This story was written about 1987.It has a lot of truth in it but parts seem quite wrong.In working on my family history I discovered that Kate wasnít a Brown as stated in the story but was instead a Finney.Nor was Oran Merritt a schoolmaster from Scotland.Oran Merritt was born Martin Owens Merrick in Pulaski County, Kentucky in 1859 and changed his name between 1880 and 1881 when he married Kate Finney.I have never found him in the 1880 censusbut have found his 1881 wedding record in Bay Minette.

 

I have heard the story of Oran putting an iron fence around Billís grave Ė a considerable expense for a saw mill worker but then there were those gold coins.I should also note that Oran led an exemplary life after 1881.He was a member of the Church of Christ and was noted as the hardest worker in the saw mill Ė in spite of a bad wheeze he had from severe asthma.

 

So.What is true and what conjecture?Iím not sure.I only know that Oran changed his name and that strong circumstantial evidence indicates he did so for a pressing reason.What part Bill played is hard to say.

 

Upon Billís return from one of his trips he brought each of Oranís daughters and granddaughters a lapel watch.One of those granddaughters, Edie Avant, still had her watch at the age of 92.Edie recalls having dinner with her grandparents.She said Kate sat at one end of the table and Bill Ostman at the other.Bill lived with Oran and Kate on and off for at least 16 years.One has to wonder how a Swedish seaman came to be in Muscogee with a boy from Kentucky.

 

On a visit to Jack Merritt, a grandson of Oran and Katie, about 1996 I found a picture of Bill Ostman.That is shown below.In the same box with the picture was a Christmas Card from his brother in Sweden.Jack recalled Billís funeral.He said it had rained hard for several days before the funeral and the open grave had filled with water so that the coffin floated.Several men had to stand on the coffin to get it to sink so the grave could be filled in.Jack was about six at the time.

 

The story opens with a visit to the Old Muscogee Cemetery when the iron fence still remained around Billís grave.Today there is no trace of it but the seamanís tombstone remains.It is near the graves of Oran and Katie Merritt.

 

 

 

 

Uncle Bill and Fences

 

by

 

Herman Arthur Merritt

 

I

 

††††††††††† It had been many years since I had climbed the steep hill up to the old cemetery.The underbrush had closed in on the rock-strewn road, leaving only a narrow footpath between the tall pines.At the summit where once had been a strong wire fence enclosing a neat plot dotted by small cedar trees and tall marble grave markers, some dating back to the early eighteen hundreds, now only desolation remained.

 

††††††††††† The sturdy double gates opening into the cemetery were hanging precariously on half-decayed posts.Some of the fence was dangling from the posts but most of it lay on the ground, covered by thick underbrush and thorny briars making only a faint outline of the plot.The young cedar saplings of long ago were now old dark green treesinterspersed with the gnarled and bleached trunks of those that had died over the years.

 

††††††††††† There were piles of fresh dirt all over, made by burrowing salamanders.These showed tracks of all kinds of wild animals; deer, turkey, rabbits, raccoons and many more.A feeling of reverence fell over me as I listened to the whispering of the wind in the tall pines enclosing this desolate almost forgotten spot where the sleep of the dead continued uninterrupted.

 

††††††††††† Following a deer trail around the plot, I made my way to the back side where the fence was completely down.A clearing covered with carpet grass extended to the clump of old cedar trees.There were some newer graves that had been put there since I was last here and just beyond them was the iron fence I was searching for.Next to it was the resting place of my grandparents.After reading the inscriptions on the marble slabs, I lingered a few minutes remembering them. Then pushing the tall brambles apart read the inscription on the enclosed slab a dozen feet away. At the head of it was a ship's anchor enclosed in a circle and under that:

 

WM. Ostman.

Born near

Stockholm Sweden

Nov 16, 1835

died

Aug 3, 1916

As ye would that men do unto you

do ye also likewise unto them.

 

††††††††††† This and the strong iron fence was my grandfather's last tribute to his old friend and shipmate.

 

II

 

††††††††††† Young Bill Ostman went to sea as cabin boy on a sailing whaler at the age of fifteen.A harpooned blue whale rammed his small ship and sank it.Clinging to some of the wreckage with the ship's cook who was badly wounded, he drifted all that night.The next day the old cook died. Nearly frozen and barely conscious, Bill was picked up on the third day by a freighter bound for Brazil to pick up a load of guano. But he was a strong lad and, after being wrapped in warm blanket and fed hot food and coffee, he soon recovered and later joined the crew.

