Of Fiddles, Folklore, and Family History

Cane sword - possibly belonging to William McNutt circa 1835

Today was set to be the day when we discovered whether or not the cane sword passed down through our family backed up the story that went along with it. According to family legend, this sword cane was carried from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh as our ancestor arrived in this country and walked westward with it. Subsequent research has shown that it was most likely not the Keefer family as we were told. That family was in the Westmoreland/Armstrong, PA area since at least the 1820s. However, it does seem likely that the sword could have belonged to William McNutt, passed down to his daughter Jane, and then to granddaughter, Ida. Ida married William Keefer in 1886. That’s plenty of time between then and now for the story to be confused. William arrived in Philadelphia in the 1830s, and daughter Jane was born there. The family came westward shortly afterward.

I sent photos of the cane sword to a friend who was familiar with military stuff, even though this did not appear to be military. I purposely didn’t mention anything about the background – just to see what he might say about this sword completely uninfluenced. He said that he thought the blade was probably English, dating, in his opinion to about 1830-1840. He also said that he didn’t think the antler or bone handle was the original handle that went with the blade. But not being an expert, he couldn’t say with certainty this was the case.

So off my mom and I set for Windham Township, OH today to have the sword appraised. The Windham Historical Society had a brilliant idea to raise funds for their bicentennial celebration coming up next year: they put on an “Antiques Roadshow.” Participants paid $5 for an item to be appraised, and you could have as many as three items for, I think $20 or so. The appraisal services were donated by a local antique shop. We got there shortly after it started, and drew number 59. I don’t know how many people came in after us, but if you do the math, they did pretty well. Unfortunately, they weren’t able to tell us anything about our sword. Nothing about it’s history, origin, or value. Zip. Nada. Silence.So was the day a complete loss? Certainly not.

I’m sure you’ve all had a moment where something completely unexpected happens -something really cool, something that makes time stand still while it finishes. Today, we had one of those moments. The event was in a crowded town hall. It was most likely a former country church with large, old windows and an open, hardwood floor with chairs set up for seating and the audience. As the day grew longer, and it seemed as though they would never get to 59, they called the number of an elderly gentleman at the back of the room. Slowly he shuffled forward carrying three instrument cases. I didn’t think he was ever going to get to the front. Finally reaching the table, he explained that they had been given to him by a collector friend who passed away in California.

The appraisers opened the cases. Each contained a violin, and in the third case they found quite a surprise. I don’t remember the exact year, but the first two numbers were “16″ and the maker was Stradivarius. The antique dealer, understandably, was gaga over this wonderful piece. After talking about condition and consulting with someone else in the audience, they arrived at about $45,000 for the violin. Now – the cynic in me says it was set up for the “Ah Factor”. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but what happened next was so unique and so unexpected, that even if it was set up, I don’t care. The man seemed to be known locally, and someone asked him to play something on the most valuable antique we were likely to see that day or any other in Windham. After checking the tuning and asking for requests, he launched into a tune he called “The 8th of January” – a wonderful traditional-sounding folk/bluegrass song.

As soon as he bowed the first note, all talking in the crowded room ceased and he had our full attention. Tapping his foot in time, any lack of grace he displayed on his shuffle to the front was nowhere to be found in his fingers. It was a transcendent performance. A performance that causes the breath to catch in your throat as the beauty and skill shows itself. Even though it was 2010, it could have been 1910, 1810 – hell, even if it were 1710, the violin would already have been over 20 years old. All time stopped as he played, and I realized I was giggling in delight. At the song’s conclusion, the audience broke into a well-deserved round of applause, hoots, and hollers. He thanked the crowd, and turned back to the table. With the spell broken, he was just an old man again, and he slowly put the fiddle back in its case, closed it up, and shuffled towards the back of the room.

So we didn’t get what we came for, but what we got was far better, and even more irreplaceable, as it could only have ever happened once.

What family artifacts, memorabilia, or ephemera do you have that has helped (or distracted) from your genealogical searches?

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