Cowpaths Towards a More Perfect Union
Jan A. Wojcik
Cowpaths Towards a More Perfect Union
North Country Writers Contest 2019 Winner, Nonfiction
A literal cow path begins at point A, say a barn or a corral, goes mostly
straight, but sinuously, and then peters out, as the cows fan out to graze. They
do this out of habit, like we might step outs of a shower before toweling off. Each
cow falls into line to remind itself where it belongs in the hierarchy of cows. When
“cow path” is used as a metaphor for human behavior, it’s often used negatively—as
in “Don’t pave the cow path.” Don’t be prejudiced, dogmatic. Don’t get in a rut. Rigid,
repetitive habits are bad for business. There’s an urban legend that the narrow, crooked
streets of Boston were laid over colonial cow paths, and that’s why downtown traffic
is a tangle.
“Cow path” is also used as a metaphor for another kind of human behavior.
These are the foot paths people cut into a lawn, usually on campuses, sometimes cutting
across corner lots, usually as a diagonal across a paved rectangle laid down to direct
foot traffic from door to door. There is something rebellious about them—mischievous.
They’re not authoritative. The original pathfinders are usually anonymous. But used
doggedly enough these keep people in the groove—and at least thereby off the rest
of the lawn. Positive human behavior can begin and continue like the second kind of
cow path—as the following three stories show.
Cow Path One: The Careytown Reunion
My son Vlad, his wife Arianne, their six-year-old daughter Esther and
I, on a dark summer’s day, stand at the edge of a rough mown field in what’s locally
called “Careytown” in Gordonsville, near Charlottesville, Virginia (of recent racist
notoriety). After the Civil War a slave owner named Carey gave away land to his formerly
enslaved workers—who, perhaps in gratitude, kept the Carey name. It was now a plot
of perhaps thirty acres with a dozen well-kept modern houses, and many late model
cars and trucks parked in the open areas. The dirt road entrance road passes by the
family cemetery—the stones festooned with plastic flowers.
Every two years, my son told me, those remaining on site invite all the
dispersed Careys far and wide back to party under big rented tents. Vlad, Arianne,
Esther and I were the only whites among 400 blacks. Their apparent patriarch, Irving
Bruce (his wife was the Carey), the organizer and manager of the biennial Careytown
Reunion, is a very large man with a short afro of peppery white hair, well over six
feet tall. He said to us several times, “Y’all are very very welcome.” He kept holding
our two right hands with his left as he shook several times—to make that point to
someone he’d just met.
There was lots to eat. My son, who raises beef, cooked 50 pounds of hamburgers
on a grill fashioned from a large fuel tank; four large men deep fat fried fillets
of trout in a stainless-steel vat mounted on a heater for roofing tar. There was a
table of homemade casseroles of beans, chitlins, greens, cakes and pies.
Irving had to shout at us. A man sitting at a sound board, surrounded
by a circle of speakers over five feet tall, was broadcasting rap music and spirituals.
Vlad and his family maintain close day-to-day relations with Careytown, their home
probably at one time included within it, just the other side of a stand of cedar trees.
Esther adores Irving and walks over to his house sometimes to chat while he putters
in his large garage. On the wall is a sultry Jet magazine pinup, and a portrait photo
of Martin Luther King.
The party had begun with hallelujah prayer in a woman’s voice resonating
over the loudspeakers. Part of the prayer was the hope it would not rain, even though
the clouds overhead were dark gray, moving fast. Later, it did rain. The woman said
another prayer that it would stop, and of course it did. At one point I was walking
next to her. She introduced herself as Perphine—Irving’s sister in law who was at
the point in her program where a prize would go to the person who had come the farthest
distance to the party. She asked me how far I came, and I blurted “Canada.” “Canada!”
she broadcast. “That’s near the North Pole!” My son chided me later since I really
live in Potsdam, in northern New York 20 miles from the border with Canada. But it
seemed almost everyone got a prize for one thing or another. Mine was a cotton quilt
with the image of a small white church surrounded by pink flowers and blue birds,
with the opening lines of “Amazing Grace” in the blue sky overhead.
Arianne asked Perphine if she had seen Esther. She replied “She fine.
She just running around with the other kids.” There was also a large blow up bounce
house with kids screaming inside. At one point there were so many kinds inside the
structure fell over. Men came running and pushed it up right and tied down the guy
wires again without any noticeable break in the happy action in the bounce house.
As it grew dark, a boy threw a beach ball at me. I threw it back. We kept it up and
one by one other kids showed up wanting to catch and throw, some with fancy tricks
like throwing the ball up in the air and then batting it with a hand. A toddler handed
me a basketball a third her size. We spent several minutes passing it back and forth.
