Billy Ray
Old Time Tales of Warren County


Billy Ray

In the little wind-swept burying ground at Sanford, some four miles from the village of Grand Valley, the matted myrtle creeps on a grave marked by a modest grey stone. There is rarely any sound save the wind up there. In summer it rustles the long grass and sings a low song in the young pines while song sparrows chirp in the hazel brush across the road. The wind is always talking about the past in little country graveyards, always whispering things that you can feel more than you can hear or understand. In winter when all the hills are covered with snow, the little cemetery at Sanford lies white and silent under the sparkling sky, its handful of headstones catching the soft glimmer of the stars. There is no sound at all then, except the hooting of owls in the shadowy hemlocks nearby or maybe the bark of a dog away off somewhere in the hills. On May mornings the yellow breasted meadow larks whistle their silvery notes from fence post to fence post, striped chipmunks scamper among the gravestones and the red-winged blackbird sings his sweetest song, which is the very soul and spirit of spring. It is such a quiet, peaceful, sequestered little cemetery it is almost inviting, so far removed from all the woes and worries of a fretful world.

Toward the southerly corner, at your left as you enter the gate, is the myrtle-grown grave with the modest headstone. One may well pause and ponder at the side of this grave, for it contains the mortal ashes of one who seemed too overflowingly filled with strength and vigor ever to die. Percy, thinking he had found the giant dead body of Falstaff on the field of battle remarked, "Could not all this flesh keep in a little life?" One who had known Billy Ray might well pause by this graveside and remark, "Could all this marvelous strength and energy ever grow weary!"

Here, on this woodland hilltop, close to his old home, mother nature is gently taking back to herself one of the most marvelous bodies she ever bestowed upon a man, a dynamo of terrific and untiring energy that performed unbelievable feats of endurance in a matter of fact way. For it seems he was, after all, only flesh and blood and when he had done his good work in the world, and he did plenty of it, he laid that wonderful body down to rest, and a going back to the great sources.

Billy Ray was born in Cochranton, Crawford County, November, 1824, the son of William Ray,---one of two children. When Billy was only a bit of a boy, the family moved to Warren County and William Ray opened a tailor shop in Youngsville. The shop stood in Red Row, a row of frame buildings in the central part of Youngsville, on the south side of the street. Ray had the reputation of being an excellent tailor who never charged more than a fair price.

The sartorial art was perhaps not far advanced in Warren County in the year 1836 when Billy's father put up his tailor sign, "William Ray, Tailor" with a pair of shears depicted below, for persons who couldn't read. Through the window of the little shop, passers by could see Ray sitting in cross-legged `tailor fashion" on his table, his nimble needle slipping in and out the sturdy goods from which he was fashioning a coat. There were no "spring and fall styles" in Warren County in 1836, few men wore coats much in summer, clothes were all about the same weight. In many a pioneer home on Davy Hill, on the Brokenstraw Flats, here and there in clearings in the pine and hardwood forests that still clothed the land, women were washing their own wool, raised on the farms, carding it, making their own sturdy homespun and dyeing it with walnut juice, nut galls, the bark of the swamp oak, black cherry bark. Butternut hulls yielded a pretty seal brown that was a great favorite for men's and boys' clothes. Sumac bobbs made a reddish brown much admired. When they wanted blue they bought indigo at the store, the only color not produced for woolen dyes by the resourceful Warren County housewives. Homespun, made on wooden looms by hand was woven in pieces often fifteen to twenty yards long. The standard width was thirty-six inches, originating, probably, that well known saying "All wool and a yard wide."

Of course some homespun was not dyed at all but left in its natural condition, white, or as near white as the wool might be. There is a story of a man named Ed. Anderson who lived near Sugar Grove. Ed. had two fine black sheep among his flock. At shearing time he carefully saved the wool from these and had it made into homespun, undyed, presenting the goods to a well known neighbor with the suggestion that he have a suit of clothes made of the wool of the black sheep, with no insinuation whatsoever.

And then there is the story of little Andrew Brock, a very small boy who studied books in a log schoolhouse near Pinegrove. Little Andrew's mother was terribly busy about the time the fall term of school opened, so she hurriedly made up a pair of homespun pants for her son, finishing them in the natural white wool, intending to dye them the usual butternut brown when she found time.

When little Andrew appeared at school in his new white pants all the boys made merry at his expense. They called him "White Pants." "Never you mind about white pants," explained Andrew, "My mother ain't dyed yet."

