THERE IS AN old Boy Scout hatchet hanging on the wall of my dad’s office. It is tarnished and worn, but probably wouldn’t stand out to the casual observer. I never thought much about it. It was simply a thing from his childhood—a ghost of another era.
I believe in ghosts.
I believe that the soul of a place and time can be imprinted on a thing and felt generations later.
I feel those ghosts the most vividly in everyday objects.
When I hold those things in my hands, I believe I can sometimes feel a place and time that have long since passed—an old cast-iron skillet, charred and smooth from decades of meals being cooked over a fire, or the polished wood handle of a carpenter’s hammer, the imprint of his grip marked for those who care to look closely enough. In the same way that rivers shape the land, time and pressure slowly make these things what they are. These things take me back to a place where people lived very different lives, and those ordinary objects became extensions of who they were as people. Those ordinary tools helped shape their lives and ours.
A few years back, when I was building my log cabin, I bought an antique hatchet off eBay that was made by the Plumb Tool Co. When my dad saw the hatchet, he mentioned that he also had an antique Plumb hatchet. It was the one on his wall. The difference was that his had his name engraved on it, and it was a gift from Mr. Plumb. These days, Plumb makes high-quality hammers. In those days, the St. Louis-based tool company was known for making various striking tools, such as hammers and hatchets. As it happens, a ghost from my past supplied Plumb with its handles.
It got me thinking. We all come from somewhere. As I grow older, those places have become more important to me. I’ve found that I’m more interested in the waters upstream that I’ve never explored. I’ve also realized that this was a part of my past that I didn’t know enough about, and the number of those able to tell the story have grown small.
IN 1909, JOE and Ray Sallee relocated their hickory-handle mill to the banks of the Black River in Pocahontas, Arkansas. What is now mostly farmland was once large stands of hardwood timber. It was the access to both the hickory and the Black River that made this an ideal place for the mill.
Hickory and ash logs would be delivered to the mill, where they would be sawed into blanks, then shaped into various handles for tools such as axes and baseball bats. River access meant that logs could be brought in by boat, and finished handles could be shipped to ports from St. Louis to New Orleans. With the town also connected by rail, the mill could ship goods anywhere in the world.
In addition to the handle mill, the brothers later established an icehouse. In the winter, they cut ice from the frozen river and delivered, then sold the blocks of ice to local residents during the summer.
The commerce was a snapshot of the industrial age coming to a small and largely undeveloped community in the space between the eastern foothills of the Ozarks and the Mississippi Delta. Powered by a steam engine fed with sawdust and wood scraps, the mill eventually employed around a hundred people, and five times a day, its steam whistle could be heard echoing through the hills announcing the starts and stops of the workday. ‘
Soon after the mill opened, Joe and Ray’s parents and siblings joined them in Pocahontas. One of those siblings, Robert Sallee, and his wife, Cora, adopted a young girl whose mother had died from the flu. The girl’s mother was Cora’s cousin. The young girl was my grandmother, Sarah.
Years later, my dad was born in Pocahontas and named “Robert” after Robert Sallee. Years after that, I was given my middle name “Deane” after Sarah’s adopted brother, Deane Sallee.
By all accounts, both Robert and Deane were very good men.
Dad told me that the last time he saw the old steam engine was after Robert’s death. On that day, Dad watched his uncle Deane take all of Robert’s clothes and throw them into the steam engine’s fire box. Uncle Deane told my dad that he never wanted to have to see another man wearing his father’s clothes.
GENEALOGY IS TOO often described as a tree—the base of the thing originating with some man and woman whose offspring continually branch out into increasingly widening branches. It is a model of linage. This person came from that person, and that person came from that person. But a family tree fails to accurately account for all the others who make up and shape a family. In that model, only the matriarch and the patriarch have significance, while everyone else is simply lost among the branches.
This seems a poor illustration of a family.
That which we call family isn’t so much a tree as it is a confluence of tributaries flowing into a common river. Those tributaries carry culture, genetics, reputation, damage, pride and other unknown specters flowing beneath the surface of those muddy waters.
We are shaped by those currents and by those who came before us—the people they were, the choices they made. The sacrifices and failures of our ancestors have molded our own lives in ways that aren’t always obvious until you learn their stories and their depth. Their influence is not only identifiable within our DNA, but also in a thousand small ripples through time that helped shape whom each of us has become. The twists and turns of the edges of our banks and the depth of our channels have been carved and molded by the waters of earlier generations that flow through our own rivers today.
To follow these tributaries upstream to their headwaters can be enlightening. To discover their source can often mean finding the headwaters of our own souls.
I chased one of my own tributaries to Northeast Arkansas to the sound of a steam whistle on the banks of the Black River from more than a century ago. I wasn’t sure what I would find—maybe nothing, maybe ghosts. It was a place my grandmother mentioned from time to time, but I was too young in those days to appreciate the relevance of her stories.
IT’S SATURDAY MORNING, and I’m sitting across a poker table from John Jackson, a distant cousin, a retired Pocahontas banker and the son of the last remaining family owner of the mill. He tells me the parts of the story that fill in the holes where dad’s story left off. John’s basement is a museum of a bygone era. Spread across the table are photocopies of newspaper clippings about the mill from the Pocahontas Star Herald. On the wall behind him are ice tongs and tickets from the old icehouse. Across the room, the original steam whistle from the mill hangs silently on another wall. The Detex Newman clock, used by the mill’s night watchmen, hangs by its leather strap from the side of the whistle. John seems to enjoy reminiscing and telling me the stories of his youth.
