Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Story: Breeden County Historical Museum

By: Tom Ray


The older woman, probably in her forties, had long brown hair with blond highlighting. The younger woman, probably her daughter, also had brown hair, but cut short and without the highlighting. Not local, Barbara thought, with their diet- and exercise-maintained bodies.
Barbara felt a surge of energy when the two women entered the foyer. On slow autumn weekdays like this she would find herself watching the front door from her desk in the main room, the “exhibit hall.” The museum, located on the outskirts of Glendour, the county seat, wasn’t a big attraction at the best of times. Now, with the summer tourist season over, the only visitors were history classes from the local schools. None of those were scheduled until later in the month.
She tried not to look overeager as she walked briskly to greet the women, intercepting them as they were entering the exhibit hall. “Good morning. I’m Barbara Porter. Won’t you sign our guest book?” She motioned them back into the foyer, where the book rested on its stand. They smiled and followed her direction.
She appreciated their elegance. Barbara, about the same age as the older woman, took a lot of trouble getting dressed to come to this volunteer job, spending time to fix her hair and apply tasteful makeup. She wasn’t as svelte as these ladies, but was trim compared to the usual visitors to the museum, sweaty tourists who tended toward the disheveled and obese.
After signing in, the older woman approached Barbara. “Hi, I’m Stephanie Hughes, and this is my daughter Taylor.”
“Very nice to meet you. Where are you all from?” She led them back into the exhibit hall.
“Goodness, what brings you all the way to Glendour?”
“We’re visiting relatives in Knoxville. My father was from there, but he had family from Breeden County.”
“I don’t think I know of any Hugheses from here, but of course I don’t know everybody.”
“Hughes is my husband’s name. He’s from Colorado.”
“Oh, of course. I’m silly.”
“Anyway, we used to come back to Knoxville over the years, and I loved hearing my grandmother talk. She died when I was eleven. In all the years our family came back here with Dad to visit, we never came to Breeden County. Taylor graduated from the University of Colorado this past spring, and is taking time off before starting grad school at Berkeley in January. I always told her about my Grandma Cansler, and we decided this would be a good time to dig a little deeper into our roots.”
“That’s great. Let’s see; I don’t think I know of any Canslers from around here, either.”
“Oh, no. Cansler was Grandma’s married name. Grandfather Cansler was from Kentucky. They met in Knoxville. Her maiden name was Tabor.”
“I can’t place that name either. Like I say, I don’t know everybody that ever lived here. Enjoy your visit, and if you have any questions, I’m here to help.”
Barbara would have talked longer, but was disconcerted to see that someone else had entered the main room while she was talking to Stephanie and Taylor. He looked decent, an older man in slacks, sport shirt and loafers, with a straw fedora pushed back on his head. He was tall and heavy, thick in the waist, but without a beer belly. His tan, wrinkled skin was blotchy with discoloration that Barbara associated with men who drink and smoke and spend a lot of time out of doors. There were still hints of blond amid his gray hair. He wore wire-frame glasses with square, pink-tinted lenses. What Barbara found odd was that he was just standing in a corner, looking at a smart phone, not paying attention to anything around him.
“Hi. I’m Barbara Porter. Have you signed our guest book?”
Continuing to hold his phone in a position where he could read it, he looked up, frowning. “They gave you all the information when they signed in,” he said, nodding toward the two women who were now looking at exhibits. “They’re the real visitors. I’m just their driver.”
“Are you from Denver?”
“No. I live in Knoxville.”
“You must be one of the relatives they’re visiting.”
“Yes. I’m Stephanie’s uncle, which I guess makes me Taylor’s great-uncle. Although she’d probably say that at best I’m a pretty good uncle, but not a great one.” He smiled slightly at his own wit.
His tone was curt, but the joke made him seem more approachable. Barbara had to laugh. It was a funny comment. “You must be more than pretty good to take the time to drive them here.”
“I don’t have anything better to do. I’m retar’d.” She could tell that his exaggerated mispronunciation of “retired” was also meant to be humorous, that he normally spoke proper English.
“I’m sure you’re being modest. Are you Mr. Cansler?”
“I am.”
“And your mother was a Tabor.”
“Right, Hattie Tabor, who married Oscar Cansler. My name is Gerald Cansler.”
“I told Stephanie that I didn’t know any Tabors around here, but I don’t claim to know every family that ever lived here.”
“They weren’t prominent, and not that large a family for back in those days. So far as I know, the few that were left had moved out by the end of World War II.” He turned off his phone and put it in his shirt pocket.
“Yes, so many good people moved away,” she said. “Thank goodness, the county is growing again, but fifty years ago and earlier there weren’t enough opportunities around here. Ironically, back then people had better luck getting jobs in what they now call the rust belt.”
“Yeah, tell me about it. Mom moved to Knoxville in the 1940s. She had a brother who moved to Detroit, and a sister who moved to Gary, Indiana.”
