LOCKPORT – Most nice days will find Gerry Stafford, grandmother of seven, visiting the Erie Canal with her fishing pole in hand. The canal is just a two-minute drive from her Lockport home of nearly 40 years.
Her visits are triggered by her dedication to fishing and her love of local history.
In fact, it is her interest in the Erie Canal that led her to create two fictional children’s books inspired by a true event. The books detail the difficult life of 13-year-old Kevin Cullane, who works on the canal to earn money to bring his mother and sister from Ireland to the United States.
Young Cullane works as a driver on the canal in 1831, guiding the horses that pull the packet boat Gypsy Queen. Stafford published the 60-page book, titled “Young Canaller,” last year. The “Young Canaller Story and Coloring Book” came out just last month – a shorter version of her first book, with 18 pictures for youngsters to color.
The first book is aimed at readers age 8 to 12, while the coloring book is for children 6 and older.
“I wanted to write a book, but I wasn’t sure what type of book to write,” Stafford said. “An educator friend of mine suggested I write a children’s book on the Erie Canal, because it’s part of the fourth-grade curriculum.
“Kids sometimes find history boring, but it’s just the opposite, and I wanted to show them how interesting local history can be,” the 70-year-old Stafford said.
Stafford was born in Buffalo and grew up there and in West Seneca. She and her husband, Neil, who died in 2010, moved to Lockport in 1975 when he became executive director of planning and development for Niagara County.
“Neil would come home and tell interesting stories about the canal and the cities and towns along the canal in the early 1800s,” she recalled. “That’s when I started reading about the canal. It got me hooked on the history of this area. It’s very fascinating.”
Stafford taught history in elementary school, then started a family and continued to teach religious education for 35 years. She also started her second career as a freelance writer.
The inspiration for the book came from one of Stafford’s many visits to the Lockport Library, where she read a story about a young “hoggee” – a boy or man who guides horses that pull a canal boat – who fell ill and was abandoned on the towpath by his boat captain.
“I thought that would be a great story,” she recalled. “Life on the canal was very interesting. You can just imagine the cities and towns, from Buffalo to Albany, that got their start because of the canal. They had crime in the early days, and leaks in the canal. Leaks are still going on today. And they had fishing back then – that’s something I do all of the time now. I also thought it was important to tie in the Underground Railroad because many people don’t know how they are related.
“There have been fiction books written for kids on the canal before, but some were written long ago, and the language is stilted,” she said. “I thought it was time for a new book.”
Stafford said she probably researched her book, off and on, for three years and took five years to write it.
“Maybe I’d work on it for two hours one day and an hour another day, until it gradually got finished,” she said.
But before it was published, she read it to her grandson, Adam Stafford, who was 7 at the time.
“He enjoyed it,” she said. “I’d say, ‘Do you want me to keep reading?’ and he’d say, ‘Oh yes, Grandma, keep reading. I like it.’ ”
She said Douglas Farley, who was director of the Erie Canal Discovery Center in Lockport while she was writing the book, suggested the companion coloring book.
Farley recalled, “I would meet with her to discuss the plot while she was writing the book. She wanted to make sure it was all historically accurate.”
Commenting on the importance of historical fiction for young children, he added, “Anytime a family can share information together, I think they’re on the right track.”
Stafford said she thought a coloring book based on her first book “would be a nice introduction for younger kids to historical novels.
“When my artist (illustrator Erica Joan Wanecski) showed me the drawings for the first book, they were really big (before being reduced in size for publication), and I thought at the time it’d be nice to let kids color them,” Stafford recalled. “Now I make copies of the pictures from the coloring book and take them to schools when I go to speak, and I hold coloring contests.”
Stafford said she’s been invited to speak at several local public and parochial schools.
“The kids are very interested – especially the fourth-graders,” she said. “I wrote this book for children age 8 to 12, but every child has a different reading level, and adults like it, too.”
Stafford said she likes to read history books, Westerns, books about religion and philosophy, as well as historical novels.
“I love to read,” she said. “But I’m afraid with computers that kids are not reading as much these days. Or maybe they’re not reading (for pleasure) as much because they have so much reading to do with their homework.”
What’s next on her agenda?
“I produced two books in two years, and I’d like to try and write one each year now,” Stafford said. “I have some plans. Maybe I’ll write a sequel to this book. My summer activities, like fishing, are ending for the year, and I plan to start writing in the next week of two. I’m busy getting the books out to bookstores right now, too.”
Stafford’s books may be found at many local stores and history centers, including: Lockport Cave and Underground Boat Ride, Lockport Locks and Canal Cruises, Market Street Art Center, the Erie Canal Discovery Center, Crafts and Creations, all in Lockport, and Shoppe on Main in Newfane, or by calling her at 434-4084.