For many today, Bill Smith has become as much an icon of life in the Adirondack Mountains as the guideboat, the lean-to shelter, the ash splint pack basket (which he happens to make with great skill), or the slat-back chair that bears the regions name. His fameand his celebration of the many traditions of life in his homeplace in the northern foothillshave spread to many places in the past thirty years of his life, ever since he gave up distant construction jobs for a life with his family in the woods he loves.
Now 65, Bill is a native and lifelong resident of the place he calls the Featherbed, just above the village of Colton in St. Lawrence County. He is a son of Roy Smith, a woodsman who hauled provisions into the lumber camps of fifty or more years ago, and Emily Bicknell Smith, who raised ten children and augmented the family income by boarding men who were on their way into or out of the lumbering operations. From his father Bill learned about many of the old woodsmens adventures and how to tell their stories; from his mother he learned many old ballads and songs that were popular among local folks in an earlier time in the North Country.
Bill Smith, of Colton, is an Adirondack storyteller and balladeer whose renown has gone far beyond the North Country. Photograph by Martha Cooper, courtesy of TAUNY Archives.
|To those great resources he added his own years of living as a logger, trapper, hunter, fisherman, and guide among woodsmen and woodswomen. For a bonus, Bill received a grant from the Folk Arts Program of the New York State Council on the Arts to study storytelling with an cknowledged master of "big stories," Ham Ferry of nearby Seveys Corners. Since that apprenticeship twenty years ago, Bill has become well known throughout the Northeast, traveling almost constantly to one place or another to tell Adirondack stories and sing old songs. He has performed in hundreds of schools, town halls, church meeting rooms, and banquet halls, as well as sites as widespread as the National Folk Festival in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Augusta Heritage Center in West Virginia. He has appeared in dozens of publications, including National Geographic and Dirty Linen, and has recorded a half-dozen albums of songs and stories.|
Despite his travels and many acquaintances far from the Featherbed, Bill still takes his greatest pleasure in swapping stories with old friends around home. His is such a deep well of tales that you can always hear a new one, or an old one with a new twist. And if you sit back and close your eyes, you can easily imagine that you too are around the old cookstove, just waiting for one more good one to be told.
Storytelling is one of those timeless arts. Its how news was spread, how people were entertained, how family histories and community histories were passed from generation to generation. Modern storytellers use movies, television, books, and websites to communicate with audiences, but as Lamar Bliss found out for Voices of New York Traditions, some people, like Bill Smith, prefer to do it the old-fashioned way.
Bill Smith has a very busy schedule with storytelling festivals and performances all over the state, but he always looks forward to being at homethe place where his stories originate, the northwestern Adirondack town of Colton.
Smith: Most of my stories and that pertain to the old place. I guess home.s always home, even if you werent there your whole life, you know, where you started out, I guess, seems to be home. And the stories and that relate to that up there because they were stories I heard my mother talk about and my father talk about and my aunts, my uncles and all these people. And they were all referring to up there, so in my repertoire of stories and songs and that, why, I kind of talk about up there, because thats where my heart is, I guess.
Bliss: Bill rarely acquires stories from books or other storytellers; he simply pays attention to the people around him and what they do. Bill was the youngest of ten children, and the Smith household was a busy place with lots going on. Bill remembers the stories and tall tales he heard from his parents friends when they stopped by. One of his favorite people was Ira Irish.
Smith: He stopped at the house and they was talking about something and he said, "Say, Roy," he says, "you dont suppose I could borrow your wedge, do you?" My dad says, "Sure you can borrow my wedge. What are you going to do, split some wood?" "No," he said, "actually," he said, "I was makin a stew," he said, "but my carrots are so big this year that," he said, "that when I was sawing that carrot up with the bucksaw," he said, "that darn saw got pinched in that carrot and now," he said, "I need a wedge to wedge the carrot apart so I can get my bucksaw back out or either that or let me borrow your bucksaw, one or the other." And so that was the kind of thing Ira would come up with.
Bliss: Tall tales and stories of the lumber camps and horse traders came from his father. His mother taught him songs, and Bills memories of growing up and his knowledge of forest lore, coupled with a good sense of humor, allow his audiences a glimpse into the life of a trapper and backwoodsman. Many families who lived in the Adirondacks counted on the woods for sustenance. Sometimes that put them at odds with the local authorities, most notably the game warden. Bill has his share of stories about those confrontations.
Smith: One time, my mother had decided we were going to have this big gathering. And somehow, a dead deer ended up in our kitchen. This was along in August, I think. And we had just acquired a new game protector. My father was really nervous about the whole thing and so, this particular Sunday, my mother had venison cooking on the old wood cookstove. Must have been five or six different frying pans all full of that, all fixed different you know, and all kinds of different ways, and that wonderful smell was going through the kitchen and my mother had just got done baking bread in the oven and the oven door was open and it was hot in there, you know.
And my father thought he heard somebody driving up the driveway. And he went out on the porch and he peeked around the corner of the door on the porch. And he come running back into the house, yellin and screamin and he said, "Emily, the game wardens comin in the driveway!" he says, andthis took about two secondshe took the griddles off that stove and he threw that venison into that stove, you know, and the smoke was going up to the ceiling and the fire was flying up to the ceiling and the ashes was coming down and he whirled and he had that oven door open and he threw those frying pans into that oven and he kicked that oven door shut with his foot and he whirled and he went out onto that porch and when he got out onto that porch he noticed the game warden just backing out of the driveway and turned and went back toward Colton. I guess all he was doin was turnin around.
He ruined the whole dinner by throwing that in the stove. And he come running back into the house and he said, "Emily, wheres them long-handled forks? Of course, wed all beat him to that. Everybody had a fork, the hair was singeing off everybodys arms and trying to get that meat out of the stove and back into the frying pan. And all ashes and soot, you know. It just completely ruined Sunday dinner.
Bliss: Stories like this one can be found on any of the cassette albums Bill Smith has produced over the years. But try to get to one of his many performances. The experience of sitting with a master storyteller might inspire you to tell some of your own familys stories.
The interview with Bill Smith is one of a series of radio documentaries sponsored by the New York Folklore Society, for public radio stations. The Voices of New York Traditions documentaries have been produced by Dale W. Johnson and Lamar Bliss.
From his father Bill learned about many of the old woodsmens adventures and how to tell their stories; from his mother he learned many old ballads and songs that were popular among local folks in an earlier time in the North Country.
To those great resources he added his own years of living as a logger, trapper, hunter, fisherman, and guide among woodsmen and woodswomen.
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 27, Fall-Winter 2001. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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