“What part of Breeden County did she come from?”
He didn’t answer right away, just studied her face as if he were trying to decide whether to tell her something. Finally he said, “Rickham.”
She broke into a smile. “My mother was raised in the Rickham community. Her family had a farm there. Did you ever hear of the Starnes family? She was Evelyn Starnes before she married my dad.”
“Really?” His voice was flat and his eyes were dead.
“I can see you’re busy. I’ll leave you alone. If you have any questions about the museum, feel free to ask me.” As she finished speaking he took his phone out of his pocket and resumed reading.
She went back to her desk. Obviously he’d lost interest as soon as she started telling about her family. She’d hoped to have a conversation with him, but there was no point in trying. He was from that generation that didn’t think women had anything to contribute. He must have been bored, standing there checking his email or whatever he was doing, waiting on his nieces. They were chattering away to each other, and she didn’t want to intrude on them. The old uncle, on the other hand, should have welcomed someone to talk to.
She began reading the Tennessee Historical Quarterly at her desk. When she was alone she read lighter fare, like Southern Living, but when there were visitors in the building she preferred to read more professional literature.
The Quarterly was dry, as usual, and she was constantly glancing at the visitors to see if they needed any assistance from her. The women paused at each of the display cases, containing rusted farm implements and broken household items recovered from archeological digs, historical photographs, and maps of Breeden County through the years.
After half an hour she noticed that Gerald Cansler had put his phone back in his pocket and was strolling around the room. He wasn’t moving toward his nieces, and Barbara guessed he wasn’t interested in joining them as they marveled over the artifacts. She decided he might appreciate some company now, and, getting up from her desk, went to him.
“Finding anything interesting?”
Apparently he wasn’t finding anything interesting, casting his eyes over each display as he moved around the room, not stopping at any one. He paused and looked at Barbara, and then, reading from her nametag, said, ” ‘Barbara Porter–Assistant Curator.’ I wouldn’t have thought this little institution would have warranted a curator, much less an assistant. It’s not much bigger than a Stuckey’s,” referring to the combination restaurant-gift shops along the Interstate highways.
That was a nasty comment, but the tone of his voice was neutral. She was determined to win this old man over.
“Even today we’re a poor county. We value our history, but this little concrete block building is the best we can do to recognize it. All the staff are volunteers, even the,” and she paused here to emphasize the next word, to show she knew the title was grandiose, “curator is unpaid and part-time. He’s worthy of the title, though, being a retired historian from the University. I appreciate being called an assistant curator, but I’ll admit I don’t have the qualifications of Professor Gorman.”
“You don’t seem quite old enough to be retired, but I would have guessed you’re a retired school teacher.”
“No. I was a registered nurse. My husband is a doctor, and was at the U. T. Medical Center. We moved back here from Knoxville and he set up practice. I worked in his office at first. When our kids came along I stayed home to raise them. They’re all grown up now, but I decided to do volunteer work in the community rather than going back to work in my husband’s office.”
“You must have gone to college. Did your mother go?”
“Yes. She was a school teacher here in Breeden County.”
“Sounds like those Starneses up in Rickham did all right.”
“We were very lucky to be born into a family that valued education.”
“And could afford to pay for it.” His tone was friendly, but his last comment made her uncomfortable.
“We weren’t rich. We all had to work hard.”
“That Starnes place up at Rickham was huge, wasn’t it?”
“Two hundred acres. I know two hundred acres is a lot of land for a farm up in the mountains like that, but it’s not like those big farms in the Midwest. And my great-grandfather only inherited sixty acres. He was a hard worker, and managed to buy more land over the years
“That was Clarence Starnes?”
“Yes. You’ve heard of him?” She was proud that he knew the name of her ancestor, but from the way he smiled she thought Gerald might be going to make fun of him.
“So your granddad was Clarence’s son?”
“One of them.”
“Did your granddad go to college?”
“No. He went to Knoxville Business College and studied bookkeeping, then came back here and worked for the Ives cannery, and came up through the ranks to become a vice president there. Why do you ask?”
He ignored her question. “Commendable. And he was able to send his daughter to college.”
“Well, she had to pay part of it herself. After high school she went to work for a year in the county assessor’s office to save up enough money to start college.”
“She had it rough, didn’t she? Having to work a government job for a year.”
“She was luckier than some, but it’s not like everything was just handed to her.”
“Did you ever know of the Warwick’s up at Rickham?”
“Yes, they had a place next to our family farm.”
“Not as big as your great-granddad’s place, though.”
“Like I said, the Starnes farm was big for being up in the mountains.”
