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  • June 11th, 2017


By Joel M. Vance
It’s an old country church, on a gravel road with a grave yard that slants to a woods. There are horses on the other side of a barbed wire boundary fence, and the last line of graves, with the newest markers, are within a yard or two of the fence. Not much room for newcomers.
Asbury Church is where three generations of Vances are buried— my mother and father, my grandfather and grandmother, and great grandpa and great grandma. Great grandpa was briefly a Union soldier. He and his brother formed Vance’s Rangers, a ragtag militia outfit, composed of farm boys with no more military experience than a bunch of grade schoolers. Three months later they sallied forth to defend Glasgow from the rebels. They lasted about one hour and all were captured by general Sterling Price’s army, relieved of their weapons and were sent home to do what they could do best–try to scratch a living out of the unfriendly hill dirt of Chariton County, Missouri.
Great grandpa Bill Vance, should’ve known better than to hang around with his brother John, an adventuresome type who made two trips to California to win fame and fortune in the goldfields. He failed the first time, but convinced himself that another trip would be successful, and enlisted my great grandpa to go with him the second time. They returned without either fame or fortune, but with California cooties, hardly anything to retire on.
They got back to Missouri just in time to form the ill-fated Vance’s Rangers which must’ve been exciting, exchanging California cooties for Missouri ticks and chiggers. The fun lasted through the summer until they ran up against Price’s rebels who were real soldiers.
I don’t know much about great grandpa, except that I have a Colt .44 army revolver alleged to have been his during that brief military career. I have my doubts, however, since the only photograph I’ve seen of him in uniform shows him with a musket. He was an enlisted man while his brother who was the organizer of the militia company, was a captain, and thus entitled to a revolver. I wonder if perhaps the revolver was the brother’s, or perhaps bought by great grandpa for protection back on the farm. Chariton County during the Civil War was a hotbed of skirmishes by bushwhackers and other rural gangsters who thought nothing of stopping at a farmhouse, rousting out the man of the house, and shooting him dead in the front yard.
I don’t know if the old army Colt ever was blooded in battle or bushwhack, but I doubt it. I heard that my grandpa used to get it out on the Fourth of July and fire a round in the air to celebrate the country’s independence, and maybe his as well. I do know that cap and ball revolver shooters used to plug the unused chambers to prevent a chain fire where the fired round would set off the next one and the next and so on, generally doing great harm to the hand and arm of the gunner and probably nothing at all to the target. That would be a Fourth of July celebration to remember with considerable regret.
My grandfather and grandmother allegedly were married by a kinsman of the infamous Younger brothers, one who apparently chose a different career path than robbing banks and shooting people they didn’t agree with. I looked up the Younger family tree and couldn’t find any connection with preachers, but I do believe it’s true that a Younger married grandpa and grandma. If so, he failed to save the outlaw Younger brothers from a life of sin. Two of them died in prison, shot up in their ill-fated raid on Northfield, Minnesota. Although the oldest, Cole, did survive prison and lived a long life and even enjoyed a career giving lectures with Frank James, the older brother of Jesse, recounting hair-raising tales of their exciting life shooting innocent people.
Of the three of them great grandpa, grandpa and father, I remember grandpa the best. My father and I fished and hunted together and until a bum leg laid him low.. There was a plot of land on his farm in an overgrown oxbow of the Chariton River which we called the Bend—maybe five acres–which was wooded with oaks and flooded about knee deep. We would get out of our rusting pre-World War Two Ford in the dark before sunrise and slog through marshy ground into the shallow water and sneak up on mallards roosting in the flooded woods. It was great sport, until the day that a neighbor, mistaking our decoys for real ducks, shot holes in all of them, after which they listed like the vintage Titanic, some floating upside down and all eminently unconvincing to avian visitors.
And then, after my father sold the place, new farmers of a breed that can’t bear to see standing trees, cleared the land and drained the swamp and our duck hunting spot was no more.
