My paternal grandfather was "William Baldwin Sloan." Born in 1877, on Holly Fork, near the Carter County line, he was as interesting a man as anyone could hope to meet in this life. I was thirteen when he died, old enough for him to teach a love for old stories, young enough far too many questions went unasked.
Like, how'd a mountain kid born on an isolated Appalachian ridge get the name "Baldwin?" Wondering about that came to me only as an adult. My grandmother pronounced it "Bald'un," and when I was a small kid, I thought the name was connected to the fact my grandfather was a bald one. Sloan men tend to have awfully high foreheads, if you know what I mean.
Grandpa spent a number of years as a rake and rambler, and maybe he passed that on to me as well, because before coming home to Kentucky, I rambled a whole lot farther than he did. And never, so far as I can recall, met another man named "Baldwin." The name's on a lot of pianos, but not many birth certificates.
But every question has an answer, even ones about middle names. The trick is finding the one person who knows the answer, and until five or six years ago, I'd pretty much given up finding that one. Even the uncle who's named for Baldwin didn't know where it came from. Then I happened to ask the oldest surviving member of that family about the uncommon name. Uncle Charlie matter-of-factly replied, "Well, Pap was named after an old Jewish peddler." Then he told me why, and it's a good story.
In the 1870's, a tinker, peddler, and jack-of-all-trades regularly traveled through Holly Fork, on what passed for roads in those days. In the months the route was passable, he'd pass by the cabin where my grandfather was born every few weeks. He had bolts of cloth to sell, offered needles and thread, could hone scissors to an uncommon sharpness, even knew how to patch the hole in an over-used coffee pot. Equally important, to a lonely woman tasked with raising family on an isolated ridge, he carried news from the other hills and hollers through which he passed.
Eliza Jane Sloan was twenty eight when she married my great grandfather, a man fifteen years her senior. The few surviving photos of her show an unsmiling woman, who seems to have found little in life to make her happy. She came to the marriage with an illegitimate son, gave Esbon Sloan five more children, and by the time she died in 1929 even her mind seems to have worn out.
But Uncle Charlie remembers her from before what we'd call Alzheimer's took her senses away, recalls her speaking of that tinker and peddler with words of high praise. That's noteworthy in itself. Family stories indicate Eliza Jane didn't, as a rule, think much of the human race. She certainly didn't say much that was good about anyone else.
The year my grandfather was born, she was thirty four years old, with three other children, none of them old enough to help with heavy labor. Living in an isolated log cabin on a high wind-blown ridge, with no one to talk to for days on end except children and a husband who wasn't much good at conversation, she wasn't a happy woman.
But every now and then a wagon crested the ridge road, and a man, probably a European immigrant, brought news and gossip, conversation and a glimpse into places she'd never see. He'd leave her with a shiny new needle or two, and perhaps a piece of cloth brighter than anything else in her life.
The index of the centennial edition of the Rowan County News doesn't mention a Jewish peddler crossing our ridges before the turn of the century. Cousin Fred and other local historians don't know anything about him either.
My great grandmother, though, put his name on a son born in the winter of 1877, perhaps looking forward to the spring thaw when her friend's wagon would come again. She made certain he'd be remembered.
And he is.
After all, here we are talking about him a hundred and twenty five years later.