Up in the Eastern end of Centre County where it borders with Union County there is a gap in the mountains known as the Woodward Narrows. Even today this area has little human habitation, and in fact much of it has come to be included in Pennsylvania’s vast state forest lands. The only time this area appears populated these days is in deer hunting season. But there was a time when the area had at least one resident.
JOHN VONEIDA, born in the early 1800s, lived in a small cabin in the narrows. He lived alone and was regarded by the folks in the valley towns as a hermit. But he was apparently a friendly hermit, and provided food and even lodging to travellers along the mountain road. He did have a brother Henry who lived at the foot of Roundtop Mountain, which towers over the town of Woodward, and John often visited Henry when he came into town to buy his few necessities. Living the lonely life he did, John sported long unkempt hair and beard, and he was a frightening sight to the children of the village. They ran when they saw him, shouting “Here comes Hairy John.” The name of course followed him for all of his remaining days.
But John was also frightening to the youngsters, and perhaps to the adults as well, because of his cloudy past. It was rumored that he was once married but couldn’t abide his wife and so had abandoned her in the mountains. Another version of the rumor is that he had actually killed his wife, and that she had been found hanging in the cellar on a meat hook. John denied any such stories.
There was perhaps truth to the rumors, but we probably will never know for sure. Old timers back then said that John had once lived in the Nittany Valley, and had married Susanna Hoy, the daughter of a storekeeper. The tales say that Susanna was “feeble minded” – in the unkind terminology of the day. Supposedly in her mental instability she took her own life by hanging herself in a closet of their home. Many however blamed John for her death, spreading the story that he had hung her himself. Others spread the story, and once a rumor like this gets out of the jar, it will never ever go back in again. John was actually put on trial for the murder, but the jury was unable to find him guilty and so he was freed. But his neighbors still looked at him accusingly, and their children, hearing their parents talk of John’s supposed deed, taunted him cruelly. John could take it no more and he decided to move away until he could be vindicated of the crime. So he moved away to the lonely mountain pass, preferring to live a solitary life. He also vowed never to shave or cut his hair until he was proven innocent. His hair and beard grew long, and John Voneida became “Hairy John”, as vindication never came.
Eventually, sometime after the Civil War, John is reported to have married again, a woman named Twila Montray, about whom we know almost as little as we do of John. They were happy for awhile so the tale goes, but just as tragic events led John Voneida to take up a lonely life in the Woodward Narrows, so would more tragedy and violence end that peaceful existence.
Whether he was set upon by robbers or just local ruffians who enjoyed picking on folks whose lifestyles are different than theirs will never be known, but we do know that old Hairy John Voneida, the harmless little hermit of the mountain pass, was beaten nearly to death. He fled the area, a seemingly natural reaction, and went on to Madisonburg to try and recuperate. He died and is supposedly buried there. His final resting spot is another detail of his life that remains unclear.
As for Twila Montray, some say she too was beaten to death by the same cowards that attacked Hairy John. Her fate after this time has not been recorded in fact, but it does appear in local legend. There were reported sightings of ghostly spectres in the Narrows years ago. The ghost, many folks said, was the spirit of Twila Montray, looking for the men who had beaten her and her hermit husband.
Folktales also report that John Voneida had often expressed the wish to become a Beech tree after he died, and that this is what happened. Such a tree stands in the area now the park the tales tell us, and this is the reason the spirit of Twila Montray remains in the area, to be near her man John.
Today, as you drive along PA Route 45, you will see a big sign for the Hairy John State Forest Picnic Area. Not a bad way to keep alive the memory of the old man of this forest. It had already been a public recreation area for a long time, when, in 1925, the State Forest Commission changed its name to “Voneida State Forest Park”, apparently feeling this new name was less vulgar. Governor Gifford Pinchot, a man not unappreciative of Pennsylvania history, made them change it back. Perhaps you will want to stop and rest a while. But particularly in the early evening hours, keep a sharp eye out for the spirit of Twila Montray, as she in turn keeps a watchful eye over HAIRY JOHN.