During the early days of our country times were difficult, especially if you lived in the frontier portions of the country which was Western Virginia, Western Maryland, Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and parts of Illinois and Indiana. Women and children both had a high mortality rate with women often dying in childbirth.
My own father who was born in 1897 of a family that eventually numbered eleven live births which left four survivors. My Dad, his brother Jim and two sisters, Cora who was older than Dad, and Jim and Fay who were a year younger than Dad. Dad had just gone through his second marriage at twenty six when his Father died.
We are not sure of Grandfather’s actual birth date, but did know it was in the month of June and later records from the Prairie Farmer 1914 survey stated that he arrived in Coles County, Illinois, in 1874 and according to a step-uncle later, who told us he left Kentucky at age twenty one, so that would have made him born around 1853. After Grandfather died in 1923, Dad’s mother remarried and eventually died in 1934 at the age of seventy two. Here is where the accounts are misleading as that would have made her only fourteen in 1874 when allegedly they met and married within three months of his arrival. That is the history so far as I know it, since my sisters only traced the genealogy on my mother’s side of the family. On with the story.
My First Experience With Black Powder
When I was around nine or ten, one of my Mother’s brothers showed up for a visit and left us the loan, for several years (it was still at my oldest brothers house when I left for the army), a Colts 1849 belt model percussion revolver bored in thirty one caliber along with a stock of black powder and percussion caps. He said he had lost the bullet mold, but had about twenty balls with it. We took one of the balls to the hardware and found it was the same diameter as #0 buckshot. Since buckshot was made with a different manufacturing process, the balls were always perfectly symmetrical and always the same size and we could buy a bag of 100 for $2.50.
We had other firearms in the family, but we shot that pistol an awful lot and then we ended up reloading shotgun shells with the black powder and made an anvil to go inside the percussion cap which we then pressed into the primer pocket. We fired everything through that old short barreled double barrel shotgun including some of the bluing balls for laundry that we filched from Mom, thereby starting the forerunner of paintball.
The Kentucky Rifle
An ancient uncle of my Dad arrived one day from Kentucky, because he said there was no family left down there to bury him when he died and he wanted to be with some family until the end. He brought with him some possessions and some firearms, one of which was a beautiful representation of what was called a Kentucky rifle back then.
S. Hawken has long been regarded as the master maker of muzzle loaders which I won’t dispute, but he made Pennsylvania rifles which had a larger bore than the Kentucky rifles usually around forty four caliber. His rifle was of high precision work and had a twenty six inch octagon barrel with a full length maple stock. It was a beautiful piece of work and a genuine art form in itself.
Squirrel Barking and Brain Tanning
He called it his squirrel rifle that he barked squirrels with. Barking a squirrel consists in firing into the portion of the tree the squirrel is hugging causing a chip of bark or wood to strike the squirrel in the head either killing him or knocking him out where he could be killed on the ground. He said the reason for this was to save as much meat as possible and secondly he wanted the brain intact to tan hides with. He explained that all animals have enough tannic acid in their brains to tan their own hide, but the tannic acid in the squirrel was more potent and done a better job of tanning due to his diet of acorns and other nuts.
Kentucky Rifle Particulars
He had lost his possibles bag on the trip but said the rifle was a thirty one caliber if we knew where to get a bullet mold for it. We told him we could do one better since we had the thirty one caliber revolver and had plenty of balls left for it and they were #0 buck. We dismantled the rifle, pulled the breech plug and checked the barrel and it was in mint shape with good deep rifling and about a two inch smooth bore at the muzzle end that was slightly coned to start the ball. We reassembled the rifle with a new nipple and charged it with powder.
We talked about patches and he said they were only used if the ball did not fit snugly and then he preferred cheesecloth since it cleaned the bore as it traveled down it. We dropped a ball in the muzzle and with a strong steady push, seated it down the barrel and onto the powder charge. We sat a small Vienna sausage can on a fence post down about fifty yards from where we were going to shoot and he had me fire the first shot. The can flew in the air and when we went down to set it back up; there was a groove in the top of the post where the ball had barked the can. Uncle Sheridan, Sherd as we called him, reset the rear sight for my sight picture and adjusted it for one hundred yards which he said the rifle was designed for. The second shot at one hundred yards nailed the can dead center. We tried to talk him out of the rifle even offering to trade him a thirty two twenty Remington rolling block rifle for it, but he would not part with it.
He said it was made right there in Kentucky close to where he lived, but since the maker made no marks of any kind on the rifle word of mouth was the only way a person could find out about it. He said he had bought it from a fellow in Ohio County for a fat hog to butcher. Ohio County is where Bill and Charley Monroe of Bluegrass fame came from.
Dad and Mom talked Uncle Sherd into marrying an elderly retired school teacher who owned her own place and needed a companion. Her name was Ethel Robinson and when they got married by a visiting backwoods preacher from Tennessee, we found she was eighty seven and he was ninety seven. They both died while I was in Korea on my first tour as did Aunt Cora, my Dad’s sister. Since I was eighteen when I went to Korea and I was twelve when they were married that had to make Uncle Sherd one hundred and three years old when he died. I still do not know what happened to that fine rifle.
Moved to West Point
Years later in 1961 while stationed at Ft. Knox, KY, and living in West Point, I had an elderly couple living in a trailer behind us on a lot he owned and rented out trailer spaces to soldiers from Ft Knox. They lived in a little trailer and were in their eighties. As soon as they found we had a six month old baby boy, they wanted us to come over quite often so they could take turns playing with the baby.
