Skin and bones: How Mad Anthony was twice buried

ERIE, Pa.
Pennsylvania loves its war heroes. Oliver Hazard Perry, Alexander Kelly, Nicolas Biddle, dozens of others.

But only one of them had his bones boiled for transport: Mad Anthony Wayne.

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He wasn’t mad, though, at least not in the Ophelia sense of the word. He just liked things a certain way and had fits of temper when he was defied.

Mad Anthony, who started out as a tanner and land surveyor, was only moderately successful as a commander during the American Revolution. He even called for his own court martial, to clear his name after an especially poor showing at the battle of Brandywine in 1777. Once the war was over, he was set to killing Indians and then signing peace treaties with them. He excelled at this, proving that the word “hero” can be gravely misused. Yet he’ll be remembered for his nickname and for his death more than for his exploits in the theatre of war.

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Gout killed him, eventually and painfully, and he was interred in a brass-tacked box in the shadow of the blockhouse at Fort Presque Isle, near what is now Erie.

His family plot was 650 kilometres away in Radnor, Pa. The family wanted him home, but not, you know, right away. It took them 12 years to come get him.

When the box was opened, much to everyone’s surprise it was discovered Mad Anthony hadn’t had the good sense to decompose, and his son couldn’t fit a whole body and coffin on his little sulkie. So they cut Mad Anthony up and put the pieces in a big old kettle to boil his flesh off. The bones were packed for transport. The flesh was put back in the box in the ground.

It is said that the son dropped bones (accidentally, one assumes) along the route and that Mad Anthony haunts the road to Radnor, looking for the lost parts of himself.

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As though the story weren’t creepy enough, the good folks of Erie have rebuilt the blockhouse (it burned to the ground several years after Mad Anthony’s death) and, as part of their educational display, have posed at the top of the winding, narrow staircase a sickly looking mannequin in a white wig with a jaunty hat nearly falling off the narrow cot. Visitors are welcome to read several informative posters if they can take their eyes off the mannequin.

Although our preschooler was comfortable enough to dance at his bedside, our 20-year-old opted to take the stairs back down and wait for us on the ground floor.

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For one day, Knoebels was the happiest place on earth

ELYSBURG, Pa. — Here is a park that has survived a Great Depression, a World War and a half-dozen floods. And rather than looking old and tired, Knoebels—85 and counting—is as spry as amusement parks half her age, but with ten times the class.

I decided years ago that I’d had my fill of amusement parks. I’ve done La Ronde to death, and I’ve spent countless hours of my life standing in lines at other Six Flags, the CNE, and county fairs all over North America. I get plenty of thrills driving back country roads and the freeways around New York City, so I don’t need to pay for the feeling of my stomach falling out every time I turn a corner.

But our friend Ginger suggested we go to Knoebels, and Ginger understands the kind of travellers we are.

This gorgeous chunk of Pennsylvania mountain was purchased by the Knoebel family for $931 back in 1828 and while the third generation to live here did farm it, Henry “Old Hen” Knoebel was forward-thinking enough to see the property’s recreational potential. More importantly, the Knoebels built their park while respecting the land. There are trees everywhere here, spaced just far enough apart to safely plant rides that are shaded and cool. The terrible brightness of the July sun is filtered through lush leaves and chill breezes come off the creek each time one strolls over a pedestrian bridge.

The Grand Carousel is one of the world’s largest, but what makes this 1913 merry-go-round fun and unique is that it has a working brass-ring dispenser. Riders on the outer ring stretch with their arms out, collecting metal rings with each pass—the rider who’s lucky enough to catch the brass ring gets bragging rights and the cost of the ride back.

Oh, and the prices! Admission is free, so people like me who are long finished with roller coasters and bumper cars don’t feel like we’re wasting our money, yet tickets are inexpensive enough that it doesn’t take long to get your money’s worth if rides are your thing, or if you’re escorting a child or two to the many, many activities for them. The food stands are plentiful, the food delicious and remarkably well-priced.

