Sunday, March 05, 2006

In Memoriam Calvin Welty Downey

According to Eugene Scheel, in his Loudoun Discovered: Vol. 5, Waterford, The German Settlement and Between the Hills, in 1807 the first post office north of Waterford was established at Hamilton's Mill. James Hamilton, the first postmaster, was the proprietor of this mill until he died in 1813. The mill came into the possession of James Madison Downey in 1858. Downey tried to sell the mill shortly thereafter, but the gathering clouds of war probably made this impossible.

The year after Downey took over the mill, at a distance of a day's walk to the northwest, John Brown struck Harpers Ferry with the full impotent fury of his insurrection. In the months that followed, John Stevens, a somewhat distant neighbor of Downey's, helped build the gallows on which Brown was hung, and guarded him on the night before his execution in Charles Town, two valleys west. Stevens lived in the cabin I helped tear down this weekend.

During the Civil War James Downey was elected to the loyalist state legislature at Alexandria. For this he was harassed, arrested and detained three time by Confederate bands -- I have no evidence that John Mobberly had any direct hand in this harrassment, but that would be just about his meat and potatoes.

The Civil War was not kind to the Downeys:
Between 1861-65, deaths in the Downey family totaled five. James Downey's daughter Amanda Katherine died of consumption...in 1861. Son John F. Downey, a civilian guide for the Union army, was killed in an ambush near Salem, Fauquier, in 1862. She was 23, he was 24. Next year, Alphonso Charles Webster, husband of James Downey's daughter Susan Alice, was hanged by Confederates. He had been accused of two murders. He was not allowed to defend himself. Four months later, 21-year-old Susan Alice died of consumption, and in January 1865 the same disease claimed the life of Susan Alice's sister, 17-year-old Leila "Lilly" Downey.
After the war, one of James Downey's few remaining sons, Winfield Scott Downey, took over the mill until he was kicked in the head by a horse and killed in 1878. His younger brother, Calvin Welty Downey, then took over the miller's duties until he died in 1885. Says Scheel, "James Downey had died the previous year, his wife Anne in 1881. They had seen 10 of their 11 children die."

A legitimate question at this point might be, Why the hell am I telling you all of this? OK, life was hard in the 1800s, Jingo. We know all that.

I'm telling you, O Impatient One, because yesterday, after scrabbling away at lath and plaster at John Stevens's cabin, I found, exposed to light for the first time since it was hidden by a 140-year-old home-improvement project, Calvin Welty Downey's autograph.



Actually, I don't know that that's his autograph. It's just a name. But it's quite different from the other examples of writing on the wall from Stevens's cabin, all of which were inscribed in the late 1800s when the cabin was being used as a shop, and which all refer in some way or another to transactions that had taken place in the shop. This one has no transaction or debt or account associated with it -- it's only the name. Most significantly, this name was written on the old wall, on the whitewashed plaster that holds in place the chinking between logs, under the plaster that disguised the cabin's log-structure origins. The name was covered up when the cabin was radically expanded and improved after the Civil War, when Stevens was raising his family.

Why would the name of a neighbor from ten miles away be penciled on the whitewashed wall near the mantel of your living room? Wouldn't that be awfully, you know, rude?

Here's what I think happened.

I believe Downey worked as a building contractor before family tragedy forced him to become a miller. I believe that Downey was the man hired to improve the Stevens house. I believe that, much as an artist signs his painting, Downey signed his work.

His signature, he knew, would be hidden behind plaster.

I believe he signed that wall as a way of saying howdy to whoever took it apart. However many years off that would be. A little time capsule, a little "Kilroy was here" to some unknowable future.

In other words, he signed the wall in the hopes that I would find it.

Cal, I'm sorry I had to take down your handiwork. It was falling down anyway. But let me tell you, that lath you put up was a rat-bastard bitch to rip down. I'm still sore from weasand to nock. Your nails held strong & true until the very last. And to your penciled tip of the hat, I correspondingly hoist my trilby and make the humblest of legs. Thank you, Calvin.

Thank you!

7 comments:

Sluggo said...

thanks for the window on the past.

been pimpin' for you at the koufax voting, although I'm too old to be such a fanboy...

any shards of redware find their way to the Jingo mantle?

Matt said...

From plaster to pixels -- what a journey!

Kevin Wolf said...

Another good 'un, Neddie. "Applied history," I feel like calling it. Hands on.

lonesomepolecat said...

yr a class act, Jingo, i do confess.

connie said...

This I love.

ThePoetryMan said...

Unknown Liberty

J said...

Thanks for this posting. I've been doing some family research on the Downey family and I was wondering about most of the family dying out in the late 1800's. You've filled in some chinks for me.