Theodore Ashlaw

Theodore Ashlaw (1905-1987), addressed both as “Theodore” and “Ted” throughout life, died at age 82 from natural causes in St. Lawrence County, where he resided in a modest, windswept house on a rise adjacent to rural pastureland on Lazy River Road, between the towns of Hermon and Russell. In the words of a daughter, reflecting in 1981, “he had one rough life.” He was by then hobbled by occupational injury and a chronic lung condition that since the late 1970s had caused escalating shortness of breath and inability to sing “the old songs” to his satisfaction. In his own words, “There was a time when I did a lot of singing, and a bunch of them figured I was pretty good at it.” Theodore was singing handed-down songs by age 10, listening to, learning from, and imitating others. Later he learned how to play the mouth organ (harmonica) and step dance.

Theodore Ashlaw was born on January 24, 1905, at St. Regis Paper Company  Camp #1, in the Adirondack woods near Santa Clara and St. Regis Falls, at the border of St. Lawrence County and Franklin County. His father, Henry Ashlaw, hauled logs by sled and horse team for the lumbering job. Mary Sabary Ashlaw, his mother, served as the camp cook. Theodore’s grandparents resided in Quebec. The family ancestry was French Canadian. There eventually were five brothers (Joseph, John, Edward, Frederick, Levi) and four sisters (Emma, Pricilla, Jane, Sarah). Of this group, Edward (“Eddie”), Levi, and Ted are known to have worked in the Adirondack lumberwoods.

By the time Theodore was three, his parents purchased a small farm on Lake Ozonia Road between Nicholville and St. Regis Falls, where he lived until age 12. He attended a local one-room school through fifth grade and learned to speak English; his father and mother preferred to retain Franco-American patois within the immediate family and among some neighbors. In 1920, at age fifteen, Ted joined brother Eddie at North Lake and Saranac Lake lumbering jobs, and in 1922-23 the brothers helped clear 47,000 acres of pulp wood at Beaver River. On the Beaver River job Theodore spent two days as a river driver (“riverman”), a cold, wet, and hazardous job not to his liking. His skills were peeling bark and loading logs, and in the 1930s he worked on a federal/state Works Progress Administration (WPA) project around Piercefield (1932-33); on a job in Vermont (1934), where making $2.50 a day as a woods laborer during a difficult Great Depression year doubled the wages among peers in the Adirondacks; and for the Oval Wood Dish Company, in pulp operations around Tupper Lake. By the late 1930s, and into the 1940s, Theodore was working regularly in St. Lawrence County, jobs that included independent jobber contracts supervised by his brother, Eddie. For ten years, beginning in 1937, he “drove tractor” and “drawed pulp” by truck on Rt. 56 past the Sevey Hotel, a favorite stopping place for area woodsmen.

Theodore Ashlaw was married four times, resulting in seven children (four daughters, three sons). He first married in 1925. In 1934, his wife died from tuberculosis, an ailment for which Ted had spent time at a Lake Placid sanitarium some years earlier. A second, brief marriage occurred in the late 1930s. In 1947, at age 42, he married a teenage girl named Helen following a two-year courtship. They were deeply in love. Life-changing tragedy struck the same year. Still in the prime of a logging career, Theodore was electrocuted through his right thigh when the boom of a log loader made contact with an overhead 4800-volt power line. The accident partially paralyzed Ted for two years and resulted in hospitalization and operations. Recuperation stages during the years after 1950 were long and tedious. Inability to resume work, and frustrations, took a toll both on Ted’s spirit and his marriage. He and Helen divorced in 1972, leaving him guardianship of a young grandson in the household. In the mid 1970s, increasingly solitary, impoverished, and beset with continuing physical impairments, Theodore married for the fourth time. He had few material possessions but retained a wealth of memories and oral history recall ability.

Contacted by twenty-five-year-old graduate student folklorist Robert D. Bethke in 1970, Theodore Ashlaw estimated that prior to his injury he could sing “150 of them old songs, and wrote some, too.” Bethke tape recorded a series of interviews with Theodore between 1970 and 1976 in a joint effort to document his past and Adirondack heritage, and especially the some seventy English, Scottish, Irish, and American folk ballads, Tin Pan Alley descriptive and sentimental songs, ditties, and several Adirondack lumberwoods compositions which Ted could still recall, and sing, in most cases after many years of lapse. These recordings are now on deposit at TAUNY.  In 1972, during a window of opportunity when Ted could muster enough wind to sing well enough to suit himself, with Bethke as recording producer, he compiled several tapes that resulted in an LP album, Ted Ashlaw, Adirondack Woods Singer (Philo 1022, 1976). Folk music scholar/ reviewers in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain greeted the album with uniform tributes. All noted Theodore’s full-throated, non-ornamented, and precisely articulated unaccompanied singing as both “classic” in its engaging directness and fully in keeping with Anglo-Canadian and Adirondack woodsman performance style. Omitted by Bethke from the album selections were examples of a number of bittersweet, angry, and otherwise cathartic compositions by Ted in 1972 occasioned by divorce from Helen. He said he wrote the songs primarily for himself and his extended family.  The new compositions, though departing in tone, evidenced carryover from the lumbercamp tradition: people and places named and described in anecdotal fashion, jibes and satire mingled with nostalgia, and indebtedness to other texts and tunes with which he was familiar.

Additional information on Theodore Ashlaw as a tradition bearer is found in Robert D. Bethke, Adirondack Voices: Woodsmen and Woods Lore (University of Illinois Press, 1981; rpt., Syracuse University Press, 1994).

--Robert D. Bethke