I am finished with amusement parks with the exception of Knoebels. I wouldn’t hesitate to go back again and again to this magical little place.

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We visited two other amusement parks during the week we went to Knoebels.

Waldameer Water World is more than a hundred years old, a beloved picnic-spot-turned-tourist-attraction beside Lake Erie. I loved its 1960s feel and Jilly loved its lax height limits—she enjoyed her first roller coaster ride and spent far too much time (if you ask me, which I guess you didn’t) on grownup rides. The water park seemed lovely, but the water was frigid, making even the lazy river uncomfortable. We were visiting Erie during a cool week, though, so it’s not like it’s their fault.

 

Adventureland in Long Island was twelve kinds of terrible. We were there for a birthday party that was so disorganized the host took things into her own hands and fired our animator. I suspect the poor girl was suffering from a serious lack of training, and the faces of nearly all staff we encountered suggest the park isn’t the happiest place to work. Communication with ride operators was next to nil, and it was hot and expensive. I tweeted a complaint, which the company favourited, so I guess making children miserable is just a job well done.

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Ghost town: Return to Centralia

CENTRALIA, Pa. — On a tour at Pioneer Tunnel in Ashland, our guide retold the story of Centralia, a ghost town done in by a mine fire that started in the 1960s.

After our tour, we took another shot at finding the town itself (we had tried in March, and found the Grafitti Highway). For an hour or so, we walked its abandoned streets, overgrown lots and broken sidewalks.

A walk in the park: Asbury Woods Nature Center

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

This is our first stop on Road Trip 2015: Destination Tennessee.

asbury woods pa (14)ERIE, Pa. — Our little girl said she wanted to go to the spooky woods.

She’d been watching Into the Woods during the drive, so the request wasn’t completely out of the blue. I mean, I did expect her to be creeped out at first. But I guess I should know her better.

It was hot and the air was thick with storms circling Erie, so we left the choice to the 3-year-old: the children’s museum or the spooky woods. We’ll go to the museum next time.

It was midafternoon when we arrived and the sun was attempting to shine on the little 1980s-style playground. But a couple hundred feet away, the mouth of the trail was dark and gloomy, shades of deep green barely discernible in the dark shadows. Our little girl ran into those woods like she was going home.

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To my delight, there were other shadows: those of a paper dynasty among the trees, there on the land donated by the Behrend family.

“In an early issue, Mr. (Ernst) Behrend wrote a letter to his employees, and they published it in Polish, Russian, German, English, and other languages just to make sure that he accounted for the different nationalities of his workers,” Penn State reference librarian Jane Ingold is quoted on the Behrend College blog.

Immigrant brothers Ernst, Otto and Bernard were engineers, as were their four sisters. They settled in Erie and promptly opened a paper mill named after their father’s back in Germany: Hammermill.

The Behrends transformed the industry in the early 1900s, becoming the first mill to make writing paper from wood pulp rather than cotton.

Even more revolutionary was the way in which they treated their workers, awarding bonuses and ensuring those who had to leave for health or family reasons would not end up on the street.

Ernst Behrend’s philosophy was “Teach. Don’t boss,” and indeed the entire family was preoccupied with education — their name is associated with many Erie-area learning institutions.

Asbury Farm was Otto’s retreat, a former bog iron mine that he reforested in the 1930s. He bequeathed 100 acres to the school district for educational purposes and his memory was honoured, as the district spent the next 80 years developing learning programs, building a nature centre and expanding into the adjacent Bridge Farm.

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three wheels

Asbury Woods gets three stroller wheels from us (out a completely arbitrary five).

Despite the thunder and rain we walked all 4.5 miles of trails. Though parts of the trail are accessible, there were plenty of bits that required picking our way over roots and fallen trees and skirting around giant puddles.

