A Seneca tribe had lived on the land they called Ta-Num-Ga-O (Home of Hickory Bark) for generations before Whites arrived. The area included the modern cities of Clarence, Buffalo and Lancaster, in Erie County, New York. The tribe understood the land and how to appease its spirits. They lived prosperous lives until the Whiteman’s wars and diseases decimated their numbers. Most of the survivors moved north to join their brethren in Canada. Whites tried to fill the void, but each attempt failed.
On the first winter day in 1798, Asa Ransom would have died from exposure had he not stumbled upon a cave. The cave sloped downwards for forty feet before it opened into a large cavern. A tinderbox and pinch of gunpowder allowed him to light a candle. Its flicker revealed an ancient Seneca medicine man, nearly dead, mumbling strange incantations. Three flat stones lay equidistant around the lip of a natural limestone well, and crude structures made of tree bark sat on each stone. The structures reminded Asa of Seneca Longhouses.
He shared his rum and food with the medicine man, Ta-Na, a long winter kindled their friendship. He learned the secret of the water spirit from his Seneca friend, which he shared with his partner, Joseph Ellicott, after Ta-Na’s death. The partners built a tavern and saw mill on the well site. A successful community grew from their efforts.
The Ransom and Ellicott families keep Ta-Na’s secret, even now.
As soon as the door closed, AJ could smell it. His mom was baking gingerbread. He vaguely remembered when he liked the aroma, probably long ago, when he was thirteen or so, but now, on the cusp of his eighteenth birthday, it stunk and hung in the air like LA smog. “I’m home mom.”
“Oh, good. We’re in the kitchen, Asa.”
Duh, he thought and moved to the kitchen doorway. “Mom, call me AJ. I don’t like Asa. It’s a dumb name.”
“You should be proud of your name, son.” Mary Jo rolled her eyes. “But, I’ll try.”
His grumpiness vanished at the sight of his twelve year old sister, Julie Belle. Her tongue protruded from the side of her mouth like a giant zipper tang while she carefully poured gooey molasses into a measuring cup. “Hey! Jelly Bean, don’t spill any,” AJ barked.
Julie Belle jumped ten feet, but managed to spill only a drop or two. With hands on hips, she turned to her six foot brother and said. “Asa Joseph Ransom-Ellicott, sometimes you act like a child, and don’t call me Jelly Bean.”
Mary Jo watched her son tussle his sister’s hair and kiss the crown of her head. “Mom, make him stop. His spit’s in my hair.” Julie’s eyes revealed truer feelings.
Julie’s mannerisms mirrored Grandma Belle’s to a tee, and AJ’s laughter could have been Daniel’s, the children’s late father. It supported her conviction that more than hair cowlicks and eye color passed from generation to generation.
The winter solstice would reveal how much more.
Mary Jo Ransom-Ellicott was the second child of Belle and Robert Ransom. Their first daughter, Pauline, had a happy marriage by all accounts, but she’d never been blessed with children. The Ransom family’s gift would die out with Mary Jo, if her children weren’t blessed. She shuddered at the thought.
“I want you to assemble the gingerbread house this year AJ. Your sister and I will make the components, but I expect you to assemble them into a spectacular example of your creativity.”
“What’s the point Mom? You always out do Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline. You don’t need me to win the winter festival contest.”
Mary Jo couldn’t tell him the real reason—not yet. She thought about using the “I’m-your-mother card” but knew she’d used it too often. So, she did what most parents do, she bribed him. “If you produce an acceptable gingerbread house, I’ll find a way to get you a car for your eighteenth birthday.”
AJ made the effort and worked right up to the solstice. Initially the promise of a car drove him, but something more powerful took over during the process. His three story mansion had four chimneys, numerous windows and a snow covered roof with crystallized sugar icicles on the eaves. He was very proud of it and told his mother so on the way to the Winter solstice festival at the old Ransom House Museum built over the original saw mill. “It’s very nice son, but the true judging will be made by someone you haven’t met. Be patient.”
Two dozen entries had been submitted to the ladies of the Erie County Historical Society. AJ’s was the unanimous winner. Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline didn’t even get an honorable mention. Ashamed that he felt so good about beating them, AJ tried to complement their efforts. His Grandma laughed in his face. “Boy. I wouldn’t give a varicose vein for the approval of those old bats. Our family’s judgement will come tonight.” AJ had no idea what she meant and was afraid to ask.
At one a.m., on AJ’s eighteenth birthday, and not long before the solstice, he awoke to find his mother holding an old Bible. She quietly told him to get dressed, read the Bible’s dedication page and then join her in the kitchen.
He did as he was told and learned Asa Ransom’s tale about an old Seneca and O-Ne-Ka, a water spirit, which required an annual sacrifice of a home to protect him from the winter. The spirit’s dissatisfaction would bring misery to the community. The old Seneca had shown Asa how to build miniature hickory-bark longhouses and explained that O-Ne-Ka wouldn’t be satisfied unless three were offered.
Joseph Ellicott and Asa Ransom continued the tradition, until a longhouse was destroyed on the way to the well on the 1801 winter solstice. Asa panicked and replaced it with a gingerbread house made by his wife for the upcoming Christmas holiday. The next morning the gingerbread house was taken and all was well.
Asa Ransom’s Bible entry finished with: ‘Forget not what thou hast learned. Fail not in thy task, for great suffering shall befall thy male children if thou dost.’
AJ joined his mother, grandmother and aunt in the kitchen. “I can’t believe that you three buy into this crap. This is the 21st century. You can’t possibly believe it.”
The women understood his reaction. They’d reacted much the same at first, but they had to convince him to complete the ceremony. Mary Jo said, “Son, we know how you feel, but there are things you don’t know.”
She explained that the year after Asa wrote his Bible entry, he and Joseph had used hickory bark houses, because they feared changing the Seneca ceremony. But, O-Ne-Ka refused to accept any of them. All male children under three had died the following year. Gingerbread houses had been offered ever since, but in 1863, during the Civil War, a terrible snow storm blocked the well entrance and it couldn’t be cleared. All male children under four died the ensuing year. In 1944, a similar event occurred and males under five died.
AJ had his doubts, but didn’t argue. His mother led the way through a door hidden under the Ransom House Museum. It exposed the cave that led to the old well. AJ’s headlamp revealed the soot covered ceiling and pictographs on the wall. He shivered, but not from the cold.
Mary Jo stopped at the cavern entrance and watched as AJ, Grandma Belle and Aunt Pauline laid their houses on the three rocks. “The solstice is almost here, we must leave quickly,” she said.
The door was closing when they heard an eerie screech that chilled AJ’s bones. “What was that?” he asked.
Grandma Belle spoke up. “That was O-Ne-Ka. He must have liked your offering boy; we haven’t heard his pleasure screech since your father made his first gingerbread house. You’ve got the gift, boy. Thank the Lord.”
David P. Cantrell is an author and a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.