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Tom Chaney: Cyrus Edwards on the Elizabeth Wilson Family

Of Writers And Their Books: Cyrus Edwards on the Elizabeth Wilson Family, Including an Account of a Fearsome Duel. Tom recounts the duel between Major Watkins and Uncle Johnny B. as to which man could eat the most flapjacks. A hundred men came to the contest and Uncle Johnny B. won and promised to support Major Watkins in his race for state senate, a promise he kept even after the Majorís nephew entered the race. This column first appeared 18 September 2005.
The next earlier Tom Chaney column: Facts, Facts -- More Facts

By Tom Chaney

Cyrus Edwards on the Elizabeth Wilson Family,
Including an Account of a Fearsome Duel

Many of the details of the early days in Hart and Barren counties would be lost were it not for the stories of Cyrus Edwards (1846-1939) gathered into published form by his daughter Florence Edwards Gardiner in the year following her father's death.

From this book, Cyrus Edwards' Stories of Early Days, published in 1940 and reissued by the South Central Kentucky Historical Society of Glasgow and the Hart County Historical Society three times by 1981 we learn of the importance of Elizabeth Wilson and her family to the beginnings of Horse Cave more than two centuries ago.

In 1796 William T. Bush moved to a one thousand acre tract which he had claimed two years earlier on the basis of a military warrant for service as an officer in the Revolutionary War. The land lay generally south of what is now Main Street.

Four years later Mr. Bush sold the land to the executors of James Wilson's will which directed that "lands be purchased in Kentucky for his family and this tract was a part of the lands purchased by the executors.

"About the year 1802 Mrs. Elizabeth Wilson, the widow of James Wilson ... with her sons Jeremiah, Thomas, John B., Walker, and James, and her two daughters Martha and Sally, came from Virginia over the 'Wilderness Route' and settled on this land."

Martin Wilson, another son, began the journey but was killed, crushed by a wagon wheel, where the trail crossed the Cumberland River near what is now Pineville, Kentucky.

"She brought with her also quite a number of slaves, several wagons, a lot of horses and cattle, tools of every description ... seeds ... -- in fact everything needed for a settlement in a new country. It was said," continues Edwards, "that among her sons and slaves the trades of carpenter, wheelwright, tanner, shoemaker, saddler, blacksmith and stonemason were all represented, and the women, both white and black, could sew, hatchel, card, spin, knit, and weave.

"They camped near the cave and, within a few days, cut logs, sawed lumber, burned lime, and built complete a two-room log house one and a half stories high, with a stone chimney, into which the white family moved, and comfortable cabins were soon erected for the slaves, and all were made comfortable for the approaching winter." This house, the second built within the town, stood on the north side of Church Street between Smith Street and the railroad.

The land passed to the heirs of Elizabeth Wilson in 1821 after her death and was divided among them. Walker Wilson lived in the homestead until his death in the 1840s, although it was held in trust by John B. Wilson for the child W. M. Wilson, his nephew. Walker's widow bought the land from W. M. Wilson and sold it to her son-in-law R. S. Palmore in 1847.

Mr. Palmore lived in the house for a few years and "then sold the land to the firm of Burch, Wilson [W. M.], and White.... About the year 1850 they built a large tobacco factory in the (present) Park ... where they did a large business stemming and prizing tobacco. The factory was destroyed by fire after a few years and the 140-acre tract was sold to Major Albert Anderson."

"In the spring of 1859 W. M. Wilson bought a few acres of land on the south side of Main Street and west of the cave and built thereon a two-story frame dwelling house." That house is the original portion of the Thomas House, now owned and renovated by the City of Horse Cave.

A Duel to the Finish

About the year 1857 John B. Wilson was living somewhat south of Bearwallow. According to Cyrus Edwards, "Uncle Johnny B." had been a hard worker -- at the forge as a blacksmith and in the fields with his several slaves. His weight was estimated at about two hundred forty or fifty pounds. Even in his advancing years, he was in fine, physical fettle.

Across the fields by about a mile lived Major Anslem Watkins on a plantation of about twelve hundred acres. He lived alone with his teen age daughter. Before coming to Barren County, Major Watkins had served as state senator from another district. Edwards said that Watkins "had the frame of a giant ... he weighed about two hundred eighty pounds." He was known as an enormous eater; an entertainer of ministers of every denomination; able in discussions of the Bible and theology; charitable in disposition; a fine dancer; and "a fine hand at poker."

Major Watkins and Uncle Johnny B. were good friends. They visited often; sat frequently at each others' table; talked "very rough to and about each other"; and had a good deal of argument about who could eat the most as well as who had the best cook.

A friend bet that Major Watkins could eat more flapjacks than Uncle Johnny B. The bet was taken, and soon a large amount of money was bet as to which man could eat the most. The dueling ground was chosen: the dining room of the Watkins house.

About a hundred men were present, wagering on the contest. Among them were several politicians. Each contestant had his own cook. Each flapjack was made with the same measured amount of flour. The table was laden with various relishes and sweets, but the wager was on the flapjacks. The rest were eaten only by the judges.

A fire was kindled in the yard, and runners reported on the destruction in the dining room.

"The contest was long and terrible (at least on the flapjacks), and for a long time the men ate and joked and had a big time, but finally the Major was noticed to be a little slow in cleaning up his plate, and after fighting long and faithfully, with a heroism perhaps worthy of a better cause, he finally had to surrender. After the Major gave it up Uncle Johnnie B. told him he was a good eater ... but that he didn't know how to eat flapjacks, and then Uncle Johnnie ordered two more and ate them apparently with relish."

Political intrigue had been going on in the yard, and Major Watkins was persuaded to run for the state senate. Uncle Johnnie B. allowed as how he would be better at making laws than eating flapjacks, and promised the Major his vote.

Later on in the campaign Uncle Johnnie B.'s nephew, W. M. Wilson entered the race. Uncle Johnnie was put in a difficult position, but he held fast to his support of Major Watkins.

Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749
Email: Tom Chaney -

This story was posted on 2016-01-10 03:23:16
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