Sep 11, 2009 Steve McMahon Uncategorized
What is it about Whiskey Hollow that has fascinated folks for so many years? Is it the unusual name, the rich history, the great bird-watching or the fact that it’s one of the prettiest hikes you can make in the Baldwinsville area? Well, I’m not aware of any official polls, but I would vote for all of the above. When it comes to tales of whiskey, warblers and walks in the woods, Whiskey Hollow is without peer. This may explain why Tony Christopher, former Van Buren Town Historian, referred to it as the “Valley of Intrigue” in his many articles about the place in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to Christopher, “The road through Whiskey Hollow was surveyed as far as the early Skeel’s mill in 1816. Years later, it extended to the top of the hill. This road was a necessity since there were stands of fine timber in the hollow and on the plain above, called Pine Hill.” His probable source was Charles Williams, a Jordan printer who wrote about Whiskey Hollow in a series of articles for the Marcellus Observer in 1938. “Whiskey Hollow is rather a brash name but it covers a wooded locality that was a natural beauty spot with a winding road following a cold, spring brook that coursed its way through it .It is part of the Pine Hill forest that stretches three miles along the brow of the hill country that parallels Dead Creek from near Iona to Bangall, a midway stopping place.”
Christopher described Bangall in another article. “The mill stream passes through the settlement of Bangall, once called Sand Springs, on its way to join Dead Creek. When the Whiskey Hollow watercourse turned mill wheels, there was a larger volume in all bodies of water in the state. And, Sand Springs or Bangall was a thriving community, as well as a mill center. In its regions have existed, in the early times of the settlement, sawmills, gristmills, a distillery, cotton mills and other industries. The last was a creamery.” He once described the area in more geologic terms. “A deep gulch, cut through sandy terrain by the once fastest stream in Van Buren, has been known for a long time as Whiskey Hollow. The gully was formed by the erosive effect of water flowing down the steep slope over a period of many, many years.”
Local birdwatcher, Joe Brin, agrees. “Dead Creek was formed by glaciers, but Whiskey Hollow was formed by snow melting into Dead Creek. So, it’s more of a secondary glacial formation.” Whatever its origin, the birds love Whiskey Hollow, especially warm-weather birds from the south. “They spend the winter way down in the tropics, anywhere from Florida to South America. They come up here to breed because this habitat suits them. They’re looking for the right combination of trees, plants, temperature and gradient including hemlock forest, hedges and clearings. And, Whiskey Hollow has it all. It’s a great habitat for neo-tropical migrants, because of what the glaciers did to that area.”
Since retiring from the Baldwinsville Central Schools as an instrumental music teacher, Joe has become an avid bird-watcher. From his home on nearby East Dead Creek Road, Joe made his first daily trek to Whiskey Hollow some 17 years ago. Between bites of a coffee roll washed down with coffee, he recently rattled off several names of these migratory birds from memory. “Let’s see, there are “Red-Eyed Vireos, Yellow-Throated Vireos, Scarlet Tanagers, Baltimore Orioles, and of course, the warblers. They include the Yellow Warbler, Common Yellow-Throat, Chestnut-Sided Warbler, Black-Throated Blue Warbler, Black-Throated Green Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Hooded Warbler, Mourning Warbler and American Redstart.”
After another sip of coffee, I asked Joe about the rarest bird he’s ever seen at Whiskey Hollow. “I spotted two Kentucky warblers back in 1999. They were definitely over-shoots, in that they had flown outside of their normal range. But, they were both male, and I never spotted a female. So, that was the end of that.”
Thirty-five years ago, a bird inventory of Whiskey Hollow by Margaret Rusk listed a total of 71 different species. It was part of a larger study of the area conducted by the Onondaga County Department of Parks and Recreation in 1975 to determine Whiskey Hollow’s suitability as a county park. It had been identified “by various environmental groups and local citizens as an area that would make a desirable acquisition; and by some as in desperate need of protection and preservation.”
In 1949, the Machan family had donated 28 acres to the Baldwinsville Common Council for Boy Scout use, and in 1969, the town of Van Buren purchased 15 acres to be “forever wild.” That same year, Onondaga Nature Centers declared both Beaver Lake and Whiskey Hollow “worth saving,” which led to the 1975 study.
Joe explained that “Before the Beaver Lake Nature Center was created, they were thinking of doing in Whiskey Hollow what they did out there, but the terrain wasn’t conducive to building walking trails. It came down to one or the other, and Beaver Lake won out.” The town sold off its Whiskey Hollow holdings a few years ago, but the Central New York Land Trust is still buying up land to preserve it. According to Joe, “It seems to be working. My best advice is to keep it clean and leave it as it is. If more people would go up there and walk around, then they would come to appreciate it and help to preserve it.”
