The Legend No One Really Knew
Communities have always had their characters and one of them certainly was John Preissecker. He was a peddler, a popcorn salesman, and a man who caught hundreds of dozens of frogs, toads and turtles every season in the swamps and creeks in the upstate New York towns of Gates and Chili in the 1890's and the early twentieth century. He quickly became the city of Rochester's premier supplier of frog legs, a popular delicacy in all the best hotels and restaurants in his day.
And although everyone knew of John as he traveled in his donkeymobile with its buggy filled with burlap bags of writhing frogs, most people did not even know his real name. They called him "Frogleg George." The newspapers did, too. He soon became a local living legend, but a person whom no one really knew.
John M. Robortella, of Canandaigua, N.Y., who is the director of publications at the William E. Simon Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of Rochester, has written a book about Mr. Preissecker, titled Frogleg George: The Legend No One Really Knew.
Published in September 2006 by the Gates (N.Y.) Historical Society, the book brings Mr. Preissecker's story to life using newspaper articles of the day, the decades-old published reminiscences of people who knew him, and rare photos from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection of the Rochester Museum & Science Center.
Edited by George M. Tomczyk, it opens with a foreword by Edward Varno, executive director of the Ontario County (N.Y.) Historical Society, and is available for sale at the Gates Historical Society, located in the Hinchey Homestead, 634 Hinchey Road, Rochester, N.Y. 14624, (585) 464-9740; and at the Ontario County Historical Society, 55 North Main Street, Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424, (585) 394-4975.
Following is an excerpt:
Frogleg George: The Legend No One Really Knew
Local history is strange stuff. It consists of landmarks and lore and a ton of facts, all of which are out there somewhere to be discovered and recounted in pictures, tales and words. Personally, I enjoy the legends of our past. I am referring to those people who never invented a society-changing machine, those who never made millions of dollars and donated them to charities. I like to learn about the everyday Joes and Janes who lived among our ancestors and were unique characters in their communities. Fluffy Ruffles and Shorty Peckler, for example, were two such characters in Canandaigua, N.Y., in the early 1900's. Frogleg George, who roamed through the creeks and lowlands of Gates, N.Y., was another. It is his legend that is recalled in this book.
Usually for a good reason, the stories of these individuals are remembered and handed down verbally from generation to generation. These local legends are rarely the subject of a book, as there are few facts available to warrant putting fingers to the keys and immortalizing them on paper, bound with glue and stitches. So their stories float around the historical societies and bars like a periodic mist that comes and goes.
Occasionally, there is a record of these locals as they came into contact with their neighbors in society—and sometimes even with the law. Then, journalists see fit to tell others about their uniqueness in newspapers and journals. A record is created, and as time goes by, a historian may pick up on one of these people and piece together the story of a life. Then, society gets a great gift of history.
These documented tales open a portal to the everyday world of our fathers and their fathers, and reveal history in a way to which we were not privy in school. There, we only read about the wars and trends and movements in society. Boring to some. A reason to skip history class to others.
John Robortella unearthed the adventures of "Frogleg George" from the lore of John Preissecker (Frogleg George's real name) to newspaper accounts of his life. Mr. Robortella glued them together in a well-documented book that is really fun reading. As you proceed through this story, you are transported back to a simpler time, the turn of the nineteenth century in the towns of Gates and Chili, and the city of Rochester. "Frogleg George" comes alive in the pages and you begin to relive the era, the life in his social class, and his times.
If only this type of history had supplemented our course work in school and was presented in our classrooms, we might have better understood the abstract trends and movements that the purveyors of knowledge—our history teachers—were required to teach in schools. The result would have been more historians today.
Frogleg George is local history in the truest sense of the word. Enjoy the read.
Everyone knew of John S. Preissecker. The merchants, shoppers and saloonkeepers up and down Rochester, N.Y.'s, Front Street at the turn of the nineteenth century surely did. Restaurant owners in the city did business with him. People in the nearby towns of Gates and Chili knew of him, too; and he scared the daylights out of some of them, what with his appearance and his habit of pulling a live frog out of his pocket. He knew the paths through the woods and the banks all along Black Creek, Little Black Creek, and the swamps and lowlands where the frogs, toads and turtles lived.
