Tuesday, April 05, 2016

What Hunter S. Thompson Missed in My Hometown

Back in January I had a post about the connection between my hometown, Jersey Shore, PA, and the original Gonzo Journalist, Hunter S. Thompson. He spent three weeks there in 1957 as a sports editor- his first job out of the Navy. To say he hated it would be an understatement, referring to them as a "nightmare people." (I was nine years old when Thompson lived a couple blocks up the street from my grandfather and worked at the newspaper office across the street from my Dad's pharmacy.) In a letter to a friend he had commented on many differences between Fort Walton, FL, and Jersey Shore, PA. One of these was:

There were innumerable bars in Fort Walton: there are two in Jersey Shore.
I am sure there were far more than two bars in my hometown in the late 1950s, especially if you counted the “hotel”, The Legion, the VFW, and the Elks and Moose clubs. Alcohol was not forbidden in Jersey Shore. It played a part in the area history as much as the Susquehanna River or the logging of Pine Creek. A local hero from the Prohibition Era was one Prince Farrington, arguably the greatest of American bootleggers. (Info from Lock Haven Express, 5/3/08)

Farrington, who died a year before Hunter S. Thompson arrived in town, was, to many, the Robin Hood of Central Pennsylvania. He purchased shoes and food for poor children, a roof for a local church and helped with mortgages for local families in danger of losing their homes. He is said to have hired every farmer within 50 miles of Williamsport to provide his supplies. He bought grain above market price, and then paid them more to store and hide the barrels. It’s said milkmen delivered jugs of Farrington’s product on their standard milk routes; most of the area’s law enforcement, regulatory and judicial staff were on his payroll. (LHE)

Originally from North Carolina he heard about the wonders of Central Pennsylvania from a fellow inmate during one of his youthful incarcerations. He was told of the clear and wonderful water in that part of the country. A perfect place to brew whiskey. It didn’t take long for Farrington and his family to move to the area. Loganton, in Clinton County, became home. His whiskey was considered better than the “big names” of the business. The story went that film star Roy Rogers once had a trainload of Farrington whiskey sent to Los Angeles for a Hollywood party, the barrel taps dipped in root beer to disguise the odor. It was so good that he continued to brew his own well into the early 1950s, long after Prohibition ended. After all, moonshine whiskey had no taxes on it.

The “last raid” on his stills came in 1946, but after posting bail he fled the state. He was eventually caught in Florida, served two years and released due to failing health. His daughter brought him back to Central Pennsylvania where he died in 1956. The family, it is reported, continued to make bootleg whiskey into the 1960s. (LHE) I guess Hunter S. Thompson didn’t hang around long enough to find them.

A few years later I could have helped. One of my teachers in high school was a relative of the Prince- and no one hid the fact. The legends of Prince Farrington, which was his real name, were never lost. It may even be that they have grown with time. His homestead is now an Inn along Main Street. In the 2008 article in the Lock Haven Express the good and bad of the story was recalled.
While Tammy Farrington [Prince’s great-niece] is proud of her family history, and the rogues that populate it, she says some of her relatives are a bit embarrassed by their association with one of the world’s most famous bootleggers.

And, she admits readily, there is a dark side to the family legend: Many of the Farrington clan developed serious drinking problems. In fact, she had her own past battles with alcohol.

But if the Prince Farrington legend lives on in the local imagination, it’s largely because of the folk hero’s genuine altruism, which kept food in the mouths and roofs over the heads of so many families.

One story that bears repeating involves his donation of $400 to replace the roof of a church in Sugar Valley. When parishioners finished the project at a cost of only $200, they tried to return the balance to Prince. He refused to take it, advising them to give the money to the church reverend.

The good reverend mulled over the offer from the millionaire bootlegger and finally decided to accept his largesse, saying, “God needs it more than Prince Farrington does.”
The Susquehanna Valley may have been too narrow for gonzo journalism, but it was a perfect place for bootlegging to thrive.

This was rural Pennsylvania in my formative years.

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