A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


Philadelphia Folk Festival Photo Collage
A Conversation with Jim Downs
Reprinted from The Folk Life, Vol. 3, No. 2

Spring/Summer, 1976

[This interview with my father-in-law, Jim Downs, took place in his home in Carroll Park, Bloomsburg, in 1978, and appeared in The Folk Life Quarterly in Summer, 1979. Jim died in 1991; this is a memorial to Jim Downs.

Jamison City is an old logging boom-town, straddling the borders of Columbia and Sullivan Counties in north-central Pennsylvania, about halfway between Wilkes-Barre and Williamsport, 30 miles north of the Bloomsburg exit off Interstate 80. The county line that divides Sullivan from Columbia County, in fact, runs right across Fishing Creek, below the waterfall down which once plunged the virgin timber out of the mountains, above the busy sawmills and tannery of Jamison City.

For twenty years, between 1890 and 1910, the hills around Jamison City echoed to the rasp and whine of two-man crosscut saws, the chunk of double-bitted big axes, the sighing crash of virgin Pennsylvania white-oak and hemlock, as the lumber companies gnawed their steady way across the mountain-sides, stripping them clean in methodical great gulps of industrial progress. When the virgin lumber was gone, the lumber companies left too, abandoning the people of Jamison City to their own devices and the mountains to whoever wanted them. One well-honed joke, in circulation among the Jamison City old-timers and repeated in the interview with Jim Downs which follows here, is that somebody tried to leave the mountains to God, "but God couldn’t pay the taxes so the state took it over" – hence the present State Game Lands above Jamison City.

In the half-century since the lumber companies left, the mountains have come back in second-growth softwood forests of pine, spruce and fir. White-tail deer, imported on to the old lumber company lands by the state game commission, now crowd the limits of the new forests, in marauding herds that threaten the winter wheat of the small farmers around Benton and Orangeville.

And the people also have survived and come back, mostly remembering the good times of the old days, the berry-picking and the barrel-stave skiing, the quilting bees and the square dancing and the fine hunting and fishing which keeps drawing people back to the mountains year by year. Another of the well-honed lines is, "Once you get your feet wet in Fishing Creek, you’ll never leave the county."

One of the active members of the Jamison City Old-timers Reunion is Jim Downs – Jamie’s father – who was born in Jamison City in 1913, just after the peak of the lumbering industry had passed. Because his parents, in turn, had been involved in running the lumber camps, and because Jim has a rich fund of good stories about the mountains in which he grew up, we thought we would ask him about some of his Jamison City experiences for the readers of The Folk Life. The result is the interview that follows, as suggestive of follow-up avenues worth pursuing as it is fascinating in its own right. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy what the Smithsonian Institution would probably call "family folklore," as we talk with Jim Downs about the good old days in Jamison City.

When were you born, Jim?

Jim: December 13th, 1913, on Main Street in Jamison City.

John: Did you say your folks actually ran the lumber camps up there?

Jim: They ran the lumber camps before moving right into Jamison City itself, then they went into the retail and wholesale meat business. They furnished the meat for the camps.

John: So they were involved at least with the latter part of the boom-town era. When did they move into Jamison City?

Jim: It would be about, oh, 1908. Before that they were out in the mountains, in the different lumber camps.

John: Was the family from the area originally?

Main Street in Jamison City, PA

Jim: My mother was born in Lopez, about ten miles above Jamison City, and my father was born in Bloomsburg.

John: You had relatives who went through the Civil War. I’ve seen a letter from one of them – who was that?

Jim: That was my grand-dad.

John: Wasn’t he present at the surrender of Lee at Appomattox? I thought I recalled seeing somewhere he held Lee’s horse or his sword….

Jim: I don’t know. I could not say that was the actual facts.

John: I know somebody in the family thought that was the case. Aunt Catherine?

Jim: Right.

John: How long has the family been in this area of Pennsylvania, then?

Jim: Well, my father was born in Bloomsburg in 1865, and my mother was born up in Lopez, Sullivan County.

John: The back hills of Sullivan County must have been pretty wild back then.

Jim: Yeah, there wasn’t too much back then. But then during that time they discovered the coal back there and began mining it.

John: I didn’t know they mined coal in Sullivan County.

Jim: Yeah, there was an area there. It was halfway between a hard and a soft coal, semi-bituminous.

John: Was that used for the railroads?

Jim: Yeah, they used it for the railroads and the manufacturing plants and so on. It wasn’t too good for the houses – too much sulfur, you know.

John: When did the railroad from Bloomsburg to Jamison get started?

Jim: I wouldn’t know the exact date, but I would say the early 1890’s.

John: I should check Craig Newton and Jim Sperry’s book on Jamison City for that kind of thing, I guess. What got your folks involved in the lumber industry?

Jim: Mainly because it was the going thing around the time, you know. I think my father, before he got up and got involved in the lumbering, worked at the Danville Roller Mill, where they made the original steel rails for the railroads.

John: There were iron foundries in the area, then?

Jim: Yeah, in Danville.

John: And also on Iron Street, in Bloomsburg?

