“If I had a hammer, I would hammer in the morning … I would hammer in the evening … all over this town …” as the lyrics to the old folk song go.
There was a time during the early formation of the DeSoto County seat that the town’s leaders put out a call for more blacksmiths to move to town. The DeSoto County seat, for its comparatively small size, had more than 12 lawyers back in the 1830s and 40s, a trend that would continue into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries so much so that a street would be dubbed “Lawyer’s Row,” due to the plentiful supply of barristers of the law.
Yet, for all practical matters, a town, and especially the county seat of a growing county like DeSoto, needed blacksmiths to make horseshoes for horses — horses that carried goods and supplies back and forth to larger metropolises like Memphis, Jackson and other booming towns and cities. These horses would also carry entire families to one-room schoolhouses and churches. The entire transportation of the hill country was dependent upon horse travel, which would give way to the railroads of the 1850s and steamboats that gently plied the waters of the mighty Mississippi taking folks on excursions and business trips up and down the river.
Blacksmiths, along with silversmiths and other craftsmen, also made pots, pans, cast-iron skillets and kettles for cooking to feed the large number of growing families moving into the area. They made lamp posts that lighted the town square after dark. They would later be pressed into action during the American Civil War in all kinds of manner for the war effort.
By the 20th century, one of the foremost blacksmiths in the DeSoto County seat was a gentleman named Robert E. Lee Wilson, the grandfather of a pair of legendary coaches, Robert and Leslie Pool, who would grow up in Hernando and coach at various schools throughout the region during their illustrious careers.
Robert E. Lee Wilson and his wife Frances would own a small grocery, Wilson’s Grocery, adjacent to the old DeSoto County Jail on Panola Street.
Robert Pool recently took the Time Traveler on a little trip around the DeSoto County Courthouse Square in an effort to point out places where streets ran straight through existing buildings in the present time, such as Panola Street, which now abruptly ends at the doorstep of what is now the DeSoto County Land Records office.
Coach Pool and his brother used to roam all around the courthouse square “back in the day.”
Pool talked about climbing all over the upper lofts and platforms of the historic Clifton Cotton Gin off Park Street and spending time in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop where he would encounter his grandfather’s affable longtime African-American apprentice Will Hall.
While more research is needed to verify this, it is believed that Will Hall was a veteran who enlisted in World War I. There is a “Willie Hall” who served as a veteran and Pool thinks that the friendly apprentice of his grandfather’s was the one and the same.
Pool and the Time Traveler are working along with a group of folks to document our veterans and especially those veterans who may have died overseas.
During our time travelin’ excursion this past week, Pool pointed out another blacksmith shop located catty cornered from where his grandfather’s blacksmith shop was situated. This shop was owned by another African-American blacksmith, Sam Campbell. It was in Campbell’s shop that Pool, as an eager youngster, listened to tales of when legendary outlaw Jesse James was supposed to have ridden through town. The outlaw might have even stopped to have his horses “shoed.” If he did, the record of any such transaction is now lost to the ages and is pure conjecture.
However, as pointed out in a recent column, a contemporary outlaw of Jesse James, William “Billy the Kid” Bonney’s sidekick Charlie Bowdre did come to town and even lived in the Lake Cormorant area of DeSoto County back in the 1850s and 60s.
No doubt many tall tales were spun during the pauses between the striking of the anvil and the clank of iron in Sam Campbell’s blacksmith shop, as well as all the clanging going on in Mr. Robert Wilson’s shop.
Blacksmithing is a lost art, along with storytelling. That’s why your award-winning DeSoto County Museum is hard at work preserving many of these precious stories and artifacts of our county’s past before they are lost forever.
If you as a reader have a story to share or an artifact to loan, please stop by to see the Time Traveler at the DeSoto County Museum, 111 East Commerce Street, Hernando, MS, 38632.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum.