Monday, October 26, 2009

Gordon Cabin and Slave Jim Williams Featured in 1935 Newspaper

From the Columbia Missourian newspaper, September 26, 1935.
With thanks to Dr. Alan Havig, Stephens College Archivist, for contributing this article.

115-Year-Old Cabin Restored
Log House built by David Gordon in 1820 When Columbia’s Population Was 1000

A staunch old log cabin was built more than a century ago on a site overlooking Hinkson Creek by David Gordon, Sr., one of Boone County’s earliest settlers, who came here from Kentucky in 1820 and settled on a section of land east of Columbia, then boasting a population of 1000.

A host of stories based on pioneer hardship and, later, on luxurious Southern hospitality surround this edifice of pre-Emancipation days, located close by the home now occupied by Mr. and Mrs. Roy T. Davis, 2001 East Broadway.

Two years ago E. A. Collins of the Stephens College field force, investigating the old cabin and its romantic past, determined to restore it, making it into a sightseer’s treat and a haunt for the small picnics and waffle suppers dear to the hearts of Stephens College students. For thirty-four years Mr. Collins has been with the school and he has a name for promoting student recreational activities.

The cabin is 115 years old. From 1820 to 1826, when the old Gordon mansion was completed, the rustic cabin was the home of the Gordon family. For over half a century following, it was lived in by the Gordon’s household servants.

Thought to be the oldest in Boone County, this cabin is a marvel of pioneer carpenter work. It is apparently as stable now as in the year Missouri was admitted to the Union. The walls are of white pine logs that were cut on the 640-acre estate. Unlike most such structures, it has a heavy rock foundation and, more astonishing, the original floor of pine planks does not tremble when it is walked upon. Above the single large room on the first floor are roomy sleeping quarters.

Mr. Collins’ first move in his plan of rejuvenating the cabin was to rebuilt the old fireplace around which its early inhabitants used to sing Negro spirituals as they baked their corn pone and venison. Built of plain limestone slabs, the simply-lined hearth embodies the spirit of pioneer Missouri.

The second renovation was the reroofing of the cabin. “For more than two years, every time I have returned from a field trip, I’ve been driving around this part of the country looking for some genuine walnut clapboards to put on that roof,” Mr. Collins remarked. “Along in August, I finally found a man at Deer Park who sawed up a rick of them for me.”

These clapboards, thirty inches long and six inches wide, are now being seasoned. As soon as they are thoroughly dried, they will be nailed on the slanting roof. In another stack carefully covered by a canvas, are about twenty walnut pegs, “two by twos,” which Mr. Collins is going to use to make peg-leg tables and benches to furnish the interior.

Mr. Collins’ hobby is collecting. Traveling through the southwest, he has acquired rare Indian rugs and jewelry. Lately, however, he has expanded his collection to include pre-Civil War relics which will add glamour and authenticity to the furnishings of the old log cabin. Shown in the accompany picture are an old spinning wheel, a hank for winding hand-spun yarn, and a third rare piece, a flax wheel. Sitting in the corner by the fireplace are old bear traps, small game traps, an ox yoke, old iron kettles, warming pans, and andirons.

The back shed shown in the exterior view was added about forty years ago, according to Mr. Collins’ estimating. It will be made into a kitchen. Mr. Collins plans to equip it with an iron stove, cupboards, tables, and utensils for picnic parties who prefer a civilized stove to romance with a bit of smoke.

[“]Now, if a big rain doesn’t come along and get my clapboards all wet,”said Mr. Collins, “I’d say that my men could start nailing them on in about a week or two.” He hopes to have the cabin ready for visitors late this fall.


Enthusiastic Over Restoration of Home
Uncle Jim Williams Recalls His Early Life in Gordon Cabin E.A. Collins Is Restoring

“Why, I learned to walk and talk in that cabin,” exclaimed the genial Negro man whom all Columbians know as Uncle Jim. He was enthusiastic about the restoration of his boyhood home.

Uncle Jim Williams, who has owned one of the most popular barber shops in town for more than forty years, was born into the household of David Gordon, Sr., in 1859. He was freed from slavery when he was six years old.

His mother and father, housemaid and yardman, were privileged servants of the family. Uncle Jim has the right to call himself a “real aristocrat”; he was born in the mansion house in the room of Mrs. Gordon, his mother’s mistress. He also bases his superior heritage on the fact that a white preacher united his parents and that the master and mistress attended the ceremony.

Uncle Jim’s boyhood in the Gordon cabin was a happy one. He recalls his childhood among the privileged slaves in the household with great pleasure. His mother “brought up” the five Gordon children, whom Jim lived and played with as if they had been his own sisters and brothers.

Only Uncle Jim and the youngest daughter of the family, whom he still calls “Little Miss Mary,” are alive today. Little Miss Mary is Mrs. N.D. Evans, 1508 University Avenue.

Mrs. Evans describes vividly the lazy, storybook life of the era when there was a slave for every task and the white ladies had little to do but wear lace-bedecked hoop skirts and go visiting or receive callers. Sometimes they made samplers or painted china.

“In those days, which, incidentally, were before my time, the family had about fifteen servants. We had our own blacksmith, groomsmen, and various other slaves for farm work, and then a cook, washerwoman, housemaid, ladies’ maid, and yardman, who stayed in the cabin closest to the big house. Jim Williams’ parents, and Aunt Lucy and Aunt Caroline, the cook and the linen woman, stayed in the log cabin Mr. Collins is restoring . . .

