Report #10 from Robert E. & Ulysses: July 20, 2001


Dispatches from Southwestern VA, July 11, 2001
Shenandoah Valley | Jackson Shot Tower | MEET A PAPA DAUGHTER: Mrs. Verna Benge | Robert E. Rides in Mrs. Benge's Purse

Shenandoah Valley -- Virginia's Breadbasket:
Ulysses: On the early morning of July 11th, Mary and Marty packed up their car...

Robert E.: And us!

Ulysses: And we headed down Interstate 81 to southern Virginia on the first leg of an eight-day, four-state book tour.

Robert E.: I-81 runs right down the beautiful Shenandoah Valley, known during the Civil War as Virginia's Breadbasket. Northern armies tried their best to dominate this valley but were always thwarted by the very able General Thomas J. Jackson, known as "Stonewall" Jackson.

Ulysses: My armies could have used a four-lane highway down the valley instead of the often-potholed rough track.

Sacagawea: Your pardon, my Generals, but you are straying from the point. You were going to give a report about Wythe County and Galax, Virginia.

Robert E.: (Clears his throat) She's absolutely correct, Ulysses. Our apologies, ma'm. We old soldiers tend to get sidetracked easily.

Jackson Shot Tower:
Ulysses: Indeed so. As I was about to say, we drove down the long side of Virginia to the southwestern corner near the Tennessee/North Carolina border. There, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains we picnicked by Thomas Jackson's old Shot Tower. Photo: The Jackson Shot Tower -- rising 75 feet above the ground level. This unique building is only one of three of its kind in the entire United States. It was built in 1807, by Thomas Jackson...

Robert E.: A distant relative to "Stonewall" Jackson. I think you had best explain what a Shot Tower is.

Ulysses: Of course! I was just about to do so. Did you ever wonder how a small bird shot, mini ball bullets, or cannon balls were manufactured so smoothly round? Sometimes, they were cast in molds, but this process left a seam that had to be filed away. And bird shot was often too tiny to be perfectly molded. So several hundred years ago, when guns first came into use, some intelligent soul thought up a Shot Tower, using the pull of gravity to work for him. The principle is very simple.

A forge is set up at the top of the tower. There, molten lead is poured through a sieve that has holes the desired size of the shot. The lead forms into hot, glowing balls as it begins to fall down the length of the tower. As the lead falls, it cools into perfectly rounded shapes. At the bottom of the Shot Tower is a large kettle filled with water. The cool round shot drops into the water where it is retrieved by the shot-maker. Photo: Diagram of Shot Tower. Enlarged View

The Jackson Shot Tower is 150 feet high, though only the top 75 feet are actually the Tower. The rest of the shaft is built into the hillside adjacent to the New River.

Photo: Ulysses and Robert E. on the information sign. The sign says, "The Shot Tower. Built And Operated By Thomas Jackson. In The 1800's, The Shot Tower Represents A By-Gone Era Of America's Heritage. The Tower Stands 70 Feet High With A Shaft Sunk From The Floor To A Depth Of 75 Feet. A Large Kettle Of Water Caught The Cooling Shot At The Bottom Of The Shaft. The Shot Was Retrievd Via A Tunnel Located Near The Water's Edge."

Sacagawea: Again, I crave your pardon, my general, but I would like to mention the New River is, in actual fact, one of the ten oldest rivers in North America. Also, it flows north instead of south as most rivers do. Eventually the New River empties into the Ohio River and from there into the great Mississippi.

Ulysses: Thank you, ma'm. I meant to say that.

Robert E.: The Jackson Shot Tower was used for a brief time by the Confederate Army to make bullets in the later part of the Civil War. Photo: Mary, Ulysses, and Robert E. in front of the Tower.

Ulysses: Eventually the Shot Tower was captured by the Union forces. Since then it has fallen into disuse. Today, the Jackson Shot Tower stands as a reminder of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.

Robert E.: There is still a Shot Tower in operation near Chicago, Illinois. It still manufactures bird shot in this manner, as well as fertilizer pellets and in an earlier time, it made children's marbles out of glass.

