Crowd Packs Robbins Town Hall for Rare Rifle Exhibit
People packed the town hall in Robbins Tuesday night to see the rifles that came home.
The attraction for the standing-room-only crowd was an unprecedented exhibit of the "rifle guns" - as they were known 200 years ago - that came to be called Kentucky rifles.
In those days, according to collector William W. Ivey, much of the Western frontier was thought of as "Kaintuck" - from the Cherokee for "dark and bloody ground."
Ivey brought a number of long rifles from his personal collection to display along with others from local collectors, who preferred to remain anonymous. Too many have had to recover stolen prize weapons from pawn shops.
Mayor Theron Bell welcomed the visitors to this Robbins Area Public Library program, which had been moved to the town hall in anticipation of a larger attendance than the library could accommodate.
Using projected maps and photographs from his new book, Ivey traced the history of these guns from the Robbins area north and west. Eastern North Carolina artisans followed European traditions and designs, he said, while those from the Piedmont west came up with their own original pottery, furnishings and the long guns he called the pinnacle of American art.
"You had to be a woodworker, had to be a carver," he said. "You had to be a blacksmith. You had to be a mechanic, because you had to make it work. You had to be an engraver and, in many cases, a silversmith along with some other (arts) I haven't even named. If you made a piece of furniture and were basically a good woodworker and a joiner, you got it done.
"A gunsmith, there were numerous disciplines they had to learn. Any Kentucky rifle smith could make a knife. They were not called gunsmiths, but mechanics. The Kentucky Rifle is the peak of early American art."
The stocks of these rifles were made from a tiger-grained curly maple, its striations clearly visible in the examples that were on display.
Military guns were different. One visitor brought his 1823 Springfield rifle, and the contrast was clear - walnut stock, a large bore estimated at nearly .55 caliber and spring clips to permit dismantling the stock in three pieces for cleaning in the field.
"They made long guns for hunting," Ivey said. "But then, as up in the Jamestown area, they changed right over and started making military rifles."
T he long guns differed by makers, and Ivey has classified their origins into nine "schools," beginning with the Bear Creek School in the foothills area around Robbins.
The differing designs are distinguished by shape of stock, style of patch box and patch box lid and other markings, he said.
Most gun makers signed their barrels, much as a painter might sign a canvas, cutting their names along the top just forward of the rear sight. On the oldest piece, "Alexander Kennedy" could be made out.
John Alexander Kennedy was the founder of the Kennedy line of gunsmiths that local legend says employed nearly 100 people, turning out their long guns in Mechanics Hill by 1799. Ivey doubts there ever was such a large factory, his view being that the Kennedys more likely operated a smaller, but thriving shop.
"It was a shop with just a few gunsmiths," he said. "This one right here is by Alexander Kennedy, the elder. John Alexander Kennedy, who made this rifle, was known by his middle name more than his first name. I have seen one percussion Kennedy rifle I suspect was made in the 1840s. David's son, Errol, up in western North Carolina, was apparently still making rifles after the Civil War."
David Kennedy left North Carolina for Alabama, where he is buried. Ivey has seen his gravestone.
"The word is that David Kennedy left the county broke," he said. "I've been chasing these (Kennedys) for 42 years. There is a Kennedy pistol in Pennsylvania. There is another in Connecticut. They are in Virginia, South Carolina, Florida, Colorado, Arizona.
"The book has photographs of 29 pieces from Moore County. It would be great if someone would do a book only on the Kennedys. My book is a wide survey, and we only touched on the tip a little bit."
Ivey stayed following his presentation to answer question after question, and then the crowd broke up into smaller groups peering at the long guns and enjoying cakes, dips and other refreshments.
Many contributed to the library, dropping coins and cramming notes into a cardboard box set out for the purpose.
Contact John Chappell at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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