Public Avenue, Finally Released

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of activity, so much so, that I haven’t had time to really write proper posts for my blog, although I have been doing plenty of writing. Last weekend our local art gallery, The Butternut, opened the doors on its latest exhibit, The Making of Books: Illustrations, Installations, and Words, and after many years, my collection of poems about Montrose, Public Avenue, made its debut. I had about 25 copies on-hand for opening day, and I was happy to see people purchasing my self-published, hand-made books. Then, this past Saturday I gave a reading at the gallery to many friends, family, and supporters of my writing as I formally launched the book.

Cover of Public Avenue, Poems about Montrose, Pa

Having now made it through the past month of editing and assembling the book, I’d like to share some of my thoughts from the reading as well as a little background on this project. It’s amazing to me that the book is finally complete, and I’m especially grateful to everyone who helped along the way.

At the outset, I’d like to say that I’m indebted to Michael Czarnecki, a poet from upstate New York, for the design of my book. While still in college, I met Czarnecki at a little coffee shop where he read poems from a slim collection entitled Drinking Wine, Chanting Poems. That collection of poems has been treasured by me for many, many years, and ever since purchasing that book, I’ve wanted to create something similar. While in college, other small books of poetry also fascinated me, and I loved flipping through Allen Ginsberg’s Reality Sandwiches as well as Howl and Other Poems. Something about these books that were physically smaller just pleased me, so when I came across Czarnecki’s undersized, self-published book of original poems, I felt encouraged that some day I might produce my own book. And although Czarnecki and I have been Facebook friends for several years now, he probably has no idea how much that collection of poems has meant to me.

I needed the right subject matter, too. And as I summarized at the reading on Saturday, the sense of place has always intrigued me as a writer. I remember reading Annie Proulx’s Heart Songs and The Shipping News for the first time and quickly becoming a fan. Her stories seemed saturated in the details of a particular place. Later, when she began writing books about the Western United States such as Close Range and Bad Dirt, my fascination with the sense of place only increased. Barbara Kingsolver is another writer who also comes to mind. Her book, The Bean Trees, was the first title I added to my curriculum when I began teaching high school. Some of her other books such as The Poisonwood Bible, and especially, Prodigal Summer, have also stayed with me over the years. And certainly, Tim O’Brien’s novels about Vietnam such as The Things They Carried, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato continued my fascination with place as a central idea in my reading interests.

My non-fiction reading, too, often centers around place. This past summer I read Vermont River by W.D. Wetherell, which chronicles a year of fly-fishing in the author’s life. Now, I’m halfway through a book about fishing around Martha’s Vineyard called Blues by John Hersey. And of course, I’m reminded of some of my favorite books such as Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. A more recent title on my reading list, however, has been Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which focuses on criminal relief in Alabama and a terrible miscarriage of justice in Harper Lee’s hometown, Monroeville, where the setting only serves to underscore the irony surrounding the wrongful conviction of a black man.

When I began to write short stories in earnest, hoping to send them off to literary magazines for publication, I wanted place to take a front seat in my writing. As I was living in the northern tier of Pennsylvania, I drew inspiration from my surroundings, including the people and places and traditions that made this region unique. For instance, one of my earliest stories dealt with an illiterate landlord renting to students in a small college town similar to Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Later, when I moved away to Columbus, Ohio, to attend graduate school, I continued to write stories focused on rural Pennsylvania with topics about hunting and fishing, the land often serving as an impetus to the conflicts of my characters.

When my wife and I moved back to Pennsylvania, finding jobs in the same county where my wife grew up, we purchased a house in her hometown, Montrose. I was still writing stories about this area, so I was thrilled to be in the thick of my subject matter. I wrote several short stories and flash fiction pieces, had a few published, but eventually found myself writing poetry, where I could more directly address the details of living in Montrose and Susquehanna County. Over time, I wrote a piece here or there, when inspiration struck me, until after a while I realized I had a collection of poems that might be brought together and published.

To discuss the specific poems briefly, I’ll just say that I wanted the collection to bridge the past and present, hoping to pay respect to our history but also include the right amount of details to locate our town in the present. I wrote several poems that address places such as the county courthouse and other notable landmarks, the places that people know with long memories, even if some of the features have continued to evolve. Likewise, I wanted to include people, some whose names are remembered in books about Montrose, like Isaac Post, who is considered a Founding Father of Montrose, as well as others, who remain alive in our more recent memories for what they have brought to our community such as Joe Welden. It’s been my hope, too, that these poems come together in a way that feels a little bit larger than the fourteen poems that comprise the book, and that taken as a whole, the poems communicate more than each poem by itself.

To that end, I fell upon Public Avenue as the title for the collection. I wanted something that could encompass both the theme and setting of the poems, and that title has been significant to me as I imagined these pieces. Indeed, I wanted the poetry I’ve collected in this book to reflect the public face of our town. The title, too, has helped me narrow the poems to include in the collection, for I’ve culled many of the poems from those I’ve written over the past years to make sure that these best embody the title of the book. Since several poems also reference street names, including Public Avenue, that also became just another piece in the puzzle.