Ulysses: The Jackson Shot Tower is now open to the public, and it is the symbol for Wythe County. We enjoyed our visit, though Miss Sacagawea did not like climbing all those stairs to the top.

Sacagawea: It was not the stairs, my general, but the height that bothered me. It was a very long, long way to the ground.

MEET A PAPA DAUGHTER -- Mrs. Verna Benge:
Robert E.: By the way, did you know Wythe County, Virginia, is also the birthplace of Stephen Austin, one of the Founding Fathers of the Republic of Texas?

To continue our journey, we traveled about ten miles down the road to the little town of Galax, Virginia (pronounced Gay-LAX). Galax is not only the Home of Old Fashioned Mountain Music, but it is also the home of one of the women whose father's story is featured in Mary's book, PAPA WAS A BOY IN GRAY. We spent the afternoon signing books and sharing stories with Mrs. Verna Benge.

Mrs. Verna Jenkins Benge, age 85, is the youngest daughter of a real Confederate soldier, Private Merideth Thomas Jenkins, of Company H, 54th North Carolina Infantry Regiment. "Meridie" Jenkins was only 15 years old when he volunteered to take his older brother's place in June, 1862.

One of the stories Mrs. Benge told to all of us was about the time her father stopped to buy a meat pie that an enterprising farmer's wife was selling by the side of the road as the soldiers marched by.

Ulysses: Meridie was like any teenage boy in both Armies -- hungry all the time, and he couldn't resist the delicious smell of the fresh-baked pies.

Robert E.: Mrs. Benge said her father described this pie as looking like a modern-day pot pie with a nice flaky crust on top. Since he still had some of his soldier's pay in his pocket, the hungry boy bought one and ate it on the spot. It was so good, Meridie bought another one and began to eat that too.

Ulysses: War was hard on civilians as well as the soldiers. Money was scarce, especially in the south, and people often sold food and clothing to soldiers to earn some much-needed cash.

Robert E.: While Meridie was eating his second pie, the woman's little girl began to cry. The mother asked her daughter what was wrong.

"I want half the money," the child wailed, "because it was my cat too!"

When Meridie realized what he had been eating, he decided he really wasn't hungry after all. And he left the rest of the cat pie by the wayside. Mrs. Benge always laughs when she tells this story about her father's days as a soldier. Photo: Mrs. Verna Jenkins Benge (middle, holding her Robert E. bear) together with two of her grown children, Merideth Jenkins Benge on the left, and Cora on the right.

Ulysses: Hunger was often experienced by the soldiers and civilians alike during the War when supplies were destroyed or the railroads were unable to deliver much-needed groceries. During the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the citizens were reduced to roasting rats.

Sacagawea: Horrid! I much prefer a good buffalo steak.

Robert E.: Fortunately, we didn't have to eat cats or rats in Galax. Mrs. Benge's friends supplied us with delicious baked goodies and refreshing lemonade while Mary signed lots of books.

Ulysses: One final note about Meridie Jenkins -- in July, 1913, he was one of the 58,000 veterans of both sides who attended the 50th Anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He was one of the younger men there -- a spry 67 years old. The youngest veteran was 61 years old.

Sacagawea: After spending several lovely hours in Galax, we got back into the car and headed down the road to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where we spent the next two nights. In our next report, I will be honored to tell you about our visit to my brothers, the Cherokees. Until then, I bid you peace.

Robert E. Rides in Mrs. Benge's Purse:
Ulysses: Robert E. is very modest. He failed to mention Mary presented one of his brothers to Mrs. Benge.

She was delighted with her Robert E., and when she left, he was riding in her purse with his head and paws sticking out so he could see where he was going. Mrs. Benge said she didn't want him to get smothered.


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More Papa Was A Boy in Gray Reports:
Papa Book Tour Main Page | Report #1 | Report #2 | Report #3 | Report #4 | Report #5 | Report #6 | Report #7 | Report #8 | Report #9 | Report #10 | Report #11 | Report #12 | Report #13 | Report #14 | Report #15 | Report #16 | Report #17 | Report #18 | Report #19 | Report #20 | Report #21 | Report #22


   

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