Cherry Tree Joe was a man among men
Paul Bunyon, the giant of a man who ruled the woods with his axe and whose tales of herculean feats are repeatedly retold, never existed.
But one figure from the great lumbering days of central Pennsylvania was an honest-to-goodness, red-blooded, American man, whose Bunyonesque feats guiding rafts filled with timber taken from the state’s hardwood forests rival the fictional feats of the folklore hero.
Cherry Tree Joe McCreery hailed from Lycoming County, but his legend echoed from western Pennsylvania to Williamsport.
Ballads were written about the fabled Cherry Joe. Tales of his heroic accomplishments were chronicled. At the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Galeton, the exploits of Cherry Tree Joe are remembered.
He was born in 1805 in the Port Penn area of Muncy but moved with his parents to Cherry Hill in Indiana County as a teenager.
He was believed to be a member of the crew of the first raft floating down the West Branch of the Susquehanna in 1827, according to USGenWeb Archives.
A strapping man of well over 6 feet tall, Cherry Tree Joe was, by all accounts, as strong as an ox and capable of incredible tasks.
It was said he once single-handedly broke a 10-mile log jam. Another time, he lifted a timber raft clear and set it down in safe water before jumping aboard.
During another log jam, he pulled out a knife and began whittling his raft into little sticks “and that’s how toothpicks were invented.”
But that particular story doesn’t end there.
He loaded the sticks onto a flatboat and floated south to Philadelphia where delighted folks were happy to pay him $5,000 more than what the timber would have been worth.
His eyesight was so sharp that he could take a raft downriver in the dark.
Another story from the publication “Keystone Folklore Quarterly” tells of Cherry Tree Joe racing rafts with his friend, Bob McKeage, down Clearfield Creek. Cherry Tree Joe reached out, pulled up a hundred-foot white pine by the roots and stuck it in the channel in front of McKeage’s raft. “That ended the race as far as Bob was concerned, but he never held any grudge over it, and the two are buried within a few feet of one another in a cemetery high on a hill above Cherry Tree.”
It is said Cherry Tree Joe risked his life during the famous Johnstown Flood in 1889 when he pulled a house from its bank as it floated down the roiling waters, saving the lives of two sets of triplets. An impossible feat to be sure, never mind he would have been in his mid-80s.
A perhaps more believable, yet still fictitious, story was the time he backed down the great bare-knuckle boxer, John L. Sullivan, in a barroom. Never mind he was an old man at the time.
Many tales surrounding Cherry Tree Joe stretched the limits of even those with the most boundless of imaginations.
One story described his outlandish appetite while living with his wife in the hills on The Creek Without End.
According to the US GenWebArchives, “his wife cooked on a griddle 6 feet square and used a side of bacon to grease it and a barrel of flour every morning to make flapjacks. This must be why the mice in his cabin grew to weigh 60 pounds and he had to keep a panther as a house cat.”
At 56 years of age, Cherry Joe joined the Union Army to fight in the Civil War. He ended up losing a leg and gaining a discharge from the Army, earning the nickname Contrary Joe.
Perhaps it is only fitting that this legendary figure would capture the imagination of poets.
While it may be hard to separate the legend from the man, Cherry Joe did indeed exist.
As if to outlast the ancient hardwoods standing tall in the woods of his home state of Pennsylvania, he lived to the ripe old age of 90.
He was buried in Cherry Hill.