Thursday, October 26, 2006

The privilege of owning old Gillespie-made rifles

Billy Harkins of Union County holds two Gillespie-made rifles. The long rifle was made for W. W. Carland of Henderson County, NC by Harvey Gillespie. The shorter "hog" rifle belonged to Billy's great grandfather, Bill Bowers. Indications are that it was made by Harvey Gillespie.

Perhaps James Butts and Billy Harkins are not the only two current citizens of Union County, Georgia who own original Gillespie-made rifles. But these two men have been generous in sharing information and pictures with me which they gave permission to publish through this column.

These two are proud owners of tried and true firearms made by descendants of the Gillespie gunmakers of East Fork, North Carolina, and of grandsons of the original John Gillespie, Sr.--John and James A. who migrated to Union County and Harvey who remained in Henderson County, NC. Each (and other Gillespie descendants) plied their gunsmith trade well.

Last week's column told of how James Butts became the privileged owner of a rifle which had been made for his grandfather, Sydney Harshaw. It was made by John Gillespie who migrated to Union County in 1849.

Billy Harkins of V Harkins Road, Blairsville, a carpenter by trade and a gunsmith by avocation and hobby, is the privileged owner of a Gillespie-made "hog" rifle owned by his great, great grandfather, Bill Bowers, who married Sarah ("Sally") Gillespie, daughter of Moses Gillespie.

Billy Harkins also owns a Gillespie-made rifle which was fashioned specifically for a W. W. Carland who lived in the area of Henderson County, NC. Billy Harkins found a date on that long rifle showing it was crafted in 1873. Neither of these rifles is signed, but through extensive research and stories passed down, the current owner has found earmarks to identify Harvey Gillespie as the gunmaker for both rifles.

It sounds easy to say, "Harvey Gillespie made these rifles," even though his signature, other than some characteristic "code" markings, does not appear on either of the rifles now owned by Billy Harkins. You see, there were several named Harvey Gillespie who made guns. One was John Harvey Gillespie (1810-1891), son of William, grandson of John, Sr. and Jane Harvey Gillespie (Jane's maiden name "Harvey" was passed along for generations, as was the custom then).

The Harvey Gillespie whom Billy Harkins believes made the guns he owns was a brother to John R. Gillespie and James A. Gillespie who migrated to Union County in 1849. But their brother, Harvey, remained in North Carolina.

Harvey Gillespie (June 18, 1820-August 19, 1877) was the son of Mathew Gillespie and his wife, Elizabeth Sitton Gillespie, their seventh of twelve children, five sons and seven daughters.

Elizabeth Sitton's father, Phillip Sitton, owned an ironworks located on the South Mills River near present-day Mills River, NC. Nearby on Queen's Creek, Mathew Gillespie set up his gunsmith shop, and all five of his sons, John R., Phillip, Harvey, James A. and Wilson learned the gunsmith trade while working with their father. The son named Harvey (as were the other eleven children of Mathew and Elizabeth Gillespie) was born in Henderson County, NC. Harvey was buried in Henderson County, as was his wife, Sarah Hooper Gillespie.

Billy Harkins is grateful to Vesta Waldroop Byrd who found the old Gillespie-made hog rifle stored in a building at their home. Knowing that the old rifle belonged to Billy Harkins' great grandfather, Bill Bowers,Vesta gave the rifle to Billy. Stories Billy heard in his childhood make the rifle very personal and treasured. One he especially enjoyed hearing was how his grandfather went out into the woods near Owltown Gap where he lived looking for wild turkeys. Bill Bowers found a flock, and giving good aim, shot and killed two turkeys with the same shot. Whether that happened near Thanksgiving or not, we don't know. At any rate, the Bowers family enjoyed a feast of wild turkey with all the fixings.

Billy is amazed at the true aim of both old rifles he owns. As he makes replicas of them, he is careful to get the best materials with which to make his copies and to craft them with precision as did the Gillespie gunmakers of long ago.

"Why did you decide to start making replicas of the rifles?" I asked Billy.

"I appreciate the tedious and precise work the Gillespie and other gunmakers did in crafting their guns. It took skill, patience and perseverance to make them. I am interested in helping to preserve old fire arms and other antiques from the folk art point of view. I enjoy attending gun shows and recently attended the annual show in Lexington, Kentucky. I have been invited to the Museum of Appalachia near Knoxville, Tennessee to show my guns."

Billy Harkins is a carpenter and especially enjoys custom carpentry such as making rails of laurel wood and custom-ordered furniture. Mantels are another of his specialties. "I've crafted and hung several mantels," he said. Toward the end of our conversation, he invited me to call him and come by to see his gunshop, his antique guns, and the replicas he makes. I asked if he would be willing to accommodate other interested persons and he gave me permission to list his telephone number. Just call him in advance at 706-745-9405 for an appointment. He also owns a very old powder horn and hunting bag, as well as the attachment to measure the amount of powder needed for the guns.

On October 19, he took Dennis Glazener of Midlothian, Virginia, author of the book, "The Gillespie Gun Makers of East Fork, NC" (2006), another descendant of the gunmakers of fame, to meet Mr. Odell Plott of Young Harris. Mr. Plott, up in years now, is still alert and active, and related to the Gillespies through marriage. He took Glazener and Billy Harkins to the spot just off Georgia Highway 76 near the Towns/Union line, almost directly in front of Zion Methodist Church, where John and James Gillespie first worked together in their joint gunsmith shop. After the accident with a barrel being loaded on the forge with gunpowder still in it, the brothers went their separate ways. John Gillespie moved closer to Young Harris, to a location on the now Plott Town Road. The house John Gillespie lived in is still standing. A flat spot near the house appears to be the location where his gunshop stood.

I've traced the Gillespies and their descendants through four lengthy columns. My deep gratitude goes to Dennis Glazener, James Butts and Billy Harkins for taking the time through published book, emails, pictures and telephone calls to give rich information about the family who, through several generations, crafted a product of necessity and recreation. These men generously shared their knowledge of the guns and their makers with me I feel almost as if I have walked in the footsteps of the John Gillespies, James, Harvey and others. Dennis Glazener and Billy Harkins have learned to build replicas of the famous guns. All, including James Butts, appreciate the guns that have lasted far longer than a century. They save the real implements. I like to think I save a portion of this rich heritage through words.

James Butts is pictured with his children, Logan and Morgan, holding a long rifle made by John Gillespie for Sydney Harshaw, James' great, great grandfather.

c 2006 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Oct. 26, 2006 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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