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