Category Archives: News


Based on actual events occurring December 5th, 1856 in Dover, Tennessee.

The following portrayals would have been very hard to photograph.


Chapter 1

“Turn with me in your Bibles, if you will, to Isaiah 1:15 and follow in the scripture.”

“And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; And yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear: Your hands are full of blood.”

“Brethren,” the Preacher continued, “the Lord has a message for you here.  Are you listening to Him?  Do you understand what He is saying?  Do you hear the warning He is giving you?  You can’t keep on with your back door sinning, you can’t keep on hurting your neighbor, and you can’t keep on denying the presence of the Lord because when you’ve committed too much sin and you’ve gone too far with the Devil, your begging won’t do you any good.  Your pleading won’t do you any good.  The Lord won’t even look at you. He’ll turn his eyes away from you.  He won’t listen to your prayers.  He has no place in Heaven for you when your hands are full of blood.  So, confess your sins, Brothers and Sisters.  I pray today that you will seek the mercy of the Lord before it is too late.  On this fine April morning that our God has seen fit to share with us, where His sun is shining and His birds are singing, don’t tarry any longer.  Our Father is calling you now.  Will you answer Him?  Will you come to Him, serve Him, and will you reconfirm your love for the Christ Jesus?  If you will, come now around this altar for the Lord, seek His forgiveness, and thank Him for His everlasting, saving grace.  Come now as we all stand and sing.”

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.  Everyone sang in a loud and proud voice.  Our Preacher had us all stirred up with his sermon and even though nobody took him up on his offer of salvation, we were all still happily singing right in the middle of it.  I sang while my little brother Drew, hummed.  After the hymn, the Pastor asked the Deacons to take up an offering.  They passed the twig woven collection baskets up and down the wooden church pews, picking up coins and an occasional dollar.  I gave a Confederate dollar once but, Mama said it wasn’t any good to the church anymore.  That’s when I knew all my Rebel money was bad.  If the church couldn’t find a use for it then nobody could.  Confederate money wasn’t worth a horse’s hair after 1865.  It was just a pretty picture on a piece of paper.  I traded with it when I could, mostly just with my friends, and sometimes at ten times less its value.  Federal dollars were awfully hard to come by, even if you wanted them.

This Sunday, as always, Mama gave me and Drew a nickel’s worth of pennies to split up and we put them in the basket as it passed by. Today, I got to throw in two pennies and he dropped three.  We switched up every week.  Next week, Lord willing, I would give three and him, two.  It was a ritual we’d been practicing for going on six years.  Ever since that War of Northern Aggression ended and we were able to start going back to church regular, we did this.  I was born 7 years before Drew so, as I remember, when we first started putting our pennies in I got to give four and he was happy just to put one in.  Now that he is older and bigger, he wants to be more equal.  That’s fair.  Pretty soon I hope to be working for real wages raising my own sacred tobacco.  Then, Lord willing, I’ll have my own money to give.  I guess he’ll get to give the whole nickel then and be proud.  He’ll feel bigger like I used to.

After the offering, we took Communion.  “Go slow with the tray, Comer,” Mama said. She still remembered the Sunday morning when I spilled the Blood of Christ all over the brand new suit Drew was wearing and then, being afraid of my mistake, I ran outside leaving her with the unenviable task of picking up the thimble glasses and wiping down Drew.

Our mother threw her head back sharply as she accepted her holy elixir of life and the blood of Jesus raced, uninhibited, down her throat to purify her sins.  Even so, if she had any sins we didn’t know about them.  She always sat with her back straight and erect, much like her way.  Her hands were folded nicely and rested gently in her lap as she sat. The collar on her dress stretched to the tip of her chin.  She was a proper person.  Her long black hair was streaked with gray but unless you looked closely you couldn’t really tell. She kept it braided, wound up, and in a tight bun pinned to the back of her head.  Drew and me used to squeeze it like a sunflower whenever she sat in her rocker at home.  On Sunday mornings, her hair was always covered with a white lace cap.  The gray hair hidden by the cap revealed an age that had come quickly into her life.  At 32, most women her age had less gray hair.  She accepted hers with grace.  She accepted it with dignity.

The paned, stained glass windows were open in the church and a warm breeze blew through them from side to side.  It was a comfort to us all and kept most of our Resurrection Sunday hand fans tucked away in the handsome pockets that were fashioned on the back of each pew.

Drew fanned the air with one of them as he rested on Mama’s lap and I watched Mr. Lemuel Stimpson nodding off to sleep two rows in front of us. I counted the seconds between the time his head would drop.  First eight, then six, now back to seven again. Both Mr. Lemuel and the Preacher seemed to move together in tempo and time.  The cadence of the Preacher’s oration, tuned well with his natural spiritual power and strong force of delivery, was punctuated again and again with a thunderous Bible slapping or a foundation shaking foot stomping that would quickly snap ‘ol man Lemuel’s head up, at least for a second or two, in honest, intended attention. Then, without fail, his aged softness would lure and release him, again, to his impending inner sanctuary.  It was a peaceful, silent, and undisturbed sanctuary that he surely must have spent a lifetime cultivating for himself.  He could drift in and out of it most comfortably now.  Whether he was in church or on his own front porch, he already understood the peace that passes all understanding.  I looked forward to this kind of old age.

