How Pete Francis Fiddled to the Wolves – A Reminiscence of the old Fisherman of Lake Saratoga .


"His net old fisher George long drew,

Shoals upon shoals he caught,

’Till death came hauling for his due

And made poor George his draught.

Death fishes on through various shapes,

In vain it is to fret;

Nor fish nor man escapes

Death’s all-enclosing net."

Old Epitaph.


PETER FRANCIS – or, as he was familiarly called, "Pete" Francis, one of the old landmarks or rather "institutions of Saratoga par excellence – was a half-breed Indian of the St. Regis tribe. He lived in a small cottage on the southwest shore of Lake Saratoga, and to this little cottage it was the custom of epicures to make regular pilgrimages, for no one – so they all agreed – could cook a fish as delicately and serve it as temptingly as "Pete." When Pete Francis cooked the Lake Saratoga bass, fresh from the cold, translucent depths whence he had lured them with a skill that none could equal, criticism became dumb, and the appetite enjoyed a feast that lingered long like the pleasant memory of some indescribable ecstasy. "Pete," like all great geniuses, was eccentric and peculiar. With strong likes and dislikes, he had a keen perception of character, and was a great favorite with his distinguished patrons, among whom he numbered governors, judges, members of Congress, and hosts of connoisseurs of all degrees of note and prominence. Pete was started in business some thirty years ago by the late Hon. James M. Cook, and though he was handsomely remunerated for his many years of unrivalled catering, yet, like Daniel Webster, he never knew what it was to be wealthy. No bass ever escaped his clutch when once it was hooked, but dollars somehow slipped through his fingers with marvellous celerity. Upon first coming into this region he was, when quite young, employed by that renowned French caterer and keeper of the old Sans Souci Hotel at Ballston – Andrew Berger – and by him he was taught to prepare fish in a manner in which, I believe, he has never been excelled. But to my story.

It was in the early dawn of a delicious summer morning in 1855, that a party, among whom were the late E.R. Stevens, John S. Leake, Clarence S. Bate, of Kentucky, and the writer, drove up to the cottage of Francis, with the intention of first breakfasting with him, and afterwards trying their luck with that prince of game-fish – second not even to the trout – the Oswego or black bass. Pete was delighted with his visitors; and with the exception that he waited on the party barefooted – a peculiarity which, I believe, will be remembered by many – did the honors of host, cook, and waiter in the most approved style. The plentiful breakfast of corn-bread, bacon, and bass, garnished by a tin coffee-pot of ample dimensions, being over, Francis reached down a long bass-rod from the rafters, and began certain preparations fraught with danger to the finny inhabitants of the lake. The reel was carefully examined, the screws tightened, the cogs oiled; and the keen eye of the veteran fisherman glittered with an ominous lustre as its glance rested on the destructive engine. While he is still intent on his work, let me sketch a few of his characteristics gathered in an observation of many years.

His wiry hair, tall form, and bony limbs indicated an active frame, inured to hardships; his piercing eye and high cheek-bones evinced the keenness and resoluteness of his mind. He was adventurous, frank, and social – boastful, credulous, illiterate, and at times wonderfully addicted to the marvellous. His imagination was a warm and fruitful soil, in which "tall oaks from little acorns grew," and his vocabulary was overstocked with superlatives. Pete was generally friendly, courteous, and considerate; and a better tempered fellow never handled fishing-pole. But occasionally he would dwell upon his own prowess with the enthusiasm of a devotee; and at the climax of his oratorical display, he would spring into the air, and after uttering a yell worthy of the stoutest Winnebago, swear that he was "the best man in the country," and "could whip his weight in wild-cats"; he was "not afraid of no man," and finally, he would urge, with no gentle asseveration, his ability to "ride through a crab-apple orchard on a streak of lightning." For the most part, however, Pete was a quiet, good-natured soul, strolling about with a subdued aspect, a drawling and deliberate gait, in a state of entire freedom from restraint, reflection and want, and without any impulse strong enough to call forth his latent manhood save – and with this solitary exception – when he had hooked a five-pound bass at the end of his line. Then, presto! what a change! His muscles would stiffen, his eyes sparkle, his nostrils dilate, and his whole frame fairly quiver with emotion.

