Great Western Days
Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.
“Miss Eleanor, you and Samuel get ready to come with me, if you like, to the meeting house. Mr. Brandon Elam says his brother, Luke, is coming across the river from Great Western and he’s got a job offer to make us. Word is that it may be about us working at the new Iron Furnace they’ve built over there and buying our freedom with the earnings. It’s what we’ve been hoping and praying about for so long. You feel up to it, Mama?” Hilton Jacobs placed a large, strong, but gentle hand over his wife’s pregnant belly as he asked her this question.
“I don’t think I can, Hilton,” she answered. I felt sick in my stomach again this morning and I don’t feel up to chasing Samuel down when all he wants to do is run and play. And, besides, that meeting house is no place to meet, anyway. You know what the Court said.” Eleanor didn’t want to preach to her husband but she did want him to think about everything that was going on around him.
“No more than three slaves can meet together at any one time. That’s the County law! Now, that does worry me a bit but you go on. If the Elam brothers are calling it then surely those Committee of Safety men won’t hold you up. I’ll stand by you if you want to go over to the Furnace and work. The Elam’s are honest and fair and I trust in you and them to do what is right. Samuel and I will be just fine right here.” She looked her husband in the eye as she spoke.
“But you watch out for them County men!” Eleanor was always cautious for her husband.
Theirs was a relationship founded in love, built on trust, and held together by honor. It all began for them on the first day of Spring, 1846. Her and Hilton were thrown together in haste to satisfy old man Cross Elam’s desire to have a new grapevine set that very morning. The only people available to do it right then and there were a young house maiden who was more in the way than a help and a new man just brought over from North Carolina named Hilton Jacobs.
When old man Cross said, “now”, he meant, “Now!” He supervised every detail of that morning’s grapevine setting with an eagle’s eye and a buzzard’s pecking. To him, this vine was no different than any of the rest. The old coot had at least twenty-five other grapevines he tended to and considered himself an expert on their raising. For someone who never got any dirt on his hands, he knew a lot. He was particular, too. I heard he whipped a man once for running through his vineyards. He was a hard man to please.
The first time Hilton laid eyes on Eleanor he was a changed man. Surely, he thought to himself, he had reached the Promised Land because there, in front of him, stood an angel.
Thick as they were and with braces that were twenty years ahead of their time, Hilton Jacobs molded the framework for these vines not as if he were making it for their owner but as if he was making it for Eleanor. Ol’ Cross could see right off that this new man had a fine hand for grapes but it was just beyond his grasp as to why he worked so compassionately to set them just right. After this day, Hilton’s main job was tending to all the vines and their supports that were scattered throughout Cross Elam’s domain. He cared substantially less about the vines than he did the young woman he now worked alongside. He adored her. It was no secret to him that the longer he worked on the grapes, the more time he was able to spend with her. He mentioned to Mr. Elam that the young girl had a fine eye for the vineyards. The old czar agreed and their destiny would soon be met.
At first, young Eleanor became frustrated with the new man’s meticulous surroundings of the vine’s braces and how they must be maintained to the tiniest detail.
“Just please move on with it,” she demanded.
“You’ll like these grapes, Miss Eleanor. I promise it,” he said.
Later that night as she lay awake in her bed, she did, indeed, realize that the special care he offered to the work was actually intended for her, to impress her. She hoped it to be so. She thought to herself, what would it be like if he were that way in everything he did and if it were so, wouldn’t it be nice and wouldn’t it be like Heaven, on earth? It was then, in the stillness of her night, that she prayed to God, the Almighty, that she had found the man she could spend the rest of her life with. Her awkward, nervous excitement kept her awake for hours. At her young age, she had never had this feeling before. Could she make him see it? Would she need to?
But, the die was cast. In Hilton Jacob’s bed, across the farm and so many years ago, another kindred soul found it, too, had trouble falling asleep.
“You make me strong,” Hilton told his wife. “My life was nothing before I met you. I went from being a field hand to a family man after you came into my life. You’ve given me reason to live and reason to prosper. Everything I am, I am because of you. I want to tell you every day how much I love you, Mrs. Eleanor Jacobs.” Hilton held her hands. “You make me proud to be your man. I’ll be back directly with the good news, I hope.”