Today, the Preacher preached on redemption.  How many times had Mr. Lemuel heard this particular sermon?  Enough, I guess, that he could recite it in his sleep.  I figured he must have heard them all many times over because he slept every Sunday.  Nobody seemed to mind.  At 82 years old he surely had, at least, one foot already inside the Pearly Gates and was just waiting to step on in with the other.  There was no sin upon him now. He was sanctified holy.  As for his sleeping, Mrs. Stimpson always stopped him if he started to make loud noises.  Her dignified devotion to her husband was classical.  His respect for her?  Absolute.

Each and every Sunday our Pastor wore the same long black coat.  On its front were sewn seven carefully placed, bone carved, white buttons.  The fastening straps for these buttons were tanned leather and when coupled together they formed to make the shape of a holy cross.  Five buttons straight up and down and one over each of his breasts brought that cross to life and left no doubt in people’s minds as to his profession.  With his coat on, he walked behind the Lord with every step he took.  This pitch black as night long coat contrasted sharply against the plain white, high-collared shirt he wore but, altogether they seemed to emphasize a certain sincere character in his presentation.  His white eyebrows were thick, like those on men of wisdom, and they pointed like God’s own fingers to the Heavens. His hair was long, white, and wavy and Moses, himself, could not have looked more Godly.  The man of God wore silver buckled boots that were polished shiny black and when he stomped one of them on that Trinity United Church of God floor men, and women alike, took notice.  His hat, wide, tall, and also black, had a history of being waved around his head, thrown up into the air, and slammed down onto the ground all within the first five minutes of an inspiring outdoor revival.

Preacher continued with his sermon on redemption and he paid no attention to the sounds of a baby whimpering softly in the back pew.  He knew he would soon have its consideration.  He made no particular observance to the increasing sounds of hoof beats that were being made from the many horses now heard charging down through the narrow road that led to our church.

Drew and I both sat up when we heard the commotion and we looked at each other for the longest with confused expressions.  The horses came closer, still, and we waited for them to pass by but they didn’t.  We listened as a wagon was rolled up to the church’s side and its brake was applied.   We heard men dismount their horses and start up the steps.  The rattle of spurs and the kicking of boot heels on the lined, wooden planks of the Trinity’s front porch easily chased away, with their dominating sound, any God sent message that we may have been studying.

I knew the boots were coming in.  Drew knew they were coming in.  It wasn’t the kind of Sunday saunter that would just stop outside your door, but the Preacher must have thought so because he kept on spewing out that fire and brimstone like there would be no tomorrow.  He kept on talking like he couldn’t be stopped.  He wouldn’t be stopped.  He was charged by the Lord to get his message out before any mortal man could halt him.

“Isaiah 29:15 says, Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the Lord, and their works are in the dark, and they say, who sees us?  And who knows us?  The Lord knows,” he said quietly.

The doors of the church flew open! The bright sunshine slipped across the altar and held it in an eerie glow. No one was scared. These men weren’t robbers, they were lawmen. United States Marshals. They strode forcefully into the church carried, it seemed, on rays of sunshine that cascaded across the floor in long, bright illuminating sheets of light. They blinded you if you tried to look directly at them. Only if the men blocked out the sun with their big hats could you hope to see their faces. As long as I live I will never forget those hats. They were wide and banded, high dollar chapeaus. They were not like a weather-beaten trail hat that you might slap against your thigh to knock the dust off. These were put up hats that were only worn on special occasions. It only took a few, brief seconds for all of the men to enter the church but once inside everything they did seemed to move at a slower pace. Simple steps, simple actions, and simple movements all took for eternity to complete. I could hear them talking to each other and to the congregation and telling everyone to stay seated and be calm. They all had big guns and badges to go with their big hats and I remember thinking that these men were going to get what they came for.

At first, nobody knew what that was. They just stood there, two by the door, two by the Preacher, and four looking over the flock like an eagle getting ready to snatch a snake from its nest. I looked for daddy where he always sat. His place in the church was always on the second to the front left pew but at first, I didn’t see him there. I strained again to see him riding low in his seat. He saw me looking at him and we looked into each other’s eyes for a moment that will last forever in my mind. I could see deep into his eyes. I saw deeper than I had ever seen before. He didn’t show a scared or pitiful look on his face but more of a shocked look. He was like a squirrel that heard the click of the gun but could only escape the shot for so long. That one missed. He wondered if he would hear the next click. He sat there like that squirrel, waiting to be hit. Too shocked to move, he didn’t know which way to run. It was then that one of the men in big hats spotted my father and reached for him. He slumped back even deeper in his pew when the man, alone, grabbed him but when eight big hands were laid upon him he came up quick.

“Daddy!” I yelled and jumped up, but Mama held on tight to my jacket. I had to speak from where I stood.  “Daddy, what’s wrong? What’s happening, Mama?  What do they want with daddy?”

Mama didn’t say anything, she just held on tight to me.