 

†††† After making several trips between Sweden and Brazil, he transferred to a passenger ship bringing emigrants to North America.There he met a young schoolmaster from Scotland who had become bored with teaching and had gone to sea looking for adventure {my grandfather, Oran Merritt}.They became staunch friends.Oran taught Bill to speak English.After making some friends in the States, they decided to stay so they signed on to a banana boat serving the west coast of Florida from Miami to Pensacola and on to New Orleans.

 

††††††††††† They were known in every port of call for their friendly fun-loving escapades.Then grandfather met Katie Brown a blue-eyed beauty of Scotch and Cherokee Indian heritage.After a whirlwind courtship they were married.Lonely and dejected, Bill went back to Sweden and his family's farm.He soon tired of this, however, and returned to the sea.Being experienced and industrious, he was promoted fast and in time became master of his ship and sailed the seven seas for many years. Then during a typhoon in the China Sea he received a back injury that left him crippled for life.He was never able to walk again except by bending over at the waist.

 

III

 

††††††††††† Bill had saved and invested his money wisely and was now a wealthy man.He bought land and tried farming but his heart was not in it.He was restless and lonely so he decided to come back to the States and look up his old friend and shipmate, Oran Merritt.After landing in New York, he took a train to Pensacola, made some inquiries, rented a hack and set out to find him. In the meantime, grandfather had settled in the extreme western part of the state at Muscogee and was now superintendent of the lumberyard for the Southern States timber and lumber company, had raised a family of eight and had several grandchildren. I, being the oldest and living only a stone's throw from his big house, spent lots of time with them.

 

IV

 

††††††††††† I was having supper with them.The late afternoon sun was bathing the large front porch and reflecting on into the dining room where a soft red glow cast from the mirror in the large sideboard back of the table.Grandma was buttering one of her large buttermilk biscuits for me when the muffled sound of hoof beats and the squeaking of leather harness caught our attention.Stopping at the front gate, a figure dismounted from the hack, bent over as if picking up something from the ground, then stood upright.The figure drew the tether over the horseís head and dropped it over one of the pickets of the fence, opened the front gate and stood in full view.††††††††††† Grandpa jumped up so quick he knocked his chair over but paid no attention to it and said, "As I live and breath, that's my old friend, Bill Ostman."Rushing out the door and across the porch and down the walk yelling, "Bill, Bill!".They met in a bear hug, followed by a long hand pumping and back pounding.As they came up the walk, grandma set another place at the table.

 

V

 

††††††††††† I was dumfounded. I had heard so much about Uncle Bill and now there he was, not like I had pictured him, but not disappointing either.His long, white, wavy hair down over his ears; a big hooked red and purple tinted nose; wide-flared nostrils; a full white wavy beard slightly tobacco stained around the mouth and watery blue eyes with drooping lower lids and a slow smile showing strong even teeth.He was dressed in a well-tailored dark blue suit with brass buttons.He had been for a long time my confirmed idol and now remained firmly so until his death.He and grandpa swapped stories long after grandma had removed the uneaten supper.I sat spellbound until my eyes would no longer stay open.The last thing I heard was grandpa and grandma saying they hoped his stay would be long.

 

VI

 

††††††††††† Uncle Bill had an obsession about fences. He always said that anything worthwhile should have a good fence around it.He immediately set out to repair all the fences and make new enclosures.Somebody gave him a small black dog of mixed ancestry.He named him Inky. They were inseparable. Inky slept at the foot of Uncle Bill's bed.When all the fences were repaired and whitewashed Uncle Bill became restless.He went around, inspecting every inch of them every day.

 

††††††††††† Then one night at the supper table he announced that he was going back to Sweden.Grandpa was very upset at this and reassured him that he was welcome to stay with him as long as he wished but he insisted that he must go, so the next morning grandma packed him a basket of food and grandpa hitched Old Dexter to the buggy and drove Uncle Bill to Cantonment to catch the train to New York.

 

VII

 

††††††††††† Arriving in Stockholm he found all his family gone except for one nephew that was a farmer on the outskirts of town who made him welcome. He spent several weeks checking and repairing all the fences and the barns on his nephew's place then he became restless again and decided to come back to the States.From New York he caught the train to Cantonment arriving in the middle of a cold December night.The station was closed and the small community was in total darkness, so he set out to walk the five miles to Muscogee.

 

VIII

 

††††††††††† After Uncle Bill left, Inky disappeared and was gone for several days.When he returned he was almost skin and bones and would not eat. He lay on the porch all day whining and howling all night for two or three days.Finally after much petting and coaxing I persuaded him to eat but he still laid on the porch watching the front gate and whined and howled at night.Then one cold night just before Christmas he stopped.Grandpa noticed this and got up to see why, but Inky had disappeared again, Grandpa called and whistled for him, but he was gone.

