Saturday, April 24, 2010


(112 MOONS - DIED MARCH 31, 1971)

By Steven J. Gee

April 2010

I recently found myself thinking about George Grayhorse, a man I hadn't thought about for many years. I can recall something about him selling a homemade roots tonic at our area's local carnivals, fairs and old home days' celebrations. Kind of like an old time medicine show you might have seen depicted in some western at one of Corning's local movie houses (i.e.-Fox, Plaza-the "Hoot-n-Holler", Palace or State). He was also a counselor to local Boy Scout Troop #11 (sponsored by the Grace Methodist Church) for some of the outdoor life skills' merit badges. Grayhorse was particularly skilled at making a bow and his own arrows both of which were crafted from locally harvested woods he found while hiking the hills surrounding our river valley community. He was considered a sharpshooter when it came to archery. He enjoyed his daily lunches served at Mickey's Grill (owned by the parents of Michael O'Brien - NHS Class of '63) and became one of its regular customers. Most importantly I remember that he was the only prominent Native American residing in the Corning area while I was growing up during the 50s and 60s.

What prompted my thinking about Grayhorse was an e-mail I sent during the Christmas holiday season of 2009 to my fellow alumni from the last graduation class of Corning North Side High School ('63). I asked them to share their holiday memories of yesteryear while we were growing up in Corning and to post them at our Yahoo Group class blog. One of the initial replies from Joan McLaughlin Cook (NHS Class of '63) got me to thinking that Grayhorse would make an excellent article to research and document. There must be a wealth of information in others' memories about him. I'm also sure there is a definite interest in his story because many others will remember him.

I did some further looking on and discovered George listed in several other databases. It's worth noting that the Ancestry site shows three different birth years for him: 1.) The 1910 Census lists Grayhorse as living in Rockland, Maine at a boarding house; employed as an actor in a circus; born in 1877 in Oklahoma; his father was from Mexico, and his mother was Kiowa Indian. 2.) The 1918 World War I Draft Registration site shows him as living at Marlborough, Massachusetts and being born in 1884. He never served in our country's armed forces. In 1921 he had returned to Portland, Maine and is listed in the city directory. 3.) The 1930 Census lists him as now living in Corning with his wife, Minnie (the birth years shown for the couple were George in 1885 and his wife 1904); they resided at 55 River St. (corner of Wallace St.) with Minnie's parents, the Shellmans, along with her brother and his wife; it shows George as being born in Oklahoma of mixed-blood and his wife being born in Pennsylvania; with his occupation being a herbalist. The Social Security Index has him being born July 7, 1884 and dying in March 1971. So he probably never really knew his actual birth year (1877, 1884, 1885).

The following is a compilation of information I have gathered from NHS alumni and other residents of the Corning - Painted Post area as to what they remember about George Grayhorse. Thank you to those who shared their remembrances and contributed photos.

Joan McLaughlin Cook (NHS Class of '63) shared a conversation she and her brother, Donald (NHS Class of '59), had about how their father, every Christmas season, would try to find the appropriate height fresh cut tree for the family celebration and always ended up bringing home a tree too tall for placing in the family's living room. This tradition of buying too big became the family's annual holiday chuckle about Dad always bringing home a humongous fir. Joan's Dad's yearly holiday search for the right tree meant he would always purchase the tree from George Grayhorse's tree sales located in a small vacant lot between Jim Smith's Mobil Station and Mickey's Grill on Bridge Street. Her memory of Grayhorse's name was Chief Grayhorse. Many of Corning's residents referred to him as the Chief.

* * *

The Starr Brothers (Frank "Duke" NHS Class of '56 and Paul NHS Class of '59):

Duke recalls Grayhorse being called Charley. When Duke was just a kid growing up on the Northside he remembers Grayhorse as being quite friendly and very out-going; not very tall; a wiry physical appearance; usually wearing a pair of old scuffed and beat-up looking cowboy boots; smoking homemade hand rolled cigarettes; there was always a tobacco bag with its dangling yellow pull string nestled in the pocket of his faded denim jacket and Grayhorse's gray hair would be worn in very long pigtails that were often tucked underneath a hat. Duke also remembers that his grandfather Dr. Frank Starr had to run George off the grounds of the annual Bath County Fair in the 1930s for selling snake oil. Duke's brother Paul bought his first car a 1950 Plymouth for $200 in 1959 from Grayhorse who was selling used cars for Smitty's Garage that was behind Jim Smith's Mobil gas station on Bridge St. next to River St.

I would like to add to Duke's memories that I too remember George as often being a little unkempt in appearance with one of his trouser legs usually half inside the top of one boot while the other trouser leg would be neatly cuffed around the bottom of the other boot. I also recall that the style of hat most often worn by Grayhorse was a beret and that those long pigtails of his were half tucked underneath the beret while the other half was always just on the verge of falling out from underneath the cap down over his ears.

* * *

Deak (Dave) Johnson (Painted Post HS Class of '59) remembers Grayhorse managing the New York State owned cabin at the foot of the old Erwin fire tower overlooking Gang Mills. George's job as a fire warden was to take care of the State owned land and forest. He also did whatever was necessary to keep visitors safe while visiting the tower. Both the fire tower and cabin were at one time open to the public. From the top of the tower you had a wonderful view of the Painted Post and Corning communities. The tower and cabin became a liability issue for the state and were torn down years ago. George took his job as a New York State forestry fire warden very seriously. His dedication to the stewardship of the earth made him one of Corning's early pioneers in preservation of the area's woods in a natural manner.

Deak also recalls seeing Grayhorse running a bow and arrow concession at the Monterey, NY Old Home Days where you could shoot arrows for prizes. Deak has also visited George's burial plot in the Coopers Plains Cemetery. The grave marker has Grayhorse's age inscribed in moons. Deak doesn't remember how many moons are shown but believes it was over 100.

* * *

Jackie Cook Benjamin (NHS Class of '59) tells the story about her husband Ray (another former Northsider whose family used to own the former Benjamin's Frozen Custard Ice Cream parlor that was at 242 East Market St. across the street from the old Rhodes Brothers' Buick dealership) and his business venture with George Grayhorse that didn't work out as Ray expected it would. It was nearing Christmas and Grayhorse was gearing up to acquire some trees for his annual Christmas tree sales stand. Ray had agreed to go with Grayhorse to help select the trees for cutting and also help with the harvest. They ended up cutting down 45 trees. They had agreed that Ray would get half of the trees to set up his own little business to sell Christmas trees. They were supposed to go and harvest some more trees, which they never did. Grayhorse ended up giving Ray only one tree.

* * *

Hank Fisher (NHS Class of '62) who used to live on Wallace St. while growing up also remembers going with his Dad every Christmas to buy their tree from the Grayhorse tree sales between Mickey's Grill and Smith's Mobil on Bridge St. They would always buy two trees: one for home and the other for Hank's grandparents the Tumas who lived on W. Fourth St. across the river.

* * *

Brock Elk-Horn's (Robert "Boozer" Smith) - NHS Class of '59) father (James) and grandfather (Rennie) owned Smith's Mobil Gas Station at the corners of Bridge and River Streets. His Dad and Grandfather rented the north end of their parking lot next to Mickey's Grill to George Grayhorse where he would sell Christmas trees. While in high school Brock worked part-time for his Dad at the gas station and remembers Grayhorse hanging out in the station year round so he got to know him quite well. Brock's Dad was also a Scoutmaster for Troop 11 sponsored by the Grace Methodist Church. His Dad, Jim, got George interested in helping the Boy Scouts. As a way of thanking Brock's father for getting him involved with the Scouting program, George made a bow by hand and gave it to him. According to Brock's recollections Grayhorse came from a Western tribe and also attended an herbal school in the Midwest. Grayhorse was well known in the Southern Tier for suggesting herbal remedies as he did with Brock's sister telling her to eat lemons for relief from kidney stones, which worked. He had come to the Corning area with a traveling carnival and stayed because he met a local woman with whom he felled in love and married. They lived just north of the city limits on Route 414 near the bottom of Pine Hill Road.

One time while Brock was working at the gas station he cut his hand and Grayhorse put some mercrrochrome on it. Brock remembers yelling because it burned really bad and George said, "No hurt, no cure". Grayhorse sometimes would reminisce and tell Brock about his former "iron man" life in the carnival where he performed bending iron bars. The trick, he said, was it was easy for him being a strong person to bend it and not so easy for a participant from the audience to bend it back into its former shape. He also had a store in Corning years ago where he sold Native American artifacts. He always said he knew where other artifacts were hidden in caves around Corning but he would never tell anyone the locations. George had only the one location for his annual Christmas tree sales at the Smith's family gas station business lot next to Mickey's Grill. Grayhorse always loved to boast about his being able to hike thru the woods to a wildfire even at an old age while younger men couldn't even begin to keep up with him. George also used to tell about running on the reservation as a youth with a young Jim Thorpe by his side. Above all Brock still appreciates the many conversations he shared with Grayhorse regarding the man's spirituality based upon the Native American traditions.

