Flatlanders and Ridgerunners: Oral Folklore in North Central Pennsylvania

Oral History Feature is a series of articles drawn extensively from interviews with individuals who participated in or have personal knowledge about historic Pennsylvania events.

North Central Pennsyl­vania is a land of big forests, small towns and struggling dairy farms. Tioga, Bradford and Potter counties are well known for their abundant fish and game, their long winters and their colorful local people. Outsiders, often called “Flatlanders” by the natives, marvel at the wild and beautiful countryside and the quaint villages. But the visiting city or subur­ban dweller often sees the local people of this region as rustic and even back­ward – people from an America long forgotten.

The outsider is seeing a different culture, a culture still dominated by seasonal, agricultural and geographic constraints. The natives of north central Pennsylvania, who sometimes call themselves “Ridgerunners,” are isolated geographically from large urban centers by mountains, north­-south flowing rivers, severe winters and sheer distance. These factors have helped to forge a culture somewhat distinct from the rest of Pennsylvania, and the local people have a sharp sense of their identity, although they are unable to articulate what it is that makes their culture different.

To them, the closing of schools for the first two days of deer season is normal, as are work bees, ice cream socials, old home days, and bear and rattlesnake hunts. Driving in heavy traffic, anonymity, aggressive competi­tion and waiting in long lines are, to them, unpleasant and utterly bizarre. Where and how they live seem just right to them, and they have a vigor­ous oral folklore which defends and preserves their life style. In fact, the single most striking trait of north central Pennsylvania culture is the people’s willingness to initiate yam swapping, tale telling and just good talk no matter where they are or what they are doing. The people belong to what may be termed an “oral society.” Oral folklore is the glue that binds the culture together and its study can reveal something of that culture’s inner personality.

An oral culture receives, processes and passes on most of its important information by word of mouth. While the people of this region are literate and exposed to electronic communica­tions, they continue to pass on impor­tant cultural information verbally. The jokes, tales and anecdotes which rapidly pass from person to person are not the grist of newspapers and radio stations, but they are deeply embed­ded with cultural values.

An example of how a deep rooted cultural value might be carried and even defended through oral folklore may be found in the cycle of “Flat­lander Tales” told by the people of this region. The Flatlander tales are numbskull stories told about arrogant outsiders who meet their “come­uppance” at the hands of canny Ridge­runners. Flatlander tales are told among. Ridgerunners because local people feel threatened and anxious when confronted with urban people and their values. Ridgerunners know their world is outdated, powerless and even laughable when placed beside the power and wealth of modern urban society. They tell Flatlander stories because they are good defense mechanisms, anxiety relievers and psychological equalizers.

Flatlander tales developed within the last thirty or forty years as a re­sponse to pressure on the region from outsiders. Good hunting and fishing, abundant and inexpensive land, and Americans’ increased mobility brought many thousands of outsiders into the region after World War II. Competition between Flatlanders and Ridgerunners for land deals, prime hunting and fish­ing spots, and even marriage partners took on a sharp edge. When power companies began talking of nuclear energy plants in the region, the locals threatened to get nasty. When the Army Corps of Engineers expropriated prime farm land for federal dam proj­ects, the already frustrated natives be­came enraged at the entire project. Flatlander tales were a way of getting even for this kind of treatment. Their birth was spontaneous, anonymous and ubiquitous.

Local wits began spinning yams about Flatlanders in bars, barbershops and sporting goods stores. A caricature of the Flatlander began to take shape: he was rich, aggressive, inconsiderate and “uppity.” He was a know-it-all, but a Ridgerunner would out-fox him every time because the Flatlander was out of his element in the country. He was not familiar with the woods and was ignorant of country ways. In this folkloric realm the Ridgerunner is depicted as canny, reserved, honest, humorous and humble. The Ridge. runner likes nothing better than taking the Flatlander down a few notches.

Here is a Flatlander tale told by Chester Goodwin of Holiday:

My grandfather used to take dyna­mite and get trow for some of the restaurants. As this was illegal, they tried to catch him a lot. They never succeeded because Cramps knew all the game wardens and their friends. Well. they brought up this Flatlander game warden and he approached Cramps as though he was a restaurant owner. Well, Cramps told him sure he’d help him out. They thought they had him chis time for sure. Well, as they went to the stream, Cramps pulled a quarter stick of dynamite from his pocket, rigged it up, and then asked this warden to hold it while he lit it. The warden held it, Cramps lit it, and then he just walked away with the warden hanging on to that lit dynamite. Well, the only place he could throw it was into the stream right there. It went off and Cramps walked back. There was probably a hundred trout came floatin’ up and CGramps says, ‘There’s your fish; you kilt them and you might as well net ’em out, Mr. Smarty-pants Warden.”

I never did find out how Cramps knew he was a game warden.

Thus, the hot-shot Flatlander is foiled by the cunning, witty Ridgerunner.

Sometimes the Flatlander is so dumb that the Ridgerunner just helps his stupidity along. This one was told by Seymour Kenny of Crooked Creek:

One of the first Flatlanders brought his wife with him. Since then they have stopped this practice as they have learned the area is abundant with women who are available and enjoy having a good time. At the time of his arrival, there was an old mink farm around Tioga. His wife wanted to go see the farm so her husband talked to the owner and he agreed to show them how they raise mink.

