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Wild Men Within Commuting Distance
By William James Dobbin
Thirty-five miles from New York City, with its man-made skylines, seats of learning and citizens of culture, towers a range of mountains which shelter an assortment of humans who, according to gossip in adjacent villages, are "wilder 'en any people th' Tennessee mountains ev'r shelter'd 'en worse 'en th' scum of th' earth when it cums ter morals 'en stealin'."
The mountains in question are the Ramapos. The people, a mixture of Indian, negro, Albino and white blood, are called Jackies, -- a mountain term for Jackson Whites. These Jackies are a class of mountaineers who unconsciously have entered in the "back to Nature" idea with the fullest enthusiasm - their whole sustenance being from the gleanings of the field and forest. Civilized man with his truant officer, churches, marriage licenses,'en other pesky things is as popular as a revenue agent with a Tenessee mountain moonshiner.
Read the following from a Rockland County history:
"Of this population (Ramapo mountaineers) tales are told of promiscuous association of the sexes, of ignorance so dense that on at least two occasions women over twenty-one years of age confessed on the witness stand that they had never heard of or knew the meaning of the word God and they knew no difference between the words mine and thine when applied to the property of non-residents....A generation passing away recognized this name (Ladentown - a mountainside village) as a section where ignorance, lawlessness and Godlessness held full sway; where every crime known on the calendar was committed, and where, if a stranger inadvertently entered, it behooved him well to leave all hope behind ... A Ladentowner denoted a social pariah."
At present there are two mountaineers, a woman of thirty-five and a man about forty, in the Rockland County jail, at New City, on a charge of attempted murder. One Sunday in February District Attorney Lexow, of Suffern, was notified that an old mountaineer had been brought down into the valley near his home at St. John's, and that the fellow would probably die as a result of wounds recently received.
It was snowing hard that day, but the District Attorney set out for St. John's. On the outskirts of the place he arrived at an Episcopal mission, conducted by Dr. Burton Lee, who does missionary work among the Jackies in that section. Mr. Lexow learned there of a mountain woman who had decided that her husband of sixty or over was too old. She had taken a younger man and she and the young one had attempted to do away with the husband. After a four-hour trudge through the snow the District Attorney and his party arrived at the house of the mountaineers.
"When I told this mountain woman that I would indict her for murder in the first degree if her husband died," said Mr Lexow, "she showed no more concern than would a metropolitan newspaper reader at a headline stating "Another Man Is Found With Two Wives."
Through Dr. Lee's knowledge of mountaineer habits the District Attorney secured written confessions from both the woman and the man that they had decided to do away with husband No.1 because he was too old.; This is the only instance I have been able to find where the law has gone into the mountains after a mountaineer.
At Suffern, Tuxedo Park, Ladentown, Johnstown, Sterlington and nearby hamlets, where many of America's socially prominent families own large estates, many people offered information concerning the Jackies. The surprising feature was that all information had been obtained from "someone I met" who had visited the shacks of the mountaineers. First hand information was hard to secure.
After spending the good part of a morning listening to tales from people who "had never visited the Jackies," the writer must admit that as he trailed a path that zigzagged a mile to gain an elevation of 500 feet, he welcomed the words of his "civilized" Jackie guide:
"Those fellers ne'r seen th' real Jackies. A Jackie's a coward 'en I'm hopin' th' all won't lock 'emselves in th' cabins when we get th'r."
A half hour later we approached little clearings on bits of level land. Here in hovels of roughly hewn logs, plastered with a yellow sticky mud which suggested cold winters, we found some of the poorest and most ignorant people in the United States, excluding perhaps some of the inaccessible vastnesses of the Tennessee mountains.
Mongrel dogs barked. Scores of poorly clad children scampered like hares to shelter. Doors were slammed in the face of a "white man." The outward display of poverty and ignorance could not be equaled in a three-day journey from New York City. Boulders and half rotten logs were scattered about the clearings in a motley confusion.
But the efficacy of the bribes of civilization worked successfully. Penny candy for these mountaineer kiddies; chewing tobacco and cigars for the Jackies and pink popcorn and salt water taffy for the 'omen folks. Then Ranse, Gladys, Elijah, Zekial, and Luther came to see what else the "white man" hid in his large pockets. Biblical names were evidently popular with a people rated as heathens by their wealthy neighbors in the valleys.
