(An American Tragedy)

Donald K. Muschany


[Letter 9]

April 20, 1977

Hi Norm:

     Before I get on to great-grandfather Muschany, I want to tell you a funny tale passed on by Uncle Karl.
     In about 1922, Karl bought a Model-T Ford and really felt his oats. One day he piled my mother and a friend into the “black demon,” and took them for a spin on those fine Howell roads. He got stuck in a freshly plowed field while trying to turn around. The irate farmer, more out of soil conservation (his own) than out of pity, got a team and tried to extricate the interlopers, but to no avail. And then the rain came. Karl left his charges under a spreading chestnut tree and took off for a phone. He called my dad, asking for a ride in the store’s Model-T truck. Dad told him, “Kid, you got yourself in; now let’s see you get out.” Karl then played his ace. ‘‘Well, if you don’t want Nell to get pneumonia in the middle of the preserving season, you’d better rescue us.” An irate older brother, Dad, picked them up but didn’t say a word the rest of the day, for which they were all glad, especially Karl. I have an idea that Karl, being the “baby,” has a lot more tales than he will tell . . . I’m going to keep prodding him. He has told me a lot of stories regarding the demise of Howell which I will tell when I reach that point in my correspondence.
     He also told me about a bit of chicanery regarding Boonslick Road, and how it ceased to be Highway 40. You’ll be interested.
     Inasmuch as you and I represent the two poles, not north or south, but life and death, I feel that you and I have a special interest in the start of Howell. With apologies to Thomas Payne, those “were the times that tried men’s souls.”
     Just before Francis Howell, the Welshman, reached Cumberland Gap with his family, he passed the site where Indians had killed some of Daniel Boone’s party, including his oldest son, James.
     Howell said to his daughter, Nancy, “For twenty-five years I’ve been waiting to see that . . . Kentucky, at last! . . . But what that Wilderness Road has cost in lives! The ‘Dark and Bloody Ground!’ [1] is right.” This reads like the start of a J. Fenimore Cooper novel, except that this is real and I understand Cooper’s stuff was written in upstate New York and in Paris. (I’m turning into a critic, even an iconoclast, yet.)
     Howell was moving his brood from North Carolina to St. Louis via Boonesborough and the Overland Trail, which Daniel Boone made into history. St. Louis, at the time, was a small French village whose inhabitants were fur traders. The Spanish Lt. Governor offered Howell forty acres in what is now the heart of the city if he would settle and teach the French to farm. He had his own aim, however, and settled in the Bonhomme Bottoms near the east side of the Missouri River, Staying there until the floods convinced him that he didn’t want bottom land, regardless of its loam and silt. He and his family then moved westward to the Dardenne Township where he got a grant of 640 acres.
     Here he built his fort, not as large as Boonesborough, but ample for the settlers involved. He then build a grist mill from which he not only ground corn, but made gunpowder during the War of 1812. I have the feeling that these early folks did what they had to do when they had to do it. Amazing people, and our country was based on just such ability and courage. No one needed classes in motivation; survival was the order of the day.
     I want to go on record, however, that I am not selling us later folks short—No Way! We have a built-in survival mechanism and we must cope with a more learned and expanded populace. They, the pioneers, combated the forces of nature, flora, and fauna, but we deal with man’s baser emotions in today’s market. There were always bad guys and good guys; the black hats vs the white hats, and greed was the prime mover, but the wilderness offered escape. Urbanity is stifling man, as Faulkner predicted.
     When is the last time you saw a blacksmith shop, except at fine fox-hunt clubs? Where are plowshares sharpened? At Ace Hardware? Horse shoes are bought at sporting goods stores along with the pegs for the game which used to be played with real horses’ old shoes.
     The blacksmith shop in Howell is well remembered. The forge, the anvil, the hammer, the sound rings out as if it were today. Horse shoeing was an art and the blacksmith was always proud of his finished product. Some blacksmiths of Howell were Henry Stratman, Thomas Love, William Zeyen, Mayburn Snyder, Herb Yahn, and Alfred Henderson. All good craftsmen.
     You’ll notice I do digress to philosophise—poetic license. But back to Francis Howell.
     The land around the fort was cleared and more put into cultivation each season. Also, the fur market was good for the young boys, and the Howells were not about to move again. Francis Howell’s vision of the future was right on the mark. For in that section of St. Charles County known as “Crow’s Nest,” Indian for “high point,” his descendants to the fifth and sixth generation lived, and it took World War II to terminate that relationship, plus an act of Congress. These people converted the wilderness in the manner it was ordained to be, into homes and churches and schools. There was no stifling effect here, just pure nourishment of God’s creatures.
     The bodies of Francis and Susannah lie on a hillside not far from the fort. It is here that our grandfather, James Urban, and grandmother, Margaret, and our aunt, Ethel, are buried. The cemetery is called the Frances Howell Cemetery and rightfully it should be.
     Next time, we’ll talk about other early Howellites.

Your obedient servant,
[signed: Don K.]

[1] Boone called it that.