The Old Badger
Editor’s note: This column was first published May 11, 1977.
An announcement: The Mt. Otsego ski slopes are not on the slopes of Mt. Otsego. Ta-daah! Mt. Otsego is almost a mile beyond the skiing area and 500 feet above it. Ta-dum! And Mt. Otsego is “… the highest point of land in Central New York, 1,000 feet above and overlooking Otsego Lake.” Tan-ta-rah! (The last item was the (erroneous) claim put out by one of the large hotels when hustling the public with the beauties of Cooperstown in 1890.)
The only problem with continuing in this manner is the confusing intelligence that the real Mt. Otsego goes by two names: Mt. Otsego and Rum Hill. These prominences are not separate. They are one and the same. Not juxtaposed, not side by side, not next to each other, but the same hill, with two names.
The original name was Rum Hill. Harken to G. Pomeroy Keese, writing in Lippincott’s Magazine in May of 1880:
“When the whites first came into this part of the country, they sought to obtain from the Indians the right to hunt unmolested over a certain part of it. As this was the highest land hereabouts, they agreed to meet on the hill where they could see over the broadest expanse of country; and in order to close the treaty on the spot, they brought their presents with them that the Indians might have no chance to change their minds. Among the important things to the Indians’ minds or palate was the ‘fire water,’ which was to seal the compact. A barrel of rum was therefore, with some difficulty, conveyed to the top of the hill and, the treaty being concluded, the bung was knocked out and the liquor freely dispersed. It was not long before the potent spirit had its effect and the Indians fell to quarreling and fighting over the prize. In the tussle, the barrel went rolling down the steep side of the hill and, the bung being out, the liquor flew with every revolution. The Indians, seeing their treasure escaping, started in pursuit. Some fell in their drunken frenzy, others tumbled over them, while the barrel careered on its way until the contents were gone forever; and from that day forward the spot was known as Rum Hill.”
There you have it. Rum Hill. Far from the madding crowd. Now. But it was not always so. It was not always as remote as it is today. The principal thoroughfare from Richfield Springs to Otsego Lake and Cooperstown used to skirt the base of the hill in the hey-days, when both towns overflowed with tourists attracted to the baths, the springs and the memory of our illustrious novelist. Many people rode or climbed to this highest point for the view which was, on a clear day, nothing short of spectacular. And many brought picnics.
Rufus Wykoff, who owned the top of the hill, was not unaware of this traffic. He built an observation tower on top. He built a tollgate at the bottom. Soon the broadsides read something like this:
SEE: The Mohawk Valley
SEE: 4 states
5 mountain ranges
SEE: 30,000 square miles
ENJOY: picnic parties
This canny farmer was also aware that the word Rum had some evil sounding companions such as Demon and Devil – and forthwith named his structure the Mount Otsego Observatory. Thus, with one bold stroke, he elevated the tone of the area, raised the expectations of the traveler, upped his take at the till and shoved the name Rum Hill into the backwaters of local history.
But it was still Rum Hill to the nearby hop farmers. And it is said that during the hop harvest time many wagon loads of hop pickers were drawn from the farms to the hill-top picnic grounds on Saturdays to dance and, of course, to purchase some spirits. “Spirits which had generously been hauled there that very afternoon by the same hop farmers” in order to recover the wages just distributed, lest pickers get into town and fall prey to those greedy merchants.
Today most evidence of the tower and toll house are gone. However, there are many indications that spirits are still being hauled up the tortuous trail. And no doubt there’s been dancing. And probably some of our modern Indians have fallen to tussling and quarreling and gone careering down the hill. Surely they will not soon forget this storied name, this relevant name, this real name … Rum Hill.
Next time: The Badger revisits Miller’s-On-The-Lake.