Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Grouseland Rifle Connects Our Past and Present

As appearing in "Muzzle Blasts" (October 2012), the official publication of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association:

A sheriff’s deputy stands watch over the 209-year-old muzzle loader, the newly christened State Rifle of Indiana. The Grouseland Rifle, on display at the NMLRA Education Building in Friendship, was crafted around 1803 by Vincennes gunsmith John Small, who among other occupations had been named Indiana’s and Knox County’s first sheriff in 1790. Two centuries later, John Small might be pleased to see a descendant in his line, lean and tough and wearing the modern badge of a Knox County Sheriff, standing guard over one of the few remaining firearms that Small had crafted.

William Small wrote that his father stood 6’1” and weighed precisely 184 pounds, which was not unlike the stature of the young deputy now on over-watch. For a moment, time seems compressed and it doesn’t take much to imagine the presence of John Small’s spirit.

On this Saturday morning in June, visitors file into the cool of the building, hoping for a glimpse of the Grouseland Rifle. In kilt and vest, Tim Schaiper works his hammered dulcimer and conjures a Scots-Irish melody that would have been common at gatherings in 18th-century southern Indiana. At a side table, author Jeff Jaeger signs copies of his and Jim Dresslar’s book, John Small of Vincennes: Gunsmith on the Western Frontier. Jaeger and Dan Sarell of the Grouseland Foundation talk with visitors and answer questions. They share their stories about this piece of Indiana history.

Among the visitors, admiration abounds for the Grouseland Rifle in its display case:  its richly striped tiger maple stock, engravings of the United States emblem on one side and the Angel Gabriel on the other, and the intricate brass and silver inlays on the stock and barrel. Around this rifle, stories are being told – and it’s the stories that are making the room come alive.

For all the beauty of its craftsmanship, the Grouseland Rifle is itself nothing more than wood and metal. It’s a tool. As a symbol of Indiana’s history, this rifle is significant only in how it connects our past with our present. It is stories that make those connections human and real, stories told by men drawn together on this day and around this rifle.

Stories like the one belonging to a bearded reenactor and retired surveyor who’d come upon a large brass surveyor’s compass at auction. His bid won and he carried the compass home, only later to discover that it was once owned and possibly crafted by John Small. On this day, the old surveyor brought his Small compass to Friendship and asked if it could be displayed alongside the Grouseland Rifle. Seeing the two pieces together suggested two brothers who, long separated by time and war and distance, were for a day reunited.

The stories joining past and present were not limited to those of John Small and his craftsmanship. Bob Anderson, outfitted in his period uniform as a Lewis and Clark reenactor, displays artifacts he’d carried on the 2004 Discovery Expedition, that bicentennial retracing of the westward exploration that historian Stephen Ambrose had called “this nation’s Odyssey.”

Asked about his four-year commitment to the journey – two in preparation and two on the rivers – Anderson’s blue eyes hint at both loss and adventure (which often go together):  “My wife was gone.  What else was I going to do?”

He recounts the tale of Glennon Bishop, the Discovery Expedition founder who’d labored for more than a decade building replicas of the keelboats and pirogues used by Lewis and Clark. “Bishop died before the expedition started,” Anderson says. “You know they carried him to the cemetery on the back of one of those boats?” 

Sons of the American Revolution compatriot Robert Cunningham tells his stories of linking the present and past. “I especially love the Fourth of July Celebration at Conner Prairie [pioneer settlement north of Indianapolis],” he says, “in uniform and marching down that center aisle to John Williams’ theme from ‘The Patriot.’”

“My best story,” he says, “was from last year. Thunderstorms cancelled the program before the symphony could play the service hymns and veterans could stand and be recognized. They asked people to go to their cars and we were rolling up our flags,” Cunningham says. “An older lady came up to us. She was almost running.”

“Please. Don’t leave yet,” she said. “My husband and I came all the way from Florida for this one thing.” Cunningham says he and his fellows followed her to her husband, an old veteran sunk into his wheelchair. The men in their Revolutionary War kit lined up, saluted him, and thanked him for his service. 

“I’ll be damned if that old vet didn’t struggle to stand up out of that wheelchair and return us a proper salute,” Cunningham says, a mist coming across his eyes.

Beyond the well-deserved appreciation of any rifle, keel boat, or Gadsden Flag, it’s stories like these that connect us to our past and make history come to life. The stories evoke the smile or the tear, elicit the spark of curiosity or the tingle of amazement. The stories make us feel like maybe 1803 is not so long ago.

Outside the Education Building in the late afternoon, the connection between past and present raises its flag a final time for the day. On the Knox County Sheriff’s vehicle, an emblem on the rear panel catches the visitor’s eye:   

First in Indiana

The emblem has always had a man’s name to go with it. In honoring John Small’s Grouseland Rifle as Indiana’s State Rifle, and in the telling of stories, a simple logo has become personal and its history has come alive.

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