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Nathaniel Rowe: Gunsmith

Edward R. Flanagan

(Originally Published by the Kentucky Rifle Association for the Emmitsburg Historical Society 1976)

Nathaniel Rowe was perhaps the last survivor from the golden age of Kentucky rifle making. Insofar as we know, he was the only maker of golden age relief carved rifles to live in the twentieth century. The author has talked with people who lived across the street from his last residence and knew him in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

Nathaniel Rowe was born on a farm outside of Emmitsburg, Maryland, on August 8, 1821. He was the son of Daniel and Susan Rowe. He moved to Emmitsburg when he was about sixteen and was apprenticed to John Armstrong to learn the trade of gunsmith. This would have been during 1837 and at that’s time the length of an apprenticeship in Emmitsburg was about five years. Therefore, Nathaniel Rowe probably did not sign any guns until about 1842. He would also have been 21 years old on August 8, 1842, which also helps to limit the earliest possible date for a signed Rowe gun.

He married his second cousin, Elizabeth Rowe, in 1844. She was born on December 21, 1817, and died on November 24, 1883. Nathaniel Rowe bought from Philip Nunimumaker a house and half-lot for $420 in 1847. This is #18 on the town platt as shown in the 1873 Atlas of Frederick County. Nathaniel and Elizabeth Rowe raised five children: Quincy Edgar, Charles C., E. Kate, Helen J. and Albert S. Nathaniel Rowe apparently changed his trade from gunsmith to machinist as the factory made gun displaced the handmade product because he advertised himself as a machinist in the business directory portion of the 1873 Atlas of Frederick County.

However, he failed in the foundry and machine shop business as shown by Equity Case No. 4304, as recorded in Frederick County court records. The case consisted of the Fredericktown Savings Institution vs. Nathaniel Rowe and Elizabeth Rowe, his wife, also Helen S. Rowe and Daniel Adelesberger, and was recorded in May 1879. Rowe had borrowed $1872 on his foundry and machine shop (#68 and #69 on the town platt). The shop consisted of a two-story brick building, 40 by 95 feet. Rowe did not pay any principal or interest on the Fredericktown Savings note and, in addition, he owed J. E. Weatherly & Sons of Baltimore $1134.15, and Helen G. Rowe $503.00. In order to satisfy the claims, his real estate was sold at public auction in May 1879 for $1510. Of this amount, the creditors received $1190.57 after charges.

The Frederick County tax assessment for District 5, Emmitsburg list the following:

  • 1876- Nathaniel Rowe
    • Real Property $700.00
    • Personal $295.00
  • 1880- Personal$850.00 - Insolvent
  • 1883- Same
  • 1886 - No further listing

In 1908 the local weekly newspaper, The Emmitsburg Chronicle, interviewed old residents and published their stories. Nathaniel Rowe was the favorite subject or at least he was the most talkative. I have deleted the paper's comments and some portions of the interviews where subjects’ not related to Rowe were discussed. What follows is the story of Nathaniel Rowe in his own words.

"I will begin with my great-grandfather who was one of the earliest settlers in this county. He was a German emigrant and, with his wife, came In Pennsylvania in colonial days and lived first near Lancaster, Pennsylvania At the time of the Scotch-Irish movement from Lancaster to Frederick county he came along and took up a large plantation about three mile, below Emmitsburg. He had three sons: Michael, Arthur, and George, who was my grandfather. He divided his farms amongst his three sons, and my father, Daniel, was born in the same house I was born in. My grandfather George Rowe, fought in the War of the Revolution and he often used In tell me of the hardships they endured but I can't remember much about it.

I recollect he said they were camped through an entire winter in a valley, the snow was deep and the soldiers had to carry wood for their fires from the Ridge a mile away. When his regiment was in camp near Lancaster Pennsylvania he often saw the great Pulaski, the Polish patriot who fought in the Revolutionary army and was killed at the siege of Savannah in 1779. My great-uncle, Michael Rowe, was a lieutenant in a Maryland regiment during the War of the Revolution and he also used to tell me stories of his adventures which I wish I could remember for your readers.

A good many of the Hessian soldiers, who were hired by England to help her fight the American patriots, settled in Frederick County after the war was over "I lived the life of the average country boy in those days. We suffered some hardships but not more than many a boy does now who lives on a farm. It wasn't very comfortable, for example, to get up on a winter morning and step with your bare feet into a pile of snow that had pilled in through the cracks in the walls and roof. I helped about the place, look care of the stock and went to school a little."

"What did they teach you at school?" asked the reporter. "Oh, not much of anything. A little grammar, writing, reading, and ciphering that's about all we got."