Jim: Well, iron was mined all around Bloomsburg back then. Up until I would say 1890 or ’95, when they all quit. My old uncles Bill Casey and Mike Casey used to tell us about working in the iron ore mines. It was far different from now. They crawled in on their hands and knees, and they had this little short-handled shovel, they pushed the ore back past them.

John: Really low tunnels? I guess there couldn’t have been too many mine inspectors back then.

Jim: (laughs) No!

John: There must have been a few accidents back then.

Jim: There was a couple. A couple of the mines you could stand up in, but most of them you couldn’t.

John: You know, I associate Bloomsburg and the area with deer hunting. It is pretty much deer hunting now. But the way you describe it, there was a lot of heavy industry, small scale, but heavy.

Jim: Of course, Bloomsburg was the county seat, and at that time the county seat was a pretty important thing. And they had three railroads coming into Bloomsburg. And a bit earlier they had the canals.

John: That’s right – the old canal bed’s still down along the Susquehanna all up through Bloomsburg. Any of your folks involved in working on the canal?

Jim: No. But if you look at these old pictures of Jamison City – this old hotel in the background, that was the Proctor Inn, or the Big Onion, it was called. That was a deluxe hotel at the time. The guy who built it had the idea it was gonna get the tourist trade from Philadelphia. It was a beautiful place, and it probably should have, but it was just a little before its time.

John: It’s a bit far from Philadelphia.

Jim: They came up on the trains at the time. Everybody traveled by railroad then. You’d come into Bloomsburg on the Pennsy, and then you’d take the Bloomsburg and Sullivan up to Jamison City.

When was that line abandoned?

Jim: 1925 or ’26.

John: So when the tannery was gone, it was gone? There weren’t enough people to justify running it?

Jim: Right. So they tore it out down to Benton, and then a couple of years later they tore it out down to Lightstreet, and there it made connections with the S.B. and B., Susquehanna, Bloomsburg and Berwick.

John: It would have had the iron mines for freight?

Bloomsburg and Sullivan Railroad

Jim: Most of its business was with the A.C. and F., in Berwick, and they did a pretty good business until recent years. They made connections across from Berwick, and got over to the Pennsy in the Williamsport area, and then got on the main line that way.

John: Let me ask you about a few of the other old pictures of Jamison City you have here.

Jim: Well, these have been in the family ever since I can remember. At the time, these old lumber camp pictures were taken here, I can remember – not right when these pictures were taken but shortly after – we have old school photos that were taken with the old flash. They’d pour the black powder in, and you’d stand still until it was taken.

John: That’s one teacher here in this picture.

Jim: Yeah. There were two schools in Jamison City, one in Sullivan County and one in Columbia County.

John: Looks like 40-50 kids.

Jim: Yeah, well there was two teachers there, though. In this Jamison City school there was two floors. It was built on the side of a mountain, and up to the 5th grade was downstairs, then 6th-7th-8th was all upstairs.

John: They didn’t go beyond 8th grade?

Jim: No, but they had a three-year high school in Grassmere.

Jamison City Grammar School (from postcard)

Class Picture, Jim in first row center,
brother Frank first row right
John: Jamie and I went up the falls once, and we came across the foundations of an old cabin in the woods, with trees growing up in the middle of it. What was that about?

Jim: Oh yeah. That was a cabin that was built up there years ago, shortly after they quit lumbering. It was a log cabin, and had a beautiful stone fireplace.

John: The fireplace is still standing, but there were trees growing up in the middle of the foundation.

Jim: Yeah…. My mother was the Sunday school teacher, and after they quit using it for a hunting camp, once every Summer she’d take a flock of kids up to the cabin.

John: Like vacation Bible school?

Jim: Right. Mostly we’d all wander around through the mountains, and play and swim in the creek.

John: There’s a big round pool down at the bottom of the hill below it.

Jim: Yeah, that was a nice pool to dive into. But you didn’t linger too long – the water was about forty degrees!

John: I know about that too! (Laughter). Wasn’t that the pool where you took your Saturday night baths?

Jim: Yeah! (Laughter)

John: These people in this picture here – that’s a shot inside the schoolroom, isn’t it?

Miss Anna M. Downs, Grammar School,
Jamison City, Columbia County, 1917.

Jim: Yeah. This picture was taken, I would say, right around 1915….Yeah, there’s a date on the back of it – 1917. So I was pretty close, just going on what they were wearing.

John: "Miss Anna M. Downs, Grammar School, Jamison City, Columbia County, 1917." And this picture here, all of the guys in the camp – they’re a real bunch of thugs!

Jim: Well, those were your typical "wood hicks," and they were rough and rugged, but they were of good character, the most of them. Their life was pretty hard.

The family you see here is the George Horne family, and
they ran the camp for my mother and father.
John: I see there are little kids here too. This one here is a whole family, there’s infants in the background.

Jim: Well, this is a picture of part of the crew at a lumber camp that my dad and mother owned. The family you see here is the George Horne family, and they ran the camp for my mother and father. My dad and mother were probably over at another camp.

John: I see this picture here, that’s your dad sitting in the middle of the crew. Was that another camp they ran?

Jim: Yeah, that’s right.

John: And this third camp again – was that also one they ran?
Jim: Yeah. This camp here was Mud Hole Camp.

John: That’s the one where your dad is in the second-to-last row, at the end?