“Take your hands off of me, Sir.  Who are you,”  my father demanded. “This is my church. We’re having church here.  Have you no decency?  Unhand me you, you Yankee!  You wretched Yankees!  Release me, I say.” Daddy screamed and fought with the Marshals all the way out the door.  He kicked and struggled until they finally chained him down on that wagon.

He wasn’t used to being treated that way.  He was the one in the habit of giving out the orders to have men placed in chains.  When he spoke most people reacted to his words with patronizing respect.  I knew my daddy liked people to show this type of discipline towards him.  He expected it.  He didn’t like being the hunted prey in the cage.  Not after he had played the hunter for so long.

The biggest of the men in big hats walked over to the Preacher and apologized for the disturbance.  He explained that he was dispatched directly from the Governor in Nashville to return my daddy to Clarksville where he would be held on Federal charges.  He said my father would be in the Montgomery County Court on the day after tomorrow and we could see him then.  The local, County Constable was also there but, he didn’t say anything until after the US Marshals were gone.  Only then did he speak.  He told us that we could finish with our sermon now that all the excitement was over.  Upon delivering this message, he walked down the aisle cradling his shotgun in his arms.  He exited through the church doors much the very same way he came in but, those doors didn’t look the same after he was gone.  The light wasn’t quite so bright.  The air was not as crisp.  Nothing looked the same anymore.

The elders huddled together with the Preacher by the altar and I walked to the window to see my daddy carried up the hollow on that big flat wagon.  Stripped of his honor and put on public display for crimes unbeknownst to Drew or me, he hung his head in shame.

Drew was crying and asked Mama why they took him away like that.

“I don’t know, child.  We’ll have to wait and see.”  Mama was crying, too.  Not like if it were Drew kicking and screaming and losing his breath but hers were little tears that welled up big in her eyes and, at once, flowed in one big drop down her cheek.  These tears came from deep inside Mama.  I knew that something was bad wrong.  I had a feeling that she knew what it was but wasn’t telling.

Everyone in the church was stunned by the events.  So much so, that the Preacher dismissed us early.  His sermon on redemption was cut short by the interruption, he explained.  He added that he hoped he had hit his mark.  As we filed outside nobody said much of anything.  Almost everyone simply got up on their wagons and left.

As we walked to our team of mules, two of Mama’s friends came by and told her they would come sit with her if she wanted them to.  Their sincerity was genuine.  I could tell. It was not like the bravado that was expected of men from other men.  The women had only their dignity to maintain.  This they did very well in the face of a world ruled by tyrants that they also called husbands.  Mama told each of them that we would be alright and thanked them for their kindness.  On the way home the only sound heard from the woods was Drew’s sniffling and a mule team pulling a wagon down an old country road.

End of Chapter 1.

Potneckers, you’ve just read Chapter 1 of The Excitement.  It is a story based on fact from Dover’s history.  If you liked it you can read Chapter 2 here next week.  Thank you.



Chapter 2


When we reached the house Drew went by the fireplace to sit.  Once there, he soon fell asleep.  Mama went about her regular Sunday after Church routine of helping Miss Elly with the chores.  They sat on the side porch rocking, talking, and separating the last of the sacred tobacco seed for the planting.

“Miss Elly,” Mama said, “I’m thinking about something special for supper tonight to go with those beans we’ve got soaking.  What do you think about that fatted hen in the coop?  Do you reckon she’d pluck out easy and boil up good?”

Miss Elly smiled.  “I reckon she would indeed, Margaret.  But what about Marse James? Won’t he be furious that we cooked up one of his prized hens without him being here to oversee the plucking and eat the breast?”

“That fat hen will be eaten and long forgotten before that man ever sets foot back on this property, if he ever does.”  I was surprised to hear Mama say that.

“Then it’s settled, Elly,” she added.  “Later, I’ll get a pot of water boiling and commence to pulling those feathers.  We’ll make it a real fancy sit down supper and we’ll let Sassy make those dumplings we’ve been promising to teach her about.  Will you ask Mose, later, to sharpen up his hatchet?”

“I will, Margaret,” Miss Elly said with a satisfied smile.

I didn’t know why they were planning this frilly supper.  We only had chicken on celebration days and we would never do anything like this without daddy here.  He would forbid it.  I thought Mama must surely be going crazy or, at least, trying to hide her sadness by busying herself with a day’s worth of work.  To sacrifice one of his precious hens without him being here was something that I just couldn’t understand.

It seemed that most everyone else, though, was excited about this last minute supper and a small crowd was beginning to gather around the chicken coop to watch Mose make that hen run around the stump with its head cut off.

I knew that my friend, Hilmon, would be on Writer’s Rock waiting for me but, I wasn’t ready, just yet, to go down to the rock.  Those Federal men had come by the house first looking for my father and then they proceeded on to the church.  Everyone knew my daddy was in jail.  The terrible secret was out.  Our pretentious innocence was covered with shame.  I couldn’t face my friend.

