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April 2005

Uncle Fide, Super Guide

Cranberry Lake's Philo “Fide” Scott: half man, half beard; teller of tall tales; the most sought after guide in the woods

Fide Scott with his cow Betsy and his dog Christmas in an undated photo. Courtesy of St. Lawrence County Historical Association

In the colorful history of the Adirondacks, the story of the guides may be the most colorful chapter. These North Country natives were usually extolled, occasionally vilified, but were always a source of wonder to the urban sports they took to woods and water. Most es­caped the annals of history, but from authors Charles Brumley and Alfred Donaldson, among others, we know of a famous few: “Old Mountain” Phelps, from Keene Valley; “Honest John” Plumley (William H. H. Murray’s guide); the Abenaki Indian Mitchell Sabattis, of Long Lake; and John Cheney, des­cribed as a small, gentle fellow, a lover of nature, yet a mighty hunter who killed 600 deer, 400 sable, 48 bears, 30 otter, 19 moose, 7 wildcats, 6 wolves, 1 panther and 1 beaver, and this in only his first thirteen years in the wilderness.

One who deserves to be in this company is Philo “Fide” Scott, from the Oswegatchie River backcountry. If it weren’t for Irving Bacheller, Scott would probably have been forgotten. Bacheller used Scott as his model for Silas Strong, Emperor of the Woods, his 1906 novel about a heroic woodsman forced from his domain by an exploitative lumber company. Bacheller’s Strong is a rustic, but a thoughtful conservationist too. “He is square, a little cranky in some ways, but you can depend on him. He’ll do what he says—the devil couldn’t turn him,” wrote Bacheller.

Silas Strong is fiction, but Bacheller—a native of Pierre­pont, an 1882 graduate of St. Lawrence University and author of Eben Holden, the first national “bestseller”—knew Fide Scott firsthand. Bacheller was a hunter, angler and woodsman, and his favorite haunts were in the Cranberry Lake region, in his time (1859–1950) as now the most rugged wilderness in the East. Scott was Bacheller’s guide, and the worldly author described him as “the most remarkable character I have known.”

Philo Scott was born in Brownville, Jefferson County, on April 28, 1837. When he was a child the family moved to the north bank of the Oswegatchie River (now Scotts Bridge on old Route 3), near Fine. His great-granddaughter Jennie Scott Rose, the family historian, knows little of his boyhood. She describes Scott as having had sparse formal education but being a “willing wanderer” of the forests and streams.

David F. Lane, a contributor to Adirondac magazine in the 1940s, wrote, “At fifteen he was making hunting and trapping his regular business, often capturing a wolf or panther in his traps as well as bagging countless deer and an occasional black bear with his rifle.”

It’s likely he roamed the wilderness unfettered by permanent habitat, although he probably constructed lean-tos or other shelters near favorite spots. He was married on August 8, 1856, to Cordelia Stevens, of Clayton, and began constructing their log cabin on the south side of the Oswegatchie River. Scott’s new wife was a wisp of a woman, five feet tall if that, and probably well under a hundred pounds, but she bore six sons who lived to adulthood. Scott’s life as a newlywed likely followed the typical frontier pattern: farming, supplemented by hunting, fishing, trapping, logging and guiding. His 1911 obituary claimed that he and his wife owned “one of the best sugar bushes in this part of the State.”

The bucolic life was interrupted by the Civil War. Scott enlisted in Ogdensburg in Company D, Sixtieth New York Volunteer Infantry, the “St. Lawrence Regiment,” on October 25, 1861. His Civil War service was a matter of some controversy. His obituary indicated “he enlisted for about three years and was one of the most daring soldiers in the Union ranks.” Scott may well have been a daring soldier, and he must have been a crack shot, but he deserted. After the war Scott ap­plied for an “invalid pension,” claiming he had been afflicted with “piles and varicose veins by hard marching” from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Winchester, Virginia. The late Canton newspaper publisher and history buff Atwood Manley asked the War De­partment about the woodsman’s rec­ord and received an 1882 document listing Scott as “deserted” as of De­cember 10, 1862. Jennie Scott Rose explains, “Fide had a quick temper and there was a sergeant over him who probably had as quick a temper. The situation was serious enough that a lieutenant called Fide aside and told him to go home, that the Sixtieth Regiment would be shortly going into battle, and if the rebels didn’t get Fide the sergeant would be sure to.”

