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Voices Fall-Winter 2007:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Humor, History, and Tall Tales: Rereading the Adirondack College Student” by Andrew Shawn Andermatt here.
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Volume 33
Fall-Winter
2007
Voices

Humor, History, and Tall Tales: Rereading the Adirondack College Student

At the end of summer some things are constant in the Adirondacks: tourists depart, leaves begin to change color, and local community college professors sit at their desks reading hundreds of “what I did over summer vacation” and “why marijuana should be legalized” essays. Teachers constantly ask themselves what they can do to better the quality of student writing. Semester after semester, teachers revamp course content and delivery, hoping that this semester will be different.

Analyzing our audience may lead to more productive responses from students. Close study of community-college demographics in the Adirondack Park indicates that a majority of students are full-time employees, many of whom are working in technical fields. With so many working students fully engrossed in established careers and the community college continuing to attract a wide range of students with varying educational goals, the curriculum for introductory writing and literature courses for non–liberal arts majors needs to be readjusted. Adirondack folk tales—particularly those contained in Helen Escha Tyler’s Mountain Memories: Folk Tales of the Adirondacks and Don Edgley’s The “Edge” of Humor and Other Stories of Lake Placid People— encourage students to adopt an appreciation of literature and local history, establish topics for writing that are meaningful to the student, and promote lifelong appreciation for literature.



A More Interdisciplinary Education

One of the most common complaints in a first-year writing or literature course at the community college is that the material is hardly relevant to students’ interests. After several years of hearing this complaint, chances are the students are right. While William Shakespeare and James Joyce may be interesting and valuable to the English major, studying the classics may indeed be merely busy work to the student pursuing a career in business administration or accounting. The goal of an introductory writing or literature course is to offer material that sharpens the students’ critical, analytical, and writing abilities, but it seems that these objectives are repeatedly glossed over in favor of the timeworn argument that reading classics will make students well-rounded.

David MacWilliams, author of “Using the ‘Hometown’ Novel in Composition 101,” has already begun integrating “hometown” novels into his writing courses. He states, “Many of the students I have worked with over the years have expressed a sense of disconnectedness between themselves and the novels they have been assigned to read in high school or college courses” (2005, 67). Students who are required to take literature courses are often as disconnected from the characters they encounter in novels as they are from the idea of becoming English majors. “At eighteen or nineteen years of age,” MacWilliams continues, “their horizons have not been pushed much beyond the mountain peaks that surround the valley” (2005, 67). How, then, should we go about creating a literature or writing course that will connect students, both traditional and nontraditional, to issues central to their lives?

The ramifications of using regional folklore in introductory courses point to an answer to this question. In the last thirty-five years or so, elementary and secondary educators have regularly introduced folklore in the classroom. Red Riding Hood, Paul Bunyan, and the Brothers Grimm have all found their way into the elementary classroom and have been established as useful teaching tools. Unfortunately, folklore—and most importantly, regional folklore—has been slow to find its way into the college curriculum, especially at smaller colleges. Some colleges may offer a topics course in folklore every couple of semesters, but folklore or local color stories are not a regular part of general writing and literary instruction.

One of the reasons folklore has been neglected by college curricula is that it is often regarded as “mass cultural” literature, a tag typically reserved for drugstore romances and comic books. Elizabeth Radin Simons, however, in her book Student Worlds, Student Words: Teaching Writing through Folklore, offers an alternate way to view folklore. She asserts, “To know our folklore—the folklore of our country, our ethnicity, our family, our childhood, our age group, and our ethnic group— is to learn to know ourselves in new ways” (1990, 1). Modern folklore is popular among students, and they acquire new perspectives of the physical region around them and the people who inhabit that region. Students become experts when it comes to knowing their own local folklore, contributing much of the ethnographic background needed for such studies. In “Writing from a Sense of Place,” Paul Lindholt argues, “Students urged to explore and develop connections to nature in their personal lives are more apt to thrive as scholars and postgraduate professionals” (1999, 7). Experience, memory, and personal history lead students to a more interdisciplinary education.

Lesser-known local writers are often left out of the “elite” mix, despite the usefulness of their message. Adjusting the local college classroom curriculum can be done with very little effort on the part of the instructor. While the literary heavy hitters will forever remain central to the literary classroom and imperative for advanced English majors to spend late-night hours decoding, the non- English major deserves a more suitable alternative. For many community college students, reading texts by local authors about local concerns—particularly concerns relevant to the workforce—would be more beneficial in the introductory classroom.



An Education in Local Color

William Chapman White addresses the Adirondack demographic in his book Adirondack Country. Here White defines the stereotypical “Adirondacker” as a laborer at heart and by trade. White says, “The Adirondack native-born are tough people, slow to make friends, slower to lose them” (1967, 33). The “typical” Adirondack man is difficult to name, but White’s description of them often revolves around what they do for a living. For example, Harold McCasland is a “fine smalltown cabinetmaker”; no urgent house call has ever interfered with his recreational fishing and hunting. Fred Ransom is a farm-to-farm salesman. Jerry LaBarge is the grandson of a French-Canadian lumberjack who drives his truck in the most dangerous terrain. Ed Smith made millions in cottonseed oil. Joe Herder runs tourist cabins on Highway 9 during the summer. “One thing these men have in common,” White asserts, “is they all know the woods of the Adirondack country and they love them” (1967, 33). So what makes the local community college students different from Adirondack laborers as portrayed by White? The answer is simple—nothing.