I went to the only place I could find peace.  I went to the tree.  My oak tree.  Along a line running north and south on the eastern side of the house stood a row of fifteen oak trees.  All of them were 60 years old and they were each 20 paces apart.  Grandpa knew how old they were because he planted them.  He planted them all except the furthest one out from the house, the one that marked the entrance to our road.  This tree was older than the other oaks.  It was, according to my Grandfather, over 100 years old.  When you walked down that long row of trees and got to the oldest and the biggest one, the last one away from the house, you were on the road to Dover.

In older times, Grandpa said, this old oak was the setting for the celebration of a new beginning.  After the War of Independence, veterans of that War gathered here, around this tree, with their families to remember the sacrifices and to remember those who gave their lives for freedom.  We whipped those redcoats twice, Grandpa loved to say. They used to assemble there every year in the summer, he said, to celebrate, but those days ended long before my time.  He told me grand stories about the food and the happiness and the large groups of people that once congregated around this tree.  My tree.

More than one Governor had spoken beneath it, he bragged.  Grandpa said he missed those celebrations after they stopped.  He said people forgot about the sacrifices that were made to win that War.  People forgot about how hard it was to get free.  He said his daddy reminded him of that every day.  He said that making a free living, once only a dream, was made available to everybody because of that War, the War for Independence.  Andy Jackson’s War only proved that we were right, he said, and they celebrated that here, too.

He always told me, the journey of life is the reward.  Nobody remembers their beginning and the end is always just a little too sad.  The journey of life is where your most precious memories are made.

He didn’t agree with that northern war that came to Dover.  It didn’t seem right to him that we all had to fight again and even amongst ourselves.  He said the problem was that people wanted perfection or at least they expected everyone else to be perfect.  They expected perfection in an imperfect world and they had nothing more important to do than to hurry about pointing fingers about why everyone else was wrong.  That was why they stopped coming to the celebrations, he said.  It was because of all of the hurrying and the scurrying and the forgetting about what was important.  It was because people were not taking care of their own.

It was under this tree, in the wonder of Spring, that he showed me the path to reach a higher plane, a plane separated from the tangled web of man.  He showed me a place where inner peace could replace outer struggle.  It’s a simple thing, really.  Slow down, he said.  Slow down.  Grandpa taught me to lay back in the great tree of understanding.  He said to let its branches be your cradle.  Rest your head back, close your eyes, and breathe.  Then, listen.  Listen to the sounds around you and understand how to live within them.  There is a peace to be found there, he said.  And he was right.

This massive tree leaned just enough into the road so that footsteps carved into its side by my Grandfather provided an easy access to climbing up and into its hidden domain.  Just as with him two generations before, it now became my fortress.  It was my fortress of wood.  I felt safe there.  The world in all of its glory could go by and nothing could harm me there.  I wanted the world to go by quickly now.

In the summer when the leaves are green and full no one can see you there.  The branches are thick and one can easily lay on them without fear of falling.  Hilmon and I stayed there for hours at a time watching the carriages and the people streaming by like so many fish on the road below us.  This was the road to the West.  This was the road back to the East.  There was never a shortage of travelers on this road.  Sometimes we would toss acorns or green walnuts at the backsides of their horses to see them jump and scatter.  Hilmon was the best.  He could strike a horse in the hindquarter with one throw nearly every time.  Laughter became our only giveaway.  The tree was our window to the world and together Hilmon and I watched it go by.  Together, we speculated on its vastness, on its smallness, on its cruelty, and on its compassion.  All of these things came, we soon understood, in their own time and in no small quantity.

Now, and again, came the beginning of Spring.  It was my favorite time of the year.  Only the rain was left of a cold winter and the summer days of life lie ahead.  The leaves of my oak were not yet in full bloom but even in the Spring I could hide in the tree with little effort.  Branches of enormous size crisscrossed the road and you actually had to lean out of them to be seen.  The branches were open and comfortable and I lay there motionless on my branch watching carriages come and go from our house with some regularity.  All of the haughty, stately neighbors were coming by to assure Mama that everything would be all right.  They each stayed about ten minutes.  Not even long enough for tea.  Then, they left.  Sometimes, as the carriages met in the roadway beneath me, they paused to discuss the situation with one another and I could hear them talking about the Excitement.  The Excitement they talked about didn’t sound like the excitement that happened in our church.

I don’t know, but I think I fell asleep and was dreaming so it was a long time before I came down from the tree.  I thought I heard Hilmon calling my name before I realized he wasn’t there.  It was way after supper and almost dark when I finally got back to the house.  Miss Elly and Mama were taking turns rocking and playing with Miss Elly’s new grandbaby on the front porch.  Mama asked me if I wouldn’t mind stacking some firewood on the side porch.  I knew we hadn’t had blackberry winter yet so I started right into stacking.  Miss Elly asked me if I needed any help, but I said no, thank you.  She smiled and started into the house but stopped just outside the door.

“Hil went down to the tree looking for you at suppertime.  You feel all right, Comer”, she asked?

“Yes, Miss Elly, I feel fine”, I answered.  I kept stacking wood on the porch until it was more than enough to warm a blackberry winter.  I stacked it up high but safe enough to stand on its own.  I didn’t know when daddy would be home but, I had a feeling that my sacred tobacco patch just got bigger.

