The song of Ole Bull
So a Norwegian violinist walks into a bar.
This only sounds like a joke, actually. There’s no punchline. I’m really leading into an actual, historical topic that genuinely happened in the area. And the story involves crime, lost treasure, possible ghosts and a Henry Shoemaker story. So, you know, there’s no downside.
I’m talking about Ole Bull.
If today you drive up north to Potter County and visit Ole Bull State Park, you will find a pleasant park in the forest, with some excellent hiking trails. A steep hike to a nearby peak will take you to an old, stone foundation.
This is what remains of Ole Bull’s castle.
Ole Bournemann Bull was born in Bergen, Norway, on Feb. 5, 1810. Early on, he learned to play the violin and considered it more of a hobby than a profession. This attitude served him well, and he grew up to be a famous musician. According to one source, he performed to sold-out concert halls, playing a violin with diamonds embedded in it, flashing in the theater lights.
In 1852, Ole Bull came to Potter County, not far from Cross Fork, with the intention of purchasing land and founding a series of communities that would mimic his native Norway. He met John Cowan, a Williamsport native, who sold him 125,000 acres of land. Bull began construction of his communities, to be named Oleanna, New Norway, New Bergen and Valhalla.
And the castle. Bull began to build a castle, a huge mansion on the mountain that overlooked the whole valley. In the library, there is a painting that was donated in 1924 by McElhattan writer Henry Wharton Shoemaker, showing the stone building partially completed, with a round tower rising up from it.
There turned out to be one problem, however. Ole Bull didn’t actually own the land he’d purchased from Cowan, mainly because Cowan hadn’t gone and bought it in the first place. The actual owners of the property weren’t even aware that they were selling, so Ole Bull’s new towns were considered an act of trespass. Ole Bull had been swindled, losing quite a bit of money. In the subsequent years, he would go to court repeatedly to try to recoup the loss but never fully received all of his lost money.
Stories vary as to what happened the night Ole Bull realized he’d been deceived. According to some sources, he sat by his favorite spring playing the violin, then walked away. Other legends state that he stood and played the violin on the cliff by his castle, then smashed it and threw it off the cliff. I sort of hope this one is true; his violins had diamonds on them, remember? Depending on which legend you believe, there may be lost diamonds buried somewhere up in the park.
Henry Shoemaker wrote about Ole Bull’s efforts in his book “Pennsylvania Mountain Stories.” In one short essay, Shoemaker discusses a hike up the mountain to see the remains of the castle.
In another story, entitled “The Strange Violinist,” Shoemaker tells of a local tavern where the patrons wanted music but none was to be had. They asked a white-haired stranger if he could play, and he took out a violin and played wonderful music for them before disappearing into the night. Later, the stranger turned out to be Ole Bull, who had just left his castle, broken-hearted. This part of the legend may or may not be true, because Shoemaker sort of liked to keep people wondering.
Another legend, which likely also has roots in a Shoemaker story from the book “Allegheny Episodes,” suggests that on stormy nights, violin music can be heard echoing through the valley. This, the author says, is the ghost of Ole Bull, mourning his lost dream. (Shoemaker, being Shoemaker, does suggest that he could be wrong and it might be a different violin-playing ghost there. Because, come on, let’s be real.)
Ole Bull State Park, today, is a marvelous place to visit. Maybe plan a trip this summer. If you go and it’s a nice day, perhaps you could look around for lost diamonds. If it rains, maybe listen for ghostly violin music.
And if Ole Bull is still haunting the area, playing his violin, I hope he can see what’s been done with the land he dreamed of owning. I hope he feels better, and likes the park that bears his name.