A piece of local history became an unusual birthday gift for Jonesborough Mayor Kelly Wolfe.
I heard that Kimball Sterling was having an auction on my birthday Jan. 8, Wolfe said. To celebrate my birthday, I asked to go to the auction, something I used to do a lot.
The auction would prove fruitful for the town mayor. It featured the estate of longtime local collector Frank Tanawitz and included hundreds of unusual local items.
Wolfe said he attended the auction in hopes of being the winning bidder on several items. He was the high bidder on several pieces of Jonesborough-area memorabilia, including a couple of tokens from the Embreeville mining operations, some various Jonesborough related materials including an old railroad bond that had been redeemed and some money printed in the Bank of East Tennessees Jonesborough branch.
Also included in the items up for auction was a gavel. It wasnt listed in the original sale description online, but when Wolfe saw it, I knew I had to have it.
This was no ordinary gavel. The desk-pounder was constructed from the tree that Daniel Boone carved his name into in 1760 near Boones Creek.
According to Wolfe, the tree grew on property just off Highway 36. The tree, a large beech, blew down some time during the winter of 1917-18 and remained on the property for many years. Finally, in November 1937, the remaining wood was purchased by the John Sevier Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in Johnson City. The DAR then had gavels made from the wood.
I have No. 379, Wolfe said. I dont know how many they made, but I only know of one other in the area and it belongs to Kimball (Sterling).
According to information from Boones Creek Historical Association Treasurer Ed Bowman, initially there were 600 gavels made from the wood obtained by the DAR.
There was a lot of wood left from the tree that I do not know about, Bowman writes in a note to Herald & Tribune Associate Editor John Kiener. I do know that the John Sevier Chapter of the DAR acquired a large portion of the wood and took it to Walter Bond, a woodworker in Johnson City.
Bond passed away in the 1980s. His son, Karl K. Bond, who still resides in Johnson City, remembers his dad making a whole slew of those gavels.
According to Bond, his father hid a note inside each of the gavels he made. Tucked in where the handle and the head of the gavel meet, is a warranty of sorts.
He wrote his name and address on slips of paper and put them in there so in case the handle came off, the people who owned the gavels would know who to bring them to for repair, Bond said.
Stories surrounding the gavels are varied, but one of the most humorous was recorded by local writer Jim Carmichael, who related a story about a local judge who also owned one of the historic gavels. (See sidebar)
Wolfe is still learning about the gavels history and says he is excited to have it.
Since I occasionally find use for a gavel, I thought it would be neat to tie in history made long ago in our area with the history we continue to make in Jonesborough.
How cool is it to not only own a piece of history such as this, but to actually get to occasionally get to use it when conducting the affairs of Tennessees oldest town!
Wolfe declined to reveal the purchase price of the gavel and Auctioneer Kimball Sterling says he doesnt remember. However, he estimates its retail value at $200.
Lets just call it net three figures and that would be pretty close, Sterling said. We went through thousands of items that day and I just cant remember the exact price it went for.
Sterling, who owns another of the Boone tree gavels, said it took him ten years to find one and purchase it.
It took 20 years for him to acquire a stool, also made from the Boone tree.
Theyre a lot harder to get and though theyre not really worth it, theyll go for about $500 because theyre scarce, Sterling said.
While there is no mention of stools, specifically, on record, several things have been written about the origin of the gavels and other items created from the Boone tree.
According to the book, Tennessee, the Volunteer State 1769-1923: Volume 1, and information from 1921, After the tree fell, Mr. (S. G.) Haskell secured from E. W. Hughes, of Piney Flats, Tenn., four gavels made from the Boone tree. One of these he presented to the Tennessee Historical Society and one to the Tennessee Historical Committee.
Also in the book is a letter from Hughes. Dated August 23, 1921, he described the tree, which sat on property owned by Lafayette Isley, as magnificent, 29 inches across the stump and about 70 feet high,
Hughes goes on to write that Isley cut off some logs from the tree and asked him to make some library tables and other souvenirs for its owner (Isley).
Isleys letter also indicates that three or four gavels were sent to S. G. Heiskell of Knoxville with the request to place them where they would be preserved to the people of the state.
However, no mention is made of the total number of gavels and other items that Hughes may have created from the tree, nor does it identify any of the other recipients. It also remains unclear if Wolfes gavel was one of Hughes original creations or if it was crafted later from unused Boone tree wood obtained by the local chapter of the D.A. R.
Whatever its origin, Wolfe is thrilled to own the unique gavel and says he considers its value priceless.
The bidding got pretty heated, and we got into a bidding war, he said. But I think the other guy finally figured out that I wasnt going home until I owned that gavel.