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Facing Old King Cold
Bil Gilbert
March 14, 1977
You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam
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March 14, 1977

Facing Old King Cold

You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam

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Potter is a somewhat unusual and out-of-the-way place, being a sparsely settled county in north central Pennsylvania. It sits astride the crest of the central Appalachian highlands. Its springs, icy brooks and white water streams flow through the Ohio River system to the Gulf of Mexico and through the Susquehanna to the Atlantic. The upper ridges down which the waters spill are only 2,500 feet or so above sea level, but the mountains of Potter are formidable. They are laid out in bewildering complexes of intersection ridges, sharp valleys, gulches and ravines; littered with rock slides and boulder fields; chopped off into cliff faces and cut by streams, sinks and bogs. This topographic maze is overlaid and further complicated by an impressive northern hardwood forest. There are great 80-to 100-foot black cherry trees and mixed with the cherries are maple, oak, ash, birch, beech, poplar, pine and, in the bogs, tamarack. In the understory are thickets of laurel, button bush, ferns and all manner of lesser vines, flowers and brush.

At the center of Potter is a quarter-of-a-million-acre tract officially designated and supervised as the Susquehannock (after the Indian tribe of the same name) State Forest. Locally it is often called the Black Forest. The name is appropriate. There are ravines and glades within Potter's big woods which, because of the extensive and deep canopy of foliage, see very little of the sun except the pale cold winter one.

The Black Forest is the domicile of a good many bears, bobcats, foxes, mink, raccoons, porcupines, beaver, ravens, goshawks, grouse, turkey, timber rattlesnakes, trout and a lot of deer—a herd of some 35,000. In contrast, there are not many people in the 698,000-acre county, more than 80% of which is woodland—about 16,000 residents, which works out to almost 39 acres of woodland per person.

As might be expected from what does and does not live there, the weather in Potter is also wild. A set of meteorological maps, which illustrate such things as temperature and the amount of solar radiation and precipitation, will show that Potter has a meteorological profile similar to that of northern Maine, Minnesota, central Alaska and a lot of Canada. From December into March the average temperature is well below freezing, and throughout the year there are fewer than 150 dependably freeze-free days. Sixty to 100 inches of snow falls each year, and it is not unusual to find snow around the ravines in May. Despite the fact that it lies at about the same latitude as Chicago, Des Moines and Providence, R.I., the climate of Potter is what might be called subarctic. In part, the elevation accounts for this anomaly; also the fact that these highlands are the closest ones to the eastern Great Lakes, across which arctic winds and air masses proceed unimpeded until they hit the mountains.

Especially in Pennsylvania, but also in adjacent parts of Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey and New York, people will sometimes say that they are going to be, or have been, "up in Potter," (the word "county" is almost never added) or "That buck looks like a fawn alongside what they got up in Potter," or "By God, I bet you'd freeze your patootie this morning if you was up in Potter."

Close examination may show that they actually have been up in Clinton or Cameron, which are adjacent and very similar highland counties. However, Potter has such a reputation for cold, solitude and wilderness that it has become a kind of code word. It also has come to have a certain mystic meaning. A fellow who says he is going up to Potter is hinting that not only is he traveling through space to an exceptionally wild, cold place, but also backward through time toward a point when everything, or so we like to imagine, was more elemental, somehow purer, than it is now.


U.S. Highway 6, running east and west, more or less bisects Potter. Halfway through the county, set back from the highway so that the Black Forest is at its hind end, is the Potato City Motor Inn. It provides the grandest accommodations in all Potter; in fact, accommodations that would be regarded as better than adequate almost anyplace. In addition to the Inn there is a Potato City Trap Range, a Potato City driving range and a Potato City Airport, but there is no Potato City. The reasons for all of this are curious.

The bulk of the cleared agricultural land in Potter lies to the north of Highway 6. The principal commercial crop is potatoes. Shortly after World War II some big potato men found themselves embarrassed because when potato magnates from other parts of the state, or from Maine or Idaho, came to visit, there was no suitable place for them to stay and be entertained. So the growers and packers chipped in and built the Potato City Motor Inn and associated facilities. Their idea was that it would make them a nice club and would also pay for itself by taking in non-potato travelers. Club-wise it was successful, by report, but it didn't do well with travelers. There were not many of them, and the potato group didn't treat them with great hospitality when they did show up. By and by, the potato men sold the property. It has since passed through several hands and has ended up in the capable ones of two young couples from southeastern Pennsylvania who have considerably refurbished and expanded the business.

The social heart of the Potato City Motor Inn, one that hints at its original function, is a convention-sized eating, drinking, dancing and general-carrying-on complex. Despite its grand proportions, this is a fairly chummy hall, largely because of a fine, large horseshoe-shaped bar and a large flagstone fireplace. A massive young friend named Sam and I were sitting at a fireside table there on the last Friday night of January.

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