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He felled the biggest bear in the Catskill woods while just a tot, carried a gun that never missed and out-talked anyone who took him on. "When he was thirteen he could outguess and outsmart any ring-tailed roaring man." But who was Johnny Darling?
LISTEN: Mia Koerner reads her favorite Johnny Darling tale.
This story was published in the fall 2019 edition of Upper Delaware Magazine.
He felled the biggest bear in the Catskill woods while just a tot, carried a gun that never missed and out-talked anyone who took him on. "When he was thirteen he could outguess and outsmart any ring-tailed roaring man.
“Johnny Darling was famous up and down Sullivan County in the Catskill Mountains. Farmer men, hoopmaker men, tanning men, storemen and millmen all knew of him… In fact, there wasn’t a hamlet in the Catskill Mountains where men, women and children hadn’t heard of his tall tales about his tall deeds.”
Yet when I walked into the Tusten branch of the Western Public Sullivan Library and asked for books on Johnny Darling, the librarian gave me a weak look.
“Is it bad if I tell you I don’t know who that is?”
Once, on a trip to Callicoon for supplies from his home in Shandelee, a crowd assembled, as they often did, to hear what Johnny Darling had been up to. Well, he told them, a pair of bears had chased him after he’d picked a year’s worth of huckleberries in one day. Johnny Darling was quick and light enough to outrun the bears over a frozen pond.
“Now John," someone replied. "Huckleberries come in August and ponds don’t freeze over until winter."
Not a beat passed.
“I guess I forgot to mention to you folks that them gal-darn bears chased me clear into Christmas,” Darling replied.
Born in 1809, and originally from Connecticut, Darling was a small-of-stature man with a proclivity for larger-than-life stories. He and his family, of Scottish descent, moved to the island of Purvis—now Livingston Manor—when he was just a boy. He took root in the thrush woods and eventually had his own family in what was called Sand Pond near Shandelee.
Darling’s legacy, to those who know it, is as the eccentric entertainer of the Upper Delaware—a Paul Bunyon type (it is suggested that the paper and lumber industry, in coming up with Paul Bunyon as their mascot, used the stories of Johnny Darling as inspiration).
Darling could work harder’n any of ‘em. He once thrashed and cut 18 acres of buckwheat in day. With the help of his trusty hunting dog, Dee, and his gun, Nevermiss, Darling hunted Catskills game with “wits sharp as a whetstone."
Course, that's all according to Johnny. Holding court to those who'd listen, Darling was the hero of his own imagination.
Despite his years of storytelling, only one book is dedicated entirely to Darling. “The Marvelous Adventures of Johnny Darling,” by Moritz Jagendorf, published in 1949, contains a full, colorful collection of Darling’s feats, retold by those who knew him. (Read Johnny Darling's "Hoops on a Raft: Johnny Darling gets a Wife" here).
The stories extol the virtues of Darling while offering mirthful accounts of life in Sullivan County in the 1800s. They express, as Jagendorf writes, "the ringing youth of our land and our early dreams and desires."
Take this description of Callicoon: “There was always great chin music in Callicoon,” Jagendorf writes. “Men and even women and children came there from Youngsville, Jeffersonville, Livingston Manor, and other places to hear catawamping political talk, gossip, marriages and news all round.”
Grander history makes its way into his stories too: when Abraham Lincoln issued the emancipation proclamation, Darling joined the town in a frolic on Purvis.
Years later, longtime schoolteacher Avery Irving used Darling’s tales to make history more exciting for his students in one-room schoolhouses. Eventually, Irving went on to teach at the Livingston Manor High School, where Darling’s legacy permeated another generation. That generation included Shandelee resident Mia Koerner, a student of Avery’s, who sees to it that Johnny Caesar Cicero Augustus Darling (names he either gave to himself or were given to him by his father), a once-gem of the Catskills, lives on.
When I get to Mia Koerner’s house in Shandelee, she has her Johnny Darling memorabilia at the ready: several copies of Jagendorf’s book, a scrapbook from the frolic she organized in his honor in 2009, a coloring book of his tales and a Johnny Darling saw painted by folk artist John Kelly.
“This is what we hand down to the next generation,” Koerner tells me.
An occupational therapist, novice historian and a quilter, Koerner took an interest in Darling more than 20 years ago. “It stood out because this was local,” she said. “All the stuff we ever heard about was… the California Gold Rush, the Western Expansion into Alaska, Seward’s Folly, these are the things that we learned in school. Some stuck, some didn’t. This happened here. So it really made an impression on me.”
When I ask Koerner what “facts” we know about Darling, she laughs.