It was dark and I was hungry so I ate some dumplings and cornbread before I went to bed.  I tried not to think about daddy much and I slept well, for all the commotion of the day.  I slept so well that the next morning I woke up late.  The sun was already up.  I was called, Miss Elly said, but missed a sit-down breakfast so I grabbed a biscuit and rushed out the door to find Hilmon.  The sting of Sunday’s events had somehow softened with the arrival of a new day.  The sun was shining and it was even warmer than the day before.  It felt good on my face.  It made me feel more like Summer and it made me more anxious to get to Writer’s Rock to see Hilmon Jacobs.

I ran to the end of the oaks, turned away from town, and ran straight to the first curve in the road where I cut across the hollow and down into the clearing where Writer’s Rock lay.  There, on the rock, I found Hil.  Even this early in the morning, with the sun, just rising, I knew I could find my friend there.  The penetrating sun was beaming through the trees and warming the large piece of limestone that we christened Writer’s Rock.  Hilmon was there as he always was and spread across the top of it like dinner on a table.  I mean, he was all over it.  As I watched he arched his back, stretching through the morning rays.  Pressing against the stone’s hardness with his shoulders and the back of his neck, he rolled his chest upward.  He reached back and pushed up with his hands beside his head and elevated the smallness of his midsection into the air until he formed a perfect, inverted arch on the rock.  Once his stretch was complete he settled effortlessly back down to the prone position and wriggled his toes freely in the warm sunlight.

Hil was my best friend.  He had always been my best friend.  He taught me how to fish.  Not just dropping a line in the water kind of fishing, but how to think like a fish.  Where I might go, what I might eat, and when I might be hungry if I were a fish.  That included showing me his best, secret fishing holes.  We got fat on fish!  We hunted squirrels together, swam across the river together, and when we played fox and hounds nobody tree’d Hil and me.  I learned the world from Hil.  I even learned how to kiss a girl from Hil.  Kind of, anyway.  I saw him kissing Lucretia Skelton behind the haystack at the Harvest Festival.  He knew that I saw him.  She didn’t know.  I saw the wink in his eye proclaiming his pride.  I witnessed his celebration in living and his passion for life.  I needed Hil to show me these things.  He was closer to me than my own flesh and blood.

“Hil, hey Hil,” I say.

“Hey, Comer.  Down here.  On the rock,” he called back.

As I reached him we smiled at each other and nodded but did not speak.  We just milled about, sitting on the rock, and I took off my shoes, too, so the heat from the rock could soak up into the soles of my feet.

We understood personal trials.  We’d been through that before.  I stood by Hil many times when he was challenged about his color or his upbringing by some poor bred, towny rapscallion who hurled ignorant, angry words or demeaning personal insults towards him.  Even so, Hil didn’t need me to do that.  He was a strong man in his own right.  No matter what was said about him or us, we stood together.  It was an inner bond that we shared.  It said, plainly, I understand you and, as your friend, I stand beside you at all times.  You are not alone.

It feels good to know that you have at least one friend who will never reject you, at least one person who you can count on when you need them.  There is strength in knowing that not everyone is against you.  Especially, if that someone is someone you trust with your life.  Hilmon would never kick me when I was down.  We sat there for a long time, enjoying the increasing warmth of the sun until, finally, I broke the silence.

“Mama left out early this morning,” I said.  “According to Miss Elly, her and Uncle Mose went all the way to Clarksville.  Miss Elly said they wouldn’t be back until Wednesday night, if then.

“I know,” Hil explained.  “I watched them from the tree until they got all the way around the far bend.”

The far bend was a country mile away from Hilmon’s vantage point deep in the tree.  Watching family members or friends as they left the farm was a safety precaution Hil and I practiced religiously.  It was an understood form of protection, spiritual maybe, to be watched or to be looked out for until the line of sight was broken.  As long as you could keep someone in your train, to us, they would remain safe and in the spirit of safety.  It was an unspoken signal of vigilance for Hil and I and whether we be sender or receiver it acted as a shielding vanguard to keep our world unblemished, untangled, uncomplicated, and perhaps, even innocent.  If you could see it you could protect it, we believed.  There are bad men out in the world.  Even, we understood, in Stewart County.  No one should have to be alone.  Anyway, it was good luck, we said, to keep someone in your sights as they were leaving.  I knew Hil had done me a great favor.

“Thanks, Hil, ” I said.  “I reckon she had to get over to the Court to see about daddy.  It ain’t a good thing, Hil.  Something ain’t right.”

“Reckon its been that way a long time, Comer.”

“I know, Hil.  Yankees and all coming, it’s got to be about the War.  But that’s been over a long time, Hil.  Why did they come back now?” I asked.

“Comer, I’ll tell you something, but you got to promise not to tell anybody.  You promise?”

“I promise, Hil,” I said.  And I meant it.

“Comer, them wasn’t Yankees that come and got your daddy yesterday.  Up at the Free Will Church last night the preacher said they come and got your daddy and four other men in the County yesterday over the Excitement that happened in Town about 15 years ago.”

“The excitement, what excitement?” I asked.  I didn’t know what Hilmon was talking about because I was only 14 years old.  “That was before I was born, Hil.  How could those men come and get daddy over something that happened so long ago?  That was even before the War!”