Maybe there were eight kids. Sometimes one would get the game wrong and run away with
the ball. Someone would run the kid down and get it back. It was the kind of game
you could drop out for a while without anyone seeming to notice. I asked a woman standing
by, laughing and calling the children by name if they were hers. “Grandkids,” she
said. “My daughters gave me 6 each.” She pointed to a table just as the ball dropped
onto the middle. One mother batted it back without even looking up. Perhaps because
I was wearing a red shirt, and had a white beard to go with my white face, a young
girl came up and asked if I was Santa Claus. I said yes. The kids crowded around shouting
what each wanted for Christmas. I said yes to everything. Later I told the laughing
grandmother to make sure everyone got what they wanted. “Otherwise,” I said, “my reputation
will be ruined.”
After I got back home to Potsdam, New York (20 miles from the Canada border—450
miles from Careytown—3662 miles from the North Pole) I called Vlad and told him how
amazing the party had been. People were so happy with each other—and warm to me a
total stranger and a white one to boot. He said “You make too much of it. This sort
of thing happens all the time down here. You’re too much a Yankee to think it remarkable
big African American families can have a good ole time in the South.” That was a part
of it. But it struck me that the Reunion took place on land where their ancestors
had been slaves: as if an Israeli tour group picnicked on the grounds of Hitler’s
house. Would not naturally a chill rise up from it? But as my son was suggesting—and
the people of the Careytown Reunion had shown—what better way to trample on the unholy
past of slavery than to play or dance or laugh on the ground it had once stained with
your ancestors’ sweat and blood? Yours was their Hallelujah cry of triumph.
Cow Path Two: The Making of Camp Union
In 1861, Charles Hubble and David Clarkson—owners of a 30-acre field in
Potsdam, New York—promised its use to Jonah Sanford who wanted to erect a Civil War
training camp on the site. A veteran of the War of 1812 and a resident of Potsdam,
Col. Jonah Sanford had already received permission from authorities in Albany to form
a regiment. But beyond that, they told him, he was on his own. Sanford rode from village
to village to give rousing calls to arms. He placed ads in the local newspapers—Enlist
to save the Union, free the slaves, and get paid 13 dollars a month! 864 men signed
up Everyone knew what he was getting into. The Battle of Manassas (First Bull Run)
several months earlier, had shown the war would be brutal and long.
While he recruited, villagers dug the wells, built a barracks, a mess
hall, an infirmary, a stable and the guard house, and leveled a parade ground. A local
businessman named George Swan—who at the time harbored a secret— (to be revealed in
the next story) supplied the lumber for the camp’s largest building the barracks that
would house 1000 men. Like Hubble and Clarkson, Swan was one of the leaders in the
village. He had moved to Potsdam in early 1852 from Massachusetts. He began to work
in a sawmill on the Raquette River which runs through the village. Within two years
he was a partner. Within six he was the sole proprietor. And by 1861, he owned several
businesses that sawed logs that floated down from the Adirondacks, planed the wood
into building lumber and manufactured doors—thousands of which he shipped to Boston.
He employed over 80 men. When the Camp closed in February 1862, Swan a generous but
shrewd businessman, gathered up and repurposed the lumber and nails to make sheds,
Contemporary newspapers, diaries, and letters tell us the enlistees would
drink and gamble. One letter said there was a mutiny in Company C—without giving the
reason or the outcome. They ate a lot. There were inventories of the prodigious amount
of food provided by local farmers, cooked by local women about a ton of meat, flour,
eggs—no vegetables on record—consumed by the enlistees every day. And at the end of
their training they asked for permission to burn the camp buildings down to vent their
high spirits. They were only allowed to burn the camp jail. But the boisterous boys
would become brave men. In February of 1862 they marched down Potsdam’s main street,
Market Street, led by a local band to take a train to Virginia for combat training
as the 92nd Regiment of the New York Volunteers. They would fight in 16 battles in Virginia—losing
heavily at Cold Harbor, and over the course of the war suffered casualties of almost
40%. Their sacrifice would become one small part of the price in blood to be paid
for the abolishment of slavery on the field where owner Carey had worked enslaved
Cow Path Three: The Camp Union Dig
Earlier in the same Summer as the Careytown Reunion a dozen college students
and I sat on overturned five-gallon plastic buckets under a pop-up shade shelter at
the edge of a rough-mown field. We sat near the original dirt access road to Potsdam’s
1861 30-acre Camp Union.
We munched cookies and apples, with cases of bottled water near at hand.
We listened to the professor as she began teaching the summer field course that would
excavate the site. She is Professor Hadley Kruczek-Aaron, Associate Professor and
Chair in the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology at the State University of
New York at Potsdam—to be referred to here as her students did “Dr. Kay-Ay.”
