Saturday, October 29, 2011

Uncle Josh and the Record Labels

Uncle Josh and the Record Labels

By Randy McNutt

In country music, only a few performers are prehistoric—contributors to what hillbilly music became in the 1920s. One of them is Calvin Edward Stewart, known Cal Stewart, who began recording comedic monologues in the 1890s and continued until his death in 1919. As the creator of the Uncle Josh Weathersby series of recordings (Josh was the Down East farmer whose foibles entertained millions of people on the infant talking machine), Stewart stands out as an actor, author, comedian, songwriter, and rustic poet. Recently, iUniverse reissued my 1981 book Cal Stewart, Your Uncle Josh in both softbound and e-book formats. A subtitle, America's King of Rural Comedy, is now added to this rewritten and expanded second edition. The book is available from and other Internet sites as well as from The book costs $20.95; $9.99 in electronic form. In addition to 19 chapters, the 277-page book features 42 rare photographs and illustrations, a guide to Stewart’s Punkin Center characters, a Stewart career timeline, a discography, and a “Cylopedium” of terms used by Stewart’s characters during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

From the Introduction to
Cal Stewart, Your Uncle Josh: America's King of Rural Comedy


As a winter storm pummeled the city of Hamilton, Ohio, I was below ground, exploring the artifacts of my elderly uncle’s life. The unfinished basement in his 1920s bungalow was his personal museum, a dim place crammed with everything from antique fishing reels to corroded weathervanes. They were piled all over the room. All his life he had hoarded assorted junk and hand-me-downs, and they all ended up there in his basement. As a child, the place fascinated me with its strange things and creaky sounds. My mind can still see them—an old orange soda pop thermometer, a set of yellowed cow’s teeth, a dozen black iron tobacco cutters, rusty horseshoes, a train-station clock, and a big hornets’ nest—long since abandoned, thankfully.

Rummaging in a corner on that stormy February night long ago, I discovered an upright Brunswick crank phonograph, a fancily carved oak model that had been painted flat red. (In the 1920s, it must have been a flapper’s dream machine.) Next to it stood a pillar of dusty 78-rpm records. I glanced at one of the more oddly named selections; it was credited to someone named Cal Stewart, who performed as Uncle Josh. To a slightly bored twenty-something newspaper reporter, Vernon Hornung’s assorted collectibles looked like relics from another century—old, useless things, suitable for tomorrow’s trash. At first, I included the Uncle Josh records in this category. As I studied the paper label on one of the heavy discs, however, I became intrigued by the performer's stage name.

“Who’s Uncle Josh?” I asked.

My uncle smiled. “He was a big name in his day. When I was young, my brother and I used to entertain ourselves for hours by listening to his records.”

I pointed to the phonograph. “Does that thing still work?” 

He examined the brittle platter, slapped it onto the red felt-covered turntable, and turned the metal crank. When the steel needle touched the record, a man’s tinny voice rose above the scratching to greet me with laughter. The title, “Uncle Josh and the Honey Bees” (identified only as a “talking record”), compelled me to continue listening—once, twice, three times. Stewart recorded it for Victor and other labels. He recorded for many pioneer record companies during his long career. This record was unlike any that I had ever heard. It was both American history and entertainment. It seemed that Stewart was talking to me personally about his fictional little town, Punkin Center, a place with stories, characters, issues, laughter, and sadness. His music—a forerunner of country—brightened some of his talking records. While my own uncle regaled me with personal tales of listening to Uncle Josh records as a boy in an equally obscure small town named Dunlap, Ohio (fifteen miles west of Cincinnati), I sat down on the cold floor and paid close attention to the entertainment. I wanted more of this Uncle Josh. Later, I searched local flea markets and found a few of his records. Then I graduated to collector auctions. Seeking more Cal Stewart, I visited libraries and Josh-related sites in Boston; Swanzey, New Hampshire; Indianapolis; Cincinnati; Tipton, Indiana; and even two rural Indiana communities named Punkin Center.

For a time, I actually felt that I was on Josh’s trail—cold as it had become by then. Some small-town business districts were left so unchanged that I imagined them ready to accommodate Stewart’s acting troupe from Indiana. I walked along old brick streets and saw some now-closed theaters—former stops on a loose network known as the Kerosene Circuit. The theaters provided paychecks for traveling actors and diversions for hard-working townspeople in the days before radio and television.