 

IX

 

††††††††††† Soon after Uncle Bill left the dark little community of Cantonment the Moon came up making the cold windy night as bright as day.He labored on with the heavy sea bag over his shoulder.When it began to hurt his bad back, he dropped it for a short rest.Over the sound of the wind he thought he heard the yelp of a dog.It sounded familiar. Then a series of barks and whines, then a small dark form bounding out of the moon light towards him.He stooped and picked it up yelling, "Inky, Inky!"Holding him up to his face Uncle Bill was showered with a small wet tongue and whelps of joy. "My, my," he said, "You are the vigglingest, vettest ting I effer did see."

 

X

 

††††††††††† Grandpa had a fire going in Grandma's cook stove and had chipped the ice from the wash basin and drawn a fresh bucket of warm water from the well and was washing his face in it as the eastern horizon was turning a faint pink. Grandma was rattling pots and pans in the kitchen when a squeak from the front gate hinges caught their attention.He peered through the semi-darkness as the gate opened wide and a small dark form came bounding up the walk followed by a shadowy bent over figure with a sea bag over his shoulder. Grandpa yelled, "Katie, Katie!"Grandma rushed to the door.There in the dim beam of light from the lamp Grandpa and Uncle Bill were in a bear hug while Inky jumped around them barking in delight.

 

XI

 

††††††††††† I still have vivid memories of the cold winter nights sitting on the floor in front of the roaring fire.Grandpa and Uncle Bill would fill their big pipes and blow smoke rings in great clouds which drifted slowly towards the fireplace and suddenly get caught in the strong draft and disappear up the chimney while Grandma sat rocking slowly with her sewing basket in her lap darning socks.Sitting spellbound I listened to them tell tales of their early days at sea, especially Uncle Bill's stories about the guano pits off the coast of Brazil and the places he had been all over the world and how they farmed in Sweden.They fattened their animals for slaughter by putting them in a stable with no water but plenty of salt and fed them turnips.The salt made them thirsty so they ate more turnips to get the water from them.This made them fatten faster.

 

XII

 

††††††††††† After planting his spring garden, Uncle Bill decided the pigpen needed to be enlarged so he turned the pigs out in the chicken yard.It was hot.He had turned his thatch covered whiskey jug up several times by the time it was completed.His face was unusually red; the sweat was dripping off his nose and his shirt was soaked when it was finished and the gate hinges and latch carefully checked.Wiping his face with a large bandanna, he asked me to help him drive the pigs back in but they were enjoying the newfound freedom of the large chicken yard and refused to go back in.After several tries Uncle Bill's breath was coming in wheezing pants.Grandma had been watching from the back porch and was getting worried about him getting too hot.She suggested that he put some feed in their trough to see if they would go in.He looked at her in disbelief saying, "Sure, sure, vy don't I tink of it before?"

 

XIII

 

††††††††††† At the supper table that night Uncle Bill had difficulty eating and his speech was slurred.Grandma made him some chamomile tea and he went to bed without smoking his pipe.He never got up.He had a severe stroke and died in a few days.The neighbors all came to help.Food was brought in, a pine box built, a grave dug and Uncle Bill was dressed in his fine dark suit with the brass buttons and placed in the box but he was in a sitting position due to his bad back.Some of the younger men straightened him out and tied him down in a prone position and he looked real nice.

 

†††† That night at the wake there was a steady line of folks to pay their last respects.Grandma's colored maid came with her son George who was about my age.George was always deathly afraid of Uncle Bill.After most of the visitors left, everybody else went back to the kitchen and dining room leaving George and me.By the dim light of the kerosene lamp George's eyes looked like two bright lights as he moved over close to me.In doing so he accidentally bumped the foot of the coffin and jarred the strap loose that held Uncle Bill down and he bolted up into a sitting position.I was horrified!George let out an ear-splitting scream, tripped up trying to climb over me, and hit the floor on his hands and knees.He raced for the door just in time to meet the others coming down the hall, knocking their feet out from under them and making a pile of people that filled the hall.Several of them caught George but he broke away from them and went screaming into the kitchen and hid behind the cook stove.

 

XIV

 

††††††††††† After the funeral was over and the strong iron fence placed around the grave, Grandma was putting Uncle Bill's room in order. She emptied his old sea bag out on the bed and at the very bottom of it was a heavy package wrapped in oilcloth.Inside this she found a soft leather pouch containing twenty one thousand dollar gold certificate bank notes and some gold coins. There was a note that read,

 

To my friend Oran and his good wife, Kattie.

Good bye,

Bill