Jim: Right. And that camp was off at Lake Jean.

John: That’s a distance from Jamison City. They must have brought the logs over the mountains.

Jim: No, this operation here went into Ricketts’ Glen Lumber Company, which was at Ricketts. Now you got over on the other side of the mountain, down into Jamison City, and that was the Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company.

John: Now this one here, with the family in it, what was that?

That was up in… let me see now, I’m just trying to think – I was up there fishing yesterday. Hemlock Run, that’s it. That’d be in Sullivan County too, but it’s up in the headwaters of Fishing Creek. You go on up through Elk Grove, past the old C.C.C. camp, and you have to walk from that point on up through.

John: It’s up beyond the Fishing Creek Confederacy?

Jim: Well, the Fishing Creek Confederacy originated right up in that area. That was supposed to be the lookout point, where they was supposed to have hid, back up in there, so they could watch down the mountain and look out for the Union troops. That�s where they shot the mailman because he had a blue uniform on! (Laughter)

This camp here was Mud Hole Camp.

Central Pennsylvania Lumber Company

City Hotel, Jamison City

John: That’ll teach him to wear a blue uniform in the mountains! They must have been a pretty wild bunch, these "wood hicks."

Jim: Yeah – they were all wild weekenders. In the town of Jamison there was, let’s see, five hotels. I’m not sure all five of them was running at the same time. And two saloons. And the population of the town was probably two hundred. But on a Saturday night it would be several thousand, with wood hicks in out of the mountains.

John: Worked six days a week?

Jim: Yeah, and then they come into town for the weekend.

John: I guess there were no union hours then.

Jim: No, I think they all worked from daylight to dark.

John: Where’s that picture of them all wearing hats? Here, this one. The guy in the bottom right-hand corner is playing horseshoes with the kid, and the boy over here –

Jim: -- He’s got his dog in with him!

John: And this guy has his axe with him.

Jim: And this guy’s been sharpening his saw.

John: Is that one of those two-man saws?

Jim: Yeah, the old cross-cut saws. That’s the way all the lumber was cut out of these woods, with two-man cross-cut saws, and pulled out with teams of horses. Pulled to the tops of the mountains, and then put on what they called "running slides." They’d put the logs on the slides and run them down the sides of the mountains.


John: Did they bring any of them actually over the falls?

Jim: Oh yeah. And then they floated a lot of it down from the East branch of Fishing Creek. And a lot of it was floated down to Jamison City.

John: How many waterfalls were there, then?

Jim: Oh there’s First, Second… five falls in the East branch of the creek. And the Sullivan Falls, which empties into the East branch, has one falls on that.

John: Both of those branches come down into Fishing Creek….

Jim: Yeah, they both come down into Jamison City. Now the one falls up there is still known as Lewis Falls, and that got its name from a man by the name of Lewis who went over the falls with the logs.

John: And survived?

Jim: Oh no! And then the Sullivan Falls got its name the same way. They would get log jams on them and they’d ride the logs with a "can hook," and when they’d get a jam they would keep them moving, they’d chip on them and keep them moving, and then they’d stay too long and just go over the falls.

John: That’s how Sullivan Falls got its name then, not from the county?

Jim: No, there was a man called Sullivan went over there.

John: I guess there were the Indian settlements up in the area before. Wouldn’t the Iroquois Nation have come to around there?

Jim: Right. But there was more Indian settlements around Bloomsburg.

John: Of course. There’s Council Cup on that bluff above Berwick. The logging business is amazing.

Jim: Yeah, this saw-mill in Jamison was the largest in the East, back then.

John: Pretty short-lived, though, 20-30 years at the outside. They just logged the mountains off totally.

Jim: Quite an operation. These logs, they’d float them down the creek into this holding dam, which also furnished the water for the mill and the tannery. And then on the side one part was set off, they called the "hot water pool," where they had steam pipes at the tannery, and they run them under that, and it kept the water warm enough so that when the ice and stuff was on the logs they would go right on over in there, and wash the mud and stuff off them, you know. And then right from there they went into a chute right into the saw-mill, and through the saw-mill they had a big stone burner, where they burnt all the kinds of lumber you’d buy today. They just took the very best slices off every log, and then they burnt the rest.

John: They wiped out all the hardwood, then.

Jim: Yeah. Of course, now, I might be exaggerating, but I’d say fifty percent of the lumber that was cut up on the mountains, they never used the lumber at all. They just cut it up for the bark, and used the bark for tanning leather, and left the lumber to rot. That was white-oak and hemlock.

John: White-oak and hemlock, all left to rot on the mountainsides.

Jim: Uh-huh. Up above Elk Grove there’s one hollow that they called "Tumble-down Hollow," and that was just another means of getting the logs off the mountain. They cut everything off clean, and then they just tumbled the logs down off the mountain. It was steep enough, they could just tumble them down, and in this Tumbledown Hollow they’d just take the bark off the logs, and that whole valley – well, not the valley, that a lot of space – but it was ten feet deep with stripped logs. The base of those logs, by the way, would probably be six feet through.

John: How old would those trees have to be to get six feet across?

Jim: Well, that was all the virgin timber up there. It had all been up there since before…. (Long pause.)

