Throughout 2019, in celebration of Adirondack Life’s 50th anniversary, we’re sharing an article per week from our archives—one for each year since 1970. In 1984, J. Robert Williams profiled a colorful and loquacious innkeeper whose tales often blurred fact and fiction but were always entertaining. Ham Ferry lived another decade before, as he would have put it, “they pull[ed] the main switch on me, up there.”
Hamilton Ferry, Sr., of Ham’s Inn, two and a half miles north of Sevey Corners on Route 56, Town of Colton (post office address Childwold, St. Lawrence County), is the real thing—an authentic Adirondacker, a man of the silent woods and of rushing rivers, hardy as hickory and resourceful as need be to get along in rough hinterlands. He will be 80 years old next September 10, “if they don’t pull the main switch on me, up there.”
People seek his company to hear the verses he recites and the stories he tells at Ham’s Inn, two and a half miles north of Sevey Corners on Route 56, Town of Colton. He has been on television; college professors and their students, regional historians, and folklore researchers come to him, equipped with notebooks and tape recorders, to take down and preserve what he has to say. He has beguiled audiences in lecture halls, schoolrooms, libraries, church basements, and a variety of indoor and outdoor community assemblies. But the principal location for Ham Ferry’s ongoing performance is the snug barroom of the homely public house with the sign outside proclaiming “Ham’s Inn.” There, the masterful teller of tales, in prose or verse, shares his personal anthology of backwoods literature with any who would listen. A lot of it is original, except for the poems, and some of the stories are almost believable. And to listen is easy when Ham speaks.
Robert D. Bethke in his book, Adirondack Voices, wrote, “Ham, by general consensus, is a woodsman’s woodsman and a gifted artist of the spoken word.” It follows, perforce, that some of the flavor of the tale or poem is lost in its transfer from spontaneous speech to written words. Ham must be seen and heard to be properly appreciated.
There is a receptive audience lined up at the bar, or counter, in his woodland bistro as the proprietor, wearing a look of mildly defiant perplexity (or it may be perplexed defiance) prepares to denounce beavers and their art form, the beaver dam. “Jeez, all that other land up there; I don’t know why they have to build on my brook.”
Ham pauses to survey his listeners. He is encouraged to continue.
“Well, anyway, I told ’em. I told ’em down to the bank, by the river. I said them beavers was gettin’ ready to· put a dam on my place.”
Ham retired from politics last year after serving as an assessor for the Town of Colton, and knows the effect of significant physical changes on property values. He ran for office on the Republican ticket. He is as sober as a county judge as he speaks of the impending crisis at his brook.
“They ask me how do I know what them beavers are plannin’ to do. Well, I tell ’em, this one is up there on the ridge, motionin’ back and forth, a little more this way, then that.” Ham illustrates with gestures. “And the other one is over on the other side holdin’ up a stick in its mouth, sightin’. Jeez, when they got done surveyin’, that’s right where they built the goddamn dam. You can see it out there now.”
Anyone whose land has been wasted by beavers can appreciate the problem, but not everyone would conjure up the graphic mix of fact and fiction with which Ham describes it. If there be a suspicion that Ham can remember other beavers surveying other damsites in times past, and that he has told this story before, the suspicion remains unexpressed. Only a newcomer at the bar, observing his celebrated host for the first time, seems puzzled. Others, who have been there before and who know Ham well, accept his explanations with a kind of jovial sympathy, and urge him to tell more. He will, for he needs little urging.
On a typical night, he might review the life history of Big Bertha, the giant earthworm, or tell of the buck deer with antlers spread so wide that it had to go backward through a narrow deer run, so that hunters trying to track it always went the wrong way. Fortunate customers might learn about black flies so thick along the Jordan River that they formed an opaque cloud. “A man would leave a path behind him as he walked through them flies. If you stuck a fist straight out in front of you, it left a hole when you pulled it back.”
Ham makes no claim to having known Paul Bunyan, as some purveyors of back-country fiction have, but he has read much about that superhero of the peavey and double-bitted axe society and his blue ox, Babe. He can and does tell Paul Bunyan stories, but they come as a sideline, of lesser import. Besides, someone borrowed his Paul Bunyan book and hasn’t returned it.
Ham Ferry’s tall tales, his embellishment of stories which have factual origins, and especially his poetic recitations have made him famous in his home region, mainly because he is exceptionally good at what he does. He is believable. The verisimilitude he creates is not accidental. He has the professional entertainer’s instinct for timing; he knows how to produce dramatic effect and to manage comedy. His audiences pay attention. If, occasionally, he forgets a line in a poem, he can fake a few words with some rhythmic albeit unintelligible double-talk which preserves the poetic meter until he can get back on track. But he seldom misses a beat. His memory for poems to suit almost any situation is astonishing.
