A Henry Shoemaker Christmas Story
Henry Wharton Shoemaker was a lot of things.
He was an environmentalist. Shoemaker cared about the outdoors, and worked with the state government to protect it.
He was a historian. Many of the monuments in central Pennsylvania which commemorate local areas or incidents were established by Shoemaker.
(Photo of Henry Shoemaker provided by the Annie Halenbake Ross Library)
He was a writer and folklorist. He ran several local newspapers, and wrote books about many of the local legends in the area. Though he took considerable flak for the accuracy of the stories, he claimed that he wrote them down as they were told to him, which appears to be true.
Henry Shoemaker would have loved the idea of the Pennsylvania Wilds. Living in McElhattan, along the I-80 Frontier, he was promoting the PA Wilds almost a century before the concept was actually created.
Shoemaker was also a big fan of the holidays, often loaning his antique sleigh for Santa to make a big entrance to local events.
And only Henry Shoemaker would have written a piece about a local legend entitled “The Animist Churchwomen of Black Snake Mills: A Christmas Story.”
It begins with, of all things, environmentalism. There was a shopkeeper in the town of Black Snake Mills. This is one of Shoemaker’s little workarounds—he often would disguise the actual settings or people involved. Black Snake Mills, based on the evidence, seems to be what Shoemaker called Eastville, also along the I-80 Frontier in Clinton County.
The shopkeeper was upset and angry because of the logging. He felt that the lumbering was destroying the beautiful forests, so he closed down his shop out of protest. He had mannequins in the window that once had been dressed in wonderful clothes, but he put them away in a back room.
For December, however, he would celebrate by dressing them up and displaying them in his window once again.
Over time, because of how much they loved the elderly shopkeeper, the mannequins came to life. Nobody knew how. (That’s another thing about Shoemaker’s stories: Don’t expect logic or sense to necessarily apply.)
Every Christmas Eve, after dark, they would leave the store, and walk across the park to the local church to pray for the shopkeeper. Nobody ever saw them doing this, but every Christmas morning, the citizens of Eastville would wake up to see the footprints in the snow.
So, instead of the traditional visit from Santa Claus, Eastville had several animated mannequins.
One Christmas Eve, around 1910, a young man was driving through the area. His name was Hen Coleman. (Probably a pseudonym.) His car broke down in Black Snake Mills, and he had to stop and try to get it repaired.
He saw some women, walking in the cold, and stopped to ask. But they didn’t even look at him, and kept walking to the local church. Deciding they were too stuck-up to bother with him, he sought out an old woman and asked her for help, instead.
It just so happened that she was married to the local mechanic. So she got her husband, and he got to work fixing the car. As he worked, he told Hen Coleman about the shopkeeper and the mannequins.
Coleman, amazed, admitted that he’d seen the mannequins walking past. He just hadn’t known it at the time. The mechanic finished repairing the car, and Coleman climbed in, to give the mechanic a ride home.
Partway down the road, he stopped.
His headlights shone on the footprints, tracks left by the mannequins in the snow.
Coleman sat, looking at them, knowing that, on that Christmas Eve, he’d been witness to something supernatural and miraculous.
This represents a typical Shoemaker story: Set in central Pennsylvania, and revealing a whole magical world, one you could get glimpses of if you knew where to look.
And this holiday season, I wanted to share that world with you.
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