“For my generation, perhaps no inheritance is richer than our memories, memories of a less troubled, simpler time.” –Arch Merrill in Our Goodly Heritage
One stormy day many years ago, I lifted a well-worn book by former Rochester Democrat and Chronicle editor Arch Merrill from my aunt’s bookshelf. I sat down to read and, within minutes, was engrossed in his straightforward, readable yarns. That was the beginning of my personal and ongoing love affair with the history, folklore and geography of New York.
Over the intervening decades, I have read (and reread) my collection of books by Merrill that now fills a bookshelf end to end. To this day, I’ll veer down a country lane in search of some obscure location culled from a Merrill story – a tiny burg, a house or building, an historic sign. Merrill’s own story is as compelling as any of the histories he collected.
Arch Merrill never considered himself an historian. Bent over a typewriter and puffing a cigar, he toiled at his desk – the consummate newspaperman, editor and writer. Merrill’s primary concern was always that his Democrat and Chronicle hit the streets on time.
A colleague at the D & C, Mitchell Kaidy, described Merrill’s steadfast style: “For 33 years, Arch Merrill hand-scribbled notes during the day and pounded the typewriter at night. During the day, he prowled small libraries and interviewed local historians and informed sources. At night, he transformed those notes into books and newspaper columns, producing 23 volumes of regional history and thousands of columns.”
Loving stories, telling stories
The rich history of the upstate region fascinated Merrill, who thrived on the lore of his beloved Genesee Valley, the Finger Lakes and beyond, as he tirelessly traveled the countryside, collecting stories. In his accounts, Merrill’s engaging style captures the spirit of his subjects, combining short story with historical narrative, and journalism with literature. Elements of human interest and local humor add to their appeal.
Archie “Arch” Hayes Merrill (1894 – 1974) was raised in the tiny Cattaraugus County community of Sandusky. His interest in the countryside and storytelling came about naturally. As a youth, he listened, absorbed, as old-timers spun yarns around the cracker barrel at his father’s general store, tales later woven into the fabric of his writing. His curiosity about the region and its heritage only grew as years passed.
Merrill briefly attended Hobart College, where he worked on the student newspaper, The Herald. He enlisted in the Army in 1916, serving in France during World War I with Company B, 33rd Engineers. After the war, he worked for short spells in Washington, D.C., Detroit and New York City.
He married Katherine Marie Towell while in New York, and in 1923, the young couple moved to Rochester where Merrill would forge a newspaper career spanning 50 years. Merrill spent a decade with the Rochester Journal American, 30 years full time with the D & C and then another 10 as a regular – though officially retired – contributor.
Merrill never intended his stories to be scholarly treatise, instead, he sought to craft absorbing essays that conveyed a personal love of his subjects. “Merrill poured out his easy, unadorned prose that, like the Genesee, flowed with hardly a ripple,” observed his friend Kaidy.
A voice from the past
Merrill penned eyewitness glimpses into the local life of his time – perspectives that are now over a half-century old. In 1944, he described the effects on venerable Geneva of Sampson, the massive and dynamic World War II naval training station recently built nearby:
Geneva, a city of 18,000, might well be a suburb of the greater city of 45,000 that lies 12 miles to the southward, where the young giant, Sampson, second-largest Naval training station in America, sprawls over 2,700 acres of Seneca shoreline … buses roll in (to Geneva) to disgorge their blue stream … “Boots” (trainees) in blue jackets.
But the spirit of Geneva is the spirit of the Old Guard – and the Old Guard never surrenders … If the whole Navy came to Seneca’s shores, Geneva would retain her individuality … sophisticated, urbane, complex.
Personalities, whose lives and times were far removed from Merrill’s present, emerged from the pages of his stories into the public consciousness: Prophets Joseph Smith, “a glib and convincing talker,” and Brigham Young, “serious-minded, industrious, money-sharp,” pulled up their New York roots, then moved west to establish Mormonism; Hammondsport’s aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, “never satisfied with the mechanical status quo,” was sought out for his expertise by such notables as Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford; and women’s rights advocate Susan B. Anthony, “a warmly human person … her physical and moral courage was unquestioned,” grew up as a farmer, a teacher and a far more gracious and complex person than the one often portrayed as the iron-willed symbol of a movement.
Turning pages, we experience Merrill’s affection for noteworthy people who once knew the Genesee Valley. “The Great John L.,” legendary boxer John L. Sullivan, in the late 1800s used a barn for a training gym in tiny Belfast. There he labored for a heavyweight championship fight under the stern tutelage of village resident William Muldoon. Mary Jemison, kidnapped during the French and Indian wars, would live among the Senecas along the Genesee for the rest of her life. Her story inspired a book that gave rise to the legend of “The White Woman of the Genesee.” Clara Barton heroically provided needed care and supplies to relieve soldiers suffering the horrors of the Civil War. She later lived in Dansville, and it was there that she established the first chapter of the American Red Cross.
Merrill paints a lively image of a one-time Rochester resident, the flamboyant William F. Cody:
It is circus day in Rochester in the 1890’s [sic]. The crowds jam the curb along Main Street, waiting for the street parade … The glory of the Old West comes riding down the street … But all eyes are on the head of that glittering company – an erect, bearded man astride a big white horse, waving a big white hat.
The crowd stirs like a field of wheat flicked by a sudden breeze. Awed young voices pass the word along: “There he is. That’s him. That’s Buffalo Bill.”
Merrill delighted in describing another array of colorful characters as well, people less renowned but every bit as fascinating. Dansville native Lon Whiteman, an educated and once successful banker and politician, slipped comfortably into a lengthy career of swindling and check forgery. Whiteman, “a well-groomed slender chap of distinguished bearing … the soul of affability,” spent more than two decades in the late 1800s dodging Pinkerton detectives.
