History, Research, and Current Themes

"The world needed John Brown and John Brown came, and time will do him justice." Frederick Douglass (1886)

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Friday, February 06, 2015

From the Field--
Weed Whacking For The Old Man, or Attached to a Stick in Springdale

H. Scott Wolfe

Winter is upon us, and this morning brought a fresh snowfall. . .with its associated opportunities for wielding a shovel and strengthening my aging biceps. During this frigid season, my mind (at least in regard to researching Old John Brown) becomes rather quiescent. My sole intellectual activity is devoted to devising ways to discourage the local squirrel population from absconding with my bird feeder’s supply of suet and sunflower seeds. But with a chill in the air, thoughts often meander back to the more balmy days of the summer past . . . when I conduct my regular journeys to Springdale, Iowa and the site of the farm of William Maxson.
Those readers with impeccable memories might recall a past offering to this blog, a piece entitled “Farmer Maxson’s Newel Post” [2 Jun. 2011], in which I sought to tell the story of how John Brown’s nascent Provisional Army spent the winter of 1857 - 1858, boarding at the Maxson farmhouse and receiving the rudiments of military training.
The site of the farm is today remote, accessible only by gravel roads. A drive there kicks up enough dust to remind one of Henry Fonda in the “Grapes of Wrath.” And the only marker to inform the uninitiated visitor is a bronze plaque, securely attached to a small, red granite boulder. This monument has been present since the year 1924, when a number of rather stout, totally humorless members of the Daughters of the American Revolution placed it there with solemn incantations.
Being so remote, visitation of the marker is rather infrequent. Some who do pause to read the inscription leave small offerings of respect. I have seen odd bits of pottery or china . . . a handful of coins . . . or, as someone has more recently contributed, a cluster of small American flags.
During some of my very early sojourns at the site, I believe during the late Pleistocene Period, the Maxson monument sat within the confines of the well-manicured lawn of a substantial frame farmhouse. But now, conditions are quite different. The farmhouse is gone, replaced by whispering corn stalks. And the monument reposes at the lonely roadside, nearly obscured by prairie grasses intent upon reclaiming the home of their pioneer ancestors. In a word, the monument is neglected. The present-day land owners are more concerned with agricultural chemicals than abolitionism. And the local historical society, an admirable one, concentrates upon its museum in the distant county seat of Tipton. So I feel a personal obligation to tend to the monument, and thus is my mission.

During one of my visits this past summer, the Maxson farmhouse marker was virtually invisible, surrounded by rank and sundry regiments of the family Gramineae. The roadside vista seemed to be far more attractive to a wayward heifer than to a wandering antebellum historian. And it was then that I set to work . . . for in the rear hatch of my Hyundai lay what most sane people call a weed whacker (or, for the more ribald, an idiot stick). I prefer to call this particular tool my “instrument of historical remembrance.”
The obscured Maxson monument 
(Wolfe image)
As one of the attached photographs graphically shows, this elderly disciple of John Brown scholarship still possesses admirable skill in annihilating weed patches. An occasional tractor may rumble by . . . a bemused farmer no doubt wondering whether to inform the authorities or contact the regional asylum. But I see the job through to its conclusion . . . both revealing the monument to the sun’s rays and making significant adjustments to my golf swing.
Of particular interest in the aforementioned photograph is my black t-shirt . . . an item of apparel which is now, no doubt, an exceedingly valuable collectors’ item.  It originated at the “Secret Six Tavern,” an institution on High Street in Harpers Ferry, at which I would often indulge in acts of pious libation. But alas! During my last visit to the Ferry, I found the Secret Six was no more!  It had been replaced by the rather pedestrian “Potomac Grille.” I’m sure that the food is just as filling . . . and the beer is just as cold . . . but I will sincerely miss having images of George Luther Stearns or Thomas Wentworth Higginson eying my plate of French fries. I fully intend to hold onto the shirt, and cart it to a future Antiques Roadshow.
Our hero hard at work (Wolfe image)
My task at the Maxson farmsite completed, I often continue through the microscopic community of Springdale to the Friends Cemetery, where numerous characters of the John Brown story are interred. This cemetery is normally well kept, but I will often trim about the stones of those to whom I remain historically attached. These include folks such as Ann Raley, whose insignificant marble monument is inscribed: “Mother of the Coppoc Boys.”  And Moses Varney, friend of the Old Man and privy to some of his secrets (to the extent that he was suspected as being the author of the famous “Floyd Letter”). And then there is Elza Maxson.
Elza, son of William Maxson, was eighteen years old when John Brown brought his recruits to board at the family farmhouse northeast of Springdale. He was able to witness all of the stirring events of that fateful winter . . . and, in April of 1858, saw the departure of several of his local friends, (the Coppocs, Edwin and Barclay; Stewart Taylor; and George Gill), all intent on glorious deeds with the Old Man. All evidence seems to indicate that he was a potential recruit himself:
On August 2, 1859, J. Henrie (John Kagi) wrote to Whip (Aaron Stevens): “Have also written to Elza Maxson to come here and I would give him a birth (sic) to come, even if he had to sell your mare for passage money. . . .”  The prior day, Kagi had written to Isaac Smith (John Brown himself): “They say that Elza Maxson wished to get employment and I have written him to come on.”
The lovely result of my labors
(Wolfe image)
But Elza Maxson, like several other of the Iowa recruits, did not “come on.” He remained in Springdale, only to be later involved in guarding his childhood companion, Barclay Coppoc, a fugitive of the Harpers Ferry raid. He became Coppoc’s “constant companion,” vigilant toward all who might be carrying extradition papers from the Governor of Virginia . . . and assisted him on the winter sleigh  ride to Mechanicsville to catch a train to Chicago, Canada and freedom.

An especially poignant story involves Elza and Barclay’s brother Edwin, captured at the Ferry and later hanged at Charles Town. When Edwin left Springdale, he took with him an ambrotype photograph of his friend Elza Maxson. Just prior to his execution, Edwin removed the image from its case . . . and on its back, wrote: “Dear Elza, Farewell. Edwin Coppock.” The picture was replaced and, when his personal effects were sent back to Iowa, was forgotten in an obscure corner of the Coppoc home. Twenty-six years later, the same Elza Maxson, “under some peculiar spell . . . opened the case to find the message after so many years.”
Communing with Elza
(Wolfe image)
So another of the accompanying images shows me pulling the grass blades from about the tiny stone of Elza Maxson . . . another of the little known recruits of John Brown’s Provisional Army. Please excuse my exposed legs. Numerous individuals have independently told me that they (my legs) bear a striking resemblance to those found on certain 19th century square grand pianos . . . but I will defer my personal opinion.

So I shall return to the present, where two more inches of snow have fallen and I must trade the “instrument of historical remembrance” for the standard plastic snow shovel. But come spring, when the grass begins to extend up the sides of the Maxson monument and the humble gravestone of one Elza Maxson, I, (in the words of a certain General), shall return.

* H. Scott Wolfe is the Historical Librarian of the Galena, Illinois, Public Library District. We are pleased to present him as a correspondent and contributor, noting his many years of grassroots research on John Brown, the Harper's Ferry raiders, and related themes. 

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