He later drives me around town and shows me places that were significant to him and are now significant to me: The house where my uncle Deane lived. The creek behind it where John and my dad played as kids. The cemetery where many from this story are buried. Finally, Black River Overlook Park. This is where the icehouse and mill once stood. The buildings have long since been torn down and replaced with a playground and trails. The railroad is gone. Only ghosts of the town’s industrious past remain. The railroad bridge is gone, but the supports still stand above the water. The mill is gone, but on the edge of the park is an old storm shelter with the remnants of a sidewalk beside it. This shelter was in the backyard of my grandfather’s house.
Finally, we drove to another park, where the old steam engine that once powered the mill sits alone under a simple, metal-roof pavilion. The shelter is unadorned, apart from a sign explaining the history of the engine. In theory, it is still capable of running and used to be fired up on occasion by the few who still had the knowledge to run the engine. But those days have also passed, and it’s been years since anyone has fired it up. Otherwise well kept, the engine’s black paint is fading. That engine once powered and turned the main line that powered and turned the rest of the equipment that, in-turn, powered a community for decades. Today, it is a ghost of another time.
MY DAD GOT his hatchet when he was a rambunctious 9-year-old. He traveled with his grandfather Sallee, simply known to the kids as “Uncle Bobby,” to St. Louis to visit the Plumb Tool Co. There they met “Mr. Plumb,” who seemed to get a kick out of giving the young boy a tour of the plant. Dad said he remembered being awestruck by the experience and remembered everyone addressing his tour guide as “Mr. Plumb” and his Uncle Bobby as “Mr. Sallee.” He decided that they must be important people.
A few weeks later, a package arrived in the mail from Mr. Plumb. It was a Boy Scout hatchet engraved, “Bobby Reeder, 1951.” Scuffed and worn, that is the hatchet with the original Sallee Brothers handle that still hangs on the wall of his office. By the time that hatchet arrived in the mail, the Sallee Brothers Mill had hit the peak of its prosperity, shipping handles to customers all over the world, reaching as far as South African gold mines.
The federal government was also a customer, starting during the New Deal era, putting Sallee Brothers tool handles in the hands of those working for the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration. Those contracts were adapted during the Second World War, when federal attention shifted from conservation to war efforts, during which Sallee Brothers pickax handles were in the hands of American GIs in Europe and Asia. In their own way, those hickory handles helped Americans heal the land and their dignity during the Depression and dug foxholes to help preserve American lives and freedom during World War II.
But the war and 1951 marked a turning point for the mill. In 1944, Lt. Raymond Sallee was killed in France soon after the Normandy invasion. His father and sole remaining owner, Ray, died in 1951, leaving the mill to his son-in-law J.R. Jackson. It was also during this time that American industry was moving away from hand tools and toward powered equipment. By 1962, the ice plant was shut down, and in 1967, the mill was purchased and incorporated into a larger company from Missouri. The mill finally closed in 1989. My uncle Deane stayed with it until almost the very end of both his and the mill’s life.
IT’S COLD AND the wind is biting. I drive around town for a while after I leave John’s house. I stop by the cemetery, where many of this tale are buried, and study the old gravestones. As it gets closer to evening, I go back to the park where the mill once stood. The river is at flood stage, drowning some of the paved walking trails and park benches. I was hoping the sun would come out, but the sky remains overcast and gray. I walk around, feeling a sense of ownership of the place that I would not have had the day before. I circle the old storm shelter and try to imagine what the place once was. As night settles in and flat-bottom boats race down the river, I sit quietly on a picnic table trying to absorb the place. I watch as the dark water flows past me in that old river. I close my eyes and listen for the haunting sound of an old steam whistle echoing through the hills.
Later that night, I’m sitting at the bar of a new pub called Aleene’s on the town square. The pub has been open barely a week, college basketball is on the TVs, a fire is burning in the gas fireplace, and the place is filling with locals who are sitting around enjoying drinks on a Saturday night. It’s a big deal because Randolph County only went wet a few months ago. The place feels new, not quite lived in. The walls are a little too bare, but the mood is right. I have a feeling they’re going to make it work.
I’m talking to one of the young bartenders who was curious to meet someone who wasn’t a local. I tell her that I am working on the story of the old Sallee Brothers mill. She says, “Huh, I didn’t know we ever had a mill.” It is a reality check for me. Sallee Brothers had a major influence on this community, but for those born after its closing, it is largely forgotten. Time moves on, and new tributaries bubble up from the ground.
Staring at my beer, I’m thinking about that steam engine sitting in the darkness out by the river. When I first heard that it was still up here, my imagination had a lot of expectations about what it might mean to me and how it could possibly be a connection to my past. But the expectation didn’t meet reality. It felt lifeless until Dad told me how he watched Uncle Deane throw Robert’s clothes into the firebox. That was another time, and no fire burns within that engine anymore. On this night, it is a cold tombstone sitting alone next to a flooded river.
While the hatchet and engine may have been the catalysts for me to come up here, it was the river and the community itself that had the most to say. While the fire may have gone out from that old steam engine, it’s burning in here. Those flames didn’t really go out; they found a new place to burn, in part because of who came before. The mill and icehouse are gone. I may have come searching for ghosts, but I found something that lives. The river may not freeze solid anymore, and local memories may fade, but that river still flows—the one that runs cold in the winter nights and the one that began shaping me over a century ago.
The Sallee brothers are also gone, along with most of their descendants, but I’ve drifted here tonight, a specter sitting on a barstool watching the firelight flicker in a place that is very much alive.
Billy Reeder is an assistant professor of journalism at Arkansas Tech University. He is currently writing about South Texas and the U.S./ Mexican border crisis. You can find more of his work at BillyReeder.com.