by a woman heading for the Yukon, 600 miles away. The big dog dragged the sled and supplies those 600 miles, reaching the destination safely.
The three brothers stayed at Altin three summers, spending the winter months elsewhere. Alexander wintered at Seattle, Tacoma and one year at San Francisco. He put his machinist trade to use, finding steady employment. The next year Yeomans started for the Yukon. He left from Skagway, went part way by the White Pass and Yukon Railroad, and finally reached Dawson. In this vicinity Yeomans was to spend some six years – long winter nights of bitter cold included.
“It was often more than 60 degrees below,” relates Yeomans, “I remember two weeks when it was never warmer than 50 below.” Yeomans recalls many amusing incidents of those days at Dawson. “There were many kinds of thermometers, some with indicators registering 100 below. But it seemed they were not actually made for such cold, for whenever it was colder than 50 below, the mercury would go right out of sight.” The resident got tired of such thermometer tomfollery and chipped in to get a “real thermometer” – one that would actually tell how cold it was. They sent to Rochester and paid $100 for a thermometer. It was about four feet long. Shipping charges were $25 more. But when it arrived it was found to be a real thermometer. Once it registered 68 below.
There was the time some men got arguing about relative coldness. “Some one was arguing,” says Yeomans, “that when the thermometer registered 60 below it actually didn’t feel colder than when it read 50 below. It was 60 below that night the dispute raged in the saloon at Dawson.” However, there seemed to be no way to settle such an argument. Then the men started to wrangle over whether whiskey was “hot” in cold weather. That is to say that it was conceded that ordinary whiskey might warm a man’s interior – but – what would cold whiskey do?
“It’s hot,” said one. “It’s cold,” said another. At this point the bartender said: “Why, if I should go to the cellar, fill this glass with whiskey coming from that subzero cache, and someone should drink it right down, he’d soon be dead!” The challenge was immediately accepted by a husky miner who allowed he could drink such an amount and wagered $10 on his ability. Yeomans tersely recounts the results. “The man drank the whiskey and dropped to the floor. He was dead!”
One day Yeomans and his partner took a walk. It was 20 below zero. “If it could stay nice and warm like this, it wouldn’t be bad at all,” remarked the partner. He wasn’t joking either, Yeomans says. “It was a great sight to see the ice go out of the Yukon in the latter part of May,” says Yeomans. The river froze up, he says, in September. “The ice would be at times six feet thick,” says Yeomans. “You could hear the roar of the braking, cracking ice miles away.”
Yeomans was in a partnership with six men at Dawson. Some lived in tents, others in shacks. Bread, bought in 100 loaf lots, at a bakery, would freeze solid immediately on exposure to the outdoor air. When a miner wanted to use a loaf, he would put it in an oven. The result would seem like a fresh loaf, just made. Potatoes would be cached outdoors and of course, would freeze stone solid. They would be prepared for eating by boiling, one dropped in the boiling water at a time. “They would taste fine, too,” says Yeomans.
Yeomans shared a cabin with one of his six partners. They mined by sluices, panning out the gold. Most of it would be in fine particles, kept in a poke. As soon as possible they would take it to a bank, obtaining credit in money at a price of $16 per ounce. (The present quotation is more than $30 an ounce.) Prices of materials were prohibitive. Hay would cost $100 a ton and a partner of Yeomans paid $75 for a blacksmith’s anvil. Yeomans was peeved at this. “I didn’t drink, didn’t gamble and I hated to see money thrown away like that,” he says.
During his stay in the gold regions, Yeomans had been corresponding with a girl from Fassett, a Miss Frances Tillinghast. It probably was a long wait for Yeomans – waiting for the ice to go out of the Yukon, allowing a steamer with mail to arrive. In 1909 Yeomans returned East and visited a while around Fassett and Millerton. In 1910 he and Miss Tillinghast we married, the ceremony being performed at Binghamton.
The urge to travel possessed both, and in succeeding years Mr. And Mrs. Yeomans lived in Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Wheeling, W.Va., and Easton, Pa. A son, Alexander T., was born at Cleveland and at Wheeling the Yeomans had a taste of Ohio River floods – minor ones compared to the disaster of 1937.
The farm now occupied by the Yeomans is part of former acreage owned by Philo Fassett, who came to the South Creek community in 1830 and had it named after him. The house in which the Yeomans now live is the former Fassett home and is more than 100 years old. A huge grist stone, used in the Fassett mill, now reposes in front of the house.
The preceding article was featured in the Sunday Telegram (Elmira, New York) on February 28, 1937. Mr. Yeomans was the father of Alex T. Yeomans, who is known to locals as “Babe.” At the age of 75, Babe resides on the land once owned by Philo Fassett. Mr. Yeomans relates that he had several letters from his uncles, written to his father while the latter was in the Yukon. These are assumed to have been stolen. Babe’s daughter, Diana Cronk, retains a necklace made from some of the gold nuggets that Babe’s father brought back from the Yukon.
The following three article excerpts were printed in the Star Gazette in 1937. It seems time never changes some things – like high taxes and government spending. Do the following opinions sound familiar?
Edgar Congdon, who was 80 at the time, relates he
ran away from home when he was 16 because he was restless and dissatisfied
and thinks people of today are discontented as he was 64 years ago – and
with much less cause. He doesn’t think much of government spending. “In
my youth I spent years of toil clearing a farm on Roaring Run of stumps,
brush and stone. It had never been plowed before. I shall not live to see
it, but someone must pay the bill for today’s squandering. I am afraid
that generations to follow will have to struggle with taxes as hard as
I had to work on that farm.
He paid about $25 an acre for his 150 acre farm and built the house in 1898 and 1899. He married the former Ella Ruggles and had seven children. Ella died in 1918 and he settled in Gillett in 1928 where he died in 1940 at the age of 83.
South Creek from Fassett Bridge.