Arts & Entertainment

Olean Library Speaker Shares Erie Canal Lore

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Gretchen Murray Sepik, in the guise of Erie Canal Sal, tells folk stories about the early years of "Clinton's Big Ditch." Credits: Caleb McGuire
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OLEAN, NY – The crowd that gathered Wednesday inside the Olean Public Library was on board as storyteller Gretchen Murray Sepik led them down an informational stream of Erie Canal tales.

In the guise of “Erie Canal Sal,” Sepik took the crowd on an educational and often comical journey, describing what life was like aboard a canal boat from Rochester to Albany in the 1830s.

Sal, as Sepik told the crowd, was an older Irish woman and an immigrant who had seen many years aboard boats. She had countless tales to tell.

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Sal was easily picked out of a crowd because she was missing a front tooth and she had a messy appearance. Sepik let the crowd know that tooth hadn’t rotted but that its absence served as testament to Sal’s short temper. And she told the crowd about the extra hot day on the deck when the captain of the boat behind them had too many words for Sal’s liking. After the two boats got tied up behind one of the locks, she and a few other crew members decided to put an end to the talking and she let her “Irish temper” burst out in the form of flying fists. Sal swore she got the better of the lippy men, though her bumps and bruises might have lead onlookers to believe otherwise.

The program was quite interactive, with Sepik casting audience members in roles to fit her stories. Most memorably she decided I should play the part of “Crazy John” and asked me to lead a chorus about how he often put his long johns on the wrong way.

The youngest member of the audience, Hannah McAdam, often laughed heartily during the production.

“I really liked the program,” said the 8-year-old when the show was over. “I'd like to see more of these around Olean.”

Hannah seemed to learn as much as she laughed, reporting after the show that “the Erie Canal was 363 miles long and had 83 locks.”

Other members of the audience shared Hannah’s enthusiasm.

“I thought it was very entertaining, very informative, and quite humorous,” said Dan Haines of Olean.

Sepik said she has seen a decrease in work for hire in recent years, but that doesn't take away from how much she loves what she does.

“I play dress up for a living,” she said. “It doesn't get much better than that.”

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