We know that Darling was born in 1809. We know that he was a “subsistence man,” who had tried many different trades, including as a preacher and a teacher, but was never able to earn a decent living. He was welcomed into homes and often hired for a day’s work on farms, but his small stature did not make him much of an asset as a laborer. Martha Ann was indeed his loving wife, and, by all accounts, a more practical figure than her husband. Darling had roughly 16 siblings and two children. Some of his descendants are still around today.
Koerner invited those known descendents to the Johnny Darling frolic held in Livingston Manor in 2009. Local children played parts in theatrical renditions of his stories back-dropped by a wooden cabin.
Many details of Darling’s life are more “alternative” than factual. “Did he actually travel the world?” Koerner wonders. According to Johnny, he was toted through South America by a swarm of mosquitos tied by their stingers to a mining pan. He claims that a black walking stick carved with little animals, which he carried throughout his adult life, was given to him in Valparaiso, Chile.
Jagendorf, in the early to mid 1900s, went to tiresome lengths to collect the truth about Darling’s life from those who remembered him. Jagendorf himself had heard the tales of Johnny Darling when he was sent to the Catskills as a child to recover from a bout of pneumonia. Years later, when Jagendorf returned to Monticello, he found a bustling business town, unlike the rural farmland of his youth.
“I went into the byways, and there I found those who still lived in the homes of their parents and grandparents, and wherever I mentioned the name of Johnny Darling there was a bright eye and a sunny smile,” Jagendorf wrote. “A new life—the old kind of Catskill life—came into their voices.”
Jagendorf found more fiction than fact in his research. Even nailing down Darling’s date and place of birth was a struggle. What Jagendorf did find, in earnest, were tributes to Darling’s character. Though he made his name telling tall tales, none would call him a liar. He was clever and sharp. He didn’t drink, was true to his wife and was well read. Johnny had a “repartee,” Jagendorf writes, that made him a crowd favorite at parties. He did go at least to California, and likely did return with a walking stick, as well as a pin for Martha Ann.
"There’s something kind of authentic about him," said local historian Mary Curtis. "He was a character himself," then she breaks off, as most people do, "Oh, and I love the one where Johnny..."
This is the story Mary Curtis loves: When Johnny Darling was asked to build a fence around the graveyard, he refused the job. No man was trying to get in, he figured, and certainly no one was getting out.
Stories like that one might help explain why Darling was never a rich man. After losing a farm to the bank, Darling fell into poverty.
His last years, writes Jagendorf, “were pitiful and pathetic for one who had given golden-pleasure generously to all.”
“He couldn’t tell the difference between his stories and reality, was what I was told,” Koerner said.
In March of 1884, Darling was committed to the Middletown Homeopathic Hospital, likely at the request of his son. A newspaper clipping from that town says that the “Sage of Sand Pond... has been noted far and wide for his eccentricities which consisted mainly in relating improbable stories which no one believes but himself.”
“The problem is, once he was committed, that limited his abilities to live the life he was used to,” Koerner said. To put Johnny Darling in a box, in isolation of any kind, was to clip his wings—to take away his greatest gift and pleasure. “That was the joy of his life, to be with people,” she says.
Less than a year later, Darling was sent to the poorhouse. There, something truly unbelievable probably, maybe, actually did happen.
No one knows what happened to Darling after he left, or escaped, Middletown. Fred Fries, a volunteer with the Sullivan County Historical Society, has tried to track down Darling's grave and death certificate, to no avail. Martha Ann is buried in Hancock, and Jubel, Johnny's favorite brother, is buried at the Darling family plot nearby. There are several unmarked stones there, which could be Johnny, but could also be any of his 16 siblings.
There are two tales you can choose to believe about what happened to the Sage of Sand Pond. One, which was told by his family without evidence, is that he died nine years after leaving the poorhouse and was buried in East Branch. The other, which is the story Jagendorf tells, is that he never died at all.
“He’s still roaming about in the high hills and in the green woods beside the running brooks and the clear lakes in the mountains he loved. And if you love to wander about in these same mountains and one day meet a little man dressed in cowhide boots, a Joseph-colored jumper, carrying in his hand a carved, crooked, black stick, you’ll know at once it’s Johnny Darling.”
I, for one, have heard and read Darling’s stories from those who love his tales and who also love the place he called home. So if anyone asks, I'll tell them the story Darling himself would have told, which is that the little man with a big name, inhuman might, a gun that never missed and a heart that never knew fear, will live as long as we keep him alive.
“Johnny swore the tale was true, and since no man could prove it otherwise, no man could deny it.”
Any quote not sourced directly within the text is from M. Jagendorf’s “The Marvelous Adventures of Johnny Darling." To read a full Johnny Darling story, click here.