Whether this was the real reason Scott left the army, or whether the call of a young wife and the wilderness was too powerful to overcome, we can only guess. As author Paul Jamieson noted with a touch of sarcasm in a 1963 Adirondac article, “He continued to set a high value on his brief service,” for not only did he apply for a veteran’s pension, there is a photo in the St. Lawrence University ar­chives of him proudly wearing a Grand Army of the Republic pin. “But like other men of spirit,” Jam­ieson added, “Fide rose superior to his handicaps.”

After the war Scott established summer quarters at “Lost Lake,” about eight miles from Wanakena, where he built a cabin of hand-hewn logs recycled from an old lumber camp. Scott put up four other buildings, including shelter for a cow, and a vegetable garden. It wasn’t long be­fore prominent men sought Scott and his accommodations; among his hunting and fishing clients were Bach­eller, illustrator and writer Ern­est Thompson Seton, novelist Booth Tarkington, New York State lieutenant governor Horace White, and state fish and game commissioner James S. Whipple. Scott charged a dollar a day for room and board, and three dollars for guiding.

Lost Lake, so named by surveyor Verplanck Colvin, is Big Deer Pond on today’s maps. It is shallow and marshy, and in Scott’s time the aquatic plants were an irresistible attraction to deer. In the diaries of Bill Rasbeck, a well-known Cranberry Lake–area guide, he notes that “Fide killed deer for the market, and with almost utter abandon.”

Scott’s kingdom was one of pine-topped eskers and trout-filled ponds. It is the drainage of the Oswegatchie River, a swampy, tannic stream that snakes twenty miles above the landmark High Falls, and another fifteen miles of swampy meander below to Inlet. One of the state’s few remaining stands of virgin timber is in Scott’s country, between Cranberry Lake and Stillwater Reservoir.

Scott was an old man when parts of his territory fell to the ax. Rich Lumber Company came to Wanakena in 1901 to harvest pine and spruce, and its railroad spur ran almost to High Falls. The loggers left devastation; piles of slash fueled fires in 1903 and 1908 that burned thousands of acres between Lake Lila and Cranberry Lake. These blazes came perilously close to Scott’s Big Deer camp, and the climax of Bacheller’s novel Silas Strong finds Strong—“a thinly disguised Philo Scott,” in Paul Jamie­son’s words—burned to death after rescuing his sister from a great forest fire.

We don’t know if Scott was still at Big Deer Pond during the great fires. He would have been sixty-six in 1903 and seventy-one in 1908—old for an active guide. But he was an uncommon man and, Civil War infirmities notwithstanding, is re­membered for prodigious feats of strength even into his later years.

Scott was tough, but there seems to be considerable discrepancy in descriptions of his physical dimensions. David Lane called him as “tall, lanky, stout as an elephant.” Bach­eller’s Silas Strong was “six feet and two inches of bone and muscle” with “great brawny arms.” Such things speak more to the idealized woodsman than to fact; Scott was at the peak of his powers at age forty-two when he applied for his Civil War pension and described himself as “5′, 91/2 inches,” with a “slight” build and “sandy” hair and blue eyes.

It’s hardly surprising that Scott is remembered as being larger than life. The longer he lived the more legendary he became. In 1966 Jamieson, now a centenarian, wrote, “[In] 1933, over 20 years after Scott’s death, when I spent an evening in Bach­eller’s company, the novelist was still telling wonderful stories about his old guide with an effectiveness never fully carried over into his books.” Bacheller also de­lighted in relating the unique methods by which Scott told his own stories. Then, said Bach­eller, there was a “curious, zigzag complex of incidents” with “sudden shifts of scene and tense and curious clauses. These were interspersed with re­peated affirmatory interjections: ‘Ayuh! Uh huh! It’s a fact.’”