Robert W. Service, the vagabond Englishman whose most memorable verses were about the Yukon Territory and Alaska, is Ham’s favorite, and Service’s “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” is the poem which Ham’s listeners most often request. He explains:
“Robert Service—the minute you get done with it you can tell right off what he’s talking about. You don’t have to read it over four or five times to get the point. The minute he’s done, that’s it. I was watching a northern scene, up in the Klondike, on television. Somebody gets up, and he says, ‘Now Jake is goin’ to tell us the story about shootin’ Dan McGrew.’ I thought, Jeez, that’s goin’ to be good, but I never heard a guy butcher a poem like he did. Oh, he actually butchered it!”
Ham speaks earnestly of the craft which has brought him widening recognition. “If I don’t feel the story myself, it won’t go. If I can tell it like in the first person; stories in the first person, poems the same way. That way you can make people feel it. Then they believe it; they see it happening. In my mind, I feel it, as if I was right there. Then I feel that I’m puttin’ it over. I know that I’m puttin’ it over, that way.”
This analysis of his own ability to influence an audience gainsays such skeptics who might regard Ham as just another quaint backwoods character. He is more than that. His New England pioneer roots and his varied life experiences equip him well to be an accomplished spinner of yarns or chronicler of the unhappy circumstances which led to Sam McGee’s cremation, as imagined by Ham’s favorite poet, Robert Service. Ham does it all with style.
John Ferry, Ham’s grandfather, came from Vermont to the recently raised township of Colton in 1852 or ’53, bringing his wife, two sons, and two daughters. He bought 1,280 acres of land, but the acreage decreased as years passed, and the property now comprises a little under 100 acres. Ham’s father, James Melvin Ferry, “was a river driver. He drove the (Raquette) River here for 16 years; over on the Grasse, too, and on the Bog River, up here. Then he was caretaker for the Hollywood Club for 40 years. He was a lumberman all his life.
“You see, in the wintertime, when it’s froze, they put the logs in the stillwaters. And in the spring of the year, when it breaks up, then they get a gang, horses and men and a cook shack and everything, all along the road.
“They have a boatman, a head boatman, who works ahead of the drive, the big drive, to try to keep the channel open. Otherwise, you’ll plug the river right up. As a rule, my father was head boatman, on the Raquette River, mostly.”
Ham was born in a small frame house near his present inn, but he spent most of his early years in the nearby hamlet of Childwold. The family returned to the homestead at Sevey Corners in 1933 after Ham’s Uncle Herb, who had operated it as a country hotel for hunters, died. Ham shot his first deer when he was 13, and guided deer hunters for pay when he was about 16. “I guided a lot. The first job I worked was at Gale’s Hotel. It was about the first job I ever had.”
Ham discovered at an early age that he had a natural aptitude for mechanics. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I used to fix all the other kids’ bicycles. I always had the theory that if somebody made something, 1 could fix it, if they’d leave me alone. If something was made by man, it could be fixed. I found I could fix pretty near anything I wanted to, if I put my mind to it.”
When he was 15, he planted a field of potatoes, sold the crop, and, for $150, bought a second-hand Metz, a popular lightweight car of the time, made in Waltham, Massachusetts. “A bunch of us kids would get together, maybe go somewhere, up to the store on lunch hour, maybe go down to South Colton, I never went very far with the car.” The road to South Colton was unpaved from Sevey Corners to The Plains, near the then thriving hamlet of Stark. It followed the Raquette River closely, east of the present Route 56. There were clusters of houses, riverbank camps, and here and there a hotel, at Hollywood and Wick, as well as at Stark. These communities no longer exist. Power dams and reservoirs have supplanted them, and almost all traces of the old road are obliterated.
A visit to Potsdam when Ham was a boy could be a two-day venture. “What we’d do, we’d go down with Mother, and of course we knew a lot of people. And we’d stop to one place, maybe South Colton, and stay overnight with people we knew down there, and then we’d go down to Potsdam or over to Pierrepont. My uncle lived over to Pierrepont. We had mostly a team, a trotting team with a buggy, a small buggy. Of course, if we went to get anything, we’d go up to Piercefield. That’s where the International Paper Company had a mill and there was a big general store. You could buy anything from a mowing machine to toothpicks at the company store. They had everything.”
