February 19, 2012

Meeting the president in a place called Fly

Once I learned who he was, I had to go back inside and shake the president’s hand. He seemed to get a kick out of it. He grinned and, not having as many teeth as some folks, each that remained stood in sharp relief to the space beside it.

I took this encounter and the fact that it happened during our first stop as a sign that this day trip, on a sunlit winter Friday, would be worth the while.

Antique picking, but not Fly's Store
Miss Vicki and I have made the occasional point of randomly exploring our adopted regional home, Middle Tennessee. We break from the demands of tending to things on Shuddering Squirrel Acres, take a day off, pack some soft drinks and maybe snacks, and head out to find what we will find. We're happy to get lost on byways, two-tracks, and country lanes, and use GPS to get us back home.

During one foray last winter, as falling snow made the road increasingly treacherous, we rounded a bend in the woods and were startled to see an enormous, majestic Texas longhorn steer balefully glaring down from atop a knoll, breath steaming from his saucer-sized nostrils, wet snow clinging to the namesake horns. We were already used to seeing cattle near and away from our farm, but none before or since like this old guy. He was a far piece from Texas and clearly not taking this insulting weather very happily.

On another more temperate day, we followed as much of the Natchez Trace as time allowed. An ancient trade route used by Native Americans, notorious Kentucky traders known as “Kaintucks,” and other travelers, The Trace covers 444 miles between Natchez, Mississippi and Nashville. A meticulously tended National Parkway now roughly follows the original trail and connects many sites on the National Register of Historic Places.

Meriwether Lewis. Murder? Suicide?
We visited one, the grave of Meriwether Lewis who, with partner William Clark, led the storied expedition to explore the lands of the Louisiana Purchase when they were still uncharted. Lewis either killed himself with a gunshot to the head – it was said he had a little problem with opium – or he was murdered, one night in 1809 while staying in an inn at Grinder’s Stand (today’s Hohenwald). His grave and a memorial obelisk mark the spot.

The same day we stopped several other times and followed footpaths back into the trees to see several waterfalls pinpointed on a tourist map of The Trace. We were disappointed not in their loveliness but in the fact that they were so much smaller than expected.

One entry point for The Trace is only about 10 miles from our farm down Highway 7, where the two routes cross at a place called Fly. We’d stopped there just once before to check out a new antiques (that doesn’t sound right, does it?) shop that shares a moldering building with Fly’s Store. The rusted sign over the front stoop just says Fly’s, and sun-bleached flags of Tennessee, the U.S., and the Confederacy are tacked below. On that first visit the proprietor was out doing something or other and the door was locked.

But this day he was in, working behind a cluttered counter. An assortment of graybeards sat around a wood stove at the back chewing things over, and another visitor or two poked around as the boss made them bologna and cheese sandwiches. There are no aisles to speak of and a wondrous assortment of stuff is piled throughout, some dust-covered and long untouched on shelves and pegboards – fishing lures and plastic kites and laundry soap and nuts and bolts and Slim Jims and Fly souvenir T-shirts and cooking staples and sodas and bottled sweet tea and ammo and man-shaped targets and gunstocks and more than you can take in during one stop. He greeted us quickly in a drawl that was hard to decipher while the graybeards eyed us suspiciously.

The community of Fly is unincorporated, so its addresses are listed in adjacent Santa Fe, local pronunciation Santa FEE, which occupies a beautiful little valley. It’s one of several towns with names we’ve learned to say differently, including LaFAYette, Tennessee. Fly’s Store is pretty much the only thing in Fly, except for the antique store next door and tiny old Fly Cemetery across the way. Our loose mission on this outing was to hit a few antique shops in Columbia further south after stopping here, at Leipers Creek Antiques and Primitives.

The Hamilton printer's tray and Stanley drill
I’d had a notion, as my Indiana relatives used to say, that here I just might find what I’d been pricing on eBay the night before. One of the few things Vicki has ever asked of me is to build a jewelry case for her earrings and pendants and other baubles, so she could organize the small collection and more easily find whatever she fancied to adorn her pretty ears and graceful neck. After considering several designs, it seemed to me that an antique printer’s tray, once used to organize type, might be perfect, and she agreed.

Judging by the online listings, it appears that most of these trays were manufactured by “Hamilton,” the name embossed on their drawer pulls. Turns out that Hamilton Manufacturing Co., of Two Rivers, Wisconsin – nicknamed “Trivers” – was once the largest manufacturer of wood type in the country. It was founded in 1880 as the J. E. Hamilton Holly Wood Type Company, which used holly as its preferred material because it was half the cost of the more commonly used rock maple.

My notion was prescient. When we walked into Leipers Creek Antiques, run by Eddie Miller and his wife, Sue, I asked Eddie if he had any printer’s trays. “Had two,” he said. “Sold one the other day. The other is over there.” Bingo. It was solid and, except for a light layer of grime and some chipped white paint on the front edge, perfect. I flicked a tiny mud dauber’s nest from the corner of one cubby, picked it up and saw it was tagged for $15, less than half the cheapest I’d found online.

(This turned out to be the find of the day, although I now treasure one from another shop – a pristine Stanley No. 1220 hand drill that turns as smoothly as the day it was new and, curiously, also cost only $15. I didn't haggle.)

After paying the man, we chatted for a while with Eddie, a retired philosophy and communications instructor who’s found his own peace in Fly after a divorce that left him morbidly introspective and living like a hermit in a trailer parked on a land parcel in a holler less than a mile from the store. “My wife didn’t like me,” he said simply. “I left the trailer just once or twice a week to get supplies.” But then he met Sue, a divorcĂ©e whose “husband didn’t like her either.” They liked each other fine. In time he asked if she’d marry him and move into the small house near his trailer. I believe he said it was built in 1902 and that it’s a work in progress.

I asked him about Fly's Store and the man who kept it. “His name is Wilson Fly,” he said. “Really it’s Benjamin Wilson Fly, but he goes by Wilson. He’s quite a character. The store was run by his father, and his father before him, and now he has it.”

Turns out Wilson Fly is something of a social director, organizing an annual flea market that stretches for miles along Highway 7 and other roads before looping back to Fly. He also stages an annual arts-and-crafts fair at the store and, judging by the old boys who I’m told are a fixture around his wood stove, I’m certain he’s information central for Fly and its country environs.

Eddie told us one more thing about Wilson. “He’s the president of Fly. I’m the chaplain.” There are no other “civic” positions in Fly, and when I asked if he and the president were elected, Eddie said, “Nope,” and laughed the kind of quiet, warm laugh that we’ve encountered often in our southern explorations.

So I went back next door, walked in and offered my hand to the character behind the counter. He took it, we shook, and he looked puzzled. “I had to come back and shake the hand of the president of Fly, Tennessee,” I explained.

And the president laughed, that same kind of laugh, then went back to punching in a sale on his hand-cranked adding machine.