* * *

Another testimony about Grayhorse's herbal tonics comes from Cynthia Simmers Hatcher (NHS Class of '63) who remembers as a child she was suffering from a rash on her skin. Her father, Charles, took her to see George who prescribed one of his herbal tonics for the allergy. She recalls that the herbal tonic did help alleviate the rash. Her Dad told Cindy that Grayhorse gathered many of his herbs he used in his remedies from the woods at the top of Pine Hill Road near where he lived. He also enjoyed stopping at the old Club 414 tavern and visiting with her father when he was there.

* * *

Harry Lindbloom (NHS Class of '60) purchased one of Grayhorse's elixir bottles from one of the antique stores on Market St. several years ago. Hard to believe anything like that is still around after the '72 Flood. Ade Ketchum (NHS Class of '59) examined Harry's bottle and read the label. In large type the word Kiowa was printed. According to Ade there is still some liquid in the bottle; it has a cork stopper and the contents smell like kerosene. The label is loose and held in place with a string tied around the outside of the bottle.

Ade also did some research on and found George Grayhorse's name listed on the Kiowa Indian Nation site. He also mentioned that he had been told that another place Grayhorse often would frequent and visit with the employees was the Mac's Cab office that was located on River St. behind Jim Smith's Mobil Station.

Michael O'Brien (NHS Class of '63) has many fond memories of Grayhorse. His parents (Clarence and Agnes) owned Mickey's Grill at 13 Bridge Street. Mike lived upstairs above the Grill. George was a regular customer as his parent's establishment for coffee, breakfast and lunch while Michael was growing up. When television became available in the Corning area, his folks got one for the bar and Mike would go downstairs and watch TV on Saturday mornings. That's when all the kids' shows were on and many of them were old westerns (Sky King, Fury, Tales Of The Texas Rangers, Roy Rogers, etc.) Grayhorse would be there for morning coffee and it annoyed him because the Indians always got the short end of the stick. Saint Patrick's Day was a major celebration at Mickey's Grill and the Chief would always dress up in his full Native American regalia. All the patrons wanted to have their photo taken with him.

Mike also remembers the Christmas trees that George sold from the vacant lot between his parents' business and the Smith's Mobil Station. In fact every year Grayhorse would select a tree for Mike to take to school at St. Vincent's. One-year Mike's Mother paid for a taxi (Mac's Cab) to take her son and the tree to school. They arrived at the school late and the driver unloaded the tree and left little Mike and the tree at the curb. Mike thought the driver would help him but he didn't. Instead of going to his classroom for help, Mike ended up dragging the tree to the rear of the school, then up the fire escape and down the second floor school hallway to his classroom. What started out as a nicely proportioned tree ended up being decorated with one extremely flat side.

Mike recalls when his boyhood friend Tommy Glover (Class of '64 Corning East HS and now residing near Boston, Ma.) bought a bow from Grayhorse that was supposed to be a 30lb. bow. According to Mike the bows that George used in his carnival game were small and little more than the toy ones you would have seen in the local five and dime stores. He use to see the Chief spending a lot of time visiting the home of Christopher and Eliza Kelly at 41 River St. near the Giambrone's residence but never knew the connection between George and the Kellys other then being friends. Though Grayhorse may have spent a lot of time in the Corning area taverns it was simply for camaraderie and socializing because he wasn't a drinking man when it came to alcoholic beverages.

Mike always thought that George was a Seneca Indian and didn't learn that he was really a member of the Kiowa Tribe from Oklahoma until he read Dick Peer's article (which follows below) in the Corning Leader newspaper years later. During the summer of 2009 Mike and his wife Marilyn were visiting Corning and had dinner with his Aunt Genny Tarentelli and Dr.Wayne Templer (retired). Discussion during the dinner centered around reminisces of old Corning and Mike mentioned the subject of Grayhorse. Dr.Templer remembers he treated the Chief from time to time but never charged him due to professional courtesy.

* * *

Sheri Golder, President of the Corning-Painted Post Historical Society graciously contacted several fellow society members about their recollections regarding Grayhorse. The over whelming response was that he was one of Corning's most colorful characters. Several also commented about his participation in many of the Corning-Painted Post area parades riding a horse while he was ornately dressed in his Native American garb.

* * *

"Dirty John" Herdman the legendary junk man of Allegany County in Western New York had an article written about him by a Kathleen Moran that was published by the Livonia Gazette newspaper in April 1972. "Dirty John" mentioned to the reporter during the interview that his weight had dropped over 100 pounds due to several operations for a diabetic condition. He admitted that he didn't hold much faith with the doctors who had told him his health problems were serious. "Dirty John" placed his trust with an old Indian friend, George Grayhorse (whom John believed to be 109 years old). The Chief had diagnosed "Dirty John" with some kind of poison in his system.

