The Family Seat

Gilruth-ChairThis chair has a long and checkered history. It seems the Gilruths left Scotland after the idiotic Battle of Culloden, which ended with Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing to the Isle of Skye — and then France — dressed as a servant girl. (Ah well. Can’t win ’em all).

The family wintered over at Fort Pitt (today’s Pittsburgh), and then took a flat-boat up the Ohio River. They managed to crash it (hey: they’re highlanders, not boat people!) And legend has it they crashed up against a giant oak tree, from which this chair (and its many brethren) were fashioned.

Over the years it has been stained black and then un-stained (by my dad) to reveal the wood. It’s made without glue and is VERY strong. My brother used to sit on it when he was doing his high school homework. As he shifted about (bored to death, I’m sure), it would creak. And I always associate that creak with the word “study” (which I conflated with “dusty” and pictured my brother in a sort of shower cap, dusting. Hey — I was three!)

The tree turned out to be on land owned by a Frenchman who had received a “French grant” for fighting in the Revolution. He sold it to the Gilruths and headed back to France: Ohio was Indian territory at that time, and he’d had enough of it. Daniel Boone was retired and a neighbor: various relatives went to school with his grandchildren.

My great-great-great-grandfather was a circuit rider for the Methodist church: his “circuit” went from Ohio to ‘way up into Michigan, there were so few Methodist preachers available 150 years ago. In 1839 he build a commune with other like-minded souls as part of the Underground Railroad. They brought escaped slaves across the Ohio River where they were given reading and writing skills, clothing and connections to jobs in the North. For his pains, my ancestor was excommunicated from the Methodist church, and we never really found a theological home in the Christian world after that.

I don’t know what happened to the other chairs that were given to my mom and her siblings (and possibly, her cousins, as well). This is the only one I’m sure exists and maybe the Smithsonian would welcome it. (Drew University has the diaries of the commune-builder; maybe they would like to have it? It’s close by in NJ. Stay tuned).

We’ll see . . .

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