Sunday, October 14, 2012

31 Beautiful Things, Day 14: Family Legends

I love family stories. As it happens, my daughter and I both needed to collect one this week: she for her American History class, I for my writers' group. This evening my father told us the history of what is known in our family as the Civil War table.

Want to hear it? I thought so. This is written from the POV of Laurel.
The Civil War Table

The story goes that as my great, great, great, great grandfather, Samuel Cummins, prepared to come across the mountains from Virginia to Illinois in 1843, he had to first build a wagon. He needed big, wide planks, so he used a walnut tree. When he arrived in Illinois, where he and many generations were to live, he eventually made a table out of the planks of that wagon.

Many, many years later, my grandfather, Opa, and his cousin Bob liked to spend the night at the house Samuel’s son, Gilbert, had built. It was a 2-story house, and top floor was unused at that time except when Opa and Bob came to stay.

One winter’s day, when Opa and his cousin were about 11 or 12, they noticed an old table, painted an ugly green, in the bedroom. It didn’t look like an ordinary table, with its spiraled legs. When Opa pushed on it, the top gave a bit. When he pushed on it again, because he was an 11 or 12-year-old boy, the table top opened up to a big secret compartment filled with old papers.

Some of these papers were receipts for bags of wheat, coal oil, or taxes. Some were letters in envelopes with old stamps, dated around Civil War time and a few dates before 1860. Opa was an avid stamp collector at the time, and he even cut some of those stamps right off the envelopes for his collection. They even found some land grant papers in which President Millard Fillmore granted 160 acres of land to Samuel Cummins and his business partner.

Perhaps one of the most exciting letters was written in 1859 to Samuel. This was the year that a young lawyer from Illinois was running for President of the United States. This young fellow, Abraham Lincoln, was running on the Republican ticket.  Samuel was a diehard Democrat, magistrate of his town in southern Illinois and heavily involved in local politics.

The letter writer, in a beautiful, slanted cursive, wrote that “If this damned black [evil] Republican is elected, this whole country will go to hell.”

That was quite a find for two boys in a tiny town in Southern Illinois in the late 1930s: not just a letter about President Lincoln, but a letter with a couple of curse words in it!

Eventually, my great-grandmother, Gladys Riley Cummins, refinished what became known as the Civil War table to a rich, dark brown walnut. It has been in my own grandparents’ homes for all their married life.

It's beautiful to be part of a family rich in stories. My family story is going to be about my Uncle Max. Check back in a couple of days for that one!

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