Dr. Kay-Ay was wearing a t-shirt and jeans, and a baseball cap with her
blond hair sticking out of the back strap. Speaking in an elegant alto pitched voice,
she gestured towards the building next to the field where Bryan Wolofsky, the current
owner of the land, had his office. After five years of lawyers wrangling over liability
issues, she told us Bryan had finally declared: “Insurance risks be damned! I really
wanted to do this. I love history. This is how we learn stuff. If you don’t know where
you’re coming from, you don’t really understand where you are.”
She briefly described the story of Camp Union (as told to you earlier)
from contemporaneous accounts. An 1865 map had the words “parade around” penciled
in where a car dealership was now. She had been attracted to the 5 acre still undeveloped
area of the site because of what she called “an anomaly” in a Google image of the
site. It showed a large rectangle of oddly colored grass that probably covered a building
She spoke of the humane spirit in which the best archaeology was performed.
“It’s as close as we can come to time travel. You get to hold in your hands objects
no other person has touched for more than a hundred years—You think about how that
person lived. You form a bond.” Swinging her arm towards the field she said with passion:
“This is sacred ground. Some men died here of disease; most left to fight for a cause
they believed in.” The students walked into the site with sober looks but with a swing
to their steps.
Over the next four weeks under as many as six pop up blue shade shelters,
they dug and sifted and sweated, and got their t-shirts and jeans dirty—all except
for Austin who always wore a pressed collared shirt and khaki slacks albeit with dirt
smudges at the knees. I spent an hour one day watching him silently polish smooth
the vertical walls of the trench he was working on. Finally he said: “It’s like sanding
wood: you see the growth rings—soil strata—come out, traces of what happened long
ago. Those vertical black lines, for example,” he said with a chuckle, “are old nightcrawler
worm tunnels—some maybe a hundred years old.” “Write that down,” said Dr. Kay Ay.
In the same trench Tara dropped trowels of dirt into a five-gallon bucket. “The day
before this started, I wasn’t sure I’d like it. I had declared an Archaeology major.
What if I didn’t like it? I asked my parents.” Now I know I love to dig dirt that
talks.” She handed a full bucket to Adam, a precocious high school student volunteer
to carry to shifting the frames. It was he who got the goods on George Swan. Swan
allowed himself to be declared W in the 1860 Census. He left the race box blank—an
assumption it was W. In 1870 he marked the box with M for Mulatto, acknowledging his
father back in Massachusetts was African American. Against racial prejudice and slavery
he had taken up the cudgel of building supplies.
Dr. Kay-Ay kept moving from tent to tent, checking on progress, correcting
errors, praising the diggers and sifters, explaining things again and again, taking
measurements, and on one day: “Eureka! Archaeology Gold! A piece of pottery with a
marker’s mark which when she checked it against a catalogue, proved to be from company
making pottery at the same time Camp Union was in use. Everyone got to stop that afternoon,
and then walk across to a supermarket where she treated all of us to celebratory ice
The Camp Union Dig had its ceremonial conclusion on the evening of the
final day in the field, under the pagoda roof of a large local Chinese buffet restaurant.
It turned out to be the day before my trip to the Careytown Reunion. The meal began
with plates piled high with deep-fat-fried faux Chinese food, and ended with people
reading fortune cookie messages to each other. (“You must dig deep for wisdom.”) Emily—a
graduate student TA in the course—stood up to serve as MC. She began thanking the
students for their kindness and openness to her, and said with emotion: “In coming
here, a total stranger, I’d never heard of Potsdam before. It’s made it a much more
magical place for me.” She ceremonially presented everyone who worked on the dig with
a large plastic silver spoon and a certificate. Mine read “Award. Camp Union Pep Squad.”
In her remarks, Dr. Kay-Ay told the students that in her professional
career she was drawn to projects like this one, where local people dug into the land
where they live to uncover something of the lives of their forebears. She expressed
gratitude for their working hard and cheerfully throughout the heat and rain of the
summer. Their good spirits were especially remarkable on a dig that that was “clean”—it
unearthed few significant artifacts beyond nails, glass, charcoal, and of course the
treasured maker’s mark. Usually an archaeological dig rides on the small thrills of
continuously finding artifacts to admire and conjure with—providing opportunities
for the “time travel” back to the person who was the last to touch it before you.
They had, however, uncovered a pole-in-ground, earth berm foundation of a hastily
dismantled building. That fit the story. The community quickly erected, maintained,
and then dismantled the camp hauling off everything they could get their hands on.
These were generous, practical people—of no nonsense. “Like you” she said to us.
Stories are like cow paths too. Point A for these three is slavery. Path
finders striding forth are white and black, men and women, young and old, here and
there, then and now. Some with names—Carey, Jonah, Charles, David, George, Irving,
Bryan, Vlad, Arianne, Esther, Hadley, Pershine, Adam, Austin, Tara, Emily. We each
can add our own. And through Dr. Kay-Ay’s time travel we can string the stories together
to make them one: the dogged determination to reach what Lincoln foresaw as “a new
birth of freedom.” Hallelujah.