Breakfast over, we sallied forth to the Lake. Here, however, ensued a council of war. As my readers doubtless are aware, a light wind is considered a sine qua non for good fishing, especially that of bass – the fish we were after. But during our meal the breeze, which at first promised so finely, had died completely away; and the sun now shone out hot and beat down fiercely upon our heads and the glassy waters at our feet. Pete at once declared that it would be useless to "try our luck" under these circumstances, at least with any prospect of success; and accordingly we voted to return to the cottage and listen to a continuation of the story of adventure with which our host had regaled us at breakfast. We therefore resumed our seats, and while Pete wove a fyke nest for himself, he spun for ourselves the following story of how he once fiddled to a party of wolves in the St. Regis country many years before. The language of the narrative is of course our own.

Wolves, gentlemen, said Pete, are ugly customers, especially when prowling around in packs or pressed by hunger. They are surly, unsocial, and untamable animals; and under even the most favorable circumstances, rarely associating together unless compelled through hunger or for offensive war – and for the most part living singly, like bachelors – forming no attachments and showing no kindnesses to any one. But whether alone or in troops, when their necessities are urgent, they become reckless, braving every danger and facing certain destruction. The black wolf of America is the most ferocious – the stoutest bull-dogs being no match for them, and not only have women and children, but men fallen victims to their rapacity.

It appeared on one occasion that "Pete," who, though my no means a Paganini, was a tolerable fiddler – had been kept out rather later than usual at a winter dance, and was wending his way homeward just in the gray of the morning. While crossing an old "clearing" near the edge of the woods, bounding which stood a deserted and dilapidated log-house, he was set upon by a large pack of wolves from all directions, like a swarm of Cossacks upon a straggling platoon of Napoleon’s grenadiers. He rushed with all speed into the hut, the door of which was wide open to receive him, but positively refused to be shut to keep out the foe who now pressed so closely upon him, filling the air with their howlings, that he was obliged to spring upon a beam to prevent being torn to pieces. But the wolves, sorely pressed for a breakfast, were not slow in climbing up the logs after him, and he would most assuredly have formed their morning banquet but for a bright thought. The had somewhere seen the hackneyed rhapsody of the poet – "music hath charms to soothe the savage breast" – or perhaps he had heard repeated the passage from Prior’s Solomon:

"Often our seers and poets have confest

That music’s force can tame the furious breast,

Can make the wolf, or foaming bear, restrain

His rage – the lion drop his crested man,

Attentive to the song."

Thus beleaguered, Pete determined to try the effect of sweet sounds upon their unsophisticated ears, and thereupon struck up the brisk tune of "Yankee Doodle" on his Holland fiddle. The effect was magical. The party of Châteaubriand were not more successful in charming the rattlesnake with a flute at Niagara. The wolves were no longer bristling, and howling with rage ready to devour him, but became as silent as so many Scotchmen at the ballad of "Robin Adair." But poor Pete! He would much rather have fiddled for forty contra-dances than a single party of wolves, since no sooner did he cease to fiddle than they recommenced hostilities. The weather was cold and his fingers were too much benumbed to allow him to traverse the strings. But no matter. His unwelcome audience were inexorable, and he was obliged either to allow himself to be eaten, or to keep on fiddling. I have heard mention of the weariness of the fiddler’s elbow; but never did elbow ache like Pete Francis’ on that morning; and what added to his perplexity was the giving way of his instrument. Catgut and horsehair will not last for ever; and string after string had snapped asunder, until the bass was the last remaining, and the wolves began to manifest less satisfaction for the one note, so long drawn out but not "in linked sweetness." Just at this interesting crisis, however, a neighbor and some lumbermen appeared with an ox-team, and the wolves thereupon beat a retreat – equally precipitate and welcome to their prisoner.

This adventure of Pete had made us as "sharp-set" as the wolves; and after discussing another bass – caught from a tank near the cottage – we returned to Saratoga.

Years after, in the summer of 1860, I met Bate in the depths of the Mammoth Cave. "Don’t you wish," he said to me, "that our friend ‘Pete’ was here to fiddle for us now? What echoes he would awaken!" Alas, ‘Pete" will fiddle no more! {Peter Francis died in the spring of 1874. Those, however, who have been in the habit of visiting at Peter’s during the summer season will still find Mrs. Francis at the cottage, ready to wait upon all who may favor her with a call. I will venture to say they will not go away hungry; while, at the same time, they will help feed the widow and the fatherless.}



Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 2/8/00.

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