“Yeah.” He looked around the room, not at anything in particular, just surveying the space.
“Do you have any questions about the museum?”
“Why don’t you have any chairs in here? The only chair in here is the one behind your desk.” He chuckled.
She laughed, glad that he wasn’t asking about her family now. “That’s a good question. I hadn’t thought about that. You must have gotten tired, standing there reading your email.”
“I’m just messing with you. You don’t really have room in here for chairs. Maybe a couple in the entrance.”
“That’s a good idea. I’ll mention that to the board, about putting some chairs in the foyer.”
She felt better now, glad that she’d talk to Gerald.
“What are you retired from?” she asked.
“I worked for Alcoa, and then when they closed down most of the plant I went to work for Keosha Manufacturing in Vonore.”
“What did you do there?”
“I was an office guy. Highest job I ever had was V. P. for Materials and Purchasing at Keosha.”
“Did you go to college?” She normally wouldn’t have asked that question, but since he had probed her so much about her education, and her family’s, she felt entitled.
“I graduated from U. T.”
“That’s good.” He had been so plain spoken, almost gruff, that she had assumed he had been a blue-collar worker. She should have known from his clothes, though, and his speech, that he was well educated, a businessman.
Stephanie and Taylor had completed their circuit around the room, and came to Barbara and Gerald.
“Fascinating, Barbara.” Stephanie had to glance at Barbara’s nametag.
“I’m glad you think so. We didn’t have any Civil War battles, or even any major conflicts with the Cherokees, but I think our museum documents our ancestors moving west, settling the little communities that are the backbone of America.”
“Exactly. That’s what makes it so charming. It makes me nostalgic for Grandma Cansler. She made living here sound so exciting; picking blackberries, gathering walnuts in the woods, cooking on a wood stove. We miss so much these days with our conveniences and high-tech toys.”
“I love that picture of the first school bus in the county. It’s a farm truck. I wonder when they stopped using that?” Taylor sounded condescending to Barbara, but a lot of out-of-towners sounded that way at the museum.
“In the nineteen-thirties, I think. Before my time, I know. I started first grade in the early seventies, and we rode the regular yellow school buses like they use everywhere.”
They asked a few more questions while Gerald stood by. Finally, Stephanie asked to use the rest room before they hit the road. Both women followed Barbara’s direction to the door leading to the staff area off of the main hall.
After they were gone Gerald said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
“The reason I know about the Starneses, especially old Clarence, is that you and I are cousins.”
“Really!” She liked finding unexpected connections like that, people who she shared high school friends with, or, like with Gerald, previously unknown cousins. “Are you some of Ted’s people?”
“Who’s Ted?”
“Ted Starnes. Clarence’s brother. He moved to Knoxville in the nineteen hundreds and worked for the electric company, KUB, or whatever they called it then. He ran the first wires through most of the city.”
“No. My mother’s family were tenants on the Warwick place. She used to hire out to the Starneses to help out around the house. I guess your great-grandmother hired her. Well, old Clarence caught Mom alone a couple of times, when your great-grandma wasn’t around, and raped her. She was just fifteen. He got her pregnant with me, but didn’t do anything for her. After I was born Mom moved to Knoxville and started working in one of the knitting mills. No high school diploma for Hattie. She met my dad, really my stepdad, Oscar Cansler, and married him.
“I didn’t know all this until Mom got sick there at the end, and told me. I looked at my birth certificate for the first time in my life then. Can you believe that? Anyway, under where it was supposed to show the father, it didn’t say Oscar Cansler, it said ‘Unknown.’ Which wasn’t true, but I guess whoever in this county was in charge of registering births wouldn’t let my Grandma say it was old Clarence. She was just a kid, who’d believe her? Oscar adopted me and gave me his name. Stephanie’s dad really was Oscar’s boy, of course. They don’t know about all of this.”
At first Barbara couldn’t comprehend what he was saying, and then could only stare at him as he talked on. She felt light-headed. When he stopped he broke into a deep laugh, showing his teeth in a grin she hadn’t seen from him previously. “The look on your face, Barbara! I hope this doesn’t come as a shock to you.”
She finally spoke. “I don’t believe any of that is true.”
He chortled again. “I shouldn’t have said anything, but it’s funny, us running in to each other like this.” His laugh reminded her of Grandpa Clarence. He used to scare her when he’d start making fun of members of the family, with that cruel laugh that everybody tried to ignore.



  1. Very much enjoyed Mr. Ray’s story. Still trying to decide who I dislike more, Barbara or Gerald. But that’s the purpose of a good short story, isn’t it? Make you think a little.

  2. Great job setting the atmosphere. I’ve been to a few small town museums during their slow times and met a few assistant curators. I believe I have met Barbara. I hope I didn’t leave her as unsettled as Gerald did.

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