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Allegheny Currents: Talk of Gabby Hayes stirs readers' memories

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Posted: Monday, June 2, 2008 12:00 am

Recent columns about George "Gabby" Hayes, the famous Hollywood Western sidekick who was born and raised in the Wellsville area, have brought back memories for readers, including Marilyn Rice Piepho and Richard Rice, who grew up in Portville.

Both shared stories with us about Gabby Hayes' visits to Portville to see his brother on Temple Street, as well as a special trip Gabby made to the Rice home to visit a little boy dying of leukemia.

Mrs. Piepho, now of Olean, reminisces about how she and her brothers walked from upper Brooklyn Street to the Opera House on the weekends to pay about 12 cents to see the movies. They loved the Westerns, and among their favorite stars were Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, the "King of the Cowboys" and the "Queen of the West." And, of course, the shaggy Gabby Hayes brought comedy relief.

The Rice kids were thrilled to learn of Gabby's roots in Wellsville, and even more thrilled to realize that the man himself visited his brother, Clark Hayes, in Portville.

"In the summer of 1949, Gabby showed up for his visit to his brother, and we would see him cruising around Portville in his big Cadillac," Mrs. Piepho said. "Talk about thrilled. We felt so proud of Portville, thinking how great it was that a famous movie star would come to visit."

That same summer, the Rice family dealt with sadness as young David, 7, suffered from leukemia (he was sick 18 months and died in June of 1950). The Rices' mother knew Clark Hayes' wife, Lillian. She phoned and asked if Gabby would come and visit David. He would.

"What a thrill. The Cadillac drew up in our driveway, Gabby stepped out and came up on the porch, and was welcomed into our house," Mrs. Piepho said. "What a huge blessing to see in person this man who we had avidly watched so often in the movies. We had comic books for him to autograph. He talked with us awhile, and especially to little brother David.

"As Gabby left, our hearts were ever so thankful that Gabby had a brother in Portville. This is a fond memory, one I will never forget."

Richard Rice, now of Waverly, Tenn., writes: "Needless to say we were awestruck, but more importantly, David, although quite sick, was cheered up by Gabby's visit to our home."

MEANWHILE, readers might recall the May 21 column, which included the recollections of former Times Herald city editor Bob Schnettler about Mr. Hayes. Mr. Schnettler shared a story about how Milton Lorin, an older gentlemen who ran Stannards' general store, helped Mr. Hayes find record of his birth so he and his wife could travel to England in the mid-1950s.

Regarding the colorful Mr. Lorin, Mr. Schnettler writes, "Stealing a title from Reader's Digest, here's 'My Most Unforgettable Character.'

"Milton Lorin ran Stannards' only Main Street business, a general store. A bachelor in his mid-80s, he lived in a large room behind the store. Off to the left was another, tinier room which contained a casket - not any casket, but one Milt had made himself. Outside was beautifully shiny cherry wood and the interior was lined with deer hides.

"If you wished, Milt would climb in and show you how he would look when his time came. … Asked why he had built the casket, he explained that he had once gone to the funeral of a friend and saw the bottom drop out of the burial box. He was bound it would not happen to him. He also explained that the casket he now owned was the second one, since he had given an earlier one to a penniless friend.

"'The man had no family, nothing, so I gave him the first casket and built the one I now have,' Milt explained.

"Further concerned with his funeral, Milt had also dug his own grave in the nearby cemetery, covering it over with boards. All that would have to be done, he said, was to uncover it, put him in and cover it back up.

"Milt was not at all concerned with the thought of death - he felt he was well prepared."

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