Regardless of where I traveled, I learned this simple truth: Finding fragments of Cal Stewart’s life and career and putting them together is like working on a jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces. It will never be complete; questions will always confound us. Stewart preferred to discuss his fictional characters rather than himself. We practically know as much about them as we do their creator, who continues to live in dust-filled grooves of shellac records and wax cylinders. As I began to accumulate more information, I decided to write his story as an appreciation. If nothing more, I wanted to organize the facts that remain about the actor who entertained millions of people at the turn of the twentieth century. Slowly, my notes filled several file folders. I learned, for instance, that Stewart has been elected to the national Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. Unfortunately, on the day I viewed his space on the group’s Web site, a large blank space existed under Stewart’s biography section. But that’s not surprising, for people tend to remember Stewart—if they bother to remember him at all—for some undetermined achievement. The truth is, he was a pioneer performer-songwriter, a forerunner of our modern ones. His personal life—so colorful, he claimed—is filled with discrepancies. Did he really leave home at age twelve? Did he make up half the things he said about himself? Was he really an express messenger on a stagecoach out West? Did he operate a locomotive? Did he work with the famous actor Denman Thompson? Was he a friend of Mark Twain? Even by using public documents and personal accounts, it's difficult to verify his claims. It is also difficult to uncover much personal information, including where Stewart lived at any one time. Too much time has elapsed, and Stewart hesitated to talk about himself except in the most superficial ways. He seemed to purposely hide clues from future researchers. Even his wife, close friends, and acting associates claimed they were not fully informed about his past. A business and music partner, Frederick Hager of Northport, New York, said of Stewart in a letter to writer Jim Walsh: “Mark Twain was an old friend and, in later life, Will Rogers.” I can’t verify it, and Hager can't elaborate. Twain had already become a famous literary figure by the time Stewart went to work for the railroad companies. Who knows? Perhaps they met on the lyceum circuit in the early 1870s, or maybe they didn’t meet until Stewart became a nationally known recording star twenty years later. Whatever the case, Stewart kept quiet about himself, which makes this book as much about the development of the Uncle Josh character in American life.

Still searching for Uncle Josh, I drove along rural Indiana’s back roads that reminded me of Hoosier highways of the early 1900s. In the southern hills, I imagined Stewart’s acting company chugging along on a train to some small-town theater before arriving at the prized destination—the Empire Theater in Indianapolis. Surprisingly, I still found evidence of his career—publicity photographs, concert handbills, books, and records tucked away in Indiana’s antiquarian bookstores, antiques shops, and libraries. Except for his earliest and most rare recordings (one recently sold for eighty-five dollars), however, most Uncle Josh recordings aren’t worth more than ten dollars because the record companies pressed them in large numbers. But they are culturally valuable, and interest in them continues to grow.
Driving farther on back roads, I stopped in Tipton, the hometown of Stewart’s wife, Rossini, and her family. The Stewarts also lived there, although they weren’t at home too often. At the Sisters of St. Joseph on the outskirts of Tipton, retired Mother Superior Gerard Maher once told me that she remembered when Hazel “Rossini” Stewart returned to Tipton after Cal’s death in 1919. Mrs. Stewart accepted a job teaching music at the Catholic academy. The transition from performing to teaching music to girls in her hometown must have been jarring, but no doubt Mrs. Stewart needed to stay in one place and reflect on her life and future for a time. One thing is certain: Indiana influenced Stewart’s writing. Early in his career, Stewart fashioned the Uncle Josh character into strictly a New England farmer, and promoted the act that way. As the years passed, however, and he met and married the Indiana woman and brought her into his company of performers. That's when Uncle Josh became more generic—small-town Midwesterner meets New England farmer. Punkin Center turned into an odd amalgam of both regions, but most of all it represented rural America.
When I met Mother Gerard she was in her nineties, but her memory was still clear. She was one of the few people in Tipton who knew Stewart and his troupe. To her, one half of a century had passed in the blink of an eye until the whole town seemed a sepia picture. Before the academy was demolished in 1977, Mother Gerard’s friends had mistakenly thrown away her Uncle Josh wax cylinder recordings. The younger women had no idea what the cylinders were, what they represented, and what they meant to the elderly nun. By the time I found her, she kept all that remained of her early days in a small wooden box: Stewart’s hardbound book Punkin Centre Stories, a collection of poems and monologues from 1903; a brittle newspaper clipping telling of his funeral in Tipton; and a playbill. She presented the book to me as a gift, and I reprinted it to share Uncle Josh’s writings with the world.

Twenty-five years later, I returned to Tipton. At the Tipton County Public Library, a modern building near the courthouse downtown, a young man escorted me to the local history room and pulled out the only file he had on Stewart. It contained ten newspaper and magazine stories from recent years. As I sifted through them, I found an unexpected prize: an original publicity photograph of Stewart in character. My heart raced. The picture was about five by eight inches, with a sepia tone, and it was cut unevenly on all sides. Dressed as Uncle Josh, Stewart stood on a set in front of a wooden railing, wearing his straw hat (with a chunk bitten out in front), white shirt, and speckled vest. His wire-rim glasses were pushed up on his wide and furrowed forehead. I believe the picture was taken late in his career, between 1915 and 1919. As I studied the heavy wrinkles under his eyes, I saw how much Stewart had aged in the last ten years of his life. I wondered if Cal himself had ever held this same picture, and what he might have thought of it. Then I turned it over and I saw these handwritten words, “Cal Stewart—Donated to the library by the Sisters of St. Joseph.” At that moment I understood that the photograph probably had belonged to Stewart’s wife, a good friend of the sisters. Holding his photograph on that gray day reinvigorated my search for Uncle Josh.

A hour later, as I stood at the broken cross that marks his grave in Tipton’s Fairview Cemetery, I asked myself: Why is Stewart nearly forgotten? Moments later, the wind blew a brown leaf across the frozen grass, pressing it firmly against the base of his tombstone. Then I realized that change is reality. Popularity is fleeting. Although each generation has its own faded stars, Cal Stewart is one worth remembering for all time.


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