And, no one should forget the daredevil and exhibitionist jumper of waterfalls, Sam Patch, who “without his usual arrowy precision,” leapt to his death in a spectacular event before a massive crowd in Rochester in 1829. Merrill credited Patch with bringing fame to the young vibrant city, writing, “His death put Rochester and the Falls of the Genesee on the tongues of thousands … and gave birth to a multitude of legends, ballads, poems, sermons, and editorials.”
In the Finger Lakes’ thrall
Merrill’s obvious love of the land seeps into almost every story. His first book, A River Ramble (1943), outlines the author’s trip by foot (with a few “lifts” from friendly passersby) along the entire length of the Genesee River. His trek begins at a spot in northern Pennsylvania where he describes the river’s origin as “water that bubbles out of a spring … cold and crystal clear.” He follows its ever-growing and meandering flow through rich farmland until “the commonplace stream becomes spectacular, magnificent” in the chasm of Letchworth, before rushing on to the city of Rochester to pour into Lake Ontario at Charlotte.
In its foreword, noted writer and fellow D & C columnist Henry W. Clune writes, “He has made a familiar river a romance; almost an epic. He has given it a personality … and told its tales with a story teller’s art.”
Subsequent works also employ poetic language to express his deep affinity for the region he called home. With Slim Fingers Beckon (1951), the title itself conveys the lure of “those long, slim streaks of blue,” the Finger Lakes, whose “very names are liquid music.” Merrill expressed a sense of awe for the lakes and the striking hillsides surrounding:
It is a land of magnificent gorges, romantic glens, eerie caverns and hills that a less conservative people would call mountains. It also has its pastoral side where the hills are gentle and the landscape is one of sylvan peace.
Each lake is uniquely portrayed, as Merrill captures a bit of its essence in words. Canandaigua is “a queenly lake (that) rules her loyal subjects under a yoke of gentleness and charm,” while he paints Seneca Lake as “a lovely vixen.” “The lady of the lakes” is Keuka, whose presence “exudes the spirit of peace, deep abiding, heart warming.”
He writes reverently of the Genesee Valley, a locale Merrill believes no one has ever known “without coming under its spell.” Merrill traced and retraced its ground, meandering along roads to its villages and paths through its fertile terrain, following a river that “keeps twisting and turning, looking backward, as if loath to leave.”
A driven and beloved native son
Over the course of his career, Merrill avidly read old newspapers and history books, pored over library archives and sought out local sources. He could gather details for a story from a chat on the street, an encounter in the village square or a conversation in someone’s backyard. Devoted readers sent him letters with fascinating facts and suggestions for future stories. Despite the many miles he roamed year after year, Merrill never learned to drive a car. His wife Katherine accompanied him on his frequent wanderings, serving as chauffer, photographer and advisor.
His friend Kaidy described Merrill as a taskmaster at the D & C, an editor who demanded precise grammar and strict attention to detail from his staff, noting, “He was dogged in believing that constant checking and rechecking of facts would reduce the newspaper’s error rate toward the vanishing point.”
Yet, once the paper was “put to bed” for the night, Merrill would find time for a late-night beer or two with colleagues at a local watering hole. Puffing on his ever-present cigar, he was sociable, affable, and according to Kaidy, “a wonderful raconteur who loved to laugh.” Then it was back to the city room, where in the early morning hours “those short notes he had compiled miraculously organized themselves into columns or chapters.”
Arch Merrill died at his home on July 15, 1974 at age 79, survived by his wife and daughter. He was laid to rest in Brighton Cemetery, just a few short blocks from his home. “Arch will be missed not only in Rochester, but by anybody who loves clear writing and a good story,” his friend Carl Carmer, prominent New York writer and historian, said at the time.
Merrill’s stories tell of bustling cities and remote crossroads hamlets, of winding back roads, local legends, quaint villages and canal days on the “Old Erie,” of people raised in rustic cabins and in stately mansions. His accounts leave a unique literary legacy of those who left their mark on the land – hardy pioneers, noble Indians, politicians, soldiers, industrialists and crooks. In short, his body of work creates a tapestry of the places and characters that define the region, the big and the small, the celebrated and the unfamiliar.
Reading Merrill is much like hearing the story narrated by the author himself, his words forever preserving a record of unusual people and places for future generations. Forty years after the last of his books was published, his stories live on in reprints and in used original copies, still available for those in search of a great yarn. Many are stories that – but for one newsman’s devotion – might well have been forgotten.
Here is a sampling of published books by Arch Merrill. To see a complete list, visit home.nycap.rr.com/pflass/Merrill/.
A River Ramble: A Saga of the Genesee Valley
Illustrated by Gerald Maloney
Louis Heindl and Son,
Illustrated by Bob Meagher
Louis Heindl and Son, 1947
1991 reprint available
American Book-Stratford Press, New York, 1957
Subjects: Indian Allen, Nathaniel Rochester, Mormons, General John Sullivan, Mary Jemison, Red Jacket, Jemima Wilkinson, Charles Williamson, James Wadsworth, William Wadsworth, the Holland Purchase, Philip Church, Augustus Porter, Gideon Granger, Peter Porter, Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, William Morgan, Myron Holley
Our Goodly Heritage
American Book-Stratford Press, 1957
The White Woman and Her Valley
American Book-Stratford Press, 1961
Subject: Mary Jemison
by James P. Hughes
James P. Hughes, a retired teacher who lives in Syracuse, enjoys the history and beauty of the Finger Lakes and regularly roams the region. Hughes has contributed several articles to Life in the Finger Lakes.