Did the master ever flog you? Inquired the reporter. "Yes, like the Devil," responded Mr. Rowe with fervor, as though he had a lively recollection of the fact. "I remember one teacher named Haas I used to be afraid of. He had a leather strap cut into four or five thongs with a tight knot on the end of each thong. It was called a taws and let me tell you it could bite when it was laid on right. When a boy had been caught at any mischief in school the teacher would throw the taws to the boy and he had to carry it to the teacher who then applied it where it would do the most good. One he threw the taws to me when I hadn’t been doing anything bad, I picked it up, ran out the door with it, and went home and never went back to school while that teacher was there.

We had another master, William Stone, who turned the tables on us once when we were trying to play a joke on him. It was the custom on the last day of school before the Christmas holidays, for the teacher to give the boys a treat an apple and a piece of gingerbread to each boy. Well, on this day we barred teacher out, as we called it. We barred the door on the inside and nailed the windows fast. Presently along comes teacher and wanted in. We told him he could stay out. I’ll see about that,' says he, so he climbed up on the roof and stopped the chimney. We had a big fire on the hearth and presently the room began to fill with smoke. We coughed and sneezed and gasped for breath. The door and windows were nailed so fast that before we could get them open we were almost suffocated."

"What did the teacher do to you?" inquired the reporter anxiously. Nothing! He just said, 'boys, I guess I'll have to treat you anyhow." "Well, when I was about sixteen I came to Emmitsburg to live. The town didn't look very different then from what it does now. It was built up about the square but with an indifferent class of improvements. There were then many log houses in town. They were warmed with big open fireplaces and wood stoves. We knew nothing about coal. We lived well and comfortably, however. Locks on the doors were unknown we had no thieves. There were no butchers or bakers. We ate pork more than any other kind of meat. Once in a while a farmer would kill a calf and divide it up amongst the neighbors, each taking his turn at butchering. We wore homespun clothing. Everybody had his own patch of flax.

To prepare the flax for spinning the straw was first passed through the breaker which loosened the woody part of the stem; then it was scutched in a hand machine to take out 'chive' and waste matter. Next it was hackled by combining to take out the tow. The women spun the flax by the big fireplace in the long winter evenings and then it was taken to the country weavers to be made into linen cloth. That made fine shirts. I have some of the old country-woven linen yet. I can t say much for the breeches they made out of the tow. They were mighty uncomfortable but they wore well.

"We raised our own sheep and, of course, had our own wool. There were lots of little woolen mills around the country driven by water power. I remember three that were near Emmitsburg. The cloth was mostly of three shades: gray, brown, and black. The town tailor made our clothes for us and if they were not stylish they were, at least, warm and comfortable. As for shoes, the farmers would buy a side of sole leather at the tannery three shades: gray, brown, and black. The town tailor made our clothes for us and if they were not stylish they were, at least, warm and comfortable. As for shoes, the farmers would buy a side of sole leather at the tannery and take it home until the traveling shoemaker, who went around the country with his bench on his back, should arrive. When he came he would make shoes for the farmer and his family. They weren’t very com­fortable and they didn't keep the water out but we had to get along with them the best we could.

"We didn't have many games. I only remember two, alley ball and long-ball. The former was played with a softball which was knocked against the side of a house with the bare hand. The fellow who could keep it going longest without its touching the ground won. The alley alongside of Mr. Motter's house was the favorite place for playing this game. Long ball was played in the street with an iron ball about the size of a croquet ball. It was generally played for the drinks the one who rolled the shortest distance had to buy. It wasn't much of a game and was dying out when I came to town to live.

Oh, yes. We knew what whiskey was in those days,' replied Mr. Rowe to the reporters inquiry. "It was good whiskey, too. There were lots of distilleries around here. Whiskey only cost twenty cents a gallon and sold in the taverns a gill for a fip. A fip was a Spanish coin worth six and a quarter cents, about the size of the old three-cent piece. Most all of our silver coins were Spanish. But about the whiskey. It was usually bought by the barrel for household use and everybody could help himself when he wanted a drink. Ah, those were the good old times. There was much less drunkenness than there is now in spite of the fact that whiskey then was as cheap as Emmitsburg water is now.

"I was apprenticed to a gunsmith named John Armstrong. We used to buy the barrels and make the stocks and other parts. The first barrels were made by welding two bars of iron around a solid core. Later old horseshoe nails were made into gun barrels. Some of the barrels we bought in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and some were made around here. We bored out the barrels ourselves testing the accuracy of the work by squinting though the bore at a bright light; any inequality would cast a shadow on the opposite side of the barrel. When I first apprenticed, the old flintlock muskets were quite common but they were rapidly being replaced by the percussion-cap guns. The choke barrel was unknown in those days. We had lots of game to shoot. Partridges and pheasants were plentiful and the wild pigeons came in clouds. There were deer and wild turkey on the mountains, too.