They owned a thirty acre tobacco farm over at Brandenburg Station and the nephew who was tending it for them wanted out of there. They wanted us to take the farm as a gift provided we let them move their trailer out there so we could keep a watch on them to make sure they were okay and they could play with the baby more often. I had to respectfully decline since I was in the service and would have to go where they sent me. About that time I was designated as legal guardian for Catherine’s younger sister and she came to live with us.
Another Kentucky Rifle
One day, while all of the women were gathered up listening to Aunt Lena’s tales, Uncle Dory came over carrying a muzzle loading rifle. He was eighty four years old and he said his Dad had given it to him when he was fourteen and he had never fired it. He wanted to know if I thought it was safe to fire and would I like to try it out.
I examined the rifle and it was an exact duplicate of the one that Uncle Sherd had when I was a kid. I said I would have to disassemble it and check it out. He said he had nothing for it, so after pulling the breech plug and finding it was in the same condition as the rifle Uncle Sherd had, clean with good sharp rifling, I finished looking it over and the nipple as damaged.
I did not have a nipple wrench, so I said I’ll have to go over to Sheperdsville to the gunshop anyway to buy percussion caps, black powder and some balls since he had no mold. Once there, they determined the cylinder also needed replaced so they installed a new cylinder and nipple and I bought two spare nipples along with a nipple wrench. They measured the bore and it was thirty one caliber. I mentioned Dad’s uncle who came to Illinois years ago who brought a rifle identical to this one with no makers marks on it.
He said he had seen a couple of them in the past and were told they were locally made. With the rifle reassembled and test fired at the gun shop, he also sold us a hard maple ramrod which did not flex like a hickory rod did since we had no ramrod. We also bought five pounds of FFFG black powder, some of the new design percussion caps that fit the new nipples and a bag of one hundred #0 buck shot.
Trying the Rifle Out
We returned to West Point and went into the woods to try the rifle out. They had given me a couple of empty thirty two twenty cases since I told them that was the measure I had used with the pistol some years back. He filled the case and then weighed it. After consulting a book, he said I had twenty grains of powder and the standard load for the rifle would be somewhere between eighteen and twenty two grains of FFFG, so my measure was optimum. He then performed the same test with a thirty eight special case and said it was perfect for thirty six caliber rifle if I came across one since he had seen one in that caliber that looked like this rifle.
I stepped off fifty yards and set an empty square metal Prestone anti-freeze can for a target. I went back and loaded the rifle and kneeling on one knee to use as a support for my arm and the rifle, I sighted on the O in Prestone. I squeezed the trigger and the rifle fired. The can flew backwards and tumbled. When we retrieved the can there was a neat little round hole right in the center of the O and a somewhat ragged but round exit hole on the other side.
I told Uncle Dory I believed the rifle was properly sighted in for fifty yards. We had noticed some deer tracks around the little spring nearby and Uncle said it was a shame the deer had not been standing there when I shot since he loved venison. I asked him, “Do you know someone here who can finish aging and butchering one out if we happened to bag one and field dressed it?”
He said he did and I said well let’s try to get one then and he started to get up from his camp chair we had taken down with us and I told him to just sit still. I reloaded the rifle and then I walked down to where we saw the tracks and it was just about fifty yards even. I tied my white handkerchief onto a willow sapling and when I came back I said a deer is nosy just like a cow and sooner or later the buck will be there to check out what that handkerchief is.
We sat about twenty minutes when I saw an antler moving in the willows. I called Uncle Dory’s attention to it and we just sat still. Shortly the buck came into the little clearing and stretched his neck out to sniff the cloth. The cloth moved in the breeze and the buck shifted until he was head on to us.
I tried my best to muffle the noise when I cocked the hammer but the buck flung his head up and looked around. Since we were not moving, he resumed his examination of that cloth, and when he stretched his neck way out and tried to pull the cloth from the willow after getting it in his mouth, I shot him in the chest into the heart and he dropped instantly in his tracks.
I drained and field dressed him washing the body cavity out with water from the spring and then backed the car down and loaded him and the chairs and the rifle. We dropped him off at the butcher and I told Uncle Dory it was all his since I did not like the taste of venison. He objected and said he was on my deer tag and I told him I don’t even have a license. He said neither do I but my nephew here will tag it for us and besides I own the property where you shot it. The nephew had trouble believing what we had shot it with until the butcher retrieved the ball still lodged in the heart.
Harper Kentucky Rifles
We shipped out shortly after that and I again returned to Kentucky three years later at Fort Campbell and while there I went with one of the pilots to Russellville to a muzzle loading shooting spree. While there one of the participants had a rifle identical to the first two, only it was in thirty six caliber. I told him of my past experiences with a pair of them in thirty one caliber and because of the perfection of workmanship, I always wondered who had made them.
He said he was told by some of the old timers that they were made over a span of twenty years by a fellow named Harper at Brandenburg Station. A search in that area revealed the only Harper in that time period was a black minister.
It took a long time searching but I found there was a talented engineer on one of the Ohio riverboats who made a lot of quality things, the rifles included. It was mentioned that he remarked it was not necessary to put his name on them since anyone who had one would know who they got it from. They further mentioned he only made them in the two calibers and since Brandenburg Station was an overnight fueling stop, he sold his wares from there. I have never seen another one like it and the workmanship was fantastic. I haven’t shot muzzle loaders since then, and looking at what is offered and the price of black powder, I would not want to take up the sport again. NOTE: I have since found the marriage record of Dad’s father and mother and they were married 08/22/1882, making her twenty two years old and Grandpa another eight years older.