White’s portrait of Adirondack people is still just as fresh today as it was in the 1950s. He applies accurate “local color” to the characters he sketches. In one of his most important assertions he states, “The continuous flow of summer people, providing jobs, opportunities, and endless jokes, has had a profound influence on the region” (1967, 34). Helen Escha Tyler’s Mountain Memories: Folk Tales of the Adirondacks illustrates White’s point explicitly. Tyler, a native of the Adirondacks and daughter of a laborer, wrote news and feature stories for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise. Her column relied on telling folktales and tall tales as its main feature, and many of these tales found their way into her books.

To evaluate the effectiveness of Tyler’s tales in the classroom, we should first understand the general aim of folklore. Bette Bosma’s Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends, and Myths: Using Folk Literature in Your Classroom provides an overview of the use of folklore in the pre-college classroom. While Bosma’s book is directed toward elementary and high school instructors, the basic ideas can be applied to the college classroom. One of Bosma’s initial claims is that folklore serves as adventure and humor that is rich in language. The authors of “Folk Literature: Preserving the Storyteller’s Magic” contend that students enjoy folklore because of its humor, wit, and happy endings, but folklore is important because of its emphasis on honesty, hard work, mercy and forgiveness, gratitude, kindness, and learning across different cultures (Young et al. 2004, 782).

Helen Escha Tyler’s story “Scoop Shovel Express,” for example, illustrates the need to have fun with our work. In this case, workers, particularly Asa Lawrence, who Tyler focuses on in several stories, make their work (mainly logging) on Whiteface Mountain not only easier for themselves, but fun as well. While there are clear indications of the importance of work done faster for profit, the characters seem to find ways to amuse themselves when alone in the vast wilderness. The narrator says, “When it came time for Asa to go back down to Wilmington for more supplies he took along a large scoop shovel with which he had supplied himself. In those days he had the mountain pretty much to himself so there was no one to watch his peculiar movements” (1974, 13).

Some local color stories, especially those by Lake Placid native Don Edgley, emphasize or focus on the people we meet on the job. Edgley’s humor and wit make his tales enjoyable, but the relevance to student’s lives make them all the more fun in the classroom. Reflecting on working at the old Grand Union in Lake Placid, Edgley relays tales not only of hard work and colorful characters, but also of trickery and good-hearted pranks. A prime example is when Edgley describes placing rotted Limburger cheese in the tailpipe of a coworker’s automobile. Of course, the provocation for this prank comes from an earlier episode, when Edgley’s coworkers smeared the back handle of a delivery truck with Limburger (2003, 21). Edgley, however, does not always come out on top. In another prank, he stuffs a potato in the exhaust pipe of a butcher’s car to prevent it from starting. When the butcher starts the car, the potato rockets out of the tailpipe, striking Edgley in the shin.

Edgley’s stories of the Grand Union often center on the people he meets. In one case, a customer with a foreign accent—an elite, upper-crust woman—asks the employee at the meat counter if he has “‘some-sings’ different today, maybe ‘some-sings’ you don’t always have” (2003, 22). Bill, the employee, offers her lamb’s tongue. The customer responds by saying that she would never eat anything that comes from an animal’s mouth. Bill sarcastically offers her a dozen eggs.

Both Tyler’s and Edgley’s tales could provide a myriad of assignments that would be relevant to the Adirondack student. In a composition course, a traditional first paper topic might ask for reflection on a personal experience. MacWilliams starts by covering autobiographical topics and then moves into topics that affect the college, town, or the physical area itself. “Students gradually realize that their home territory has a history of its own, with issues that matter,” he asserts (2005, 68). After reading Tyler’s “Scoop Shovel Express” or Edgley’s depiction of the old Grand Union, students may be asked to write a personal narrative discussing a run-in with a colleague or customer from their job. Another topic might ask a student to write a personal paper describing a shortcut he or she took to complete a job more quickly. The follow-up question might ask the student to elaborate on whether or not the shortcut was effective.

Adirondack folklore and local color tales extend beyond the humorous. In fact, these tales are very often a source for accurate and interesting history lessons. Tyler’s “Pulp Job 1918–20” provides the reader with a historical look at the logging industry in the Adirondacks. Details about the J. and J. Rogers Company and its ownership of most of Whiteface Mountain might provide the Adirondack student with viable information regarding the types of companies prominent in the early twentieth century. Moreover, Tyler’s story discusses the methods used to bring pulp wood to the base of the mountain, the ninety dollars a month that laborers earned, and the dangers involved in such labor, as illustrated by the workman who falls and slips to the bottom of the mountain and into the river along with the wood he was cutting (1974, 11). “Boomed In,” another story by Tyler, parallels the themes of “Pulp Job 1918–20” by further discussing the pulp operations of the Adirondacks. In this story, readers are introduced to the use of a boom, a large barge to which logs are strapped for easy export on the waterways.