As Ham Ferry approached his majority, he was a seasoned woodsman with a thorough knowledge of the forest and its inhabitants, and he was well on his way toward becoming a skilled mechanic. He also had accumulated a substantial repertory of occasional poems, as well as a mass of material for creating implausible stories to be told years later to credulous listeners. For the time being, he was a collector, not yet a storyteller. There were still old-timers around to exercise yarn-spinning privileges in the early 1920s.
The M & M (Mohawk & Malone) railroad, the Adirondack’s own line with station stops at Piercefield and Childwold, offered a way out of the woods to the larger settlements, and so Ham Ferry took a train to Utica to look for work. In the years that followed, he had many jobs in many places, in a footloose, stoutly independent pursuit of a career. A first-person narrative, not always chronological, accounts for some of his experiences.
“I went to work in Utica for the Chevrolet people, the first time I went. I quit there, and went back to work for the Paige and Jewett place in Utica.
“I went to school in Cincinnati, God’s Bible College, to be a minister.” There, he preached sermons as part of his schooling, good training for a future storyteller. He also took care of the school’s mechanical equipment and pitched for the college baseball team. “It was the fastball,” Ham remembers. “I got ’em with the fastball!
“I came back after a semester, then I went to Gale’s again, guiding. Then I went down to Utica again, and went to work there. I got acquainted with a Salvation Army girl, and when they moved to East Liverpool, Ohio, I went there to see her, and went to work in the Franklin garage there—Franklin cars, they used to make them in Syracuse.
“Afterward, I went to the Salvation Army training college in New York City, but I had a row with the colonel there, and I quit.” The colonel’s regulations didn’t permit Ham and the girl to keep company, although they were engaged to be married, “and that’s how we broke up.
“I came home and went to work in the lumber woods for one winter, then on construction jobs for awhile, and then I went back to New York City and went to work for the Yellow Cab people as a mechanic. I was spare man on a service truck. I didn’t drive a cab. I worked six days a week. Saturday night I could get on the train after I got done work, and my mother would meet me at Piercefield the next morning. That night I could take the train at Piercefield and be back in New York in the morning.
“I must have been around 21 when I went out west the first time, to California. I was a mechanic there for the Buick people, four or five months. I got a letter from my mother, and she said my father wasn’t very well, so I came home. Then I went on to the construction business. I stayed with construction for a long while. I was all over, everywhere; all over Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York State. I worked with construction until I got married.”
Mrs. Ferry is the former Helen Colbert of Norwood, New York. The couple has been married more than 55 years. They have two married sons, a married daughter and eight grandchildren.
Other jobs followed, usually as mechanic or machinist, in Benson Mines, Potsdam and Norwood, or on road construction. Ham was, for a few years, a mechanic and bus driver for the Blue Line bus company in Tupper Lake. The latter job gave him the opportunity to develop another of his several skills. Bus schedules called for twenty-minute turnaround times near the Tupper Lake bowling lanes, enough time for one game between bus runs. Ham polished his skill so successfully that he later carried a 192 average for a season, rolled more than one 700 series, and in 1970, when he was 66, rolled the first sanctioned 300 game scored in Potsdam, where he still bowls regularly on Tuesday nights. And every Wednesday, he bowls in another league, as captain and sponsor of the Ham’s Inn team in Canton. His average is lower than it used to be, but he still has flawless form.
In 1938, finding himself once more between jobs, Ham drove his pickup truck to Oregon, in company with a brother-in-law and “this fellow who was staying with us. His uncle had a mine out there and wanted him to come out. We went prospecting gold, and got eleven ounces; it was $35 an ounce pure, but it didn’t run pure, and we got about $32 an ounce. We got three ounces of silver, too. Had to split four ways. We didn’t get much out of it, but it was fascinating. It was hydraulic mining; we had a 300-foot head.”
It was natural that Ham, who learned by heart Robert W. Service’s Spell of the Yukon, which begins, “I wanted the gold, and l sought it,” would try gold-mining, background experience for later eloquent recitations.
After working “all over, everywhere” for years, Ham settled down to be chief mechanic for the ColtonPierrepont Central School District, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1970. In 1953, Ham and Mrs. Ferry took over management of what was thereafter to be Ham’s Inn, a rest stop for hunters, fishermen, and random passersby. Ham soon realized that his collection of stories and recitations, judiciously presented, could be good for business, and it was about then, also, that he first went on stage.
“I just fooled around with it at first. I suppose it started in the barroom, mostly. Somebody would start something, you know, and then … once in awhile there’s a bunch in the bar, tryin’ to see who tells the biggest. .. the stories, yeah, I make ’em up, but I don’t know of anybody that knows very many poems. Poems were easy; I’d just read one a couple of times, and if I like it, that was it. I got some of ’em out of books. People send me poems of all kinds.