From where we stood by the side of a path could be seen three shacks. Here eight grown-ups and thirty children lived and I was told this group was typical of Ramapo mountaineer life. Scattered in groups - from northern Pennsylvania to the foothills of the Catskill Mountains - the Jackies probably number eight or nine hundred.
These mountaineers are descendants of slaves originally owned by the old Suffern family and later liberated. During the Revolutionary War a discontented body of Hessian soldiers threw away their arms and joined these former slaves in their mountain retreats. Through the later mixture of Indian and white blood - mostly men fleeing the long arm of the law - the present Jackie is a curious looking person. Their skins are either yellow, copper-colored or light brown, their hair tawny and in most instances straw-colored, and their eyes blue or yellowish.
It is said that there is considerable negro blood in these Jackies, but the American negro seldom has a beard or mustache. Ramapo Mountain Jackies all wear beards and mustaches. In one family I saw children as blue eyed and golden-haired as a Swede and other as copper colored and black headed as an Indian. Students of hereditary characteristics would find these mountaineer children a problem.
A Jackie named Ranse after sufficient persuasion and reassurance from my "civilized" guide that I was just a harmless visitor and represented neither law not societies, decided after pocketing a shiny half-dollar to show how "bockies" were made. "Bockies" is the Jackie term for baskets.
Ranse took a piece of swamp maple twenty feet long and with a dextrous hand split it into quarters. Nowhere, and even in the Maine woods, have I seen a man swing an ax as skillfully as this Jackie. Each blow echoed through the forest. Ranse then flattened the quarters with a wooden mallet and by means of a sharp knife peeled off thin chips which were smooth and silky on one side. The rough side was made smooth by a scraping process in which the mountaineer's knee served as a workbench. Ranse appeared as if he enjoyed the praise given his work.
"Yeh," he said. "We make ax 'andles out 'er hick'ry saplin's. "En later we git th' poplar 'en carve ladles, spoons 'en choppin' bowls. On th' oth'r side th' mountain some folks make mats 'en rugs outer wood fibres. People down th' villages buy 'em for porch rugs 'en door mats."
"In the summer," Ranse explained, lot's mountain folks pick 'uckleberries. A man cums each ye'r 'en buys all we git. I don't know this feller's name but he sure gits a powerful lot of ber'ies from us folks."
Just like their city brothers, the talk turned to prohibition. "It's darned hard ter git a drink nowdays," wailed a fellow whose baggy pants were connected to a dirty gray flannel shirt by a strand of rope. "No more Callico rum 'er parties at Rattlesnake Inn."
Drink has played a big part in the lives of the Jackies. I was told when hard cider was plentiful "some snarlin' fool 'ud throw sand in the cider 'en the'd be a 'elefa time." But since "fightin' cider" is scarce the Jackies are generally peaceful folks except when the 'omen folks cause a row.
The "civilized guide" explained "that when a man returned home and found his 'oman 'ad disappeared with 'nother feller - then big doin's was likely." I smiled as he added, "'course city folks don't do those things." Ranse admitted that mountaineer marriages were frequently failures. People who call Jackies please note.
All Jackie answer the question, "Where were you married?" by mumbling, "Justice de Peace." Memory fails, however, when called upon to recall the date of a child's birth. "sometime las' fall," "A few ye'rs back," "'En about for'teen ye'rs old," are the general replies. The older folks tell their age as quickly and currently as the average "civilized" woman of thirty-five.
A girl of about fourteen came trudging along the path with her bare arms laden with freshly picked pink mountain laurel blossoms. These beautiful blossoms I learned would be brought to the Bear Mountain state road, where the child would sell bunches to passig motorists. The peculiarity of the child's features became prominent through the bundles of laurel.
Her hair was a silver white which shone in the sun with a live silver lustre. Her eyes were pink with the lids half closed and her lashes and brows of the same silver texture as her hair. The skin of the girl's face, neck, arms and bare legs was as white as a newly laundered collar.
"Didn't yer ev'r see a Albino?" queried Ranse when he noticed my curious stare. "Ov'an th' woods th's lots of em. 'Pink eyes' we calls 'em. They kin see bett're night 'en we kin, but in th' day - they's blinder 'en bats."
Here was a real Albino. It is difficult to find a full-blooded one like the girl pausing before us because of the intermarriages. In the village of Suffern it is said many years ago a number of Albinos brought to New York City by a famous circus ran away to the Ramapos where they mingled with the Jackies.