Some of Bacheller’s tales of Scott appeared in From Stores of Memory. Scott, wrote Bacheller, “had got from his fathers a dialect that belonged to the last quarter of the eighteenth century. Bacheller used Scott’s quaint language in his widely read tribute, the poem “Him an’ Me,” which be­gan: We’d greased our tongues with bacon ’til they’d shy at food an’ fork / An’ the trails of thought were slippery an’ slopin’ towards New York: / An’ our gizzards shook an’ trembled an’ were most uncommon hot / An’ the oaths were slippin’ easy from the tongue o’ Philo Scott.

The guide’s dialect may have been hard to comprehend, but it wasn’t difficult to hear, for apparently he talked constantly, whether in the presence of others or not. Albert Fow­ler Sr., who penned Cranberry Lake 1845–1959, an Adirondack Miscellany (1959), related how Scott’s cow broke away from a jum­per sled near Nick’s Pond. The guide took off after her at a dead run, and “some woodsmen along the trail were surprised to see a cow dash by. They were positively astonished when a creature, half man, half beard, roped to a careening jumper, rushed past them shouting himself encouragement in the following words: ‘I think I’ll make it. I ought to make it. I’ve got to make it. I’m gaining on her all the time.’”

Fowler referred to Scott as “the Hermit of Big Deer,” but hermit is a misnomer, for the man was gregarious. In fact, we know that Scott once made a visit to the big city. Jamieson wrote that Scott, in his later years, began his urban sojourn by snowshoeing forty-five miles from Big Deer to join Bacheller at the winter carnival in Saranac Lake. According to David Lane, Scott proceeded to New York City, where he delighted in a ride on the new subway. On his return he visited an old client, fish and game commissioner Whipple, and was given the privilege of ad­dressing the state senate. He must have had a change of heart from his market-killing days. Scott is credited with urging senators to enact laws requiring sportsmen to buy annual hunting and fishing licenses to curtail the destruction of wildlife.

No doubt it was at this time that the rustic was guest of honor at an Albany banquet. A family story says that he was asked to carve a venison roast and responded, “Do you want it carved backwoods or city style?” The consensus was backwoods, so Scott took the platter and the knife, cut a generous slice for himself, then passed the meat to the next person.

As these stories circulated, Scott metamorphosed into the beloved “Uncle Fide” of legend—a teller of tall tales, the most sought-after guide in the woods, a man of unimpeachable honor and, despite his years, a human powerhouse.

Every year when the ice broke and the snow melted he would say that his “sap was goin’ up.” Then he’d leave winter quarters at Scotts Bridge, pick up his fishing rod, rifle, pet coon and a week’s worth of provisions and strike out for Big Deer. Sometimes he loaded his cow with supplies and led her and a pet fox on leashes.

Cordelia could be persuaded, re­luctantly, to join her husband. Scott reputedly once carted his tiny spouse in a rocking chair on his back over the rough trail from Wanakena.

When two women friends visited camp, Scott baked biscuits, and one of the guests said, “Mr. Scott, these are without doubt the finest, the fluffiest, the most delicious biscuits I ever touched my mouth to. Where did you learn to put caraway seed in baking-powder biscuits? It makes them taste so unusual.”

“Caraway seed?” exclaimed Scott. He took a biscuit, broke it open and hollered, “Keeriste! Them damn mice been in the flour barrel again.”

Scott must have been well aware of his fame, for there is a letter in the St. Lawrence University records from Harold B. Johnson, of Watertown, to John Finnigan, of Canton, in which Johnson wrote, “Phide Scott used to come into the [Watertown Daily Times] office forty or more years ago. Someone induced him to write his autobiography. I guess it was a pretty mess.” Despite this, the Daily Times did a feature on “Uncle Fide, Patriarch of His Craft,” published on January 16, 1909. “Uncle Fide is the last of his race,” remarked the un­known writer. “He is passing down the sunset slope of his life.”

Scott did have some second thoughts about the course of his life. Thinking of Bacheller and Tarkington, Scott allowed, “Them au­ther fellers certainly do know how to have a time. It’s a great life, en if I could hit the back trail an’ live this life over again, I’d be an auther feller for sure.” But “it’s ev’ry man to his element, an’ mine ain’t among folks with good clothes en plum grammer.”

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