Old Elmer of Springhill Mountain
AL ZAGOFSKY/SPECIAL TO THE TIMES NEWS Josh Finsel stands by the remains of Elmer Getz's home on the East Side of White Haven. His family farm neighbored that of bootlegging mountain man, mason and quarryman Elmer Getz from the woods along the Lehigh River near White Haven.
"On the East side of the Lehigh River up back on the Springhill Road, that's where the story of old Elmer is told," sings Josh Finsel, who grew up on an East side of his White Haven family farm, just up the road from Elmer Getz. "Around a campfire burning in a rim of steel, my uncle says that this old rim is from Elmer's old wagon wheel."
Finsel explains that Elmer was a legendary bootlegging mountain man, mason and quarryman from the woods along the Lehigh River near White Haven.
"I heard stories from my family," he said. "My uncle has a hunting cabin back there and we were standing around a fire, burning in an old steel wheel rim. My uncle said, 'this is the only thing I have left of Elmer's.' That's what inspired me to ask more questions about Elmer. The song came out of that. We were drinking wine out of a jug and passing it around the fire. That's how I knew about Elmer, though we never met."
Finsel says signs of Elmer's life are scattered throughout the woods of Springhill Mountain.
"His handywork survives in the stone masonry of White Haven, stone he quarried, loaded and hauled through the river," he said. "The legend of Elmer lives in the memory of my family and in the memories of those old timers who knew him and sipped on a bottle of his apple jack."
Along Spring Mountain is what Finsel refers to as, "a bunch of stuff" that once belonged to Elmer Getz.
"There's an old homemade crane in the woods where he used to mine flagstone," Finsel said.
He explained that Elmer quarried flagstone on the East Side of White Haven near the Lehigh River.
It was too steep to haul the stone up the mountain and over the bridge to White Haven, so he would set rock in the river and drive his crane across the river to bring his stone to the main part of town where he used it in building foundations and masonry walls.
Elmer died at the age of 87 in 1973, before Josh Finsel was born.
What he knows came mostly from his grandmother and uncle. His grandmother told him that she was always hearing explosions coming from Elmer's property.
"She would hear things exploding and knew it was Elmer," Finsel said. "She thought he was a little crazy."
When his uncle was just a kid, Elmer invited him to watch him blow up a stump.
Elmer was pretty familiar with dynamite.
"He'd find a spot in the woods where there was an outcropping of rock," Finsel explained. If required, he would blast it with dynamite.
"He figured that it would be just as easy to use the dynamite to remove a stump-and a lot more fun. He packed the stump with dynamite and blew it up. He liked to blow things up. He probably needed to move the stump. Instead of digging it up and cutting it out, he just blew it out. He had my uncle lie down under his truck and then he blew up the stump. My uncle has fond memories of him."
Finsel said Elmer had a side business of making moonshine.
"He used to come to our farm to get the apples," he said. "My grandparents bought an old Mennonite dairy. We had native Pennsylvania apples. They were tart and sweet. He made apple jack and then distilled it to moonshine.
"He had a still. My dad showed it to me when I was about 12 years old, about 20 years ago. The copper coil for the distiller was half-buried in the ground. At the time, the moonshine shack had fallen down."
Elmer had his still along Elmer's Creek.
He used the creek to provide cooling water to condense the alcohol distillate. Above his property, he built a dam for a mill pond to store water.
While walking his former land, you need to step carefully to avoid getting cut on empty and broken green and clear glass juice bottles that had once been recycled for the good old mountain dew.
Getz had several hundred acres.
Some of the land by the Lehigh River became part of Lehigh Gorge State Park.
A large parcel of the remaining land is now owned by Frank Kennelly, who enjoys hiking the property with his five dogs.
"Elmer's ghost walks these mountains back here," Kennelly said. "My dogs see him all the time. There are strange happenings with the dogs. Their hair stands up when there's nothing around. There are noises at nighttime that shouldn't be there. It could be Elmer back here hunting."
To listen to Josh Finsel's song, Elmer, see: jambermusic.com.