Most of the homespun cloth woven in early days in Warren County was made up into clothing at home, nearly every woman was a tailoress then, but frequently some thrifty wife would come riding into Youngsville from "up the creek", or down, with her roll of homespun, riding in a wagon hauled by an ox team, bringing in a dressed hog to trade at the store for sugar, molasses, flour, some new pans. Perhaps she bought a bottle of the marvelous Seneca Oil soaked up from Oil Creek in blankets, taken to Pittsburgh in a poled boat, bottled by an enterprising man by the name of Harris who guaranteed the oil to relieve rheumatic pains and miseries of the joints, skin eruptions and a long list of other ailments. The crude petroleum as it was scooped and gathered from Oil Creek in Venango County, and from dozens of streams in Warren County, was then a nationally known commodity, selling all over the settled sections of the United States and in Canada.

Homespun was one of the warmest and certainly the most itchy material known to mankind in the days when Billy Ray's father was making a reputation as a tailor in Youngsville. While the ox team stood tied to some handy stump hitching post, the husband did his trading at the stores and the wife took in her roll of homespun to William Ray, for the tailor to stitch up into stout trousers and coats for sons and husband. Probably half the material used by Warren County tailors in those times came either from Pittsburgh or Buffalo, with an occasional piece of fine cloth brought in from Philadelphia or New York for some rich man, some personage worth as much as ten thousand dollars.

Besides, working diligently in his little shop in Red Row, William Ray did journeyman tailor work in the homes, as his son William did after him. It was the common practice for both tailor and shoemaker to work in the midst of the family whose clothes or footwear he was making. The plan had its advantages, the customers were always close at hand for convenient tryons, and, since they saw the garment or shoe made under their very eyes they could scarcely complain, "I didn't know it would look like that." And then, if customers didn't find it convenient to pay the tailor or shoemaker he could stay right there till his bill was boarded out.

As a lad in his early teens, Billy Ray played ball with the boys of Youngsville, ran errands for his father's tailor shop, swung a lusty axe at the family woodpile, picked red raspberries in the slashings on Davy Hill and was more quiet and retiring than the average lad growing up in the thriving town on the Brokenstraw to which Matthew Young had but lately given his name. The creek was a great playground for the boys, it was always full of rafts, with spaces between, over which venturesome boys might jump. And then there was the cooper shop, where young Billy Ray once leaped over six barrels laid in a row. He could jump farther and run faster than any youth in Youngsville, yet he took his prowess as a matter of course, albeit with a remarkable confidence in his ability to win in any athletic contest where his marvelous legs could come into competition.

"Ronny Harrington, up to Pittsfield, is a wonderful fast runner. Do you think you could come up to him, Billy ?"

"I can beat Ronny Harrington running."

"That's th' way to talk. We'll fix up a race, we'll bet on you, Billy."

"If you're going to bet I won't run," replied young Billy Ray decidedly. It was the early cropping out of Billy Ray's fine character. He believed betting money was wrong, the Methodist preacher had said it was wrong, even to make little bets. During his long life time Billy Ray refused to enter many contests where he might easily have won, because bets would be placed on the outcome. Gambling was wrong, he simply wouldn't do it_

M. D. Whitney recalls an incident in the early life of Billy Ray. One afternoon, just after dinner, the Youngsville boys were playing ball. The game of one old cat was getting nicely started when William Ray called Billy from the pitcher's box. He told him he'd run out of cloth on a suit he was making, sent the boy off afoot for more cloth, to Jamestown. Billy Ray stuck the note his father had given him for the Jamestown cloth merchant into the hip pocket of his trousers and set out for the town at the foot of Chautauqua Lake, started off on his strange, half-running heel and toe walk that made nothing of the miles.

It's forty miles from Youngsville to Jamestown and back, by the route Billy Ray took, a route that partly followed woodland trails. In a twinkling he was gone, the boys went on with their ball game. They played all afternoon. Well before supper time Billy Ray was back from Jamestown with his roll of cloth. He finished his ball game before supper. This incident is remembered clearly by M. D. Whitney of Youngsville.

