When I was eleven my mother married, as her second husband, a man named Jesse Adams, an old fellow -- up around eighty. The folks, round about, spoke of him as "Colly Jess" because he lived on the head of a stream called Crafts Colly and also to distinguish him from the three or four other Jesse Adamses in that immediate section. Genealogically speaking , he was a
second cousin - uncle to my father, Joseph Adams. I was fond of the old man and treated him with all respect due his step-fatherly position and age; but I could never bring myself to call him father, daddy, pap, or anything like that. I referred to him as he, him, or the old man; and addressed him personally, simply as you.
The old man, when he was a young man and first married, had built himself a two-pen story-and-a-half, log house. There he had reared a large family of sons and daughters; and there he had lived for fifty-nine years, busy from star to star, with never the time to floor and otherwise finish the broad hallway between the two pens of the big house; nor had he ever found time to build a stairway from the ground floor to the loft or upstairs, depending on a rickety ladder, set against the wall of the living room, to reach the skuttle hole, leading to the big, unfinished room above, used to store foodstuffs and a half century's accumulation of plunder.
One day, when no one was home but the old man and me, I climbed the ladder and explored the loft; and there, neatly stacked on the open joists, I found a dozen or so of the most beautiful black walnut boards I had ever seen. Most were twelve inches wide and eight feet long, but there were two
pieces that were all of 18 inches across and just bout two feet in length. They all looked old, weather-stained: and I decided they were leftovers, stored there and abandoned, from some cabinet-making project in the years gone by. So, with one of the short pieces under my arm, I scrambled through the skuttle hold and descended the ladder.
The old man was sitting in the front of the fire, scratching in
the ashes with the end of his walking stick. As my feet hit the
floor he looked up. His eyes fastened on the board under my arm. He looked to me like he as going to have a fit or something.
"I was gong to make something, " I said, shifting my gaze from the old man's face to the walnut board.
"Make something!" shouted the old man. "That's a piece of my
I dropped the plank and mashed my big toe.
The old man didn't fuss, threaten or scold. All he did was to
look sort of hurt and tell me to take the board and put it back where I had found it. I backed away from the thing, refusing to touch it again: the first and only time I ever failed to obey the old man's command.
When the old man had struggled down from the loft, and had gone back to scratching in the ashes, he told me how he had, long before, set his heart on being buried in a coffin made from the lumber of a certain walnut tree, under which he had cooled himself through forty years. Then he told me the story of Benjamin Webb.
Benjamin Webb, a native of Wilkes County, North Carolina, was one of the first settlers in that neighborhood. He was a man of peculiar notions; and , it seems, he was a man of education above the average of his day.
Soon after he had settled in his new home, and while the wilderness still hemmed him in, his eighteen-year-old son, Nelson, was stricken with a strange malady. He made a stretcher of deer skins and with the help of several neighbors, carried the young man all the way to Baltimore, a distance of
more than four hundred miles. The doctors in the Maryland City shook their heads; and Benjamin and his friends carried him back home. He didn't live long; and he was the second white man to be buried in what is now Letcher County, Kentucky. His grandfather, John Adams, who died in 1815, was the first.
Many years before Benjamin died he employed an expert to make him a coffin. The old man (Jesse Adams) said it was a dandy;; a beautiful thing, made of carved black walnut and trimmed with polished brass.
I gathered from what the old man said that he had a mind to pattern Benjamin Webb's coffin, maybe better it, for himself. But I asked no questions, and he didn't say for sure.
The old man went onto tell me how Webb kept this coffin under the bed; and when company dropped in, he would drag it out, remove the lid, and live down in it to show them how well it fit. Sometimes, the old man said when the Webbs had over-night visitors and they were crowded for bed room, Benjamin would
haul out his coffin and sleep in it.
When old, Benjamin finally came to die, he made a strange deathbed request. He said that he wanted them to take up his body on the day when he had been buried seven years, or if the weather or other conditions would not permit on that day, to take him up the day he had been buried eleven years.
His folks promised to carry out his dying request; and at the exact hour on the very day the seven years expired, they dug old Benjamin up, removed the lid from the coffin, let all who would, see. They they sealed the coffin again, and lowered it into the grave for the second and last time.
Had you ever heard the story about the coffin or digging Benjamin up seven years later? I had never run across it til this week. What a story. Believe me, I will be on the lookout for anything else I can find by James Taylor Adams.
Thursday, November 13, 2008
Appalachian Tale By James Taylor Adams
This article is printed from the story in the Kingsport Times, Kingsport, Tennessee on page 32 published November 26, 1950.