John: Maybe it’s a strange thing to say, but it must be sort of encouraging, the way the mountains came back from that. I guess at the time it must have looked pretty devastated.

Jim: When I was a kid up there you didn’t see any trees. When you were down in Jamison City and looked up at those mountains, which are really beautiful now, you didn’t see a tree. There was nothing but brush. First raspberry and blackberry bushes, then water maple.

John: Your mother used to pick blackberries, didn’t she?

Jim: Huckleberries, mostly. Climb up those mountains and pick huckleberries all day, and carry them down. About a fifteen-quart bucket in each hand, and another two of them over your shoulders, and carry them down the mountains. (Laughs)

John: I guess there wouldn’t have been too much deer around then.

Jim: No. The first deer were brought up in 1913. My parents could remember when there were deer up in there before, but they were all killed, down to the last deer. As a matter of fact, they could tell you where the last deer was shot. They would say, "Now, this is where the last deer was shot, in this area."

John: How did the deer come back, then?

Jim: Well, the state began to stock them, in Jamison.

John: Was that when they started to take the forest over as game land?

Jim: They started. I don’t think they owned much, then. That’s when they started to buy it, though.

John: What’s that line of Uncle Charlie’s – "Somebody left it to God…"

Jim: Well, that was one piece of land back in Sullivan County. He willed it to God, but God couldn’t pay the taxes, so the state took it over. (Laughter.) But the deer was stocked in
Jamison, by the state, then up at Ricketts. From Jamison to Ricketts, you just go over the mountain, you’re in Ricketts’ Glen. Colonel Ricketts stocked in deer on his own. He owned all that, I forget, about a million acres. He got it through land grants and so on, and they lumbered it all off. Tried farming, but it was never too successful.

John: I wonder if you must have thought it was totally destroyed. A number of people must have thought the land could never come back.

Jim: That’s right.

John: Did a lot of people leave when the lumber operation closed down?

Jim: A .Lot of them left, and a lot of them followed along in the same line, and went on down to West Virginia, where there was a few of them still lumbering down there, and out in the western part of the state, so that’s where a lot of them went to.

John: There’s not much strip mining in this area, is there?

Jim: No, as far as Columbia County is concerned, just a little strip mining down in the southern end of the county, down around Centralia.

John: But your family stayed around Jamison City, even after the logging stopped.

Jim: Yeah, because the tannery was still there, until around 1926.

John: So there was still the tanning bark left over?

Jim: Right. The logging was done around 1910, but there was still the small jobs, finishing up around, and then the tannery ran until around 1926.

John: You used to go swimming there?

Jim: Yeah, the tannery was more or less a community centre. They had these large vats with the steam pipes, because some of the vats had to be hot and some of them had to be cold. So that’s where we took our Saturday night baths. The watchman was always congenial! (Laughter)

John: Must have done it himself when he was a kid.

Jim: Yeah. And then for our Summer swimming we had the old sawmill dam.

John: What happened to that?

Jim: It finally washed out. And then after that was the beginning of the clean streams. They put a filter in at the tannery – around 1922 or so. Prior to that time, everything went right through into the creek, so from the tannery down to about Grassmere, about, we used to call it "The Black Creek." Because that’s where everything from the tannery, the "liquor," all went in, and there was no fish or anything.

And again a lot of people would have thought it was all killed off, and it would never come back.

... the tannery was more or less a community centre.

Jim's older brother George is in back
row, second from left.

Jim: Oh yes. But they put the filter in, and it all cleaned that right up. And it was a beautiful stretch of water, down into recent years, what through the floods and them getting in there with the bulldozers.

John: I hear the fishing’s pretty good there.

Jim: Oh, we still have some pretty good fishing in there. Got my limit yesterday! (Laughter)

John: That’s a picture of the tannery crew there, isn’t it?

Jim: That’s a pretty good representation of that. It was quite an operation too, that tannery. Most people who go up there now don’t realize how much ground that tannery covered.

John: When you drive up there, through Jamison City and up into the woods, you can see the old smokestack, in the middle of the woods now.

Jim: Where that smokestack is, they had four big steam boilers there – they had everything run by steam. No electricity – just big steam boilers all through the town.

John: Wood-fired furnaces?

Jim: No, they were soft-coal burning. They got the soft coal from the railroad cars. And alongside there was what was called the "liquor house." That’s where the bark – and in later years, after the bark was gone, they got out of South America what they called "dibby-dibs" – they were kind of a nut-like thing – they made the liquor to tan the hides. They’d be ground and fermented in there.

John: Where did the hides come from?

Jim: They came from South America too. Smith and Armour’s never had enough to furnish it all at that time. Because back then, if you bought a pair of shoes they were all leather, not like now.

John: Not much cattle around here.

Jim: No, they never got too much local hides up here. I don’t know of any, but they probably got some. They came in on the railroad, and then one little shed that’s up there yet was the hide shed. The railroad ran right alongside, and the shed was set on a lower level, and right in those small windows you’d see the hides thrown in there.
Then they’d go from the hide shed to what they called the "skiving house," where they were put into soak. I don’t know the chemicals and so on, but they were soaked so long in there, then they were taken out, and the hair -- all of this was done by hand, now – the hair was taken off by big polling knives, run over it. After that, they’d take them down, and the yards were pretty near half a mile long, and that was all just vats, about oh, eight feet by eight feet, probably. And the leather would be hung across on sticks, dipped down into this liquor, and left so many days, then brought up.