The mountaineer children are scary creatures who are suspicious of every move made by a stranger. The truant officer is their greatest "bogy-man" and from the answers made by the more adventuresome that official is not extremely energetic in his mountaineer roundups. These children have never seen Sunday schools, but one girl of about twelve smiled sheepishly when I asked if she had ever heard of God. It was evident she had heard the name in another sense besides the oaths of the Jackies.
Ranse explained that doctors never came into the mountains. Medicine was used in the form of snake oil secured from boiling black snakes. This mixture is used for cuts, bruises and sores. Possum grease and herbs are also used for healing purposes. When a Jackie dies the overseer of the poor is called in and this official, probably the only one the Jackies deal with, sees that a proper burial is made at the expense of the state. Many mountaineers live to be seventy or seventy-five years of age, but their 'oman folks grow old at an early date.
Fishing and hunting are big features in mountaineer life. Land turtle, muskrats, skunk and just now woodchuck are choice catches for the Jackies. Game laws appear to be so much tommyrot and I believe none of them would let a good shot get away because it was the off season. When a Jackie goes fishing he returns with a catch which would make a civilized sportsman chuckle for a year. Golden trout, pickerel and bass often appear on the Jackie's menu.
Ranse now appeared thoroughly acquainted. He inserted a two-inch piece of chewing tobacco into his mouth and became extremely confidential. He explained how sometimes the mountaineers would go on begging expeditions. "Th' men folks sit aside a road out of th' town. 'En the 'omans with brains go 'en git clothin', shoes, 'en lots of stuff what's pretty good for o'r shacks."
Thus the Jackie scoffs at civilized man's high prices and strikes. "But how about the barber?" I asked.
"Oh, each c'munity 'as its clipper. Th' 'oman folks cut th' hair 'en we let o'r beards grow 'til we kin cut 'em with scissors. Yer see we folks don't like outsid'rs. We git no big trouble 'til outsid'rs butt in. We seldom marry outside th' mountains 'en most Jackies cunsid'rs these hills his home 'en no place f'r other folks.
"Onc'ter while a Jackie goes ter the mills 'en [ILLEGIBLE] ter work. - but," Ranse smiled, "th' gen'rel Jackie doesn't like hard work. Jackies don't vote much. I haven't voted since 'Big Bill' Snell ran fer sumpin' 'en now he's dead. Big Bill, yer know, ran Rattlesnake Inn 'en was a great fr'end ter all mountain folks."
Ranse did not know women had been granted the privilege to vote and admitted he had heard something about a war, but, "'lowed musn't a bin much 'cus I didn't see no fightin' round these parts."
To a blue law agitator the Ramapo Mountain Jackies would appear as scoundrels. But from what I saw they are nothing more than an uneducated people who know enough about woodcraft to satisfy even Thomas A. Edison. It is queer that the Jackies should have as their neighbors the wealthy residents of Tuxedo Park with their immaculate houses and carefully combed lawns.
The Jackies are dirty, but there was not enough evidence to justify the story of a Suffern citizen when he said he "knew a man" who had visited the Jackies and reported on his return that he had seen a woman throw a flea covered dog out of a bread box so as to get a piece of bread for a hungry youngster. I was allowed inside one shack and failed to see a bread box and doubt if there is such a thing in a mountaineer shack. In the shack I entered there was a bundle of straw in one corner which was used for bedding. A small stove, a broken table, a few soap boxes, one broken chair, condensed milk tins which are used for drinking, and a few boxes of junk were the entire contents.
When we left Ranse was standing upon a small knoll outside his cabin. About two miles out front could be seen a shining lake where one could picture jumping lake trout and lazy pickerel. To the right a woods such as city folk only see in art galleries. To the left a hill and valley view which would make a city office worker gasp with wonder.
"Would you like to live in a city?" I asked Ranse.
The Jackie sniffed the air. He looked about. And this "social pariah," who is supposed to be ignorant concerning God, murmured:
"Naw, sir - this is God's country."
[Captions for art included in article]
An assortment of humans who, according to gossip in adjacent villages, are "wilder 'en any people the Tennessee Mountains ever sheltered"
Found his 'oman 'ad disappeared with 'nother feller
He had heard about a war, but "'lowed it mustn't a bin much 'cus I didn't see no fightin' round these parts"