“The estate was a unit in itself. We had several huge barns and granaries, threshing floors, flour mill, and smoke houses. We raised our own cattle and hogs and sheep and chickens. There was always a flock of peafowl strutting about the yards, and deer stayed in the heavily-wooded spots along the streams. There was a huge garden and orchard west of the house. It is easy to see why every meal was a banquet with three or four kinds of meat, preserves and jellies, hot bread and rich desserts being served. We had little food to buy but coffee and sugar.

“Before the war the women carded and spun the wool and cotton raised on the farm and made clothing for the whole family.

“When my grandfather came from Kentucky, very little of the land around here was claimed. His section east of town extended east of what is now Moss Avenue, as far north as Highway 40, included the area occupied by the Columbia and Stephens College country clubs, the Edwards brick company, and the homes south of Broadway and east of William Street.”

Uncle Jim recalls various incidents of Civil War days, many of a personal nature. “When I was little, I liked to follow my mammy around in the big house, and sometimes Miss Hulda–that’s what we always called Mrs. Gordon–gave me little jobs to do.

“I was a quick rascal, and I thought the faster I did a thing the better. She always had me sweep down the staircase in the front hall. One day she stood at the top of the stairs and watched me zip down them. Then she said, ‘Come up here, Jimmie.’ She stepped to a closet and pulled out a red toy broom.

“‘Now, Jimmie,’ she said, ‘Take this one and let me tell you how to sweep those steps. See that dust back between the bannisters?’

“‘Yes’m,’ I replied.

“That’s right, Jimmie, boy. Reach ‘way back and get every speck of it!’

“So I swept down those steps with her watching me. When I got to the bottom, I had twice as much dirt as I had the first time. And that’s the way Miss Hulda taught me that it wasn’t speed, but thoroughness, that makes a job well done.”

In spite of agitation and racial conflict right before the Civil War, the Gordons had little trouble with their slaves, according to Uncle Jim. “Marse Dave never had his slaves whipped like some folks did, and he never sent them to the ‘slave breaker’.”

The slave breaker, the boogeyman of the Negro people, has retained a vivid spot in Uncle Jim’s memory. “He was a big, brawny man, and he was mean. He had a place here in town–I guess it was about where Clinkscales garage is now–and whenever a slave became too unruly, his master took him in to the slave breaker, who didn’t often fail to beat the rebellion out of him. The slave breaker had a pen with a log fence about ten or twelve feet high. He’d put the ‘bad Nigger’ in there and beat him several times a day.

“Marse Dave never sent his men to the slave breaker,” said Uncle Jim emphatically. “Whenever he couldn’t do anything with one, he’d call him in and say, ‘I’m sorry, Dick, but I’m going to have to ship you south.’ And then he’d send him off with the next slave trader who came through town.”

When the Civil War began, Uncle Jim’s father ran away with a group of other Negroes and joined the Union forces. He came back to his family at the close of the war and worked for the Gordons, staying in his old cabin home until 1870.

“Then Miss Hulda and Marse Dave passed,” said Uncle Jim, recalling later days. “Two of their children died, and the others married and moved away. So in 1871 we moved, too, from our old log home.”

This 1935 newspaper article gives wonderful details about the early lives of the David Gordon family and some of their slaves. It includes information about the now historic cabin and the recently burned manor house. The reader is reminded that some facts may be in error and that quotes are not necessarily exact. Even with these possible shortcomings the article provides an unusual glimpse into the past.

Enoch Arthur Collins was a long-time Stephens College administrator responsible for both the Gordon cabin and the mansion house. He was usually referred to as “Pop” Collins by the students.

The mention by Jim Williams of having been “born into the household of David Gordon, Sr., in 1859" could be misleading. David Gordon, Sr., the original Boone county settler, died in 1849. At the time of Mr. Williams’ birth, the property was in the hands of son, and judge, David Gordon and his wife, Hulda.

A check of online death certificates at the Missouri State Archives web site finds that of James Green Williams who died June 8, 1955. At that time, Jim Williams lived at 405 Park Avenue in Columbia. Interestingly, the informant Mildred Boone indicated that Mr. Williams' birth place was "Gordon Manor, Columbia, Mo."

The manor house was a rare (for Columbia) antebellum home completed in 1826. Owned by Stephens College from 1926, the house was lost in a tragic fire in 1998, leaving only the cabin as a physical reminder of the original Gordon estate.

The Gordon cabin is reported as being built in 1820 in this newspaper article, and even as early as 1818 in some accounts. The 1821 Boone County tax list, however, lists David Gordon as a non-resident tax payer owning 1600 acres but with no dwelling houses on his land. It is known that Gordon traveled from Kentucky to central Missouri, acquired land and returned to Kentucky to be certain that Missouri was admitted to the Union as a slave state. He then returned with his family and possessions, including slaves. It seems likely that the cabin was erected later in 1821 or 1822.

The City of Columbia acquired the property with the remaining cabin soon after the manor house fire to use as a park. The cabin was disassembled in 2004 and restored and rebuilt in 2005 in Nifong Park, Columbia. Many of the original logs had to be replaced during this restoration but the work was done with close attention to preserving the original as much as possible. It has been furnished by the Boone County Historical Society and is currently available for tours as part of the history village at “Boone Junction.”

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