John: Then they’d rinse them. It was the clean water you guys used to bathe in, wasn’t it? (Laughter)

Jim: Oh yeah! Well, the ones we swam in were the final ones, where they all had the final rinse before they went into the rolling room, after they were all done. And then they’d take the "flesh beams," the gooey hides, after they were all soaked, and after they’d taken the skivings, all the pieces of flesh or skin, and at that time the skivings were put in open gondola cars and shipped out. At that time they told us they went to glue factories, but in later years I was told – and this is the truth now – we have friends who came down from Boston, and they worked in General Foods, and in later years these skivings went into your Jello! (Laughter)

John: Terrific! I don’t think I’m ever going to eat any Jello ever again!

Jim: Jello gelatin and film – and by the way, the best of it went into the film, and what was left went into the Jello! (Laughter!)

John: Apart from the swimming in the tannery vats, you kids had some different games you used to play up there. Didn’t you used to go skiing on barrel-staves?

Jim: Well, yeah. What we did – and I don’t know why I never did anything about this – was what we kids called "bumpers." And what bumpers consisted of was a barrel stave – now, off a good old whiskey barrel, not one of those thin barrels that they used to get the materials for the tannery – this had to be a good old whiskey barrel stave –

John: Solid, eh?

Jim: Oak, yeah. About three-quarters of the way back on it you’d cut a block, anywheres from six to eight inches thick, and you’d build a square seat, and put that on at a slant, so you’d be setting back like this, see? Then we’d take sandpaper or glass, and really smooth down the barrel stave, and beeswax that thing, and then you’d get up on the side of the mountain. And you’d ride on down – you’d build up a terrific speed! (Laughing)

John: You’d go like hell! (Laughing)

Jim: And then you’d usually have a jump at the end! (Laughing)

John; Must have been a few people wrapped around tree stumps!

Jim: Oh, a few broken arms – but never anything serious. I went through a board fence myself one time, but I came out of it with just a couple of scratches! (Laughing)
But I’ve often thought about why somebody didn’t get hold of that, and put it on the market, because I never saw that anywhere but Jamison City, and I’ve asked a lot of people, and nobody ever heard of it.

John: Do you remember any other games you kids played up there?

Jim is blonde boy in center

Jim: Oh, just the usual. Baseball, and… I’ll tell you, you made up your own games. There was no organized sports. If you wanted to do something, a bunch of kids just went ahead and did it. You didn’t have any sponsors and so on.

John: No recreation director?

Jim: (Laughs) No. And outside of that, you had kids’ games in school. Games in the snow – fox and the goose – you know.

John: What was that?

Jim: Oh, you’d make a big circle in the snow, and then a line across, and you’d get in there, and you’d chase one another. One of you’d be the fox and the rest the geese.

John: Oh, you mean in really deep snowdrifts?

Jim: That’s right, yeah.

John: So you couldn’t see over the top…?

Jim: Oftentimes, yeah. And we had your usual winter sports up in the mountains – ice-skating, bumper-riding – not much real skiing – we didn’t have any real skis, just barrel-staves – and sleigh-riding, and bob-sleds.

John: Did many kids get drowned in the creek?

Jim: No. I don’t recall. As a matter of fact, at that time, the way you learned to swim was when you were about five or six years old the older kids would throw you in and you had to swim out (Laughs).

John: Nice kids.

Jim: Oh, they’d rescue you if you couldn’t swim, but….

I wanted to ask you how the Depression affected your family.

Well, of course, that was after we’d left Jamison City, and we lived in Bloomsburg, on Sixth Street, then. My dad and brother worked at the brickyard, and they were fortunate enough that they worked pretty good. There was some time that they were off, so we were not really well off, you know, but we were better off than some. Of course, one reason we were better off was that we went out and…did it. We went out and we husked corn by the bushel, and sold it to the grist mill. And we took potatoes, you’d get….I picked a lot of days for two bushels of potatoes and your dinner, which was always ham and potatoes and milk gravy.

John: You still had ties up in Jamison City after you came to Bloomsburg. How did you come to build the cabin up there?

Jim Downs after moving to Bloomsburg
on the roof of the new Bloomsburg Hospital

Jim: Well, the way that took place, a gang of us at this one place, we hung out a lot, did a lot of fishing and hunting. But we just went in and came home afterwards, you
know. We never had enough money to go to the hotels and so on. We got together and we decided to buy a piece of ground up there, and build a place. But nobody had
any money, and nobody had any security (Laughs). So we finally found a lumber dealer out in Millville that would trust us, and the Orangeville Bank, I don’t know why,
out of the goodness of their hearts, they gave us some credit, because there wasn’t a cent in there. We just organized and then we paid a dollar a week in, twenty-five of us.

John: Your brothers and a bunch of other guys? Who was involved?

Jim: In the cabin, there was Ed, and George, and Charlie, and Frank, and myself….

John: You told me about the tree next to the cabin, where you used to put the keg….