“I don’t know, Comer,”  Hil said.  “The Preacher acted more different than I have ever seen when he spoke about this Excitement.  He said it was a bad time and a lot of people got hurt, even killed.  I could tell it was important because everybody got real quiet and then the preacher started praying for strength and understanding.  He come and stood right by my Mama and put his hand on her shoulder.  When the prayer was finished we all just come home.  I asked Mama what it was about, but she just shook her head, no.”

“Miss Elly didn’t tell you nothing,” I asked.

“Nothing,” Hil answered.  “She just shook her head.  That’s all I know.”

“Thanks, Hil.  I won’t say anything.”  I thought about what my father had to do with this bad time.  I worried that it couldn’t be anything good.  After a while, I told Hil that I was going home to sit for a spell.  I felt like I needed to be at home with Drew.  Maybe, I could help him to understand.  Maybe, I could help myself to understand.  I still didn’t know anything but, I had a bad feeling way up in my gut.  I put my shoes back on, we said our goodbyes, and I got up to leave from the rock.  After I walked all the way back up to the top of the ridge, I turned and looked back down to see Hil.  He lay there, still, bathing on the rock in the Spring sun but, all the while watching me.  As I looked, he stood up erect and raised a long, sinewy arm above his head to wave goodbye.  I waved back.  It was then, at that moment, that I realized how much I needed Hil to be my friend and how much everything fit together between us.  The trust, the honor, the respect, and the love was all there for me.  It would be a very long time before I would come to understand that he could never need me the same way.

End of Chapter 2



Chapter 3

Great Western Days

Proverbs 14:4

Where no oxen are, the crib is clean: but much increase is by the strength of the ox.

July 1854

“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.  The 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 with honor.  It all began for them on the first day of Spring, 1846.  Eleanor 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 to be an expert on their raising.  For someone who never got any dirt on his hands, he knew a lot.  He was particular, too.  He whipped a man once for running casually 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 the 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 the grapes, but it was just beyond his grasp as to why he worked so compassionately to set them just right.  After this day, Cross Elam saw to it that Hilton’s main job was tending to all the grapevines and their supports that were scattered throughout his empire.  Hilton cared substantially less about those vines than he did about the young woman he now worked alongside.  He adored her.  It was no secret to him that the longer, the harder, he worked on the grapes, the more time he was able to spend with her, his angel.  He mentioned to Mr. Elam that the young girl had a fine eye for the grapes.  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 already 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, it’s 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 for 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 twenty-five thousand dollars in good deals, and bad, some speculated.  It fell on the brother’s shoulders, after their daddy 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.  We thank you for your word, Lord, which nourishes us and gives us strength.  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 keeping workers.  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 five 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.  It’s 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 a day to travel to and from work.  That is if you choose not to stay and bunk 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 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 just a few 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 at 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 was 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 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 one of the principle owners.  Old Cross, when he was alive, would never allow young Luke to work 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 at 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 as to why our farm was able to keep up and operate over the last three years without Mr. Luke around.  You’ve helped us get 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 I 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.  It was, almost, too good to be true.

Shots fired!  Shots fired overhead!  Everyone hunkered down and looked around with surprise.  They had all been so caught up in their future plans no one noticed that County Constable and Committee of Safety rider Thomas Opson had quietly slipped up on them on horseback with four other Committee of Safety riders.  He fired his rifle into the air.

“This is an unlawful assembly.  You Elam’s 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 gets 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




Chapter 4

Riverboat Days

Proverbs 20:29

The glory of young men is their strength and the beauty of old men is the gray head.

Monday morning and fifty Monday mornings came and went.  The men worked hard and the Great Western Furnace prospered like its name, greatly in its first year of operation. After just a few months of training, its men were producing nearly 40 tons of high-quality iron every week.  Once molded and cooled, this pig iron was hauled daily by oxen to the Cumberland River where it was loaded onto flatboats and floated down to Vicksburg, MS and further, to New Orleans, LA. Because it was so popular, it was also pushed up the mighty Mississippi by paddle boat to St. Louis.  Great Western pig iron was in strong demand across this country and its brand became most valuable as it was highly sought after by all traders.  Even, more valuable than iron from any other Furnace in Stewart County.  This fact didn’t sit very well with other Furnace founders of the County. They found out quickly that they played second fiddle to the Great Western and they did not like it.  The owners of the Dover Furnace and the Bear Springs Furnace, built in 1820 and 1830, respectively always seemed to be at odds with the Great Western.

“How the hell is it that you, Luke Elam, produce a quality of iron better than ours,” barked Howard Claiborne one day on the Town Square of Dover.  “We’ve been forming this pig iron for over 30 years at the Dover Furnace and in less than one year you upstarts come over here from across the river and now we’re sucking hind teat.  It’s a damn shame, I’ll tell you that.  Just how do you do it?”

“You don’t want to know, Mr. Claiborne.  Besides, you wouldn’t listen to me if I told you, ” Luke replied.

