Penn State employee has penned 8 books on state folk tales and legends

October 20, 2011

The Office of Internal Audit's Jeff Frazier spends a lot of time at work looking at computer screens. As a senior information systems auditor, he monitors University computer systems. He looks into how they are designed and operate, and identifies loopholes that hackers may exploit. Frazier takes his findings and provides suggestions for units to enhance security. But when his eyes aren't on a computer screen, his nose is most likely in a book. A self-proclaimed bibliophile, Frazier's passion for Pennsylvania folktales and legends has blossomed from an interest to a hobby to a second profession.

You're an author of eight books now. How did you get started writing and why folk tales?
When I worked in New Jersey, I'd go to the Firestone Library at Princeton University. When I was there, I came across a book from an early collector of central Pennsylvania mountain folk tales. The author was Henry Shoemaker. Today, he is known more as a "fake" lorist. He took stories and would romanticize and embellish and distort things. Regardless of that, I still like his stories. He wrote about places I grew up in. I recognized a lot of places and family names. I was away from home, and he brought home right to my lap. I devoured everything I could find.

At what point did you think you could contribute?
After I exhausted (Shoemaker's) materials, I thought I could start collecting the old legends and folktales on my own. It was 1970, we just put a man on the moon and I go out looking for stories dating back to the Civil War and before that. I decided it'd be a good excuse to go back to the mountains and visit my old haunts. My wife and I still like to explore the back roads and mountains. I've branched out to all corners of the state from the black forests in the north to the south mountains, Blue Mountains in the east and Alleghenys in the west -- and everything else between.

How are your books organized? What can we find in them?
Half of my collection is from Centre County and surrounding counties. It's because I know more people here and I have had more time to collect. You'll find central Pennsylvania stuff in each book. I try to weave in stories that are related to show how legends and folktales like to migrate from place to place. They float over currents of time. The stories are broken into four types … early hunting episodes, oral histories, Indian legends and ghost stories. I know it just sounds like tall tales, but that's what fascinates me. There are kernels of truth in them. I want to know if I can trace the origins.

How do you find the stories? And how do you intertwine them throughout your books?
I talk to people. I visit places and explore. I started collecting in the 1970s, and there was no way I could get the stories I got then now, especially the early hunting episodes. A lot of the stories are pretty much gone because they haven't been preserved. I try to include each of the four types of stories in each book. I do have one book of just ghost stories. I didn't want to be labeled a ghost hunter, but my wife and I started staying at different state parks and historic sites in Pennsylvania. I was getting first-hand accounts from rangers and employees. I thought that a book on ghost stories may be popular because people love to visit these places and they love ghost stories…connecting the two might raise another level of interest in those areas.

Fifty years from now, do you think stories like these will still be created and passed on?
You hear about the urban legends today, and they're kind of a modern-day version of my tales. However, they are more fanciful and far-fetched. My tales are often rooted in fact. That's kind of a continuation of the stories I run across. That's why I like to explore their history and the facts behind them. I find they often do have some kernels of truth embedded in them. One of the things that really surprised me, collecting back in the 1970s, was how deeply rooted some common old superstitions were especially those related to witches. I could go into some of the more remote valleys of Pennsylvania and still talk to people who believed in the old time witches. I am talking about the old-time witches that people thought could turn into black cats and cast spells. I talked to people who firmly believed in it. It shows you how deeply seeded the superstitions are. But when you talk about ghost stories, they'll continue. There's no question about that.

  • Senior information systems auditor and local author Jeff Frazier shows off one of his eight books on Pennsylvania folk tales, legends and ghost stories.

    IMAGE: Jonathan McVerry

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Last Updated January 09, 2015