When I was a small boy, my grandmother and grandfather lived directly across from the entrance to the Crawford County Fairgrounds and only a few houses down the road from our farm. Because they were so close, I was allowed to walk down to their farm any time I wished. It was a desirable destination because Grandma always had cake, pie or cookies in the cupboard. Also, Grandpa and great-uncle Sam, who lived with them, were always puttering around with something and were indulgent in letting me tag along and ask questions like “what are you doing” or “why are you doing that?”
Sometimes I was left to my own devices to find something to do. There were always interesting things around with which to play. I don’t know why I found them intriguing, but there were cast iron shoe lasts in several sizes lying around the tool shop, a former blacksmith shop that had been dragged down to Grandpa’s farm from Gays Mills.
Anyway, these shoe lasts provided a diversion, which I found interesting. Neither my grandfather nor my great uncle had any interest in shoes, so I had no idea why they were there. At that time, I was a kid that kept my eyes open and ears tuned to what was going on around me, but didn’t ask a lot of questions. It wasn’t until I inherited a pile of writings from my mother that I understood the significance of those shoe lasts. She had gotten the story from her grandfather who moved to Gays Mills from the East in 1858. I have since become more interested in our family history, especially how it relates to the history of Gays Mills.
My ancestors on my mother’s side have been in America since before 1700. A grandfather, during pre-revolutionary days, was a general in the army. He led a contingent of soldiers into Canada, presumably against Indian and perhaps British or French units, in the middle of the winter. They were never heard from again. It was not known whether they succumbed to the elements or hostile forces. He left behind nine children. Without support, they were each apprenticed off to various trades. One was apprenticed to a shoemaker. He was successful and plied his trade for many years. My great-great-grandfather bought the farm in Gays Mills, sight unseen, in 1858, and moved with his wife and younger children. The shoe lasts arrived with them. The shoe lasts had been in Gays Mills almost 90 years before I saw them and were almost 200 years old at that time. I don’t know where they are now. The farm-changed hands after Grandpa died in 1966, but the shoe lasts probably were not important enough to be taken along by anyone. The farmhouse burned down and the lasts are probably buried somewhere on the property.
I wish I had asked more questions when I was young. Grandpa related a story told to him by his grandfather about an earlier family member taking a shot at a Tory from behind a large boulder in his own yard during the Revolutionary War. They lived in Connecticut at the time.
Another grandfather was a private during the Revolutionary War. He and his brother were taken prisoner by the British and kept in prison in New York for 18 months before they were released. I am sure many of you have similar stories in your family’s histories. If you have them in your memory banks, be sure to write them down for future generations. You or your children might not be too interested in them, but their children or grandchildren might consider them absolute treasures. My only regret so far is that I have not uncovered a single pirate, train robber, rumrunner or other unsavory but colorful character in my family’s history, but I will keep trying!
(Brian McKnight is writing a series of reminiscences about growing up in Gays Mills. He can be contacted by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org).