Niagara Falls and The German Husband in a Barrel

A Note to My Readers:  There are few true wonders of the world and I was fortunate to spend some of my early childhood vacations at one of Mother Nature’s most awe-inspiring sites…Niagara Falls.  Last night, my cousin, Bob, emailed a collection of archival photos of Niagara Falls when they froze.  Bob was raised in Buffalo, New York…though he now wisely basks in the warmth of sunny California.  I used to visit his parents…my aunt and uncle… in Buffalo as a small child and Niagara Falls was a ‘must see’ every time we went.  And it was always the most amazing thrill.  A wonder of nature.  Majestic and terrifying.

Niagara Snow Globe When my sister was born in May of 1952, I stayed with the Krolls for a few weeks.  We bundled up one weekend and were ‘off to the Falls’.  It was late May, but the air around the falls is turbulent and filled with the misty, chilly drops of the Niagara River as it plunges into the chasms below.  My belly would flip as I peered through the iron fencing…and looked at the water falling and falling and falling.   I was five and the expanse of the view and the roaring of the mighty water as it fell made my head spin and my ears ring.   I loved it.  My Aunt Mary was generous and doting and often bought me the most delightful trinkets.  And always the perfect thing to touch my young heart.   On this trip she took me into a souvenir shop and bought me a small snow globe…with the  magnificent falls trapped under the dome.  I still remember the globe in her hand…her wrist daintily clad with a small charm bracelet.  A flick of her wrist…her bracelet producing a small tinkling sound…and the snow flew in the miniature universe.  I was enthralled.  I had never seen a snow globe before.

My gift went everywhere with me during my Buffalo stay and one morning while I sat at the breakfast bar, the Kroll’s German-born housekeeper spotted the globe as she bustled about making her famous Belgian waffles.  She popped a strawberry in my mouth, shook the globe, squinted into it and in a matter of fact voice told me that her husband had gone over “der fells” in a barrel.   I chewed on the strawberry and her fantastic statement.  Why would anyone go over the falls in a barrel?  I busied myself with the waffle…topped with fresh whipped cream and strawberries all the while wondering if she was daft.  But then someone who could make such a glorious thing for breakfast could not be crazy.

All day I considered the tale of the housekeeper’s husband that careened over the falls in a barrel.  By four o’clock my mind was as turbulent as the Niagara waters and I suppose I had an expression that gave away my consternation.  Even a ride on my cousin Bob’s shoulders…something he and I both loved to do…running about the living room…through the swinging door from the dining room and into the kitchen…bouncing and giggling…could not completely put my questions aside for long.  The kitchen was beginning to fill with the most wonderful aromas as my aunt began preparations for dinner.  Tonight there were guests and so I would eat early and be off to bed while the adults spent the evening talking politics and gossiping.  Did they know about the man in the barrel?  Was that not THE most wonderful gossip?

I became more silent as I ate…pushing my mashed potatoes around and creating the Horseshoe Falls with the gravy…sorry Mr. Spielberg…a little girl in 1956 sculpted a geographic formation long before “Close Encounters”.  I picked up a pea and plopped it at the crest and watched it ooze down the Beef Gravy Falls.  Ooze…not plunge, but still I considered the erstwhile veggie barrel as over and over again, it made the lazy, downward journey.  “Don’t play with your food, tweetsie-dins,” my aunt admonished in her endearing manner.  My reverie interrupted,  I screwed up my courage and blurted out…”Did a man really go over the falls in a barrel?”

Despite the fact she had an impressive dinner underway, she wiped her hands on her apron…and sat on the kitchen stool next to me.   I told her about her housekeeper’s tale about “der fells” and the German husband in a barrel.  Her eyebrows raised and for a moment I was unsure of her reaction.  And she laughed!   Her perfume enveloped me as she leaned in and squeezed me tight.  Uncle Harry had just arrived home from his work as a furrier at Hengerer’s and found us in the kitchen amidst the food preparation, my potato homage and the tale of the German immigrant who went over the falls.   As they talked,  I ate my dinner slowly disassembling my sculpture until all that remained was a puddle of gravy with a crushed pea…a barrel that failed to survive the slide to the plate intact.

To this day I am not sure of the truth of the tale…so much of that memory is muddled with time. Either the story was true or how the housekeeper explained her “Mrs.” title with no apparent husband…I just don’t recall. I was five and full of mashed potatoes, sleepy from Bob’s caroming shoulder ride through the little Tudor style house on Voorhees Avenue and the barrage of images of roaring water and a bobbing barrel in the Niagara River.

The globe was my constant companion during my stay.  It would be tucked in my pocket…placed by my glass of milk…perched on my bedside table where I could just make out the outline in the dim light and imagine the distant roar trapped under the glass.

Somewhere in the passage of time my snow globe went the way of many lost treasures.  Replaced by another wonder perhaps, but not forgotten.

I have visited Niagara Falls off and on after that…again in 1956 when my mother’s family held a reunion in summer.  We were all

Niagara Falls 1956

Niagara Falls 1956

there…the gaggle of the Purdys oohing and aahing at the sight of the magnificent geological formation.  After the picture taking and hugging…perfumed…always perfumed…I remember peeking over the familiar iron railing and feeling the belly flip of vertigo and for one second…imagining the man in the barrel.

The archival photos that Bob shared with me reminded me, too, of the snaps of cold that are part of living in Buffalo and another image of frozen Niagara Falls.  The falls had gone ‘silent’ during those freezes..the first recorded freeze was in 1848 and in 1911 the folks who lived along the river and near the falls woke up one morning to a deafening silence.   The usual roar of the rushing waters was silenced by fifty feet of ice.  The formation is properly entitled an ice bridge.  The river still ran below and continue to fall, but the depth of the ice and the reduced volume of flowing water acted as a buffer.   It wasn’t long before people bundled up and wandered across the ice crossing the frozen expanse.  In 1912 that became forbidden when the ice broke apart and some unfortunate souls were carried away and over the falls.

I am still fascinated by the lure and lore of Niagara Falls…the romance of it.   It was THE place to wed and honeymoon for the young lovers of New York State for as many years as I can remember.  And there was Canada.  As a child, I thought it marvelous that we could ride in my uncle’s big Oldsmobile and have lunch in another country.

In the spring of 2013 I have plans to visit Buffalo…research at the Darwin Martin House and to spend some time with my other  cousin, Peter.  It might be a good time to make a visit to the Falls and maybe find a snow globe in a little shop.  I will skip the barrel.

UPDATE: My cousin, Bob, read the post and reminded me that their housekeeper was Martha Lerner, Bavarian by birth.  Over the years I could only remember “Marda”.

He relates

Martha was a widow but had children living in the Bflo area.  Big and strong Bavarian with a powerful personality, she was bigger than life! Tried to teach me German – many words and expressions in German are still with me and have come in handy down through the years.  Thanx for sending us down memory lane once again!

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved


4 thoughts on “Niagara Falls and The German Husband in a Barrel

  1. Nice story Deb. While I was born in Buffalo I lived in Niagara Falls from 1943 until 1983 at which time the declining business climate in Western New York and the awful winter weather encouraged my wife and I and our children to move to Florida. I am not sure that I ever really appreciated the beauty of the falls until we revisited the area many years later.

  2. I have been to the falls many times, in the 50’s there was twice as much water going over as there is now. Beautiful place.

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