‘The Rest of the Story’

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On a cold winter's day: Windsong, Bill Taggart and the author's daughter Becky.

By Al Cormier

Noted radio news broadcaster Paul Harvey often expanded on a story with the byline, “The Rest of the Story.” Since writing my Don McLean story, numerous tidbits about Don McLean, the Salem concert, Pete Seeger and Bill Taggart have surfaced from local residents, along with further conversations will Bill Taggart himself.

Here are my memories and the memories of others who remember the early McLean and Taggart years. An August 18, 2022 letter to “The Eagle,” “McLean Story Read with Interest,” from Richard Molea told of his early attempt as an Iona College student in 1965 to promote a little known folk singer by the name of Don McLean. Molea said, “It [the concert] wasn’t well attended. . . . Neither the audience nor I recognized the talent of the future icon.”

When I recently questioned my two grown sons about the July 5 concert, they told me that they did not attend – they were only 9 and 10 years old at the time. However, youngest son, Bob, said, “On July 4 while wandering in the neighborhood of the carnival grounds, we and our friends saw and heard McLean practicing on the porch of Bill Taggart’s home.”

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to visit with former Salem resident Michele “Shelly” Gray Shaffer, who was spending the weekend at the Bunker Hill Inn. When I told her about the McLean article, she said excitedly, “I was a Salem Washington Academy high school sophomore at that time, and I remember the concert well. At one point, McLean invited us to sit on the stage with him so I did. I have never forgotten that thrill.”

As mentioned in my earlier article, Bill Taggart continued to work with Don McLean and Pete Seeger after their respective Salem and Granville concerts. Taggart, after leaving his teaching job in Granville, took a promotional job with the Hudson River Clearwater Sloop Inc. He was not on the job long before he, unexpectedly, was approached by officials of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, who had been bequeathed the Lyndhurst Mansion in 1961 by Anna, the last surviving daughter of the Jay Gould family, at that time owners of Lyndhurst.

In the early 1970s, Taggart said, “the National Trust officials, hearing about my promotional skills, offered me the position of program director, and as fortune would have it, when the museum director unexpectedly passed away within the year, I became the museum director of Lyndhurst Mansion on the Hudson.”

Coincidently, Jay Gould was at one time the owner of the Troy and Rutland Railroad [later purchased by the Delaware & Hudson Railroad] during the Civil War. Jay and his brother Abram, who helped run the railroad, were no strangers to Salem. In fact, Abram married Salem’s Sophia Kegler, whose father was the master mechanic of the T&R Railroad Salem Yards, the huge repair center on the line. Both Abram and Sophia are buried in Salem’s Evergreen Cemetery.

When Taggart invited my wife, young daughter Becky and me to visit him and his mother Luella at Lyndhurst, we jumped at the opportunity. We stayed in a small Victorian cottage on the estate and got a personal tour of the mansion and grounds.

The frosting on the cake was an invitation to sail aboard the Clearwater sloop with Pete Seeger; the sloop at that time was docked at Tarrytown. We did not hesitate. Not only was the sloop full of students taking samples from the river as part of the scientific river study, but Seeger himself serenaded us throughout the trip while we all assisted in hoisting the sails.

And what about Bill Taggart? Like many of us at a young age who were once tempted to run away with the circus, Bill, as a college student, did during the summer months, work for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus. He tended the horses [his favorite job he said], sold tickets, and shot his own 8 mm film of the acts and circus people. When spending time at home in Salem, he often hitched his own Morgan horse, Windsong, to his two-wheel “jog” cart in good weather. In the winter, Windsong pulled a sleigh displaying a plaque: “Frank Wright Studebaker Dealer, Salem, New York.” Fortunate were those friends and neighbors who got to tour the village in one of Bill’s rigs.

Both his historic film and his circus experiences, published in “Bandwagon, The Journal of the Circus Historical Society,” are preserved in the Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida.

Appropriately, college student Taggart is noted for selling the last ticket for the last outdoor Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus “big tent” performance in 1956. Today, large, indoor municipal centers, like the Glens Falls Civic Center, host the big circuses – no canvas “big top” needed.

After leaving teaching, Taggart not only worked for the Lyndhurst Mansion, he later worked for the Sunnyside Mansion, also in Tarrytown.

But his love for show business took him beyond Tarrytown and the early years of McLean and Seeger. In a recent telephone conversation, he said, “While visiting New York City, I heard Tessie O’Shay sing and invited her to come to Lyndhurst to live, which she did for a number of years. I moved out of the small Victorian house in which my mother lived and Tessie moved in. I moved to the apartment over the Lyndhurst carriage house. I enjoyed the privacy there.” In conclusion he said, “I admired her talent and we became good friends.”

Tessie O’Shea was a world-renowned star. The Welsh bawdy and novelty music hall entertainer and singer had become very popular in Europe, especially with British soldiers during World War II. Because of her girth and her talents, she affectionately was known as “Two Ton Tessie.”

Following her success abroad, in the early 1960s she took the United States by storm and performed on stage, movies and on TV. In 1963 she won a Tony for her “scene-stealing song, ‘London,’” in the musical “The Girl Who Came to Supper.” In 1995, she died at age 82 in Leesburg, Florida.

Nevertheless, the show must go on, and circus historian Taggart continued to work the circus shows until he retired a few years ago to a circus\-oriented community in Florida. And that’s the rest of the McLean/Taggart story.

William “Al” Cormier is Salem Deputy Historian.