It’s been difficult to put into words the excitement I’ve felt as this project has culminated in the past few weeks. The road has been long traveled to reach this point, but as everything came together, I’ve felt such gratitude. So many people—my wife, family, and friends—have supported me along the way. Being able to finally share these poems this past weekend with an audience, some people whom I’ve known for a long time and others that I’ve only met for the first time, has been such a gift.

The First Fourth of July in Montrose, Pennsylvania

Over the past few months, I’ve delved deeper into the history of Montrose, Pennsylvania, than ever before. I’ve always been interested in writing about places, and for a long time, this small town where I live has provided plenty of inspiration. One of my writing projects has been a collection of poems about Montrose that I’ve finally decided to publish, and of course, that’s when doubt really starts to creep into my thoughts. Here I am, writing about my adopted hometown, but what did I really know? I had the overwhelming feeling that I was only skimming along the surface. I’d written about a few notable people and specific places, even a poem about our Fourth of July celebration, but I needed more details, more history. So now, several months later, having scrutinized old maps, read old newspapers, and seen hundreds of old photographs, I’m rediscovering the place I’ve called home for the past fifteen years.

Published in 1873, Emily Blackman’s History of Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania contains a wealth of information, including much about the founding of Montrose. She’s considered to be the area’s first historian, so naturally, I’ve been reading her book, scanning the index and picking relevant topics. One story that stands out, especially at the beginning of this month, recalls the first Fourth of July celebration, only a short year after Captain Bartlet Hinds built a small log cabin that became the town’s first settlement in 1800.

Just like our modern fireworks, these early settlers wanted something grandiose, something with a great boom. If we take Blackman at her words, Captain Hinds must have been a clever woodsman, besides a soldier. Hoping to recreate the fusillade of cannon fire, Hinds felled thirteen trees in quick succession, choosing trees and notching them in such a way to fall like dominoes. Has anyone ever heard of such a feat? The noise must have been marvelous, as each tree crashed into the next and into the next on down the line. As the boom resounded in the woods, and the last tree fell to the ground, I can only imagine the few settlers gathered about clapping and cheering such a spectacular show.

Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson
Felling of the Trees by Colleen Caterson (from Montrose Through the Years, 1976)

Somewhere off in the woods nearby at least one other person heard the flurry of the captain’s wooden cannons. Reportedly, Jason Torrey, while out surveying land, followed the great boom to its source and soon discovered the little party in the midst of their merry making. They gave him food and drink, and according to Blackman, Captain Hinds offered up a toast on the nation’s birthday, saying, “The United States! May their fertile soil yield olive for peace, laurel for victory, and hemp for treason!”

Although we can’t give credit to Hinds for composing these words, as this was a familiar toast at the time, his fighting spirit is certainly embodied in them. Hinds was a soldier, after all, having fought for liberty or death against the British. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote The Declaration of Independence, was the newly inaugurated President of the United States in 1801, and George Washington had only died a couple years earlier.

So goes the first of many celebrations in The Hinds Settlement, later renamed Montrose, Pennsylvania. While researching the details of this event, I did come across at least one person who asked, Why thirteen trees? Indeed, I don’t want to take anything for granted, so let us remember the thirteen stripes on our flag represent the original thirteen colonies who banded together to fight for independence. By the day Hinds brought thirteen trees crashing to the ground, the number of states in the union had grown to sixteen, but thirteen had already become sacred. So strange, that today, we associate the number with bad luck and trouble. It seems to me, however, that Captain Hinds most certainly had those original colonies in mind when planning his “fireworks” for the Fourth of July.

It’s interesting to note, too, that one of the mottos of our new nation, e pluribus unum—a Latin phrase meaning “out of many, one”—was even comprised of thirteen letters. As an English teacher and student of language, I’ve always found this detail about the motto fascinating, but the phrase becomes even more poignant as I think about the beginnings of Montrose taking shape. When the Hinds family and Jason Torrey came together, they were parts that joined as one to create something greater, much like our country, much like our small town, much like our annual celebration, and much like those thirteen trees, so many years ago, crashing together into one great echoing sound heard deep in the woods.

All of this makes me reflect on things that bring us closer, that pull us together rather than apart. The Fourth of July in our town, unlike many of our other holidays, is unique in that respect. Whether we gather along the parade route, visit the vendors on The Green, or sit together to watch the fireworks at the end of the day, we celebrate together. My parents, for instance, will travel two hours to be here. Many others are coming from much farther to visit close friends and family, often using this event to return to their roots. It’s estimated that our town swells to nearly 20,000 people on this one day of the year. Although they will not hear the thunderous roar of those thirteen trees described by Emily Blackman in her book, it’s clear that our tradition of bringing people together, especially in Montrose, is still strong.