“Down at the (Colton-Pierrepont) school, they put on a minstrel show, and that’s where I started, about 1952 or ’53. I was the one that recited; I wasn’t the end man. We used to do it every year, in two or three different schools around. Then a bunch of ’em would come to the Inn, to hear me recite. That way I got a-goin’.”
Ham is at his best in an informal setting, and best of all in his own bailiwick, the barroom at Ham’s Inn. He is often invited to perform elsewhere, but his customary program away from home is likely to be a loose collection of twice-told tales and requested poems, disappointing to some in his audiences who expect a more tightly organized presentation. And Ham often has complained that his sponsors on those occasions “don’t say what they want me to do.” But in his own barroom on a long autumn evening in deer-hunting season, when business is good, eye to eye with a receptive lineup of listeners, Ham is in his element. His talent for improvising preposterous responses to fairly innocent inquiries has free play there. For instance, Ham recalls his conversation with visiting fishermen.
“Oh, them two guys from Ohio, come in here and set there at the table. They said to me, ‘You know where we can catch some trout?’ I said no, l don’t know right off. I said, do you want to catch ’em today? He said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to catch a mess today.’ Well, I said, I’ll tell you something. If knew where I could catch some today, I’d be right there and catch ’em myself. I wouldn’t tell yuh. But, I says, if you’re goin’ to be up here for awhile … ‘Oh, yeah, we’re stayin’ over to Cranberry Lake.’ Well, I says, there’s a little brook up here that crosses the road, and them trout are runnin’ in that brook. They come up that brook all the time.”
Ham, ostensibly the helpful host, had led the trusting Ohioans toward a trap, now painlessly sprung. “The culvert in that brook there has been washed full, so them big trout can’t get through the culvert, and they been jumpin’ the road. If you stand there tomorrow mornin’ when they’re jumpin’ across, you can probably catch all you want.” There is something almost plausible in the way the tale is told. The hearer wants to believe.
Unusual, even fantastic, things happen in the Adirondack woods. Not every story should be dismissed as fable. “Well, this is one of them, one of the funny experiences,” Ham recalls. “Over to Hollywood Club, there was four guides of us, and they’d allot you a man to hunt with the next morning. That is, if there was still good hunting. You took him out, and he hunted with you, as long as he wanted to stay out. Then the minute you come in, you were allotted another man to hunt with.
“And one of the days I was allotted a certain area and we were walking out, and I stopped him, and I says, Jeez, there’s a buck right over there. He pulled up and shot; I see the buck flinch, and away he went. I said, Jeez, it acts like he was hit. He says, ‘Yeah, I shot him.’ Yeah, I says, but six foot this side of the deer, there. We went over there and followed just a little ways, and found the buck, dead. I said to him, that’s quite a shot. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I always like to ricochet ’em.’ Ricochet right off that tree and run right over and hit the deer in the point of the shoulder. He was from down around Connecticut. He’d been coming up here quite a few times; it wasn’t his first time out.”
Hungry deer come to Ham’s back yard in winter and are fed. “They winter along these two creeks, and when you’ve got a hard winter, when they can’t get out, if you don’t feed ’em, they starve, and you’ll find a lot of dead deer around here.” A few years ago, when the state conservation department joined with the International Paper Company to announce that there were too many deer in the Sevey Corners area, things got a little out of hand. Ham, always restive when facing what he interprets as bureaucratic willfulness, tells how he dealt with two hopeful deer hunters from the west.
“Well, the two guys sat right there.” Ham points to a table for two along the barroom wall, just under a printed list of house rules (“Four pence a night for bed. No more than five to sleep in one bed. No beer allowed in the kitchen, and so on.”). “They come from Wisconsin here. Wisconsin’s supposed to be one of the best deer states in the Union, according to statistics. They come here and they sat there, and one says to me, ‘Where’s the place where the deer is so thick?’
“He handed me this pamphlet he had, like a notice you see on a tree. Right across the top, first thing, it says, ‘Up in Sevey’s Corners, we estimate there’s 20 deer to the acre.’ Then they went on, small words all the way down through; it said, ‘They’re so thick in there, they’re dyin’ like fleas, and they’ve got to be killed off.’ That’s when they had the doe season.
“So I said to ’em, where’d you come from? ‘Well,’ he says, ‘we just come from Route 3 up here.’ I said, You mean to tell me you didn’t see any deer comin’ down?