Jim: Oh, yeah. Well, that’s when we were building the place. We had this dollar a week we were all putting in, and when we got enough money, we’d go up each weekend and we’d work on it. So we’d have a quarter or a half barrel of beer, and there were some nice low- hanging hemlock branches that were just right to cover that up, and you’d get in there and keep the beer back in there. So anyone who wanted to come along and help a bit on the cabin was welcome, and we had the free beer and that got to be a good thing, so there was a lot of them stopping in. So then we just put a can back there, and when you went in under the tree and drew yourself a beer you put a dime or a nickel or something in the can, to buy the beer for the next time.

How long did it take you to build it?

Jim: Oh, about over a year, 1939-40. We finished it up in 1941.

John: When did you go in the service?

Jim: ’41 is when I went in the service, and we were just finishing it up then.

John: So after your time in the service you went back up to the mountains, after you came back to Bloomsburg. What was that like?

Jim: Well, I was gone four and a half years, and you could see a big change in four and a half years. The mountains had grown up, you see. And of course Jamison, in the time I knew it, had been going down until there was practically nothing left there. But by that time it had started building back up, with people going in and buying up the old properties and remodeling them and making summer homes out of them, and new people moving back in there. People from down in Jersey bought up in there, so now you’ve got maybe, I don’t know,
fifteen families back in there.

John: When did the Jamison City Oldtimers Reunion get started?

Jim's soon to be wife, Marian Myers (front left) and
friends and family drink a toast to Jim, away in W.W.II.
Picture taken in front of the cabin.

Brothers,(L to R) George, Ed, Charlie, Frank and Bill at Old Timers' Reunion

Sparky, Franks wife; Cecil, George's wife, Lula, Bill's wife, Marian, engaged to Jim; and Teddy, Ed's wife at Old-Timers' Reunion, Grassmere Park

Jim: I’d say during World War II.

John: Are you just automatic members?

Jim: Yes.

John: They still get together every year for their picnic, don’t they? I see there’s now a Sunday afternoon jam session up in Jamison City.

Jim: At the Deer Trail Lodge, yeah. They do a good business up there. They do try to bring back a little of the old Jamison City.

John: Wasn’t there a lot of square dancing up there?

Jim: Oh yeah. Well, this area was maybe no more than others, but you had your choice within a 25 mile radius of a dozen square dances you could go to on a Saturday night – Grassmere Park, Red Rock, so on.

John: Did you ever dance to Emmett Rhone, the one-armed fiddler?

Jim: Yeah. His granddad’s name was Emmett too.

John: Was there clogging up here too?

Jim: I never saw much of it. Up in Sullivan, around Dushore, that’s predominantly Irish up there.

John: Where did the Irish come from?

Jim: I don’t know. Back when I can first remember, though, Dushore was practically an Irish town. It still is pretty Irish up there. On a Saturday night in Dushore, you’d go into the hotel and the whole of the town would be there. When everybody would close up their stores, and they would all wind up at the hotel, drinking beer and clogging and square-dancing away. And there was no class distinction. The lawyers and doctors and everyone. That was the greatest town I was ever in, for the whole town to mingle.

John: Was Jamison City like that too?

Jim: I guess most of your small towns are like that to an extent. It was just that in Dushore they all went for that Saturday night "hoorah."

John: I guess Jamison City might not have been too much for families, with all those wood hicks in town for the weekend. I guess they kept the women and children indoors?

Jim: No, they never had any troubles that way.

John: Was there much law-breaking?

Jim: No, you never had it. I don’t think there was ever a lock on a door in Jamison City.

John: Just guys fighting for the hell of it.

Jim: Yeah. You didn’t fight your enemies – you fought your friends! (Laughter) They’d try to knock one another’s heads off Saturday night, and then Monday morning they’d be out there working together. And I don’t know why, but there was always big families in Jamison – the cold winters or what – our family had nine and we were just below average size. Most of them ran ten, eleven, twelve.

John: The cold winters will do it! (Laughter) You must have been all over these mountains, hunting and fishing.

Jim: Yeah, I’ve fished all over Sullivan County and Luzerne and all up through the mountains. But my favorite trout streams are still around Jamison City. Either the East or the West branch of Fishing Creek.

John: Is the deer hunting good up there too?

Jim: Well, I don’t know. You could probably get better deer hunting if you went somewhere else. But you go back, year after year. You go more for the good times than for the hunting.

John: Yeah. I heard something happened this past year. You want to talk about it?

Jim: (laughing) What was that?

John: The does…?

Jim: Oh yeah…. I decided I didn’t want to shoot one after all. I could shoot them if they was running, if they had a chance. But I couldn’t shoot them things standing there in the field looking at me.

John: How many guys do you get up at the cabin each year?

Jim: We used to get 18 to 20, but now in recent years it’s gone down to pretty much just our own family and a few people that come from outside. We get about nine or ten.

John: You told me once about going fishing with your brothers and winding up pouring beer in one another’s waders (Laughter).

Jim: Yeah, that was up around Lopez, when we used to go fishing. Down around Bloomsburg here is always been a pretty dry area, you know. No booze joints open on a Sunday or anything.