Billy Ray learned the tailor's trade in his father's shop. When he had attained his full height he stood five feet and nine inches. He never weighed more than one hundred and forty-eight pounds. He was double jointed and had an unusual set of teeth, molars all around. A trick he often did to amuse the boys loafing around the creek rafts, building in the Brokenstraw, was to stand at one end of a twelve foot plank and jump clean over the other end of it, with his boots on! He had the legs of a deer, he would take a run and a skip and sail lightly over a high rail fence without touching a hand to it.

There is a story of Billy Ray, in his early twenties, hunting rabbits along Little Brokenstraw Creek, above Pittsfield. It may have been in midsummer, or it might have been in the fall, there were no game laws when Billy Ray was a boy around Youngsville, a man just took his gun and went out and got a bird or rabbit whenever he felt like it. At any rate Billy and a couple of companions were beating the cover along the creek at a point where both banks are high. A raft with a crew of men maneuvering it with poles came floating down the creek. The boys stood watching the raft come toward them. "I can jump clean across that thing," remarked Billy Ray, leaning on his long barreled gun.

"You can't jump half way to the middle," dared a boy.

"I'll show you," said Billy Ray, "wait till she gets down here where the banks are high,-hold this gun."

Billy went back on the bank fifty feet or more, ran toward the creek like a deer, made one flying leap and cleared both raft and creek, landing at the bottom of the far bank, just clear of the water.

That raft was twelve feet wide, at least; creek rafts were sometimes built wider, even on the Little Broken-straw. There was also the stretch of water on either side to clear. Billy had the advantage of the high bank. The exact distance from bank to bank where Billy Ray jumped that day was never known, but the remarkable length of his leap made such an impression on those who saw it that the story has lived to this day.

When Billy Ray became a full fledged tailor able to cut out a coat, to sew a seam equal to that of his father, he went to Pittsburgh and found a job in the tailor shop of Andrew Bonsell, on Forbes Street. Billy boarded two miles from the shop, walked to his work in the morning and home for noon lunch, to get the exercise. The marvelous legs of this man must have some relief from the cross-legged cramp of a tailor's seat a-top his table. In talking with scores of men who knew Billy Ray, it has never been discovered that he ever complained of being tired in all his life, such was his tremendous and inexaustible energy.

After working in Pittsburgh for a time, with frequent peripatetic trips between that city and Warren County, Billy returned to the valley of the Brokenstraw and engaged in journeyman tailor work among the homes.

John L. McKinney of Titusville, tells how Billy Ray, the journeyman tailor, visited his father's home near Pittsfield to ply his trade. "Twice a year," says Mr. McKinney, "he came to the home of my father James McKinney, to do work for a large family of boys, there being seven sons, as well as one daughter. Billy Ray then lived west of Garland on what is known as Ray Hill, six miles from my father's home, just east of Pittsfield. Billy was known as a great pedestrian, and the walk from his home to his place of work at our home, every morning before breakfast, was simply an appetizer. After supper he returned to his abode on Ray Hill to do his chores and start out the next morning to continue his work at our place. He would spend from two to three weeks, spring and fall, fitting out our family of boys. My father usually bought the cloth in Pittsburgh, where he would run his lumber in those years."

Billy Ray is well remembered as the most wonderful walker and jumper in all the region of Warren County, in fact his fame spread to other counties. Many are the tales told of Billy's prowess. Hon. C. M. Shortt of Sugar Grove recalls how Ray once visited his bank, walking over, of course, from Garland. "I undertook to walk a short way with him when he started out for home," said Mr. Shortt, "he tried hard to hold down his gait to accommodate it to the best I could do, but it was no use, Ray ran away from me in spite of himself."

Hiram Andrews of Garland used to tell of seeing Billy Ray take a high rail fence with a run, a skip and a jump, "and never put a hand on it."

On an eight-foot ceiling in Youngsville there were for years the boot marks made by Billy Ray in showing "the Boys" how he could jump and kick with both feet high over his head.

Once Ray purchased a horse in Pittsburgh and started to lead it home to Warren County. He started off at his usual gait, the horse having to trot to keep up with him. At Franklin the animal became sick and Ray got a veterinarian. "Have you been working this horse hard," inquired the doctor.

"Why no," replied Ray, "I've just been leading him, -from Pittsburgh."

"Well, there's nothing the matter with him except he's clean tired out, ready to drop. You'd better get him into the nearest stable and rest him a couple of days."