As they were walking through the farm, Mrs. Flatlander interrupted the proprietor with a question: “How many times a year do you skin the mink?”

The proprietor looked rather as­tounded and then calmly replied, “Just once, ma’am, anymore than that and they get meaner than hell.”

Flatlander-Ridgerunner tensions peak during deer hunting season. Local hunters feel they have more right to the deer on their land than the orange army of Flatlanders whom they see as invaders. The thought of having his buck taken by a Flatlander is more than the Ridgerunner can bear. Sey­mour Kenny tells this one about getting even:

Then there was the day I was hun­tin’ up back. It was in doe season so I just went behind the barn. A big doe came out of the woods on a run and I dropped her just as she was crossin’ the fence. She fell with her front legs on one side and her back legs on the other. Well, as I started up, this Flat­lander came running out of the woods, looked around, and not seeing me by the barn, hauled the deer off the fence and started dressing her. Well, I just set down and lit my pipe and watched. When I saw he was about done, I just walked up, put my rope around her neck, said “thank ye,” and pulled her down to the barn. Never did find out if the Flatlander ever did get his doe.

Sometimes a real hunting accident will be turned into a Flatlander tale. Several years ago a man actually was shot from his tree stand during bear hunting season, but here is how the story is now told by Chester Goodwin:

Then there was the Flatlander who came up bear huntin’. Crawled up in a tree and put a bear skin rug over him so the bears wouldn’t recognize him. Well, he got shot right out of that tree by another Flatlander.

This story is now a current Flat­lander tale that always gets a laugh from the boys at the local bars:

Two Flatlanders went huntin’. They were definitely not woodsmen. They went out a few miles and started hun­tin’. Pretty soon one shot the other one. He got all panicked and dragged his wounded buddy out to the road and waved down a car. Pretty soon the ambulance and the troopers got there. “Is he goin’ to live?” the Flat­lander asked.

The trooper said, “He might have if you hadn’t of dressed him out!”

Flatlander tales usually involve hunting incidents. This is because the Ridgerunner feels confident in his native hills and because he knows the Flatlander is out of his element there. The following tale has been told as a true story by many people. Kevin Hanley, a young man from Potter County, says it happened like this:

A Flatlander came into Galeton. He had lots of money to spend and he was goin’ huntin’. But he didn’t know what he was doin’. So he goes into the sporting goods store and buys a 306 for about $500. Then he asks the salesman to load the gun for him ’cause he doesn’t even know how. So the salesman loads it and the Flat­lander goes out huntin’. A few hours later a big crowd gathers on Main Street. The Flatlander’s back with a big brown animal with horns tied to his car and he’s all smilin’ and wavin’. The people are just laughin’ and ho/din’ their sides. The salesman comes out and looks at the animal and then at the Flatlander.

“That ain’t no deer you shot. That there is a goat,” the salesman says.

“Oh, really?” says the Flatlander, “What the hell – it’s got a good rack. I think I’ll have it mounted.”

Flatlander tales make up only a small portion of the rich oral folklore of north central Pennsylvania where tall tales, proverbs, legends, anecdotes and local jokes spring up like fiddle­head ferns. A discussion and analysis of these other genres of oral folklore cannot be undertaken here, nor can a survey of the folk culture of the region. However, Flatlander tales pro­vide a good basis for a better under­standing of this rural society.

Just the other day a young girl, Jenny, told me this one:

This Flatlander hunter kept parking his car where the farmer drove his trac­tor into the field when he went to spread manure. This made the farmer mad, so he came with a load of manure and instead of putting it on the field he just dumped it all over the Flat­lander’s car.

Flatlander tales demonstrate the Ridgerunner’s sense of being different from urban and suburban Americans. The stories also reveal a feeling of insecurity, a sense of being threatened by the impingements of the modern world. Flatlander tales are more than a mere defensive reaction to outsiders. They are an attempt to regain cultural equilibrium by making something threatening appear harmless and silly.

In this sense, Flatlander tales are psychological equalizers told by the natives of north central Pennsylvania to maintain their dignity in the face of a different culture. That so many of these tales are set in the woods drama­tizes the Ridgerunner’s strong bond with his natural surroundings. That Flatlander tales are told by people of all ages and by both sexes (though primarily by men) indicates a broad based anxiety about Flatlanders. And finally, the constant good humor of the tales shows us that Ridgerunners have a healthy way of relieving the anxiety that too much contact with outsiders can arouse.

 

James Y. Glimm, a Flatlander by birth (Long Island), has taken up Ridge­runner ways and now is a professor of English and folklore at Mansfield State College. Recently he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete his book, Flatlanders and Ridgerunners.

 

Mark Passmore, the illustrator for this article, is a freelance graphic designer. A native of Ridgerunner Country cur­rently residing in Mansfield, the artist recently completed educational ma­terial for textbook publishers and is now concentrating on advertising design and illustrations for clients in Pennsylvania and New York.