We saw dozens of snails, a beautiful translucent salamander and various birds on our two-hour walk. The best part was Walnut Creek and the wide pedestrian bridge that spans it. While the water rushes far too fast for swimming, we found a good place for wading and cleaning off our clay-packed feet.

Tagging Centralia’s boulevard of broken dreams

CENTRALIA, Pa. — The first thing friend Ginger and I did when we finally arrived was turn our noses up at half the graffiti.

“If people are going to go to all the trouble of getting here,” I said with my nostrils pointed skyward, “they could at least entertain us with a something more creative than their tag.”

“Or at the very least learn to spell,” she agreed.

It had taken us several tries to locate the graffiti highway in the first place, so our expectations were high. A white plastic bag knocked against Ginger’s knee, making a musical, metallic knocking. Inside it were three cans of spray paint hastily purchased at a local dollar store.

We were at the head of Route 61, here in the tall hills of mining country where a coal vein beneath the nearly-ghost town of Centralia has been burning for more than 50 years. The fire keeps the land hot and burps up noxious gases and cannot be put out. Most residents were forced from their homes decades ago, and this small stretch of road, on which trespassers can sometimes see trails of steam from the fire below, was barricaded and abandoned. In theory, it’s not safe here. In practice, it’s canvas for taggers and spray-paint philosophers.

All forms of graffiti were represented, from the tags we scoffed at to juvenile obscenities to pieces of art upon which nature was encroaching.

Nature is the forgotten partner along this stretch of blacktop. The road is lined with scrub and mature trees and even in the brutal early spring some hardy weeds pushed through the rocks in the asphalt. And always the fire—one of 38 active mine fires in Pennsylvania—burns under this land. Some say it is heading like a night stalker toward the town of Ashland, though perhaps it will change course and threaten a town with a more fetching name, like nearby Locust Gap, Shenandoah or Laurel Run.

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The heat has buckled and broken one entire section of road, exposing layers of asphalt like a blackened croissant. We walked past that deepest wound to a bend from which we could almost see the end of the road.

Nineteen-year-old Trevor took a can of red spray paint and shook it uncertainly.

“Have you ever used one of these?” I asked incredulously. He had not, which I’ll take as a parental badge of honour.

After a few false starts, he got in touch with his inner graffiti sage: “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore” and “Fear is the mind killer.”

The rest of us, including 3-year-old Jilly and Aaron? We tagged the ground with our names and called it a day.

As we wandered back to the van, Ginger shook the empty red paint can and said regretfully, “Ah, man. We could have used this to correct everyone else’s grammar.”

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The ghost of the Plaza Theater

ERIE, Pa. — “He’s going in!” I said, scrambling down the snowbank. It was filthy, nearly one storey high, and I’d been up there taking pictures of the old Plaza Theatre. I jumped back into the car and said to Zon in a loud whisper, “I want to go in, too.”

I probably wouldn’t have had the balls if she hadn’t been with me, but I’m very courageous when a friend is leading the way.

Two summers ago I’d stopped in this same place to photograph the Plaza Theatre. This time, I stopped to photograph its ghost. The signage had been stripped, the box office boarded up, the poster board disappeared.

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It was dim inside the 1950s cinema and smelled musty. The contractor I’d watched go inside was leaning against the concession stand, looking perplexed. He didn’t exactly give us the okay to take pictures, but he didn’t run us off. We must have looked a heckuva lot like a lawsuit about to happen, so we didn’t go farther than the front door.

So you’re rebuilding?” Zon asked him.

Oh, no. It’s all coming down.”

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A mirrored wall made the lobby seem larger. A Dolby sign on the back wall looked new, though this place shut down just after Christmas in 2008. Big round lights gave it a disco flair.

One of the last movies shown here was Twilight, the contractor told us. Maybe that’s what did it in.

We slipped out as smoothly as we’d slipped in and the door clanged closed behind us. Next time we’re in Erie, even its ghost will have been exorcised.

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