Joe practices what he preaches, by bringing birds and people together, so to speak. “I conduct many guided field trips for both the Audubon Society and the Beaver Lake Nature Center every year, including one for each of these two groups at Whiskey Hollow in May.” Joe conducted a private walk in the woods at Whiskey Hollow for my son and me in July. We had missed the peak of the neo-tropical migrants, but we had fun just the same. Joe can single out an incredible number of birds just by the sound of their calls. One of Joe’s tricks of the trade is to call the birds out of the woods, so that they’re easier to spot. He does this with a technique known as “pishing.” Joe purses his lips and makes a sound that sounds like a distress call to most birds. According to Joe, it’s a warning to other birds that a predator’s in the area. It seemed to work well for awhile. So much for the warblers and walks in the woods, but what of the whiskey?
According to Charles Williams’ article from 1938, “The ‘Holler’ gained its name because in an early day it was the location of a still that made a potent beverage called whiskey, which gained, and still maintains, a reputation of giving life to any party that gathers around the festive board of sociability. It is a remedy that releases the real traits of a man’s nature.” Based on personal experience, this last point is certainly debatable. Fortunately, Tony Christopher enlightens us further regarding the name. “The term ‘hollow’ in this name is quite significant, but the whiskey factor refers to a good possibility that an illicit business was carried on in the deep woods. A cool spring, so necessary in the distilling process, still flows out of the hillside.” At one time, it was reported that the Baldwinsville area included as many as 11 whiskey distilleries, many of which were in Whiskey Hollow.
It was May Holcomb-Lusk, however, who provided the precise provenance for the name. According to an article by Mrs. Lusk in the Baldwinsville Gazette & Farmers’ Journal in 1926, “I heard the story when I was a child that, when the country was new, some men were driving up the hill with a barrel of whiskey in a one-horse wagon. The end-board broke, and the barrel rolled to the ground, breaking in the head of the barrel, and the whiskey ran down the road into the hollow. Hence, the name Whiskey Hollow.” Mrs. Lusk should know, as her family lived in Bangall in the mid-1800s, and ran a saw and shingle mill. By this time, several sawmills straddled the stream. In pioneer days, an 18-inch shingle, made of cedar, white pine or hemlock, sold for a penny apiece. Since a thousand shingles could buy several gallons of whiskey, the place became “a refuge for shingle-splitters and recluses,” and little log cabins and pine-shingle shacks sprang up all over Whiskey Hollow.
Where there’s running water, there’s potential power. So, gristmills followed the sawmills. Christopher claims that “the first gristmill in Van Buren was set up near Bangall in 1817 by James Paddock .Twice it changed ownership, then the Goodrich brothers bought it, adding a distillery to the gristmill. The distillery business was sold again and again. As Cook’s distillery, it ran until 1850, when it became unprofitable and was closed, having run 25 years.” By the early 1900s, the whiskey had run out and the mills began to close. By mid-century, all that remained was the spring, the stream and a few mill stones buried below.
As we were finishing our coffee, Joe Brin said, “I haven’t seen the remnants of any mills, but when the foliage is gone, you can see the old foundations of a few houses. There’s one lower down that you can see all the time. But, there are some further up that you can only see in the fall. Once spring comes around, it grows up so much that you can’t see any of them.” But, you can still see some 200 year-old remnants of Whiskey Hollow today, albeit in a different place.
In 1971, two of the mill stones were discovered and rescued. One year later, Tony Christopher reported that, “The stone lay on the south bank of the glen, not far from the creek and the old dam. The other stone, identical in size, was picked up in the ruins of the Machan mill, farther down the stream. Last spring, Highway Superintendent, Richard Bump, and his men and equipment removed the stones from the hollow.” Ten years later, the mill stones rescued from Whiskey Hollow would find a new home. They now sit in front of the Van Buren Town Hall, where a plaque reads, “Mill stones from Whiskey Hollow, one of the first mills in this locality. Monument erected in 1981. Beauchamp Historical Club.”
Looking Backward will appear in the Messenger every other week, as long as there are stories to tell. If you have questions about this story or suggestions for future ones, including any local historical images or information, please contact me via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dead Creek resident, naturalist, and birdwatcher, Joe Brin, in front of the spring at Whiskey Hollow.