The more historical texts can provide students with excellent jumping-off points for their own writing. Composition students may find researching the pulp wood industry interesting. Other topics might include researching methods of labor, such as the boom, or pay scales in early Adirondack industry. The stories may also serve as fodder for researching the history of the student’s own career choice.

In addition to the historical component of Adirondack folklore, many stories—especially those by Tyler—contain natural phenomena that serve to enrich the reader’s spiritual life. These tales also address human limitations, as well as emotional and environmental concerns. Magic is limited and contained in real characters, not wishes or dreams. Wit and intelligence often outsmart evil. Evil does not win but is understood. Some additional themes that Tyler explores in her folktales include mysteries that surround labor. In “The Rawhide Tugs,” for example, a young boy tries to transport timber to his father’s shed, but cannot due to the terrain and weight of the timber. He attaches rawhide pull straps to the timber, but because the tugs are so wet, they do not work. Overnight, the boy wonders how he will explain to his father why the timber is not in the shed. When the boy wakes the next morning, he finds the timber outside the front door. According to this tall tale, once the rawhide dried out, it shrunk so forcefully that when it retracted, it pulled the timber up the hill to the shed. Mystery also shrouds “Faithful Layers,” a story that may address the negative effects of taking short cuts. In this tale a farmer cuts his cost on feed for his chickens by feeding them sawdust. Since the chickens readily eat the sawdust and it has no adverse effects on egg production, he places his chickens on an all-sawdust diet. The story concludes by claiming that the chicks hatched from the sawdust-eating birds were born with wooden legs—and one of the chicks happened to be a woodpecker.

Tall tales such as “The Rawhide Tugs” and “Faithful Layers” lend themselves to a variety of possible assignments. Students may analyze the narrative voice in the tales and ask to what extent the narrator wants us to believe the stories. Students may also wish to analyze the appeal these stories have for local audiences. A student may wish to study the nature of Adirondack storytelling, since Kay Bishop and Melanie Kimball in “Engaging Students in Storytelling” assert that adults and educators, who at one time abandoned storytelling, have a renewed interest in the craft resulting from storytelling associations, festivals, and clubs (2006). Students may also analyze the symbolic and often satirical outlook such tales have on local people and on the Adirondacks in general. Does the bizarre appearance of the chicks in “Faithful Layers” suggest a deeper economic meaning? Could the story be a commentary on or criticism of taking financial shortcuts?



Better Writing through Local Color

To help students attain a level of writing that both meets academic standards and engages the student actively in the subject material, instructors need to present material relevant to the lives of their students. Perhaps MacWilliams says it best when he says, “The empowerment [students] experience as authorities in the subject matter inevitably leads to a higher level of motivation and, in my opinion, some of the strongest writing at all levels that they do for the course” (2005, 68). We want students to be able to continue sharpening their reading and writing skills, but we need to give them reasons and the motivation to do so. Restructuring the community college curriculum to include local color stories for introductory English courses would be a huge step forward for students, but until the formal curriculum changes, professors need to assume an active role in making changes to their own reading lists.


 









Andrew Shawn Andermatt is assistant professor of English at Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh, New York, and a PhD candidate in English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.



Modern folklore is popular among students, and they acquire new perspectives of the physical region around them and the people who inhabit that region....Experience, memory, and personal history lead students to a more interdisciplinary education.



Works Cited

Bishop, Kay, and Melanie A. Kimball. 2006. Engaging Students in Storytelling. Teacher Librarian 33.4:28–31.

Bosma, Bette. 1987. Fairy Tales, Fables, Legends, and Myths: Using Folk Literature in Your Classroom. New York: Teachers College Press.

Edgley, Don. 2003. The “Edge” of Humor and Other Stories of Lake Placid People. Ed. Charlie and Barbara Tyrell Kelly. Bangor, ME: Booklocker.com.

Lindholt, Paul. 1999. Writing from a Sense of Place. Journal of Environmental Education 30.4:4+.

MacWilliams, David C. 2005. Using the “Hometown” Novel in Composition 101. AEQ 9.1:67–74.

Simons, Elizabeth Radin. 1990. Student Worlds, Student Words: Teaching Writing through Folklore. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Tyler, Helen Escha. 1974. Mountain Memories: Folk Tales of the Adirondacks. Saranac Lake, NY: Currier.

White, William Chapman. 1967. Adirondack Country. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Young, Terrell A., Joseph Bruchac, Nancy Livingston, and Catherine Kurkjian. 2004. Folk Literature: Preserving the Storytellers’ Magic. The Reading Teacher 57.8:782–92.




This article appeared in Voices Vol. 33, Fall-Winter 2007. 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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