Charley Cowden
Materials compiled by Loraine C. Smith.

Charley Cowden

Left-handed Charley never forgot the date of his birth since he had it tattooed on his arm. He was probably born around 1843. His real name was Charles E. Cowden and he was known as the Hermit of Chautauqua Lake.

For many summers, Charley lived on a small island, a short distance up Prendergast Creek. His residence was a makeshift structure of a dilapidated tent over a tripod of poles, sheltered by tree branches and brushes, which also hid it from sight. This shelter contained a few clothes, blankets, cooking utensils, a few cans of baked beans and bread. Cooking was done outside over a campfire. (This island has disappeared so it may have only existed during a period of low water.)

This unique individual maintained himself by combining fishing with exhibitions of bow and arrow and tomahawk skills for which he dressed somewhat like an Indian, although it is not believed that he had any Indian blood. Across the lake was the Whiteside Hotel. This hotel was run by William Whiteside, where every few days Charles would arrive by rowboat, usually with a "lunge" for sale to the hotel. He was always prepared to give an Indian act for the hotel’s guests.

Other times, Charley lived in an old sail boat near Dewittville, N.Y. Charles had built an 8 by 12 foot cabin on the boat. He used to take people on fishing trips and sight seeing tours about the lake. He was a great admirer of Chautauqua Lake and liked to share the lake’s secrets with others.

It is said that he had been a cowboy in the West, a sailor, a soldier, and a circus performer with the Dan Rice Circus. He was a drummer boy in the 112th Regiment in the Civil War and served in the War of 1812.

He had a left handed fiddle, which he always carried with him. This fiddle accompanied him in both wars. On this old battered fiddle he could imitate a piano, a banjo and several other instruments. He said he could not own all these musical instruments and therefore necessity had compelled him to produce all the various melodies his soul craved on the violin.

Many people used to visit him during the summer months and he would entertain them with his songs plus his delightful and colorful stories of his life. He used to treat his visitors to the delicacy of cooked carp, which he prepared.

He usually wore his gray hair hanging down to his shoulders, although he sometimes twisted it into a knot at the back of his head. He always dressed in a highly picturesque fashion.

Charley was also known to have resided in a cabin which was situated near Whitney’s Bay. A picture post card of Charley was produced showing him outside his cabin in his Indian garb complete with an Indian head dress of colored feathers and bow and arrow. This picture was probably taken by George Monroe. On the back of this card are the words, "The Hugh C. Leighton Co., Manufactures, Portland, ME., U.S.A. - Make in Germany 1892." The picture postcard shows a small, crude cabin nestled among trees. it is propped at the corners with stacks of wood. One window is visible, also a door at the front. Two horse shoes are nailed above the door. A small stove pipe rises from the roof. There is a cur dog lying on a crude front porch. A pail rests on the wooden steps. A shovel leans against the side of the cabin.

Charley carried two or three sharp jack knives in his pockets. He made many unique items with the knives by whittling in his spare time.

As soon as definite signs of winter arrived, he gathered together his belongings, put on his big cowboy hat, and looked for shelter from the cold. It was his habit to "visit" his friends and people whom he knew in the country during the winter. Upon his arrival at some country home he would seek out a piece of white pine, which he carefully placed in the water reservoir of the kitchen woodstove, to soften and become pliable. When the wood was soaked to his liking, he would carve folding wooden fans and often twine a ribbon through them. These he always left as a gift for the lady of the house.

During the long winter evenings he was always willing to play his fiddle, handling the bow with his left hand. He willingly played for the people of the neighborhood for square dances. Should his hosts desire conversation instead of music, Charley would spin yarns with he best of them, sometimes accounting for at least 150 years of living, instead of his probably 50 or 60. When he decided that his "visit" was outwearing his "welcome" he would tuck his fiddle under his arm and leave to seek another family which might have room for a "visitor." Other times he would find refuge at the County Farm in Dewittville, N.Y.

Charley did not always live on the lake or with friends. At one time, in his younger years. he lived in Jamestown, N.Y. An establishment, called "Headquarters Saloon" was located on Center Street in about 1870. It contained a beer parlor and a type of concert hall. On a platform in the concert hall, was a piano, and the gentlemen used to surround it singing and sometimes engaging in clog dancing. Charley was a noted clog dancer. A contest was set up by Joe Driscoll between Charley Cowden and a well known clogger, named "Frinkie." Charley won this clog-dancing contest and his prize was a heavy gold medal six inches in diameter. He performed at other locations, exhibiting his clogging skill.

In his later years he lived for two years at the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Home at Erie, Pa. In a letter written by Mrs. Laverne Ploss, of Guy’s Mills, Pa., she stated that Charley died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Ida Adams, Highmeyer Road, Harbor Creek, Pa. He is buried in the cemetery at North East, Pa. North East Cemetery records show: He died July 15, 1908 in Harbor Creek, Pa., at the age of 65 years. The U. S. Government placed a monument on his grave. Inscribed underneath his name is, "Captain of the Hold." His grave is located in "K" Section, Lot #25 in the cemetery. His burial was the first burial on the Charles and Ida M. Adam’s lot.

Charley Cowden was also survived by four great nieces: Mrs. Maude Swanson and Mrs. Denalda Peterson of Jamestown, N.Y., Mrs. Lillian Cole of Boston, Mass., and Mrs. Lydia Dorman, of 26 Valley Street, Mayville, N.Y.

SOURCE: Materials compiled by Loraine C. Smith, 2005.