From Mordor to Montrose and Back Again

Maps have always fascinated me. As a kid, I remember scrutinizing Tolkien’s maps of Middle Earth for what seemed like hours, tracing the path to the Lonely Mountain and Mordor. When I made a recent trip to Walden Pond with my creative writing class in April, the only thing I was adamant about purchasing was a copy of Thoreau’s survey of the pond from 1846. I guess it doesn’t matter if they’re fictional or real, but there’s something about maps that I appreciate as a writer. Maybe it’s because maps communicate something that’s so hard to put into words. That sense of direction, distance, depth—those relationships that maps allow us to glean more readily than words.

In the past few months, I’ve been researching Susquehanna County and Montrose, Pennsylvania, where I currently reside. Besides documents and pictures, the old maps tell a story all their own. For example, the Map of Susquehanna Co. from the Actual Survey by G. M. Hopkins, 1858, is a large color map of the county including street layouts of the major towns. The framed copy in the Susquehanna County Historical Society in Montrose is especially ragged, the wear emphasizing its age at over 150 years. Like Tolkien’s maps included with his stories, the hand drawn nature of this map captures my attention, but there’s another thing that’s taken some time to really grasp.

Detail from the Map of Susquehanna County by G. M. Hopkins, 1858

The artist for the Hopkins map rendered the buildings along the streets as tiny dark squares of varying size and shape, labeling many of them with their owners and even plot boundaries. Why does this make any difference? For me, it’s because there’s just enough room in the details for the imagination to do its work. Unlike Google Maps, where the fascination lies in seeing an actual image of your house on the screen, and how many of us haven’t done that, this map leads me to wonder about all those dark boxes, lines, and labels. In the end, the map requires a certain amount of mental work to read the story with the limited details.

That said, this map is even more special because of the vignettes along the margins that provide a glimpse of life back then. For instance, there are four drawings of Montrose, including the newly built Court House, only three years old at the time. There’s also a drawing of a snowstorm on April 21, 1857, that dumped over three feet of snow in Montrose, which must have been quite remarkable to have been commemorated on this map. It’s the only event on the map, as the other vignettes are buildings or landmarks such as the Starrucca Viaduct.

Another large map hanging in the Historical Society is titled Map of the Borough of Montrose, Susquehanna Co. Pennsylvania, Surveyed and Drawn by Philip Nunan. Published in 1853, this map also has vignettes, mostly of residences around town. The streets seem to be the real focus of the map, however, and a careful study reveals some significant changes over time. The original scheme was a grid, which the map readily communicates. But some streets, compared to the present, are almost completely gone. Take Pine Street, for instance, near the county courthouse. Only three houses still remain on this short street that I always thought so awkwardly placed, but the Nunan map shows this street used to run all the way down to Church Street and beyond, and parallel to Spruce, which makes much more sense to me now. Not to mention that two evergreen names were placed side by side, something that never occurred to me until studying the map.

Like Pine, Beech Street also had some major changes, because the Nunan map marks it as a long straight street whereas the street now takes a meandering route through the area just south of Church Street and Tannery Place. In some cases, the streets have even flip-flopped names, as appears to be the case with Chestnut and Cherry. And this is where the maps fall a little short, because they don’t reveal the reason for the changes, but simply record them over the years. I know, for instance, that Montrose suffered some devastating fires, and I’m wondering if some of these changes weren’t made on the heels of these major fires. It’s something to consider when studying the history of the town.

Many people are familiar with the panoramic maps of Thaddeus Mortimer Fowler, who signed them simply T. M. Fowler. These birds-eye maps may be the ultimate treasure in capturing the history of many towns in Pennsylvania at the turn of the century. Each one is a meticulous study of a town, drawn with three dimensional buildings that are remarkable in detail and accuracy. When thinking about the Hopkins map I described earlier, these maps are the antithesis, recording the town with such facsimile that someone can’t be but overcome with awe, and I know that several of my local friends have the map of Montrose from 1890 hanging in their houses. Fowler drew 426 of these, and of those, 248 were towns in Pennsylvania. Until recently, however, I didn’t know that the Library of Congress has these maps available online, and the tools provided at the website allow you to zoom in very close and see the drawings in greater detail than ever before.

Some may also be familiar with the Susquehanna County Atlas of 1872 published by Frederick W. Beers. Unfortunately, the Library of Congress doesn’t have that map available yet, but there are other places online where it can be viewed such as the website Historic Map Works, which provides tools very similar to the Library of Congress. The atlas is beautiful, too, but not nearly as fascinating as the Fowler maps, and of course, it doesn’t have any of the vignettes included with the other maps mentioned. Each of these maps probably served their purpose, and like I said earlier, maps get at something beyond words, allowing us to grasp a larger, fuller picture than words can provide, but they also serve, at least as I’ve found, to stir the imagination, to make me wonder and seek answers. Taken together, the maps create an intriguing picture of my hometown through the decades, a map of its journey so to speak, that certainly rivals the maps of Middle Earth that I stared at again and again so long ago while reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.