Billy Ray in middle life, lived on "Ray Hall", named for him, in Eldred Township. He was a fine citizen, gave liberally to the church and served as Justice of the Peace several terms. For years he had oxen. And his old neighbors love to tell of his troubles with the ox teams. It seems Billy Ray could never walk slow enough to drive oxen. He'd be stepping along, carrying his furled whip under his arm, thinking about something else, and in no time he was far ahead of his team. He'd be forever running back to them, snapping his whip, urging them to move. But the ox, nor horse either, was never born that could walk as fast as Billy Ray.

Dr. A. C. Blodgett, setting out from Youngsville toward Pittsfield with his good bay mare one summer afternoon saw Billy Ray leaving town on foot, "Might as well ride as walk?" invited the doctor.

"Thanks Doctor," said Billy, "I'd like to ride with you,-but I haven't got time."

When Dr. Blodgett arrived in Pittsfield, Ray had been there before him, and gone.

There was a jumping contest one summer afternoon on Ray Hill. The fame of Billy Ray as a jumper and walker had spread afar. In those days a man might make a name in jumping, it was as much recognized as golf is today. The various jumpers had their "marks", distances they could cover in the standing broad jump. No barn raising or log rolling was complete without a jumping match. Good legs were common, so it took an uncommonly good pair to compete when the young men set a mark and began jumping.

Billy Ray's mark was so high it discouraged rivalry, but now and then a man undertook to measure his prowess against that of Ray. "Maybe Ray didn't realty jump as far as they said. Perhaps he would have an off day."

John Bedow thought he might be able to conquer Ray in a jumping contest. Bedow was considered a pretty good man. He arrived one afternoon with a party of spectators. Ray was perfectly willing for a contest. Both men removed their boots, markers were made ready. Billy Ray leaped lightly six inches beyond the challenger's best mark. Ray's distance on that occasion all but equalled the world's record. And when Billy Ray became older and gave up jumping there was no record of his ever having been beaten in a contest, either in walking or jumping.

Darius Mead wanted to back Billy against Weston in a walking match. Billy refused to enter the contest because money wagers had been planned. He would have nothing to do with betting. Later he got to thinking people might imagine he was afraid of Weston. So he walked twenty miles with Weston, in Ohio.

At the finish the famous pedestrian said, with admirable frankness, to Billy Ray, "You can beat me easily in any sort of walking contest."

The walk which brought Billy Ray fame which has endured, was the trip he made from Pittsburgh to Ray Hill, in Eldred Township. It is difficult for a modern day man to believe Billy Ray ever made such a walk. The time for the distance, the sort of roads then existing, make the feat appear impossible. It was only after long investigation, after questioning and cross-questioning more than a dozen men and women who knew Billy Ray personally, and knew the circumstances of the walk at the time, that the story of this remarkable feat is set down here.

When in his forty-first year, Ray set out from Pittsburgh afoot at four o'clock in the morning, at two o'clock the next morning, twenty-two hours after his start from Pittsburgh, he arrived on Ray Hill, in Warren County. Frank Ray, a son of Billy Ray, well remembers getting out of bed to welcome his father home on this occasion. Ray walked by way of Harrisville, Butler, Raymilton, Cooperstown, Cherry Tree, Titusville. The distance by this route is not less than one hundred and eighteen miles. Ray had to average over five miles an hour, for twenty-two hours, to make it. More than a dozen of Warren County's most solid citizens say Billy Ray accomplished this walk. And then, no one ever for a moment doubted the word of Billy Ray, his character was of the finest.

Raised just as other boys of the time were raised, with no athletic training, nothing but the hard work and active play of the youths who grew up to manhood in the early days of Warren County, Billy Ray was a natural athlete who easily stood out in a country full of tough sinewed outdoor men who could nearly all box and wrestle, run and jump and "lick their weight in wildcats."

In all his life Billy Ray took only 50 cents worth of medicine. He was a light eater. He liked to drink vinegar and was "a great hand for pickles." An injury in the logging woods caused by a binder pole flying loose, affected his health in later life.

He hoed corn in a hot June sun all the day before he died. Billy Ray was undoubtedly the most remarkable of all the natural athletes whose feats of strength and endurance have been told and retold for many years in Warren County.

Two rusted pegs near the old Ray lumber camp on Ray Hill, mark the distance Billy Ray jumped in his famous contest with John Bedow. If the pegs were correctly placed, and have not been moved, either of which under the circumstances seems improbable, Billy Ray may have been a world's champion and never knew it.

SOURCE:  Page(s) 179-191: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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