“‘No, we didn’t see no deer.’ You didn’t see nothin’ from here to Route 3? You’re right in the heart of where the deer is so thick. I don’t see how you could get down through without runnin’ into a deer, with 20 deer to the acre. I got 100 acres here, I said, so I should have 2,000 deer. There’s 13,000 acres up there; should be over 300,000 deer in there. There’s got to be; I don’t understand. ‘Well,’ he says, ‘we ain’t seen no deer.”‘
If Ham’s deer count was exaggerated, his indignation over what he considered to be mismanagement of the herd was genuine. “It was that pamphlet they gave to Rod and Gun clubs all over the United States. Oh, it was brutal! These back roads, you couldn’t get out of the car, there were so many cars. That doe season, the season was wide open. We had a good herd of deer, but they almost wiped us clean. They did. When I could go back here three miles on snow that had been on the ground a couple of days and not pick up a deer track, I couldn’t believe it!”
Ham has disapproving words for some of the works of the Adirondack Park Agency, another bureaucratic vexation. “Now, when it’s gettin’ where I’m payin’ taxes and I can’t have a right to do what I want to, there’s somethin’ wrong with our system. That don’t set with me, don’t set at all. We that live up here, and lived here all our lives, it’s got to where we’ve got to go ask somebody if we want to do anything, something that we want to do ourselves. It’s gettin’ actually beyond the control of the people. You can’t stop progress. That’s what they’re tryin’ to do.”
Ham, twice named assessor for his township in recent years, has well-voiced opinions about state and private ownership of land. “I’d rather see an individual own it than the state. Actually, you’ve got too much state land in this county. There’s no taxes! Well, they say the state pays it back, but where did the state get it? We paid it in there in the first place. We’re payin’ for it. If the individual owns it, you get the full tax. And the state, you get only what they say it’s worth. But they can tell you what your land is worth. This here is supposed to be worth $42,000, but the state land up there, they’ll only assess it at $20 an acre, and it’s all virgin timber. It’s stupid! Just like the boy said, ‘Why don’t you slap it to Niagara Mohawk?’ I says, Jesus Christ, Niagara Mohawk ain’t goin’ to solve it. They’re goin’ to put it right on your meter bill there. They couldn’t stay in business.”
Ham never has had a telephone at the Inn. He had a two-way citizen’s band radio for a time, but it didn’t work well and was discarded. Ordinary radio reception isn’t good, either, but there has been better luck with television. Ham had his own electric generating plant for several years before commercial electricity came. Communication with the rest of the world is “by car.” Shopping is “where-ever we happen to be; Tupper Lake mostly, I guess.”
Ham drives to Potsdam every Tuesday night and to Canton every Wednesday all winter, round trips of almost 70 miles each, for bowling. Although the road has been relocated, much of the way is familiar. Ham “drove the stage” from Piercefield to Stark, with a team of horses in winter and a truck at other times, almost 60 years ago. He would meet the stage from South Colton at Stark.
Ham has attracted the attention of folklorists at the state level, but his name still is best known among the townships and villages of southern St. Lawrence and Franklin counties. He is at his best when he is at home. He knows most of the Adirondack country as an in frequent visitor, but the region around and beyond Long Lake, “I never spent much time there.” He knew Noah Rondeau, the Hermit of Cold River, who worked for Ham’s father at the Hollywood Club and who courted Ham’s cousin. Dissolution of that romance may have prompted Rondeau to go into the woods and live as a hermit. Ham didn’t know Joe Gokey, the once-renowned mayor of Tupper Lake, personally, but quotes easily Mayor Gokey’s best remembered observation, “New York City will never amount to much; it’s too far away from Tupper Lake.”
Bob Axtell of Canton, who grew up in Old Forge and who has known the Adirondack country and Adirondack people intimately all his life, says of Ham Ferry, “He’s a good one, an old-fashioned backwoods storyteller, the best I’ve ever known. Ham is great! No one can match him when it comes to telling a tall story or reciting a poem, especially when he’s at home in his own place, where it’s informal and spontaneous. There used to be people like that, years ago, but they’re gone. Ham is about the only one left. He’s a rare one.”
Ham’s Inn is a modest, unpretentious hostelry. Only a few display signs which call attention to products ordinarily associated with taverns set it apart from a comfortable Adirondack homestead. It is eight miles to the nearest inhabited house to the north, on Route 56, and more than two miles to habitations at Sevey Corners on the south. A quarter of a mile to the east is the Raquette River, within sight and sound of the splendid Jamestown Falls, more like overgrown rapids than a cataract. The “population” is, as Joe Gokey used to say of Tupper Lake, “mostly spruce and hemlock.”
The visitor asks Ham, “You saw the wide world, you lived in New York and other cities and in faraway California. What decided you to stick with the Adirondacks?”
Ham Ferry answers, without elaboration, “I seem to like it here more’n I do anywhere else, I guess.”