“When love is love, baby, its you and me.” Eleanor said as she reached to caress the cheeks of her husband’s face.
“When love is love,” Hilton answered.
The house where the working men were to meet was North of the main house by about a mile and three-quarters. It lay across a green meadow and down through a well worn wagon path that passed two sacred tobacco fields, a creek that fed the river, and woods of oak and hickory. By the way, it flanked a limestone bluff that overlooked the river. When Hilton arrived there were already a large number of men gathered to hear what Mr. Luke Elam had to offer them. Word of the prospect of freedom traveled fast.
Almost all of the black men present, or their mothers and fathers, were brought to this County in bondage. The one thread that ran true among most of them was that they were all brought here, one way or another, by Cross Elam. He was dead now. Killed by a falling rafter in a sacred tobacco barn back in ’51. Justice, some people said. It fell hard now on Luke and Brandon Elam to consider the destiny of these men. They judged it to be their Christian obligation to do them right by God’s law. It was a challenge they did not take lightly. They were saddled with the burden of Cross Elam’s life and they aimed to make it right.
Old man Cross Elam had spent a large portion of the family’s fortune on acquiring slaves. Over ten thousand dollars in good deals, and bad, some speculated. It fell on the brothers, after their daddy had passed, to do something with that investment.
Seventeen male slaves and a few “free men” stood and watched as the Elam brothers walked toward the steps of the meeting house to address them. The Elam’s didn’t go up the steps but stood on the ground in front of them and looked directly in their eyes as they spoke.
“Good afternoon, men,” Brandon Elam began. “Do you mind if we start with a word of prayer?”
Hilton knew right off that negro men praying in public was against the County law but he bowed his head just like everybody else.
“Father, we know that you are our Savior. We pray that this beginning, whatever it may be, will be filled with your presence. We ask that you continue to bless us, protect us, and guide us in our lives so that we may walk with you in the light and others will know immediately that we are Christians. We thank you, Dear Lord, for your salvation and your saving grace. In Jesus’ holy name we pray, Amen and Amen. I’m proud that you’ve all chosen to come and hear what my brother has to say,” the younger Elam announced after the prayer.
“I think he has an offer that may benefit us all. As many of you know, after our daddy passed things changed a little around here. He, rest his soul, believed a mighty bit different than we do about owning slaves. Since his death we have not increased your numbers and we are most interested in every one of you obtaining your freedom as soon as possible. In this way, you may all get on with your lives and raise your families the way you choose, in the manner that you decide. That is all we want and we are sure that is all you want, too. If we could we would set everyone here free immediately. But, we can’t do that. With no help in the fields we could not get our tobacco out or in and we would lose everything. The livestock would suffer tremendously with no one to tend and to care for them. We understand the wonderful prominence that you have and the skills that you bring to our farm. We hope you will understand that we have to make a transition to the new way that is fair to everyone. To this end, we know that while working the tobacco fields you can only save about twenty dollars a year to put towards buying your freedom. A whole year’s worth of work only yields twenty dollars! Hilton you, for example, after eight solid years of farm work have only paid one hundred sixty dollars on your three hundred dollar freedom debt. You have put that twenty dollars every year on your debt. Others don’t. Others may work ten years and not pay a dime on their debt. They will never earn their freedom. My question to you, and everyone else here, is this; what is the sense in working for your freedom if it takes twenty years to forever to earn it? The best years of your life are then behind you. Your children are grown. Then, you have to start all over on your own free dreams. I am sorry that is all we’ve had to offer you for these past few years and I thank you for your patience with us. Its just that you, and we, have grown accustomed to that way of life. That was the “Cross” way of living. It was the only horse in town, the only road to take, and it was all we knew. But that was the old way. Now, my brother Luke wants to give you another choice. He wants to offer you another road to travel. Don’t be afraid to change, gentlemen.” Brandon Elam stepped aside and Luke began to speak.