Jim Price, the storyteller
The recent articles occasioned by the passing of Jim Price remind me of a story he once told me while we were doing a “windshield tour” of Shepherdstown, probably 20 years ago. He wasn’t then “historian laureat” of our town, but was well on his way to being one of the best storytellers I have ever known. As we passed the corner of German and King streets, he mentioned that there used to be, maybe about 1810-15, a tavern that stood in the middle of King Street on the right hand side of German, as you head west up the hill, sort of like the library does today on the other side of German.
Around this time, Shepherdstown was home to a large number of German craftsmen, including the renowned clockmaker, Jacob Kraft, who plied his trade in a workshop near the corner of German and Princess Streets. He had an apprentice, one James Hopkins, who, apparently didn’t have the requisite carpentry skills to become a clockmaker, so he instead went into the business of making coffins. In rural areas back then, most coffins were little more than pine, or perhaps oak, boxes that were essentially made to order to fit the deceased.
(The Shepherdstown Museum has a desk made by Hopkins around 1820, as well as two Kraft clocks in the early 1800s. When one compares the craftmanship of the works of Kraft and Hopkins, it is easy to see why the latter didn’t follow in Kraft’s footsteps as a clockmaker, which requires great skill. Or perhaps, there was more money to be made in coffins, the market being far greater than for the very expensive clocks, and maybe Hopkins was a bit venal.)
So here’s Jim’s story as I remember it (embellished a little by me). Kraft and Hopkins were sitting in the workshop one afternoon in late summer of about 1812, perhaps talking about the weather, or the upcoming election, (Madison won a second term), or the Second War with Britain, which had just been declared, when a horseman rode up with the news that a field hand had died on a farm somewhere out on Scrabble Road and a coffin was needed. Not willing to interrupt their pleasant (or maybe heated) discussion, they sent a much younger colleague in a horse-draw trap out to measure the dead man for a coffin. When he arrived, the man was still lying in the cornfield where he had fallen. Not having anything with which to measure the deceased, the young man took a cornstalk and laid it beside the body, then cut off the base of the stalk at the proper length and threw it into the back of the wagon.
On his return to town, it being a rather warm day, the young man decided to stop in at the German Street tavern for a beer or some other cool libation. He tied his horse to a hitching rail and was gone for quite a few minutes. Meanwhile, another horseman rode in and tied his horse to the back of the wagon and also went into the tavern. His horse, not having had his usual noon feed-bag, and being absolutely famished, took one look at the stalk and proceeded to eat about half of it, tassel-end first, before his owner came out, mounted him and proceeded down German Street. The young man, unaware of all this, proceeded to deliver the cornstalk to Hopkins.
At this point, Jim’s story sort of peters out and you are left to your imagination as to the outcome. My reaction was one of amused disbelief, to which Jim took considerable umbrage, more than I thought was warranted. Thereafter, I mentioned it to him only once and he still insisted it was a true story, but never did he offer any attribution. Nor did he ever mention it again, or, as far as I know, share it with anyone else.
So I am left to my doubts, and I will never know if Jim made up the story out of whole cloth. Not that it matters. It makes a good story, and I tell it now and then when I docent at the museum (the kids love it). One of the great attributes of being an amateur historian, as I certainly am, (and Jim, too) is that you can make history come alive by embellishing events of the past and make the listener feel a part of that history. This was very much Jim Price’s approach to history and his legacy: he made history come alive. So, in addition to being our history laureate, a title he richly deserves, he also deserves our accolades as a superlative storyteller.