“Try me, Elam.  What’s your secret, boy?”  In his simple mind, Howard Claiborne thought Luke Elam had figured out something extra to add to the iron that was making it stronger, making it better, and he would steal any man’s idea if it befitted him.

“We treat our men better, Howard.  That’s it, plain and simple. Everything is centered on the worker.  We pay them a decent wage. We keep them in good clothing and protect them better from getting burnt.  We take care of their families while they work and they stay focused on producing a better product.  You should try it,”  Luke Elam said, with a wry smile.

“Our Negroes do just fine at the end of a whip, boy,” Claiborne snapped.  “Giving them hope for freedom that will never come is just a cruel joke that you are playing on your slaves.  Everybody knows that these men are chattel to be used for our gain.  You feeding them with thoughts of freedom is only creating problems here, boy.  Hope is the worst thing that you can give them.  You’re just going to get them all killed thinking like that. Cross Elam was one of my closest friends and he’s turning over in his grave right now knowing what you two boys have become.  Word is that you are giving your Negroes their freedom.  You should both be ashamed of yourselves.”

“Not everyone believes that Claiborne,” Luke said, stoically.  “And my Mama was a Page.  That’s who I take after.”

“It shows,”  Claiborne said, as he spat his sacred tobacco juice on the ground.

Luke Elam was on the edge of overstepping his place.  Howard Claiborne ran the Dover Furnace and he ran Dover, as well.  He owned the Constable and he owned the Court House.  For 30 years his money, his influence, and his power had made men and had broken them, just as well.  He had personally seen to it that innocent men were hung by the neck until they were dead and the guilty as sin were set free, all on his word.  After 30 years there was at least one man in every part of the County that was beholding to him, that owed him. This list of men was long and nearly every family in the County had a name on it. If you went up against Howard Claiborne you risked ruin, you risked visits in the night by his Committee of Safety, and you even risked death.  Many a farmer had been burned out on his order and made to set out walking, on foot, towards Kentucky.  If a family went against Howard Claiborne and got away with their lives and the shirts on their backs they should have considered themselves lucky.

Luke Elam was telling the truth.

The men of the Great Western worked hard to make the very best pig iron in the County and the Great Western was making money hand over fist.  Luke Elam’s operation at the Great Western was the model of the way Furnaces should be run.  The limestone and brown hematite they dug was abundant in Stewart County and proved to be the best that could be found to ultimately be used in the creation of boilerplate, iron skillets, and sugar kettles.  The items made from Stewart County Great Western pig iron were second to none in the Country.

pile-pig-iron       Furnace4

All of the working men were kept in better clothes and boots.  Gloves and leather gear protected their skin and they were able to work closer and longer with the molten iron. They were able to form it in the best possible way.  The work was very hard but, as promised, there were no surprises.  New men that were hired on were all started out the same way, with a pick and ax digging limestone and hematite from the earth.  Men who had previously worked the pick and ax jobs were promoted and this opportunity for advancement kept productivity very high.

As Mr. Luke and Mr. Brandon increased their wealth, they increased their responsibility, too.  Those twenty workers on the farm were replaced almost immediately.  The first twenty workers at the Furnace began to train twenty more within weeks of beginning production. After forty weeks of constant training and hiring, the Great Western Furnace employed over eighty men and more were coming on the site every week.  Educated men were needed for the payroll.  Tenders were needed for the oxen.  Carpenters were required for upkeep and repair of the wagons and to create the picks, the axes, and other tools that were needed for production. Blacksmiths kept the horses shod and the oxen yokes strong and were needed to create the molds and the kettles that held the molten iron.

The Great Western discriminated against no one.  Mr. Luke hired any able bodied man or young boy that could do the work.  Pull your load, earn your pay, they said.  Irish and Chinese worked alongside Whites, Negroes and boys.  Two strong backed women also worked the Furnace.   There was no rest for the weary but where sweat pours, money followed and money was thick at the Great Western Furnace. Everyone worked together in a peaceful coexistence and everyone smiled at the paymaster as they collected their earnings and went their own way.

Hilton not only saved $100 dollars for his freedom during that first year, he saved $150! The year of 1855 ended on a positive note.  It was the best Christmas his family had known for a long, long time.  Miss Eleanor even had her baby on a Sunday so Mr. Hilton could be there to hold his newborn son on the first day of his life.  Mr. Luke told Hilton to take as much time as he needed to be home with Miss Eleanor, but Hilton was back to work the very next day, as usual, on Monday morning.  And, just as Luke had promised, Mr. Hilton was needed badly.  Mr. Brandon allowed that his best cook and housemaid, old Miss Effie, could stay with Miss Eleanor for three months to help her with Samuel and the new baby. After about three weeks of Miss Effie’s extra helping and expert guidance, Miss Eleanor told Mr. Brandon that she was much obliged, but she was sure that she could make it on her own now.  They both had a good laugh when Mr. Brandon asked if she were sure and she replied, “absolutely”.  Hilton and Eleanor named their new child Hilmon and their life in Stewart County was very good.

If Mr. Luke was the heart of the Great Western, Mr. Hilton was its soul. They needed one another to survive that first year and together they made very few mistakes.

Ecclesiastes 11:1

Cast thy bread upon the waters; for thou shalt find it after many days.

