Everyone has heard of Paul Bunyan and his famous blue ox, but Indiana, Cherry Tree to be exact has their own Paul Bunyan, Joe, “Cherry Tree Joe.” He was widely known across the country before his death in 1895. Joseph McCreight McCreery was born in 1805 near Muncy, Lycoming County, and he came to Indiana County with his parents, Hugh and Nancy McCreery, when Joe was about 13 years old. This would have been around the year 1818, Indiana County was officially formed in 1803, and Cherry Tree was still wilderness, and Joe had lots of exercise helping his father clear the land.
At this time, Cherry Tree was not a town, it had no post office, but it was well known during the time. Native Americans called the place “Canoe Place” because it was the highest canoes could go up the West Branch of the Susquehanna at normal water. It was at this place where a large cherry tree grew and was a principal marker of the line drawn in 1768, under a treaty with the Penn Family which the natives permitted settlers to move, legally, into the area west of the Allegheny Mountains. The area provided some of the world’s finest timber; the white pine provided the 100-foot masts for clipper ships while the white and red oak and black walnut provided the beams, planking and trim.
Mostly likely Joe began rafting when he was 15 years old and probably went down river with the logs his father sold while clearing the farm. Joe was big and husky, but also agile and quick; as a logger needed to be in order to live long. Whether rain or shine, hot or cold, one had to be out when time and water came for the long drive. When a long turned under one’s feet it was a question of a quick jump or risk being crushed to death, and one had to remember the icy water they were floating on.
As in modern times, Joe an athlete of his day, loved to show off. He would make a long spin just to show how well he could handle it. Joe was remembered as a man over six feet and weighing 200 pounds with a long beard. He was also a great hunter, meaning he dodged work when he could. Despite this he became a kind of patron saint of the local industry.
Sometime around 1840, there was a move to improve the West Branch channel at Chest Falls, where rafts often came to grief. Some lumbermen wanted to build a dam inorder to raise the water level, but Cherry Tree Joe insisted against this, instead suggesting that the rock be blasted away. The final outcome of the blasting was much of a failure, as very little rock was moved. The Falls continued to serve as a hazard and everyone blamed Joe when there was a raft that wrecked there.
There are many stories told about Cherry Tree Joe, one of those stories was the Joe ran a raft right over the famed cherry tree, now marked by a monument, during the flood of the Spring of 1845. Another was that Joe, single-handedly, broke at 10-mile log jam at Buttermilk Falls and at the famed Gerry’s Rocks on the Susquehanna he lifted a timber raft clear, set it down in safe water, and then jumped aboard.
Joe also did logging and rafting on the Clarion, Allegheny and Kiskiminetas Rivers. But it was on the West Branch where he was called to clear up a bad log jam. The run of timber was birch and while Joe studied the problem, he pulled out his knife and began to whittle, and before he realized what happened he had whittled the whole raft into little sticks – and that’s how the toothpicks were invented.
While Joe was rafting on the Kiski, he met and married Eleanor R. Banks of Blairsville in 1834. However, legend say that Cherry Tree Joe was quite the “ladies’ man.” The two had a total of six children, all boys: John O. McCreery; Morgan; Bill; Aquilla; Albert; and Joshua. In 1861, even though he was past 56 years of age, Joe joined the Eleventh Pennsylvania Calvary serving until he was discharged on a surgeon’s certificate in March 1862.
One of Joe’s final acts was risking his life during the 1889 Johnstown Flood in which he pulled a house up on the bank as it came riding the crest of the flood waters. The venture was worthwhile because it saved the lives of two sets of triplets.
Joe died on November 23, 1895 in Cherry Tree; although Joe always swore he would dies with his boots on, that did not happen. Instead as Fall 1895 came, Joe had become ill. Even after his death, Cherry Tree Joe was not forgotten, and raftsmen would share stories of Joe when they met; they even carried Joe’s boots to the reunion and hung them up as a memorial to the great man.