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. Thank you, again, for coming. The Lord has blessed us with a beautiful day. I’ll get right to the point. As many of you already know, over at Great Western we’ve spent three years building a brand new iron mill. Now we need good, strong men to operate it and care for it. She’s like a lady, men. If you take care of her and treat her right she’ll make us all better for it. I will not give you any false hope or false promises, it is hard work and it is hot work. Many of you who agree to go will be mining for ore in the side of a hill with pick and ax. You’ll work ten hours a day Monday through Saturday to get that pig iron out and it will take you nigh on two hours to travel to and from work. That is, if you choose not to stay all week and go home only on Sunday. At the Great Western Furnace there will be two full working shifts and a cleanup crew at night. Altogether, the mill will operate twenty-four hours a day. I say again and hear me, it is hard and demanding work but, if you agree to work at the Furnace, you will be provided with many extra allowances. Among these will be tougher and more durable clothes to wear. New boots will be given every six months to each man who continues to work the mill. Special consideration will be given to those of you with families to support. You’ll be spending more time at the Great Western and you won’t want to worry about having enough food or wood or water at home. We will see that all of your family’s needs are met. Doubled, if need be. Finally, and this is the best news of all, for every one of you here today who agrees to our plan and will sign on, my brother will be allocated, to set aside, one hundred dollars. Of that sum, twenty-five dollars, after three months at the mill, will go directly into your pockets to spend any way that you like. Twenty-five dollars of that money will go to Mr. Brandon to hire workers for the tobacco field and farm positions that you vacate. We can not let our crops and our livestock fall away without proof that our Furnace will sustain us, men. But the bulk of the money, fifty dollars a year, will go directly into your “freedom funds”. This money will buy back your freedom at a much faster pace.
In conclusion, to assure all of you that we are serious about Freedom, anyone here that will commit today to work the Great Western, and will work it for a two year contract, will have fifty dollars subtracted from their total price of Freedom. This will take effect, Lord willing, with a twenty-five dollar subtraction one year from today and a twenty-five dollar subtraction two years from today. Everyone think about where they were one year ago. It’s gone by quickly hasn’t it, men?
Hilton, you could be a free man in three years, not twelve. Then, for the next ten years after that you’ll be earning over one hundred dollars a year at the mill working as a free man and all of this for you and for your family! You could buy the land you live on, work it for yourself, and answer to no man. That is Freedom, gentlemen. That’s my offer, the high and the low of it. I’m here to see if any of you might be interested. I need to know today. If you are, please make your mark next to your name on this piece of paper and I’ll be waiting for you on Monday morning at five o’clock by the river to ferry you across that river and into your free future. There will be no surprises. I hope you will all give this a great deal of consideration before you sign. Everything said here today is true. Especially, the part about the hard work. That is the truest word of all.”
As Luke Elam stepped away from the steps and walked towards a table that was set up with with paper and writing instruments, he tried to look the men in their eyes to get an understanding of their feelings. Many had gathered around Hilton Jacobs and the Elam brothers heard the men of bondage asking Hilton questions. They wanted to know if it were true, could they be free men in five years? Would their families be taken care of in their absence? Would the Elam’s do as they promised? Hilton answered in the affirmative on every question and added that he thought, in his heart, that they would do all these things.
With every answered question the men looked unbelievably towards one another. Some smiled wildly. A few had tears in their eyes and did not speak. Luke hoped, even prayed, that he spoke the right words and, as he took his spot by the table, he learned that he had. All of those men who had smiled wildly before, all of those who had said nothing before, all of those with bewildered looks before, now formed a group that began to make a long line in front of the table. They reached out to shake his and his brother’s hand and to take their turn at the signing table. The hand shaking was the bond. The signing was just a formality.
“Thank-you, Mr. Luke. We’ll be there. We’ll all be there,” they told him.
“Don’t thank me yet, gentlemen,” Luke warned. “After a month at the mill you may all hate me.”
Of the seventeen men the Elam brothers hoped to recruit to begin to fill the ranks of the Great Western, twenty were signed. The signing of the three free men were especially important to the brothers because they would show that these men could earn all of their money for just themselves and that there was, indeed, truth in their words.
