We all know that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, but here in Sullivan Township in Tioga County, there is a different legend about that.
The Legend: Long ago, a hermit lived up on Armenia Mountain in a hut or lean to. He didn’t come into town much, but when he did, he always gave out candy to the children. This along with his characteristic white hair and beard gave him the nickname of Santa Claus. One spring he was found dead in his lean to and was buried right where he was found.
This century old legend might have dissolved years ago, but that those who found and buried him also carved his name and dates on the great rock against which his lean to was supposed to have been. In hand carved block letters we can faintly see "Clark Orvis 1827 – 1901" and beside that two upright field stones marking the head and foot of Clark’s grave. The grave is located at the foot of Armenia Mountain in the southern part of Sullivan Township, several miles south of the village of Mainesburg.
My approach to any myth or legend is to take it apart, find the germ of truth within, and prove or disprove it with facts. As George Gershwin told us in Porgy and Bess, the myths "ain’t necessarily so."
The Facts: Clark G. Orvis
was born in Groton, Tompkins County, New York on the first day of November
1827. He was the fifth child of Elcy Clark and her husband Eber Orvis.
Women often passed on their own surnames as first or middle names for their
children, and sometimes those female surnames can travel for generations
helping us as clues to otherwise hidden relationships. It is the name of
the fourth child of that family, David North Orvis, that is the link to
tie Clark to the other Sullivan Township Orvis line. To make a complex
story brief, Hannah North and her husband Eleazar Orvis lived and died
in Connecticut, but several of their children migrated to Sullivan Township
and established families that formed a large part of Sullivan’s early core
|One of the first things we learn in studying migration
is that people moved with relatives or neighbors. They did not just end
up in a place where they did not have connections of some kind. Hannah
Orvis, daughter of Hannah North and Eleazar Orvis, moved to Sullivan with
her husband Nathan Fellows. Ruth Orvis moved to Sullivan but did not marry.
Lydia Orvis moved to Sullivan as the wife of Russell Rose who had been
previously married to her deceased sister Phoebe. Huldah Orvis married
Jonathan Webster in Connecticut, and two of their sons moved to Sullivan
establishing the Webster name. Jesse Orvis moved to Sullivan before 1812
and married Susannah Holden. Another brother, Joseph, did not move to Sullivan,
but by 1817 his son Timothy did, following aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Descendants of all of these people still live in Sullivan or surrounding
townships today. Brother David, also did not move to Sullivan, and he was
the grandfather of Clark Orvis of Groton, New York. This link to cousins
and second cousins apparently led Clark to Sullivan Township in Tioga County
PA at the end of his life.
Lydia Orvis, who died in 1857, is the only one of this first generation for whom we have a photo. Descendants of Lydia, including Carol Isaacson and Leo Packard, still live in the township.
1850 census records show Clark still living with his parents in Groton NY as a 23 year old peddler. After that most of the extended family moved to Steuben County, NY. In the 1860 and 1870 censuses, I have so far not been able to locate either Clark or his brother David under any name. In 1880, Clark was a widowed farmer in Atlantic County, New Jersey living in the household of Frederick Robbins and his wife Minnie. So far I have not determined Minnie’s own surname or a relationship of Clark to either of them. Minnie was not a daughter or sister. Frederick seems not to be connected to either of the Robbins lines of Sullivan Township.
Clark first appeared in Sullivan Township in two deeds filed with Tioga County. In 1894 he purchased fifty acres of timbered land from North F. Orvis. I believe this to be a nephew of Clark, possibly a son of David North Orvis, but I need to investigate further. In 1896 he bought an adjacent twenty-five acre timbered parcel from Mary "Fellows." This was Mary Ballard, a physician and widow of James Fellows, also a physician and a second cousin of Clark. In the 1897 tax assessment Clark was listed as a farmer with one horse, one cow, and one male dog. By 1898, the dog was no longer with him, and by 1900 he had only the cow. His occupation, no longer farmer, was "old." From what I have seen of old age, it is indeed a full time occupation.
In the census of 1900, taken only months before Clark’s death, Clark, aged 72, was head of household with Minnie "Robbins," aged 62, and Wiloughby Wood, aged 67, as boarders. This is the same Minnie with whom he was recorded in 1880 in New Jersey. I have not established the relationship with Clark and the surname appears to be a married alias and not her own family name. Hermits, as we know, live alone, not with other people. I also don’t find it reasonable that the three of them lived in the so-called lean to on the mountain. Clark’s death certificate, dated March 21, 1901, indicates that he died of Grippe (flu, pneumonia) and that he had been sick for three months previous.
The Conclusions: The rock on which Clark’s name and dates are inscribed is a large outcropping about ten feet high and about the size of a small garage. The marked grave is on the leeward side giving credence to a lean to having been there in the shelter of the rock. My assumption is that Clark did die in the lean to, but that he was up there in the woods for maple syrup production or hunting, and not that it was his sole or primary living place.
Clark’s remains have lain in the perfect place to "rest in peace" for over a century now. We can be grateful to whomever took the time to mark the grave and to engrave his name on the rock to remind us of this long ago legend. The forest and other rock outcroppings surround him. I visited the location on Columbus Day with fall color at peak, the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot, and a gentle, warm breeze making the falling leaves dance in the sunlight. I can’t imagine that Clark would have preferred any other place.