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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Story of Finding the Story... The "Coffin,"

Collectors always love to find something with a story attached to it. But the better the story, the higher the price. A lucky collector finds the unidentified item and then learns the story afterwards. The really lucky collector discovers his own family story within the story-less item he buys. This is a one-in-a-million shot.. and it has happened to me or my family several times...

The first was a pine wardrobe we purchased from fellow antique dealers in Barker, Texas. Travis and Jean Marks had gotten the old primitive from their nephew, who had purchased it at an auction in Arkansas. When we purchased it,  it was strictly because Texas collectors were looking for early primitives, and this one was just that, with around four coats of paint on it. It laid on sawhorses in the back of the shop for around a year, as we tried to remove the various layers of stubborn ox-blood and milk paint from it. Every time my brother or I got into trouble, my mom seemed to use the stripping of "the coffin" as we called it, as punishment. Finally it was restored and refinished and someone bought it. But that was nowhere near the end of this incredible story.

We did not think much about the misfortune when the man who had made a down-payment on the "coffin" died soon after. Mom made a refund to the family and then put it back up for sale. Then a lady came through one day, fell in love with it and said she had tio have it and would be back to get it.

And then we learned that she too had passed. Now we were kind of freaked out. Mom says that she does not know the reason... but WE WERE NOT SUPPOSED TO SELL THIS...

The "Coffin."

Well, we had too much invested in it, and it was too great a piece to just stick it in the house, so she had my father make shelves in it for the display of crocks and such. We began to use it, for display only, at antique shows around the state; Beaumont, Pasadena, Chappell Hill, Columbus, Round Top. Of course many serious collectors wanted to purchase the wardrobe... and we would say, "No, you do not want to buy this wardrobe, take our word for it." They would get mad, and challenge our intelligence for bringing something to a sale that was not for sale.

Anyway, while loading the coffin into the pickup truck to go to one of these shows, Reynolds, my little brother noticed some words scratched into the back of the thing and began to investigate. "Hey! there's writing on the back of it!"

My father, trying to pull it into the bed of the truck, was impatient... "C'mon Reynolds, pay attention! We're trying to load this thing, get in the game!"

So we slid the thing on in, on its back and loaded it to the brim with boxes full of glassware. It was only later that we got to fully investigate Reynold's find. Only around eleven years old, he could not have understood the significance of the words faintly and crudely carved in the back of the pine "coffin." They read;

To  J. W. Durant,

Leon County

My father immediately accused someone of playing games. None of us understood why he was almost hostile. "Who did this?" He demanded. "Russell, did you or Reynolds write that?" We were clueless about his concern. Why would we? What was the big deal?

Eventually, after he had threatened to throttle us if we had created this coincidence, he explained... "John Wesley Durant was my great-grandfather." He explained, stupefied, that he lived in Leon County when he first came to Texas, and was a Texas Senator during the Civil War. "We have his andirons and candle stand. This is a family heirloom!"

That was when I learned that things have a life. Sometimes, by amazing twists and against all odds, they come home. They come home to people who can recognize them and who have a passion for their stories. And their stories are about the people who owned them, and revealed by God who gives all things purpose.

At the end of his life, John Wesley Durant, the old Rebel nomad, left little of material value to my side of the family. We do not even have a photograph of him. I am guessing that my relatives either hid or destroyed any likeness of him to make investigation harder for the Federal authorities, as he left Leon County as a wanted man... Still, things have lives and their natural homes...

There is no telling where all this old pine wardrobe, that we called "The Coffin," had been. We had purchased this wonderful family heirloom, totally unaware of its history! It had been purchased, stripped, refinished, transported, sold to two different customers (who then passed away), and converted to a display cupboard and taken off of the market, BEFORE we discovered that it had once belonged to John Wesley Durant of Leon County!

This would have been my great-great grandfather!
Here is a rare collage of Texas Civil War Legislators... there is a Durant among them.
Probably custom-made for the Senator, and shipped to Leon County, this primitive wardrobe was probably abandoned along with all of his earthly goods during a dark chapter in his life.

Old Senator Durant, a fire-eating secessionist, was jailed for contempt of court in Centerville after a run-in with a Reconstruction Judge while defending a client, and added to his charges with an attack on a Black Union soldier, who was trying to arrest him.

A family friend, the legendary Jesse Chisholm, bailed him out of jail, paying the bond set at $1000.00. J. W. Durant jumped bond, changed from politician and lawyer to an itinerant Methodist preacher, and never returned to the middle Brazos region, where he was considered an unreconstructed outlaw and a fugitve of justice. That is when the pine "coffin" must have begun its long and mysterious journey.
Carpetbaggers could have salvaged it, and taken it to Indian Territory. It is possible that Chisholm took it as partial payment for Durant's bond, and traded it off. Or, even more romantic, he gave it to his and Durant's close friends, the Houstons, Sam's widow and children, who were dirt poor, and living in Independence at the time.

Young Temple Houston left Texas to establish his future in Oklahoma, and might have taken it with him, where he would have disposed of it during one of his legal scrapes... anyway somebody ended up with it in Arkansas and that was where Milo Marks' of Barker, Texas found it. It's fun to think about. 

Former Confederate State Senator John Wesley Durant retreated to Brazoria County, where his son in law, George Durant and daughter shared land holdings. There he avoided capture while he lived in and around Alvin where his rebel spirit would be appreciated, and he had plenty of friends to look out for him. 
J. W. Durant lived to old age and was ultimately buried in Alvin in 1889, leaving many descendants in Alvin who were descendants of his son, John Franklin Durant. Amazingly, his primitive pine armoire came back to some of his descendants eighty years later.
And I have other true stories like this almost as cool...
Next time, on the Brazos Current.


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