All of the men’s spirits were lifted. They agreed, sometimes, that if God had meant for their journey through life to be spent, for a time, as slaves, he allowed that their paths on this Earth would cross with Luke and Brandon Elam. Their farms were tolerable. They treated dutiful workers with dignity and humanity. They did not believe in whipping or posting as most of the other owners did. But, most importantly, the eventual goal was common to all, Freedom. From this quest for freedom a mutual respect was forged.
Luke Elam was fond of saying that it was every man’s right to choose the plow or the book. By that, he meant that a man could farm or learn a trade. He considered them both equal and honest ways of making a living and made it possible for all men under his direction to have that choice.
In open defiance of the County Court, both brothers allowed all of their hands to meet freely to discuss any problems that they had. They allowed Church services to be held on their property and did their level best to keep the Court’s deputies from disrupting any religious meetings. Many were the times an Elam brother was seen at the Stewart County Court House paying a ten dollar fine for unlawful assembly of slaves.
After Cross Elam died the brothers called all of the dutiful workers together and told them that they were working on a solution to the problem of taking so long to earn their freedom.
Now Mr. Luke had, in three gratifying years, worked himself into the position of “founder” at the newly built Great Western Furnace. He was second in command only to the “iron master”, who also happened to be the principle owner. Old Cross, when alive, never allowed young Luke to work at any of the established iron mills spread throughout the County.
“You’ll always be a tobacco farmer, boy. Get used to it,” the old man would say and then spit his mouthful of sacred tobacco juice toward the feet of the young Elam whenever the subject came up.
It was very soon after their father died that the two brothers made a calculated guess that one of them could continue farming as easily as two and the other could learn the lucrative Iron business. They ventured that both of them would benefit greatly in the outcome. Now, only three short years later, the brothers were ready to put their well laid plans into effect. The brothers were talking to Hilton Jacobs.
“Hilton,” said Brandon Elam, “You are one of the main reasons why our farm was able to keep up and operate over the last three years without Mr. Luke. You’ve helped to get us to this point as much, or more, than anyone else here and I mean to tell you that I thank you for that.”
Mr. Luke added, “Hilton, I’m not going to lie to you or anybody else here. If we can’t make this new operation run smoothly and efficiently and turn a profit, then I am out of a job. I won’t know as much as I think I do and I guess all we can ever hope to be are tobacco farmers. But I don’t believe that. I want you, Mr Hilton, to be my daytime “keeper” at the mill. You’ll get extra pay for that. I’ll teach you everything you need to know. What I mean is, I’ll soon need you more than you will need me. Can we do this?”
“You can count on me, Mr. Luke,” Hilton said, confidently.
“One more thing,” Luke said. “You will be overseeing many men at the Great Western. From this day forward, Brandon and myself will always refer to you as Mr. Hilton and so shall all of your men. So, thank you, Mr. Hilton.”
Until his dying day, that was so.
Hilton was without words. Mr. Luke was nearly 15 years older than he was. Hilton was still a young man when he first came to know the Elam brothers. Now they would call him Mister! He had to let all of this sink in. He had to get home to Miss Eleanor to share this news with her.
Shots fired! Shots, fired overhead. Everyone hunkered down and looked around with surprise. They had all been so caught up in their future plans that no one had noticed as County Constable and Committee of Safety rider Thomas Opson quietly slipped up on them on horseback with four other Committee of Safety riders and fired his rifle into the air.
“This is an unlawful assembly. You Elams know the law! Both of you brothers are under arrest for allowing an unlawful assembly of Negroes. You coming peacefully?” Opson asked.
“This is an agricultural lesson Opson,” Brandon allowed, “Nothing more.”
“I don’t care what it is, Elam,” Opson argued. “Let’s go to Dover to see what the Judge has to say about it.”
“Both of us, Opson? We only had one meeting.” Luke answered.
“Alright, Elam. One of you get on your horse and go with us to Dover and the other one get these workers on a march back to their quarters and Elams, I do mean now.”
Luke looked at Hilton. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We knew this could happen. We expected it to. They will fine me ten dollars and I’ll be on my way. Stay with Brandon, keep the men together and safe, see them home and I’ll meet you Monday morning at the ferry. Good luck, Mr. Hilton.”
“Good luck, Mr. Luke,” Hilton said as they both shook hands in front of an indignant Thomas Opson.
End of Chapter 3