Uncle Abbey


"Uncle Abbey" and the Bee-Gum 

By Mrs. Clara Bodine Stavely

         The name of no man is so closely identified with so many initial enterprises of embryonic Paris as is that of James R. Abernathy.  Like George Washington, he was "first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen."  To speak at length of Paris in its early days without much mention made of James R. Abernathy would be like presenting "Hamlet," with the melancholy Dane himself left out.  A notable figure he was in Paris for many years and was the connecting link between the old and the new.  Three generations of our town knew him and in that time, to the two latter, at least, he had ceased being merely a man and had become an institution.  As I remember him an old man, past ninety, with short and halting steps bowed down with nearly a century of years, and stopping each boy as he met him to offer a trade of pocket-knives, he was to my childish imagination the very incarnation of the spirit of the ages, and my observation, on the day I heard he had just died, was that now we'll have no oldest man.  No cry was there from the little town which had known and honored him for over fifty years of "Le Roi est mort Vive le Roi," for to us there could be no one to rise up and take his place--this king of old age.

        We kids , I remember, spoke of him not with disrespect but rather in a term of endearment as "Old Man Abernathy" and to our dads he was known as "Old Abbey."     

        In 1832 he with seven others organized the first Christian church soon after locating in Paris where he come from Kentucky.  

        He was one of the earliest if not the first attorney to practice law in Monroe county, and during the early years of his residence in Paris he was prosecuting attorney for this judicial district, his field of labor extending over twelve counties.  He also filled the position of county and circuit clerk, besides many other places of trust in Monroe county.  In this connection the following story is related of Mr. Abernathy:

        He was a school teacher, and while he was conducting his school, never dreamed of the dull principles inculcated by Coke and Blackstone, some one of his patrons--perhaps the host with whom he boarded--had a bee gum taken from him rather unceremoniously.  He was in trouble, and in his extremity applied to "Abbey," as he was familiarly called.  He took the statutes and turned to the index and looked first for "bee-gums."  Seeing nothing, he turned to "bees," and being still unsuccessful he next looked for "honey," but his search was a vain one; and thus mocked by everything, but being a man of resolution, he began to turn leaf by leaf and page after page.  He had proceeded far until he came to "forcible entry and detainer."  "Ah!" said he, "I have it," and he instituted an action for forcible entry and detainer for the bee-gum.  This was his first case in court, from which he afterwards branched out, and he was so well pleased with his success that he read law and applied for a license.  His case was referred for examination to Judge Jack Gordon.  It is said Mr. Gordon, who was himself a fine lawyer, though a little eccentric, only asked him if he could sing and dance, and these questions being satisfactorily answered, he was ready to report.  He presented himself at the bar and the judge asked him if he were ready to report.  His answer was that Mr. Abernathy did not know much of the common law, but was hell on the statute, and he recommended that the court grant him a license.

        In 1844 he become one of the editors of the Paris Mercury, his partner being James M. Bean.  They had purchased the paper from Lucian J. Easton under whose ownership it had been called the "Sentine."  Old files teem with delicious little "limericks," we'd call them now, bits of keen and delicious satire which were the product of his pen.  Some of the wit and humor with which he regaled his friends was decidedly Rabelaisian in is flavor.  Quite too much so for mixed society and it is said that some of the young girl relatives of the family who were frequent visitors in his home, would always begin to quake, should their beaux be calling, when "Uncle James" made his appearance.      

        The old Abernathy home was quite a rendezvous for the girls and their "sparks" of the old town, and gathered round the old melodeon, uniting sweet sopranos and uncertain boyish baritones in extolling the joys of "The Home Over There," there would be great times until Uncle James came in.  And then what a scattering!  Such excited giggling and such blushes from the maids and such roars from their swain at the jokes the old man would crack.  And stay and joke he would until nearly time for the boys to leave.  Nothing could lure him to leave the young folks--Mrs. Abernathy's importunities being in vain, finally and in despair his little grandchild would be sent in to suggest to "Granpap" to come out in the kitchen and pop corn.  And so he'd go and assist at the corn popping in the back room leaving the boys, for which they must have been most grateful, to do their own popping, in the parlor.

        His wife was his most frequent victim and it is related that on one occasion a noted old wife-hunter was in from his farm and inquired of his friend "Abbey" if he knew where he could find a wife, avowing his purpose of becoming a benedict within a month.  "Abbey" confidentially told him of a mighty fine looking widow, "the Widow Jenkins" locating and describing her house as the one "just north of the court house, five doors from the corner," (his own home.)  The wife-hunter sought the fair Mrs. "Jenkins" residence, was met at the door by Mrs. Abernathy herself, who at once caught on to the joke as just one more evidence of Mr. Abernathy's foolishness.

        An inveterate verse-maker he was, too, and one which will be familiar to the men and women who were little boys and girls when he was very old man, is Grasshopper sitting on a sweet potato vine.  Long came old gray gobbler sneak up behind, And nipped that grasshopper off the sweet potato vine. 

        To the day of his death he "versified" and joked.  It is true his efforts at the bass were decidedly, many times of the nature of "iverse libre" but it jingled all the same.  On the morning of the day he died his wife had sent him up to "Bassett's" to buy her some skeins of tidy cotton.  The price was three for a quarter.  The fractional price of one skein, no doubt, suggesting to him that old tormenting "sum" of "if a hen and a half lay an egg and a half in a day and a half, how many eggs will three hens lay in twenty days?"  He propounds this question to Jane, who was frying ham for dinner.  She with a woman's irritability to comprehend his attempts to combine mathematics and domestic science, and none too cool with the already intense July heat outside, and the kitchen stove at full blast indoors, refused to reply until her dinner was served.  For a bit there was silence and she heard no more from the little sitting room which opened on the street.  Then with a feeling of curiosity of what "Mr. Abernathy was up to now," she sent their little grandson in to tell "grandpap" dinner was ready.  The old man had quietly fallen asleep after ninety years of a vigorous life, fifty-three of which he had spent in the little town in which he had proven such a factor.  At last our oldest citizen and our first citizen in all that the word implies had entered upon the silence of ages.  And James R. Abernathy was no more, except as he lives in the hearts of his fellow townsmen.  May his name always be preserved in the folk lore of our town.