John: A lot of churches in this area – that’ll do it. I guess Prohibition must have hit pretty hard. Was there much bootlegging in the mountains?

Jim: Oh yeah – there was always a lot of that!

John: Did anyone make their own stills?

Jim: Yeah, they had them. Up in Jamison City we had a couple over in what they called Fritz Hill. We used to go over there and they would have the still set up in the kitchen, right there. Sometimes you’d get it fresh, right out of the still. A hundred and eighty proof – pure alcohol it was.

John: Must have been furious stuff. Didn’t cause too many fights, did it?

Jim: Oh yeah – that was the fighting stuff! You could have a gang together drinking beer without any trouble, but then you’d bring on the moonshine (laughter).

John: You must have enjoyed it, living around there.

Jim: Yeah, there was never too much money, but always something to do.

John: Do you think that the mountains have come back by now?

Jim: Yeah, as a matter of fact that’s what’s happened to our deer hunting. It’s come back too much for the deer, because it’s all getting to be big timber, no underbrush or browse. When you have a good acorn or beechnut crop the deer have lots to eat, but if you don’t, why then it gets a little rough for them.

John: You like going up in the woods?

Jim: Oh yeah, you can go up there trout fishing, you know, especially during the week, by yourself, and I don’t know, you forget there’s any other world around. You won’t hear or see anyone. All you hear is the birds singing…. And the water. I was a little leery of going up around Lewis Falls this last year. I was up there and then I started fishing up the creek. Then I went on up, crawled up around the small falls with that big deep hole, and I fell in. I rolled over the cliff into the falls!

John: Didn’t go over the Lewis Falls, did you?

Jim: Oh no! That would be – I started up around it, and I thought, "Now, that would be tragic if you did that up there around Lewis and went down over that cliff!"

John: It would be what, thirty feet?

Jim: All of that, yeah. And you’d land on the cliff, too, unless you fell far enough out and you’d be lucky, you’d hit the water. But that was funny – I went down, then I came up out of the water. It wasn’t deep, but I rolled down in on my side, you know, so I went clear down and hit the bottom (laughing). I came up and saw my hat floating and grabbed it and crawled out. Then I started hunting up my pole and my equipment to see what happened to it, and pretty soon I realized why I wasn’t seeing too good. I’d lost my glasses! So I had to go back in—I couldn’t see them because of the reflections on the water, so I had to dive back in under with hip boots full of water all the time! (Laughter)

John: You could have lost more than your glasses [This was just following release from the hospital after abdominal surgery, at age 65]. You must have been soaking wet by the time you got home.

Jim: Oh, I’d dried out by the time I got home! [He decided to go on up the falls, and get his limit, then walked back down the mountain, squelching in his waders, laughing about what would happen if somebody saw him. Yeah.]

John: Were there any serious accidents when you were hunting up there?

Jim: Very few. We had a couple, I don’t recall them clearly enough to remember any names. A few years ago, we had a bunch from a camp where we knew most of the fellows – young men from town here, who built a camp up in Jamison. And they – I don’t know why, but they were very foolish, they climbed up over the mountains in the dark to get on their stands.

John: You don’t get too many drunks up there, though?

Jim: Not in the woods. In the bar-rooms around – those guys, they just put on their hunting clothes to tour the bar-rooms! But these guys, they got up there before the daylight and a deer went through and they started shooting. It was a father and son too – I don’t know who shot who.

John: That’s pretty ugly.

Jim: Yeah. That was about three or four miles back in the mountains, and so they took off their clothes and rigged a litter and carried him down over the mountains.

John: Was he killed or just…?

Jim: No, he recovered, but I don’t think he ever got over it too good. He was shot right through the stomach.

John: Much bear up there?

Jim: Oh yeah, there used to be real good bear. And there’s quite a few up in the mountains yet. As I recall, one year on the first day of the season there was 32 bear brought into Jamison. That was in Jamison alone – they came down into Central and Elk Grove and all that too.

John: Black bear?

Jim: That’s right.

John: What kind of deer is it?

Jim: All white-tail. No mule deer or anything.

John: Down in this area, all around Bloomsburg and Berwick, I never thought of it so much hunting as apple and dairy country.

Jim: Used to be the best of all for small game – rabbits, ring-necked pheasant, some grouse. Up around Jamison is where most of the grouse is now. Now, when you’re deer-hunting, you see a couple a year. Well, you see one, you tell someone about it. There used to be a time you’d go into one of those little hemlock swamps and they’d fly out, maybe forty or fifty grouse.

John: Talking about swamps – there are beaver up there, aren’t there? We’ve got a whole set of slides of a beaver dam up near Jamison City.

Jim: Beaver was stocked in there too, yeah, I’d say about 1915. That dam is on the Thirty-One Club’s land. But there used to be, up in Grassy Hollow—that’s the creek you like to go up – if you go up to the headwaters, the beaver made a dam, it must have been a hundred acres up there. It’s all gone now. Right at the top of Upper Twin Falls there’s a flat area, you can see the remains of an old splash dam. After it washed out, the beavers built a pretty good-sized dam up there. That was up there for a number of years, but they always had a struggle with it – it would wash out every year, then they’d have to build it over again.

John: Was there much beaver trapping?