"I must tell you a story. I used to hear the old folks tell about a preacher in the Lutheran church in the days when the services were held in German. He used to tell his congregation that if they were not careful to mend their ways sermons would someday be preached in English in their church. That was to scare them into good behavior. We were good churchgoers. The farmers mostly came to church on horseback with their wives perched up behind them. The sermons were longer than they are now but I don t know that they were any better.

"I want to say to you again, that I don't think these latter days are such a wonderful improvement on the past. Take harvesting for example. Many a time I have seen my grandfather reaping grain with a sickle. He would take a great armful, just the right quantity, and cut if off about three inches from the ground with a slashing stroke of the blade; it would fall exactly and neatly as if laid down by a reaper. And he made good speed, too. Not as fast as the machine would do it, of course, but we had plenty of time then and we weren’t t crazy to go through everything we had to do at a breakneck pace. We thought more about doing our tasks well and thoroughly than in getting done in a hurry. I don't say we should go back to the sickle and cradle, but I do love the days when a man was of more importance than a machine. 

"Our methods of thrashing were as primitive as our reaping. Horses trod out the grain as the oxen in the scriptures did. The heads were piled in a big circle on the barn floor and four horses, two and two, walked around and around on them until all the grain was trodden out. We had to keep turning the mass with a fork so as to insure a thorough job. That was cold work. We always thrashed in the winter time and we boys would have to ride the horses to keep them on the grain. Thus we did with wheat and oats. Rye and buckwheat were thrashed with flails, two men striking together. There was a knack about that and if you didn't understand how to do it you were liable to get a crack on the head you would remember. Of course in both methods the grain was passed through a mill to winnow out the chaff. 

"But I must get to the corn-husking. We generally held them in October when the moon was full. In those days it was the custom to allow the com to ripen thoroughly on the stalks and it therefore plumped out better than when the stalk is cut and shocked with the ears on. A corn field after it had been topped was a pretty sight. When the corn was full ripe the ears were pulled off and hauled to the barn. The stalks were allowed to stand through the winter and in the spring were pulled up and burnt. We generally seeded a field to oats after it had been in corn.

The day before the husking the neighbor-women would come and help get ready the harvest supper. What did we have for supper? Good things let me tell you. Chicken pot-pie, roast pork and apple sauce, cakes and every kind of pie you could think of plenty of everything. Well, the ears of corn would be laid out near the barn in long rows about three feet high and three feet wide. As many men as could get to a row would fall to with their husking palms. We began about dark and worked until about ten o clock. If there was no moon great bonfires were made to give us light. Most every farmer had at least one or two slaves and the darkies would bring their banjos and sing the good old songs while we worked. It was a thirsty business and a bucket of water was kept going up and down between the rows. The water bearer would carry the bucket in one hand and the whiskey bottle in the other for some needed a little stimulant to sustain them at their labors.

"Sometimes as many as seventy-five men with their women folk would come to a husking and they could shuck the corn crop of a big farm in one evening. No, the women didn’t do any husking. They helped put the finishing touches on the supper and serve it when the men were ready. Between the hard work and the whiskey we had hearty appetites by quit­ting time and what we could do to a pile of grub would astonish you.

"I believe the young people got more fun out of the apple butter boilings than out of the huskings. The night before the boiling the neighbor­hood boys and girls would come to core and 'snits' the apples, as they called it and that was always a great frolic. "Must have been a great op­portunity for courting,' said the reporter." Well, I have heard say there was some kissing done on the sly," admitted Mr. Rowe, "but the next night was more interesting for the young people who were inclined that way. In the morning the big copper kettle in the yard would be filled with cider, as much as a barrel, sometimes, and the fire would be lighted. The cider was boiled down one half. That generally took until noon. Then the apple snits were added a little at a time. Then the stirring began and never stopped until the apple butter was done. A paddle fastened at right angles to a pole about six feet long was used for stirring and it was kept going slowly round in the kettle until 'way into the night. The young people in pairs would take turns in stirring, one on each side of the pole facing each other. When a boy and girl had hold of the pole you can guess what might happen in the evening when it was dark except for the light of the lire under the kettle," said Mr. Rowe with a sly twinkle in his eye as if his knowledge of what happened was not altogether a matter of hearsay.