My father and I once turned over in a rickety rowboat while fishing and that remains the most prominent memory of our fishing times together, that and a photo I took of him standing on the shore of the Macon Lake with a fly rod in hand, casting a popping bug for bluegills. There is something poignant in that stark photograph, and I wish now it had been taken by someone else of the two of us together. Our outdoor times together were too few and too short, but sometimes we are together in dreams and always fishing, never catching much, but also never turning over in old rowboats. My father inherited from his father a tendency to enjoy the outdoors by himself, hunting or fishing without the need to conflab with his fellow man.
Not that he didn’t hang out with the guys— he also enjoyed fishing trips to northern Wisconsin where my mother grew up, knocking back beers with the guys telling enhanced stories of fishing triumphs. And he enjoyed taking his big eared kid, me, duck hunting on the Dalton Cutoff, which in the 1950s was as good a duck hunting spot as there was anywhere in the country.
But I was not invited on those Wisconsin buddy trips, left to play with my similar-aged cousins, and if we fished at all it was for lake perch off the town dock. So my father and his friends sat around a kitchen table in a rustic resort cabin and told stories and laughed while their braided fishing line dried so it wouldn’t become brittle and break if they tied into a 20 pound northern or a seven or eight pound walleye— something that, in those days, was far more common than it is today.
But I think he most enjoyed his time alone in the woods with our mixed spaniel, Chaps, hunting for squirrels. It was a partnership that I think he treasured more than he did any outings with humans. Chaps, allegedly, was my dog, bought as a puppy in Chicago But she effortlessly became a premier squirrel dog when she was launched into the Missouri woods after we moved south in 1948. She lived to be 17 years old, a Methuselah among hunting dogs, and she was my dog only for that brief period of her life in the big city. After that, she belonged only to my father.
Grandpa didn’t need anyone with him. As far as I could tell he was perfectly happy by himself, doing what he did by his lonesome. He decided somewhere in midlife, perhaps after his wife died, that life was too short to spend it working and he retired from carpentry to a long life of fishing and hunting. His sons bought a small hard rock farm, which provided him with a place to live and his daughter and her husband, who ran the farm, provided his board for which he paid by coming home from a day afield with a mess of squirrels or fish. It was an arrangement that suited them all and worked flawlessly until a stroke stopped him at the age of 87.
I spent several adolescent summers on my aunt and uncle’s farm and have a vivid memory of my grandfather setting out across the hill in the morning, not to be seen again until the sun was low, carrying the day’s bounty from the woods and water. My father gave him a single shot bolt action 22 caliber Winchester rifle which I still have. The old man had but one eye, the other having been put out by a flying billet of firewood which he was splitting, but both the remaining eye and the rifle were unerring when it came to potting squirrels. That was the game of choice in those days, before the restoration of deer and turkeys offered a variety of wild game fit for the table. The fish he brought home often were collected from his exquisitely built (and illegal) fish traps, a product of the carpenter he once had been.
It may be true; I have no reason to doubt it. A cousin says that grandpa Joe, as he called him, once asked a group of men who had stopped at the farm, wanting to hunt quail if he could go along. They were reluctant to take the old man figuring he would just slow them down but they agreed. He retrieved a battered old single shot Stevens shotgun (“probably had to clean the mud daubers out of it” said my cousin). They jumped a covey. “Grandpa Joe shot one bird, shucked the empty shell out, reloaded and shot another one before the first guy got his gun up to his shoulder” said my cousin.
There they are three generations of Vances, father, son, and grandson, planted in the thin soil of Chariton County, in a country churchyard overlooked by horses. I can imagine their spirits roaming the hills, now almost as wooded as they were when the first Vance migrated to the County back in the 1700s.
Great grandpa would find his musket outmoded by today’s sleek autoloading shotguns and grandpa would find his beloved Chariton River jerked straight by a “reclamation project” into a virtual drainage ditch. And my dad would find bean fields where the Bend once was. And the big eared kid has grown old.
And Asbury Methodist Church drowses in the summer sun as it has for many decades and the horses wait just across the barbed wire boundary fence for the next generation.

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