Holding History Up to Your Shoulder
For most people, history lives in a dusty world inhabited by small, bespectacled men in brown suits sitting alone in spaces lit by large windows, poring over ancient text.
History for the rest of us is a place inhabited by real people who did real things, who lived and loved and felt pain, just as we do. Trying to understand their lives and times is what makes history come alive for us.
Like many subjects, the most basic history is often the least interesting, because one doesn't have any context to go with it. As an example, take a lecture on, say, the Battle of Little Big Horn. OK, now move it to the actual battlefield, and suddenly the lesson comes alive. You can almost see the lines of soldiers in your mind's eye, and you want to know more.
I was reminded of this last week when William Ivey, of Asheboro, visited Robbins with a collection of rare old guns. Ivey is the author of a new book on North Carolina long rifles and their makers, a beautifully printed book with detailed color photographs of guns from all around the state. Each gun is an example from the "golden age" of the long rifle, a period from about 1765 to 1835. When you think of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, these were the guns they would have carried.
North Carolina hosted several areas with prominent gunsmiths in the Colonial period, and each area had its own variation of gunmaking. Much as painters form "schools" of style through direct influence among one another, there were "schools" of style in gunsmithing. One such school was in Robbins, where the ornate Kennedy rifles were made. There were makers in Salem, Mecklenburg County, Jamestown and other areas.
Gunsmiths were among the most talented citizens in the communities of their day. They were designers, woodwrights, carvers, blacksmiths, forgers, and silversmiths, all in one. When you see a gun up close, you gain real understanding of the state of manufacturing and art at the time it was made.
Their work, even in the relative backwoods of North Carolina, had advanced to where they could take time to create beauty in this most pragmatic of tools. And there was economic incentive, after all; a gunmaker in 1765 could charge as much as $3 for a fancy arm, where a plain gun might fetch only a dollar.
Mountain gunsmiths, living in poorer, remote areas, never reached the level of artistry in their guns that was prevalent in the Piedmont and in other states. Theirs were simpler, practical guns made for bringing home game. My mother - and here's where history gets tangible - was descended from a family of North Carolina mountain gunsmiths, the Gillespies.
Gillespie rifles are famous, at least, among modern collectors. There were four generations of makers, building rifles from the mid-1700s until about 1840 or so. It is a family story that Daniel Boone carried a Gillespie rifle at times.
I've seen photos of the guns from each generation and read their histories, such as is known. They were Scotch-Irish and came to North Carolina from Pennsylvania. John Gillespie moved into the mountains between Brevard and Hendersonville around 1760. My mother was born in a log cabin near Brevard during World War I. Life had not changed there all that much.
For most of my life, I've known about the Gillespie rifle. There are examples of them in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. I've wanted to buy one for at least 20 years. But I've never actually held one in my hands, much less had the chance to buy one.
When I introduced myself to the very likable Bill Ivey the other night and told my story, his eyes lit up. Yes, he knew all about the Gillespies. I asked him how I might find one - said I just wanted to hold a piece of family history in my hands. Ivey told me to contact him and he would make sure that happens. He even suggested that a friend might be willing to part with his Gillespie rifle for the right price.
I don't know yet what that price is, but I'm going to meet his friend and hold that history in my hands, even if I can't afford it. Somehow, that's going to bring my past closer and make my mama smile down on that moment.
Now, Lani, about that bathroom project we were talking about starting ...
Pat Taylor is advertising director for The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com.
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