* * *

Dick Peer (Campbell High School Class of '43), retired Editor of the Corning Leader newspaper, wrote a special article for The Leader in the late 80s entitled Chief Grayhorse Man Extraordinaire. In the write-up Dick discussed Grayhorse's fabled medicine show that traveled around the Corning area. Dick maintained that the Chief was not a charlatan because of his strong background in herbal medicine. He also describes how George spoke on the subject at numerous colleges and for a brief time even taught a course about herbal remedies at a university in the South. Grayhorse firmly believed in the elixirs he sold at his medicine show and many of his customers confirmed how the remedies did help them with their ailments.

Peer described the Chief as having a strong face much as you would imagine a person of Kiowa heritage having. As Grayhorse aged his facial lines added dignity to his features. When he wore his feathered headdress over his long gray hair and flamboyantly sold his medicines from a stage you had no doubt that he was a showman and knew how to manage the audience.

Peer discussed how after George's birth on an Oklahoma Indian reservation that his parents named him after the first thing that attracted their attention, which was a gray horse. It wasn't until after he started school that the teachers gave him his first name of George. As a youngster Grayhorse loved the outdoors and quickly learned horsemanship, roping and tracking. Though during his boyhood he wasn't much for school and ran away from his reservation school at Horton, KS when he was in the eighth grade.

Dick Peer learned that about 1900 the Chief met Cole Younger, now reformed but once an infamous outlaw, who was touring with a carnival near Webb City, MO. It was also about this time that Grayhorse saw his first western silent movie. The movie arcades became his introduction to show business. He would stand for hours outside a theater spinning his lariats to attract attention and entice members of the audience to purchase a movie ticket.

Peer explained that George rapidly learned that a young man couldn't advance without a formal education so he returned to high school in Oklahoma attending classes during the fall, winter and spring. He also would return to working show business in the summer months. One winter after school he worked part-time for a doctor's household caring for the farm animals. He would borrow the physician's medical books and take them along to the barn to read. This was his first introduction to the world of medicine. This sparked his life long interest in the application of natural herbal remedies for healing the sick that he had first experienced as part of his Native American up bringing.

Dick Peer also wrote in the piece that after high school Grayhorse attended Hampton University in Virginia to study herbal medicine. However during his last year at the university he dropped out of school when the lure of high pay in show business attracted him.

Peer mentioned how George did a little bit of everything in the entertainment circuit: horseback trick riding including riding underneath horses; spinning and twirling large lariat loops as much as 25 feet across; roping four horses at the same time and even grabbing the tail of a running horse before leaping onto its back. He made his biggest money in airplane wing walking receiving $100 per performance. Grayhorse also performed the "slide for life" down long wires, which today we refer to as "zip lining". He even did daredevil flights aboard hot air balloons. While working in carnival sideshows the Chief became known as the "Iron Jaw" because of his ability to bend half-inch thick iron bars clinched between his teeth into double circles. Friendship with another show person, Catherine Oldroyd who was originally from Corning, brought him to the Chemung River Valley in 1929.

* * *

I am confident that Grayhorse accepted the title of Chief bestowed upon him by his friends and fellow acquaintances in the Corning-Painted Post communities and truly loved the community recognition even though he was not a true tribal chieftain. The nickname of Chief handsomely reflected his strong chiseled facial features attributable to his Native American heritage. I can now understand how he utilized this ethnicity along with his innate ability of personableness to fulfill his life's journey whether it was pursuing being an actor, acrobat, cowboy, pitchman, salesman, sharpshooter, strongman, storyteller, forester or herbalist.

I also believe George Grayhorse will be remembered for two important contributions to the Corning area during the middle part of the 20th. Century. Truly his early exploits in local folk medicine have contributed to his legacy of being the prominent folk herbalist during this time and making him a pioneer of alternative medicine in the Southern Tier. We must also acknowledge his foresightedness to promote conservation practices thru his work and volunteering that assured the preservation of the hillside forests surrounding the Chemung River Valley in the Coning - Painted Post community.

(c) 2010 Steven J. Gee


Anonymous said...

I'am so happy you wrote this blog.I'am one of the granddauhhters of Eliza and Chris Kelly and grew up knowing george greyhorse as uncle and aunt Minnie HA ha.When I was Young we lived at 41 River ST with grandma and grandpa kelly. sat with George and Minnie at my grandma's kitchen table. thanks again. Betty Pruden


Major Tom said...

This is a wonderful remembrance of the old Chief, thank you.

I was delighted to see the reflections of Duke Starr, who was my provisional Scout Master at Camp Gorton in the 60's.

I'd love to get in touch with him.

If you know his contact information, please give him my email address:

Thomas Martin

Michael Makin said...

Is this the same George Greyhorse known as George Greyhorse Makin? If so, who would know more about him?

mike M