John was a local celebrity, as well, often having made the Rochester papers usually because of court appearances for various fights and disagreements with his neighbors, mostly due to the menagerie of animals he kept at home. Of course, there was the time he stuffed a towel down his wife, Hattie's, throat and threw her out of the house. He ended up in court more than the average citizen.
To some, he was notorious, and they were glad when he and his wife, and their home zoo, moved out. In the late 1800's, they moved often, each time farther away from the city center. Eventually, they settled on Elser Terrace in today's Dutchtown section of Rochester. Back then, it was rural farmland and within the boundaries of the town of Gates.
Yes, people certainly knew of John Preissecker. But most of them did not even know his real name. They called him Frogleg George. The newspapers did, too, and sometimes misidentified him as George Preissecker.
John had no children and few friends. After his wife died, he lived the last two years of his life as a boarder in the home of John and Emma Walsh on the Chili-Gates Townline Road (now known as Westside Drive). But they, too, knew few details of Frogleg George's life, for when he died on March 28, 1936, Mr. and Mrs. Walsh were able to provide the doctor at the hospital no information for the death certificate. The only thing for sure was that John was born in Germany and that he was "approximately" 76 years old at his death.
He was one of those people whom the newspapers describe as a character. He was a peddler, a popcorn salesman, and a man who caught hundreds of dozens of frogs, toads and turtles every season in the swamps and creeks of Gates and Chili in the 1890's and the early years of the twentieth century. He was Rochester's main supplier of frog legs, a popular delicacy at the time. He supplied dried toads to printers for making ink. He sold turtles to restaurants for making soup. For the entertainment of onlookers, after "a few schupers too many" in a Front Street saloon (as he told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 1929), he sometimes swallowed a live frog or several of them and let people touch his stomach so they could feel the critter still jumping inside of him.
John may have been a character, to be sure, but a lonely one. Mr. and Mrs. Walsh, who had taken him in near the end, may have been the ones who took up a collection to pay the undertaker, the priest, and the cemetery. But the money must have run out, because today, he lies buried in an unmarked grave a sad testament to a man whom everyone knew of, but who few, if any, really knew at all.
John Preissecker was born c. 1860 in Germany and arrived in Rochester when he was about 25. The earliest listing for him in the Rochester city directory appears in the 1885 issue. It describes him as a laborer living at 48 Orchard Street. He must have decided that going into business for himself was the better way to make a living in America, because by 1886 he had, in true entrepreneurial style, identified a niche and filled it. He would become the city's premier supplier of frog legs to all the finest hotels and restaurants. His main sources were the frog lairs along Black Creek and Little Black Creek in the towns of Chili and Gates, but he did venture farther away now and then, if we are to believe his boasting in the newspapers of the day.
"I catch all my frogs by hand," he told a Rochester Herald newspaper reporter in 1917. "But I am not going to tell you the secret. I never use gun nor hook nor trap of any kind, but just sneak up on 'em, and there you are."
"Why, if St. Patrick was sainted because he drove the frogs and snakes and toads out of Ireland, I think I deserve some reward for my work," he said. "I estimate that I kill a million frogs each season, and probably half that number of toads. I travel as far south as DuBois, Pennsylvania, and sometimes go into Canada after frogs, and I sell most of the legs right here in Rochester."
A million frogs a year! The Herald seemed to have allowed him quite a bit of license. Besides, what reporter would really want to count how many live frogs were in his packs? But John very well may have traveled into Canada, especially in his younger days, or perhaps he entered the United States through Canada, because his wife, Hattie Symonds, was Canadian, and there is no record of John having arrived through Ellis Island off New York City.
The newspaper also reported that "toads form no inconsiderable part of the business that George does. After they are captured they are dried and sold to lithographers as an ingredient of the ink used in lithographing processes. George declares that he gathered twenty sacks full last year."
