Please welcome guest blogger Bob Sloan.
My grandfather, William Baldwin Sloan, was born in 1877, in Rowan County, Kentucky. I was thirteen when he died, young enough far too many questions went unasked.
Like, how’d a mountain kid born on an isolated Appalachian ridge get the name “Baldwin?” I never met another man named “Baldwin.” The name’s on a lot of pianos, but not many birth certificates.
But every question has an answer. The trick is finding someone who knows it. When I happened to ask the oldest surviving member of my father’s family about the name, Uncle Charlie replied, “Pap was named after an old Jewish peddler.” Then he told me why:
In the 1870’s, a tinker, peddler, and jack-of-all-trades regularly traveled through Holly Fork, on what passed for roads back then. When the route was passable, every few weeks he’d come by the cabin where my grandfather was born. He sold bolts of cloth, offered needles and thread, could hone scissors or patch the hole in an over-used coffee pot. And to a lonely woman raising a family on an isolated ridge, he carried news from other hills and hollers through which he’d passed.
Eliza Jane “Enex” was twenty eight when she married Esbon Sloan, my great grandfather, a man fifteen years her senior. The few surviving photos of Eliza show an unsmiling woman, who found little happiness in life. She came to the marriage with an illegitimate son and gave Esbon Sloan five more children. By the time she died in 1929 even her mind seems to have worn out.
But Uncle Charlie remembers her from before what we call Alzheimer’s took her, recalls her speaking of that tinker and peddler with words of high praise. That’s noteworthy in itself. Family stories indicate Eliza Jane didn’t say much that was good about anyone else.
The year my grandfather was born, Eliza was thirty four years old, with three other children, none old enough to help with heavy labor. Marooned in a lonely log cabin on a wind-blown ridge, with no one to talk to except children and a husband who wasn’t a conversationalist, her life was a dull, barren trial.
But every now and then a wagon crested the ridge road, and a smiling man (probably a European immigrant) brought news, gossip, and a glimpse of places she’d never see. He’d leave her with a shiny new needle and perhaps a piece of cloth brighter than anything else in Eliza Jane’s life.
County histories don’t mention a Jewish peddler crossing our ridges before the turn of the century. Old-timers familiar with the oral history of our county don’t know anything about him either.
My great grandmother, though, put his name on a son born in the winter of 1877, looking forward to spring, when her friend’s wagon would come again. She made certain that peddler would be remembered.
And he is.
After all, you’re reading about him, a hundred and thirty years later.
Bob Sloan is the author of a short story collection (“Bearskin to Holly Fork”) and “Home Call: A Novel of Kentucky.” His novel “Nobody Knows, Nobody Sees” was published in the Spring of 2006. Bob and his wife Julie live east of Morehead KY, on a small farm that belonged to his grandfather and his father.
Related post: “Doc Brown the Grave Robber”