The beginning of the year of our Lord, 1856 started out better than any other before it. There was hope now.  In one year, Hilton would be a free man.  We lived free now, really. But, by law and by paper, Hilton still had to work the Furnace for another year to earn enough money to buy his legal freedom credentials.  That’s how long it was going to take to earn the last $190 dollars that stood between him and the County’s recognized freedom.

It wasn’t like before, though.  Times were different now.  We had money.  It was almost to the point that we had little arguments over how to spend it.  Or, how not to spend it.  I told Hilton that just because we had a little money that was no reason to flaunt it.  I meant it, too, but Hilton just wanted us to be happy.  So, when the River Boats came singing, we spent a little bit of it.  My goodness, what pretty songs those boats played on their steam organs as they danced up and down the river.  They stopped just about every day.  Over the months, we began to allow ourselves an occasional extravagance, a little pretty.  Hilton bought me a new dress made of all cotton from Nashville.  It felt so much better than the calico and burlap that I was used to wearing.  I felt guilty putting it on, but it sure did lay soft on my skin.  I thanked Mr. Hilton proper, for that.  It made me feel like a new woman. Little Samuel was getting bigger now.  He had never owned his own pair of shoes so we bought him his first pair.  We also bought him a new Sunday set of trousers with suspenders and a colored shirt.  He looked so smart and so handsome dressed in that. He looked just like his father.  They even bought matching hats.

Samuel was 9 years old in 1856 and had his chores to do around the house and Hilton made sure he paid him every week.  It wasn’t much he allowed Samuel, just a token really, but Hilton said he wanted his boy to know what it felt like to earn a living.  He wanted him to get used to making money so he would know what it was like to have it. He wanted to teach him how to live within his means.  Samuel loved to hear those River Boats come singing, too.  He saved his own money for weeks and bought himself a book.  The new book was named The Indian And The Fur Trapper and Hilton read it to him on Sundays until Samuel learned to read it all on his own.  Hilton bought new reading spectacles that made him look distinguished and together we bought a new spice rack that was full of spices to cook with.  I had only dreamed of having things like this before.  These were the dreams of my innocent youth.  These were the dreams formed at a time when the dirt from setting grape vines was still fresh on my hands.

What were once things that seemed unreachable, not even within the dreams of our lives, they now became something that we could imagine having.  We thanked God, and hard work, for that.

It didn’t cost much and didn’t mean any less for us, really, in our pocketbooks to always take a neighbor with us whenever we went down to the Riverboat landing.  Many of our friends from across the farms weren’t as fortunate as Hilton.  Many of them didn’t have a family member that worked the Great Western.  Most of them still struggled in the fields for a pauper’s pay, for their own keep or worse, they continued to suffer daily abuse at the whipping Furnaces.  So, whenever I went to the landing I always took a friend and insisted on buying them a little treasure that would be so simple yet, mean so much.  No one that I remember ever bought a gift for themselves, only something to take home for their children.  It gave me and reminded us all, of hope.  Hope was something that was in short supply in Dover. It was something that we would always need.

Good Spring and early Summer rains made for a fine planting season and we knew the sacred tobacco harvest would be a good one.  Mr. Brandon’s sons were 15 and 16 years old now and together both of them almost made up for not having Hilton on the farm.  They did very well for themselves especially considering that the Elam’s had set aside ten more acres of farmland for the sacred plant.  Just like that old river, everything seemed to be moving along its normal path.

One Sunday after a dinner on the ground at the River, Mr. Luke allowed that soon he, and Hilton, would not only be home on Sundays but they would shorten their Saturdays to only half a day!

“Why to kill ourselves on the short haul, Mr. Hilton?” he asked.  “Lord willing, we are going to be here a long time so let’s make sure we are at our best over the long haul.  It’s the same money, we have the hands now in place to handle the situation in our absence, let’s make this job last a long, long time.  An extra half day’s rest every week will keep us strong.”

I guess that was the happiest that we ever were.  We would never be any happier than on those sun filled Sundays in the summer of 1856. Riverboats brought new families to the County, it seemed like, every day.

One Saturday afternoon, after Hilton came home early, we caught one of those dancing and singing riverboats and rode it all the way to Clarksville.  Hilton called it our wedding celebration that we never got to have.  He bought me a new, fancy dress, with shoes, and a hat to go with it and he made me feel like the most special woman in the County.  We ate supper at a highfalutin restaurant with a maid who brought everything out to us and even cleaned up after us when we were finished.  I felt like a queen in one of those Riverboat books.  We saw something Hilton called a Play that was named, “Romeo and Juliet”.  I thought it was the saddest and most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  Hilton was so tired from the Mill that he slept through most of it, but I didn’t miss a word or a move during the whole presentation. We spent the night in a room looking out over the River and I made love to my man like it was the first time, all over again. Afterward, as we sat outside under the moon and the stars watching that old river roll by Hilton whispered in my ear, “When love is love, baby.”

“It’s you and me,” I answered.  I never felt so loved and so in love and so proud to be alive. It was hard to believe that so much had changed in our lives in only one short year.

End of Chapter 4