John made his way along the roads in a buggy pulled by one of his creatures. The newspaper described it like this:
John and Hattie were probably married in 1886, because on Hattie's death record, her occupation is listed as "housework" and that she spent 44 years doing it.
From the time they settled in Rochester, John and Hattie seldom stayed very long in one place. By 1887, they had moved to 155 Clifton Street. In 1891, they were at 39½ Stone Street; the next year, at 278 Allen Street. They lived at 80 Union Street in 1893 and at 418 West Avenue in 1894. They went back to 48 Orchard Street in 1895, and moved to 179 Jones Avenue in 1896. John and Hattie lived on Boss Place off Maple Street from 1897 to 1912. Finally, they moved to 18 Elser Terrace in 1913, in what was then rural Gates. After Hattie's death in 1930, John remained there until he moved in with a Chili family in 1935.
The city proper was no place for John's farm that included, among other animals, his geese, swine, ducks and chickens. During winter months, he would also store live frogs in vats and buckets in his house, and then sell them to the restaurants and hotels in the off season to demand a higher price. No wonder he never stayed in one place very long.
In his younger days in Rochester, John often got into trouble. The first news report of his difficulties appeared in 1892, but it wasn't the first time he was in court because he told the judge then that he had been "pretty good since the last time I was here."
When he lived on Allen Street, he got into a fight with John E. Stearns on a Saturday night in August and ended up before Police Justice Bartholomew Keeler at City Hall on Monday morning, August 22, 1892, on a charge of fighting.
Mr. Stearns, a laborer who lived at 620 Genesee Street, told the judge that he met John on Allen Street that Saturday night and accused him of circulating a story to the effect that John held a chattel mortgage on Mr. Stearns's horse. In those days, it apparently was held in esteem to own one's horse free and clear, and any notion that someone like Frogleg George would have a mortgage on your horse probably did not sit well.
In 1897, when John and Hattie lived on Boss Place, his troubles were more serious. "If it were not for the police court, where family troubles could be aired for the beauty of an interested public, those same domestic storms would probably lose much of their charm for the parties concerned," a reporter wrote in the Rochester Union and Advertiser. "A Pretty Story of Matrimonial Happiness Came Up This Morning."
What follows is a case of spousal abuse and is hardly politically correct in this day and age. But it was a "man's world" in 1897, and even the newspaper made light of the abuse that Hattie suffered at John's hand, to the point of mockery.
A year later, Charles Webber, a milkman, sued John, who wore a worried expression on his face when he appeared in Rochester Municipal Court on the morning of Wednesday, March 2, 1898. Mr. Webber alleged that one of John's donkeys got out of its barn on Boss Place and bit Mr. Webber's horse in the nose, causing the horse to run like crazy, overturning and destroying the milkman's sleigh, spilling 120 quarts of milk and destroying three milk cans.
"Webber says that it is all the fault of Preissecker for not keeping his donkeys securely tied in his barn," the Rochester Post Express reported. "The sum of $500 will not more than reimburse him for the damage caused by the runaway, the man declares. Preissecker denies all knowledge of the matter, and that will be his defense."
The case was scheduled for trial at 3:30 p.m. that afternoon. John was not represented by a lawyer but promised to find one if given the time.
By 1900, John's errant donkeys got loose so many times that petty arguments turned into full assaults. This time, a neighbor brandished an iron rod and John took a hammer to the man's head. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reported it:
IN TROUBLE AGAIN.
George Preissicker Has a Difference With His Neighbor, George Goerger.
John was arrested by Rochester Police Officers Hetzler and Ehrmentraut, was charged with third degree assault and paid a fine of $25.
On July 23, 1902, he again appears in the Democrat and Chronicle's police blotter: "George Preissicker (sic) was arraigned in police court yesterday, charged with harboring an unregistered dog. The defendant demanded a jury trial and the case was set down for Monday." No follow-up report tells the outcome. Apparently even the newspapers were becoming bored with John's difficulties in getting along with his neighbors.
© 2006, John M. Robortella
Foreword © 2006, Edward Varno