Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The old cord bed comes home to roost

I have not done justice here to the old cord bed, but rain Monday night upset my plans to pose the old lady carefully among some flowers. Showers were chasing me when I finally got around to driving her in from the farm (I hadn't taken a tarp along), it was getting dark and as I unloaded her it started to sprinkle --- so I leaned the pieces up agains a bench, took two quick shots and got her inside. Lord knows she's been through enough and I didn't want to add insult to injury. Shortly thereafter, it started to pour.

As I wrote earlier, my cousin, Suzanne, and her husband, Bill, had talked for years about taking the bed home with them to Atlanta and restoring her. Or I should say Suzanne had talked about it --- we never see Bill. He's a native Georgian, has never quite managed to rise above the Civil War and doesn't like damnyankees --- and by god whatever else we may be, we're damnyankees and damn proud of it. So Bill's been to Iowa maybe twice in the 30-plus years he and Suzanne have been married and I've seen him once --- fleetingly at the funeral of his father-in-law, my uncle, Richard. Then he hot-footed it to the airport, flew back to the southland and that was that. Suzanne's just a wonderful person and some times we wonder where we went wrong, but there's just no accounting for taste and the misadventures of love.

But you know down in your heart the old cord bed had an ice cube's chance in hell this summer when push came to shove of finding a cushy home in either of the Georgia houses those folks call home. So now I have custody.

If you look carefully, you'll see that what started life as a four-poster is now a two-poster with stubs --- and I expect that's why she's still in the family. Who else would want the poor old girl?

She's called a cord bed because of how she functioned. When assembled, two side rails were inserted into slots in the headboard and footboard, then wedged so the whole contraption wouldn't collapse. Each piece of the bed has a series of pegs that anchored a heavy web of rope (called cord) that when installed and tightened supported a featherbed or straw tick. I'ts about as simple and functional a piece of furniture as you'll find.

The story about the bed is my grandfather's and I really can't prove any of it, but have no reason to doubt it.

According to Grandpa, the bed was made for my great-grandparents (above), Joseph Cyrus (called Cyrus) and Mary Elizabeth (Clair) Miller at the time of their marriage, which occurred on 21 January 1875 at the home of her parents, James Wayne and Elizabeth Rachel (Rhea) Clair, in Pleasant Township, Lucas County. Somehow the bed looks older than that to me, but this is what Grandpa said.

Anyhow, they started houskeeping with the bed in a little cabin-like structure in English Township that had been the original house on the farm of his parents, Jeremiah and Elizabeth (McMulin) Miller, just east of what now is Williamson and across the road south of the far grander home built by the Millers on that farm during the late 1860s or early 1870s. Both of these homes have long since been demolished.

A year or two later (after the birth of Grandpa and perhaps his sister, Elizabeth), Cyrus and Mary purchased a prairie farm two miles northeast and moved into a small two-up and two-down house there. The upstairs rooms had low ceilings with sloping sidewalls --- and the bed didn't fit too well.

Great-grandmother, Mary, proposed cutting off the posts on one side of the bed so that it could slide in under the sloping sidewalls instead of standing in the middle of the room. Cyrus said "no."

His ruling prevailed until one day he went off to town to do some business, leaving Mary at home with a houseful of sick kids, some of whom were languishing in the old cord bed planted inconveniently in the middle of the room. Provoked, Mary grabbed a saw, sliced two of the posts off about midway up and shoved the bed into the position she had envisioned for it in the first place. And that was that.

According to Grandpa, the tops of the two posts were kept for a while with the idea of putting the bed back together, but finally got tossed outside and ruined by exposure. And that was that, too.

Later in the 1880s, Cyrus and Mary traded the prairie farm for what now is the Miller century farm (and will be that for just a little while longer) a mile southwest just east of Williamson Pond on the headwaters of English Creek. There was no timber on the prairie farm --- and there was lots of timber on the new farm, which made it more attractive to farmers of that era. Everyone needed firewood, for example; and rails for fencing.

The Millers moved into the ramshackle old house on the new farm, and the old cord bed had a new home.

Cyrus died during November of 1895, the latest in a series family tragedies, leaving Mary with a houseful of children. My grandfather, William Ambrose, age 20, was the oldest. Jeremiah, age 3, was the youngest. There were six others in between.

Soon after Cyrus died, Mary lost patience with the old house and built a new one --- which for that time was a rather grand structure --- just to the south and west. The old cord bed moved again. That house still stands, although deteriorating, on the 60 acres of the Miller homestead retained by Uncle Jerry and his family.

My granddad, purchased the balance of the farm from his siblings and about 1908, after his marriage to Jessie and the arrival of Uncle Joe and Uncle Owen, began building the "new" house --- where my mother was born and raised, the retirement home of my aunt and uncle, Marie and Richard Miller. The old cord bed moved again.

I remember the old bed fully assembled and functional (complete with featherbed) there, housed in the northwest bedroom upstairs. This had been the "spare" room, and the catchall --- Uncle Owen's cavalry saber was in the closet. Around the walls hung enlarged photo portraits in elaborate frames of a variety of deceased kinfolk. And we grandkids loved to bounce on the old cord bed when we weren't rummaging around in trunks and the closet (another favorite pastime was examining with awed fascination a couple of illustrated sexual hygiene books supposedly kept secure in a towering bookcase in the downstairs bedroom; there the male grandchildren learned that masturbation led innevitably to dissipation and blindness).

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Granddad amused himself by bulding two new house in Chariton and moved into one of them. Most of the farmhouse contents moved with him, but the old cord bed remained on the farm.

After Granddad's death at 94 during 1969, Uncle Richard and Aunt Marie purchased the farm and began the long-distance multi-year marathon of reshaping the old farmhouse into their retirment dream home. The cord bed was disassembled, but no thought was given to disposing of it. Eventually, it landed in the basement and has reposed there for more than 20 years.

Now it's moved again, complete with a crack I don't remember in the headboard, presently covered with blankets along the north wall of the garage in Chariton. It's an awesome responsibility I've been handed --- and quite frankly I'm a little nervous about it.

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