By George Brown
We moved to our old Kentucky home in Foster Kentucky in the fall of 1980. As I shared last week, the original three room house (a kitchen, dining room, and bath were added later) was built in 1842 or ‘43. To put this in perspective our little house on the hill overlooking the Ohio River was constructed more than six years before the California gold rush and more than 20 years before John Roebling completed construction of the Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati.
To more closely pinpoint the date of construction, laying the fieldstone foundation and framing the house approximately coincided with Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd exchanging their wedding vows. Also, this was about the same time word reached the United States (of which there were 26 at the time) that a major eruption had occurred at a remote volcanic mountain in the Oregon Territory called Mount St Helens, or “Smoking Mountain,” as it was more appropriately known by local Indian tribes. Coincidentally, Smoking Mountain experienced a second major eruption just a few months before Yvonne and I moved to our old Kentucky home in the fall of 1980, along with our one year old son.
It is interesting how interconnected our life experiences can sometimes be. In last week’s column I mentioned that our view of the Ohio River extended four miles downstream to Moscow, Ohio and two miles upstream to the locks of Meldahl Dam.
Two short days after submitting that column to the paper I was working with Joel T. Wilson and other members of his auction crew setting up an auction for Jim and Janice Nobel at their home near Laurel. I happened to ask Jim about his line of work before retiring and learned that he had served as lockmaster at Meldahl Dam.
As you can imagine, Jim had some fascinating stories to tell about the history of the dam. My number one question was why the idea of building a road at the dam has never taken hold. Jim’s answer was simple and clear, “That was the biggest mistake made when Meldahl Dam was constructed. It was not constructed with the infrastructure required to support a highway.” Maybe that’s just as well, because had a bridge been included when Meldahl was constructed in 1961-64, I suspect the value of our old Kentucky home would have been such that we could never have afforded it. (As a personal note, Jim and Janice Noble are wonderful folks and their auction last Saturday was one of the most enjoyable I’ve experienced during my apprenticeship.)
While I’m on the subject of auctions, it was while we lived in Foster that Yvonne and I attended our first auction, and many more soon followed. I remember one particular auction held in Augusta on a cold blustery winter day. It was an estate auction that included the real estate and a small amount of personal property. No doubt due to the weather only a few folks attended, and we had the good fortune of purchasing a large library table for $20. We used the library table to hold a large fish tank for several years until we happen to discover it was the handiwork of Gustav Stickley, a well-known manufacturer of fine furniture around 1900. To make a long story short, we moved the fish tank and gave the table its due respect until we had occasion to sell it several years later for $300!
The person who put us onto the idea of attending auctions was one of our Foster neighbors, Billy Nickerson. Billy had constructed and placed a hand painted sign at the corner of Route 8 that read, “Billy’s Junque & Antiques.” The sign was well weathered but a faded white arrow at the bottom was still visible pointing potential patrons in the direction of Billy’s shop. His shop, located on a narrow street halfway down the hill from our house, was actually a large barn with a dirt floor.
Tables lined the walls and filled the center of the barn, leaving only a narrow path to find one’s way through the maze. The walls were covered and the tables were piled high with more “Junque” than antiques, but this in no way diminished the adventure of searching through the piles for “buried treasurer,” which Billy replenished each week by attending auctions. I occasionally bought an old tool or gismo of some sort from Billy, but mostly I enjoyed going down to sit and pass the time with him when business was slow, which was most of the time, except when city folk, out for a Sunday drive along the river, spotted Billy’s sign.
Foster was filled with interesting characters, which was somewhat remarkable considering there were only about 25 families in the whole town. One of the more interesting was a fellow known by all as Toad. Toad lacked toad like features so I can only surmise this was a nickname inflicted upon him in childhood, which he eventually grew into. Toad operated a carpet and wallpaper store, the totality of which consisted of one small room containing displays of carpet and wallpaper samples, and a backroom filled with assorted rolls of carpet of neutral colors.
I suppose it is not unusual that a man named Toad would have a dog named Bear, which he did. Bear’s genealogy was of unknown origin but he appeared to be some sort of cross between a giant mastiff, an Eskimo husky, and a Great Plains wolf – also known as the buffalo wolf. If encountered on a shadowy moonlit night I could easily see how Bear might be mistaken for a rather large black bear.
As it happened, we did have a close encounter with Bear, or I should say our dog, Daisy, did; and we feared intimately so. This encounter happened not on a moonlit night but in the middle of the day in our yard. Daisy, a medium sized mixed terrier, was behaving as though she had an interest in engaging in activity unbecoming of a dog with her sweet disposition. We didn’t actually see any doggy-panky going on, but Bear and Daisy’s mutual affection prompted us to wonder whether this was their first acquaintance. In the interest of not wanting to subject her to an almost certain C-section we decided to err on the side of caution by promptly having Daisy spayed; a practice we have continued with all of our pets to this day.
Foster, apparently, had been home to a long line of interesting characters, as the following story would suggest. This tidbit of history, which I discovered on a historical website, is an excerpt from On the Storied Ohio, written and published by Reuben Thwaites in 1903. Referring to his visits to numerous river towns along both sides of the Ohio, Thwaites declared, “Foster is rather shabbiest of the lot…The post office occupied a vacant store, evidently not swept these six months past. The youthful master, with chair titled back and his feet on the washstand which did double duty as an office table, was listlessly whittling a finger ring from a peach-stone; but shoving his feet along, he made room for me to write a post card.”
“What is the matter with this town?” I asked. “Daid, I reck’n”, and he blew away the peach-stone dust which had accumulated in the folds of his greasy vest. “Yes, I see it is dead. What killed it”, I inquired? “Oh, just gone daid – sort o’ nat’tral daith, I reck’n.”
I’m pleased to report Yvonne and I found that Foster was not the least bit “daid,” as I’ll share in future columns about adventures at our old Kentucky home.
George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.