"Were politics as interesting when you were a young man as they arc now?" inquired the newspaper man. "Yes, more so. You can't imagine the fervor and enthusiasm of the campaign of 1840 when William Henry Harrison, the Whig candidate for the presidency ran against Martin Van Buren, the Democratic' candidate, and defeated him. A national election now is a pink tea affair by comparison with 'Tippecanoe and Tyler Too' campaign yon know Tippecanoe was the nick-name given to General Harrison on account of his defeat of the famous Indian Chief, Tecumseh, in 1811. The battle was fought on Tippecanoe River in what was then the territory of Indiana of which Harrison was governor. He and John Tyler were nominated by the National Whig Convention in December 1839 and during the succeeding year, up to the election, the fight was red hot. It was the most exciting presidential campaign the country had ever experienced and Emmitsburg was not less aroused than the rest of the nation. Political mass meetings and processions were first employed in that campaign to stir up enthusiasm and make votes. Party emblems and watchwords were used as never before. It was also known as the 'log cabin and hard cider campaign.' Harrison lived at a place called North Bend, in Ohio, which was then a wilderness, about sixteen miles from Cincinnati. One end of his house consisted of a log cabin covered with clapboards and it was said that he placed hard cider instead of wine on his table.

The Democrats, I believe were really responsible for the log cabin and hard cider becoming issues in the campaign. They ridiculed Harrison for his primitive way of living but the Whigs accepted the challenge and made the log cabin and hard cider emblems of democratic simplicity which, of course, was very effective. In our parades in that campaign we had a log cabin built on a wagon. It was six feet wide, about sixteen feet long and one story high. Coon skins were nailed beside the door and inside on the walls. The door of the cabin had the latch ring hanging out and everybody was welcome to go inside and tap the barrel of hard cider that was kept on hand. The inside walls of the cabin were hung with traps, rifles, powder horns, and buckskin ball pouches. The wagon was driven by a man dressed in hunting shirt made of linen or tow which came to the knees and was hung with a three inch fringe around the bottom and held with a broad belt of buckskin. His hunting breeches of buckskin and a cap of coon skin completed his costume. The horses wore bonnets of coon skin with the heads and tails on. The whole outfit made an impressive appearance.

"When Harrison first settled in Southern Ohio everybody there led the frontier life. They were dependent for food mainly on such game as they could kill. The Democrats said that Harrison had lived on coon meat, hard cider and corn bread. The Whigs added the coon as a political emblem to hard cider and the log cabin. That was the significance of the coon in this campaign.

"We had speech making without end. I think General Harrison made a speech in Emmitsburg during the campaign. He was here at any rate. At the meetings campaign songs were sung by William Webb who is still alive. He lives in Thurmont. I tried once to get from him some of the old campaign songs but he had forgotten them.

"We made a big campaign ball of muslin stretched on a wooden frame. It was twelve feet in diameter. Through the centre of the ball a long pole ran horizontally so that the ends stuck out about five feet on each side. It rolled on the ground on a wooden flange, running around the outside at right angles to the pole. Men would trundle the ball though the streets by taking hold of the ends of the poles on each side and pushing it ahead of them. It was painted with cartoons and political mottoes. I remember one of the cartoons with a picture of a fox getting his paw caught in a trap. The fox's head was the head of Van Buren. James Hickey, professor of drawing and music at Mount St. Mary's did some of the painting and so did my brother-in-law, Joshua Rowe. Once we rolled the ball to Frederick for a big meeting there. We left here in the evening and rolled all night, getting to Frederick after daylight next morning. We took a wagon along with straw on the floor and plenty of provisions. When a crew got tired they would climb into the wagon and go to sleep and another crew would keep the ball rolling on through the night. That showed our enthusiasm. Would any of the young men now do as much for Taft or Bryan?

After the election was over a big celebration was held at a tavern kept by a man named Harvey opposite to the toll gate on the Thurmont Pike. You know Harrison gave Van Buren a tremendous licking, the latter only getting 60 electoral votes out of 294. The result was very popular in Emmitsburg. Most of the people were Whigs and everybody joined in the celebration which lasted a day and a night. It was held in the field back of the tavern. We needed plenty of room for our celebrations in those days. People came from all over the county and it was easier to come than to get away for hard cider and other hard stuff flowed like water.

"Of course it is a good thing that such a custom has died out. Political campaigns have improved in another respect. You have no conception of the personal bitterness politics engendered seventy years ago. Outrageous and slanderous attacks on private character were usual, and were often the cause of personal encounters which sometimes resulted seriously. However, there was little, if any, buying of votes. Bribery as we have it now wasn’t practiced in those days." 

Nathaniel Rowe died on April 10, 1915 and was buried in the Mountain View Cemetery, Emmitsburg, Maryland. The author wishes to thank William Bowers for his court record research on Rowe.

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