Jim: No, it’s a pretty limited season. In March, I think, and you’re only allowed two beavers.

John: Mike used to trap a bit around here, didn’t he?

Jim: Yeah, for muskrats. Of course, every now and then he’d catch a skunk! (Laughter) My brother and I used to run a trapline, it must have been two or three miles around the side of the mountain. Every year we’d catch a few raccoons, weasels, muskrats down along the creek. Once we caught a bobcat. At that time there was a fifteen dollar bounty on bobcats – now they’re protected and you daren’t trap them. We were never good enough to catch foxes, but there was a lot of them up there. The game commission had a beautiful house up there that the game warden lived in. He was the only state employee for miles around. They had a 13 mile around refuge that he protected.

John: Was there much poaching for food?

Jim: Not then. According to what I’ve been reading, there’s more now than there ever was – because of the price of meat! (Laughter!) Well, back then if a farmer wanted to shoot one that was getting into his field they never bothered too much about that – which was only right. But in later years they’ve got these guys making a business out of it.

John: That’s different.

Jim: Well, I don’t know if it was legit, or whether the game wardens just took it on themselves. But I know my uncle lived up along North Mountain, they really got harassed by the deer. They used to tie the dogs out in the field on chains and lit lanterns and so on. He grew mostly produce for Eaglesmere, which was a going concern back then. If they’d complain to the game warden, he’d give them permission to shoot a deer for their own use. Now I don’t know if that was the law or if the game warden would just work it that way.

John: It seems reasonable when you’re not talking about the business kind of poacher. I wanted to ask you, Jim, what’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the mountains since you grew up in them?

Jim: I’d say the biggest change is in the people that go up there now. When you used to go up there you’d know everyone. Now, it’s very unlikely you’ll see anyone you know.

John: Has the interstate opened up the area?

Jim: Yeah, and it’s used more as a Summer resort area, too. For instance, up above our camp there, at Elk Grove, I think when we built our cabin there was not another hunting camp in the whole Elk Grove area. But now in that area, especially between the Elk Grove Inn and the old CCC camp, there must be a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty camps. Well, they’re hunting camps, and they also use them for Summer camps too.

John: How did the CCC camp get started in there?

Jim: Well, that was one of FDR’s first relief efforts, the Civilian Conservation Corps. They took the young fellows that was unemployed off the streets, and sent them to these camps and gave them a small wage. Which I think was one of the best things they ever did, and they ought to have it now. They did a lot of good in those mountains. They’re still using the roads they built, the fire roads and the dams. They may not be big, hand-work, you know, but there’s still a number of them up in the mountains.

John: Many people see CETA as the CCC of the ‘70s.

Jim: I would think CETA is closer to WPA, because it had, besides just working on street projects and things like that, they had the arts. Ray Johnson had a WPA orchestra, right in Bloomsburg.

John: Did they do the county history through WPA?

Jim: I don’t think so.

John: Up in Massachusetts, the history of Worcester was done as a WPA Writers’ Project, and down in Georgia, they had a lot of ex-slaves recording their reminiscences of Africa, through the WPA. An oral history project, you know?

Jim: Well, that WPA had its good points. A lot of the streets and roads around here were built and improved by WPA. Take River Road in Bloomsburg – and the town park was really started by WPA. There wasn’t a lot of work done on it for a few years after, but the start of it was WPA.

John: A lot of it’s maintained by townspeople’s volunteer labor now, isn’t it?

Jim: That’s right. Yeah, they’ve got a beautiful park down there. I know they built River Road with WPA funds, and I think they cleared a couple of the original fields off for the park with WPA help. But the rest of it has been done by public donations and public volunteers. And they’ve got one of the nicest parks around, I think.

John: It seems there’s always been a pretty strong self-help tradition in this area. Do you think that’s changing?

Jim: No, not really. It’s pretty stable, I think.

John: So you’ve enjoyed living around here, then.

Jim: Oh yeah. I used to tell them, shortly after I came back from the War, through my Army duties and through the little other traveling I’ve done, I got into pretty nearly every state in the Union, and got halfway around the world. [Jim’s Army duty was spent primarily in the South Pacific, doing forward spotting for artillery] But I still don’t find any spot I liked better than this. There was some beautiful spots, I don’t mean that, there’s lovely spots all around the world. But for all-around living – even with the winters, which I don’t care too much for any more….

John: It’s been an interesting life, Jim. What we’re talking about here now spans from before the Interstates, before there was easy traveling from one part of the state to another.

Jim: Well, what I’m talking about now, when we left Jamison City, there was still only about four automobiles in town.

John: Of course, how many traffic lights are there in Sullivan County now…?

Jim: There’s only the one, up in Dushore – and it’s illegal, because it’s not grounded!

John: Quite a bit different from Philadelphia, right?

Jim: I guess it is.[I guess so. The Folk Life hopes to bring you more of the oral history and the family folklore from the Jamison City Oldtimers’ Reunion in the future. In the meantime, look around you. I’ll bet there’s a Jim Downs in your own family, full of stories like the ones he’s been sharing with us, if only you ask. Check it out – that’s the place where folklore all begins.]


Marian and Jim Downs at Jamison City Old Timers' Reunion
Around the Time of this interview.