|Unusual Bedtime Stories|
Telling bedtime stories to children has been a tradition in most American homes for generations. Stories often told have familiar titles like “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “Peter Pan,” “Grimm’s Fairy Tales,” and more recently, “Winnie the Pooh.” Most children have a favorite bedtime story that sometimes has to be read or told over and over. This was especially true at James Hunter’s house when his children were small. His son wanted to hear stories about a particular character, but it wasn’t anyone whose name could be found in any bedtime story book. Many times after getting tucked in for the night, he would ask his father to tell him a “Bob Riley Story.” Here are some of the stories James shared with his son about that real life character.
“Bob Riley was a raftsman on the Obey and Cumberland rivers during the heyday of cutting and marketing timber in the Upper Cumberland. He was a relative of Cordell Hull who was also a raftsman. Bob was well-known for his practical jokes and he was a master at that. In fact, he was the Upper Cumberland’s answer to Hans Eulenspiegle, the German practical joker who was finally hanged for his escapades.
“Of the practical jokes Bob pulled, these are some I heard about: Bob’s rafting crew was on the way to Nashville with a raft on the Cumberland river. The daily diet of dried beans and cornbread was getting old with everyone, and they were anxious to find a change. As they passed a nearby farm, they saw a bunch of turkeys foraging for food along the water’s edge. Bob Riley jumped in the water, swam to the bank, and started trying to catch a turkey. The farmer’s wife saw him and came running, demanding to know why he was chasing her turkeys. Bob was surprised at being caught, but he was a quick thinker. He said, “Mam, we had a turkey on the raft for food and when he was your turkeys, he broke loose and joined them. I was trying to get him back.” The woman asked which one was his, and he pointed out the biggest, fattest gobbler, and said, “That’s him!” Whereupon, the woman helped him catch the gobbler and he took it back to the raft and the hungry crew.
“Another time they were taking a raft down the river when they saw a calf near the river bank. The calf was caught, killed and taken aboard the raft. A farmer on the bank saw what happened and spread the alarm. A delegation of farmers was waiting for the raftsmen when they got to the next landing. Bob Riley saw the group was going to come aboard, so he quickly pulled a pair of boots on the calf’s hind legs and put a raincoat over the calf. He then had several of the raftsmen sit down around the calf and look sad. When the delegation came up to Bob, he was crying, and they asked what was going on. Bob pointed to the raincoat draped over the calf and said, “My brother just died with smallpox.” Whereupon, the farmers left in a great hurry.
“Another time, Bob was standing by the river at a ford watching a bunch of ducks swimming around. A man with a wagon loaded with household furniture drove up to the ford and asked Bob in a rather gruff manner how deep the water was. Bob chose not to answer the gruff question, and when the man asked a second time in an even more gruff manner, Bob held up his hands indicating the water was about 4 inches deep. The driver popped his mules with a whip and they lurched into the water which turned out to be 4 or 5 feet deep. Of course, the wagon and all the furniture got soaked. After the driver finally got back out on dry land again, he came to Bob in an angry fit and asked whey he said the water was only 4 or 5 inches deep. Bob pointed to the ducks and said, “Well those ducks you see there have legs about four inches long and they were in the water up to their bellies.”
“One time Bob took his crew down to Nashville on a raft and by the time they got there, their beards were long. They were in a big hurry to get cleaned up and go into town, but they only had one razor among them. They began arguing about who would use the razor first, but Bob settled the argument. He lined the men up and had them lather their faces. He gave the razor to the first man in line and told him to shave one side of his face, then hand the razor to the next man so he could shave one side of his face. Bob went to the back of the line, and when the razor got back to him, he shaved one side of his face, and instead to passing it back up the line once more, he shaved the other side of his face, and then dropped the razor in the river. All the crew except Bob went into Nashville with one side of their face shaved and the other one beardy.
“Miss Helen Qualls told a story once about Bob Riley’s involvement in the trouble coal miners were having during the time the Union was trying to get started in this area. Bob paid a visit to Helen’s father and during the visit, everyone sat down to eat supper in the screened-in back porch of the Qualls’ home. While they were eating, a bullet came through the screen and struck the wall just above their heads. Although they didn’t know for sure, the Qualls family assumed the incident had something to do with the coal mine trouble and Bob Riley. He left soon after the meal was finished.
“It was said that Bob Riley relented in his later years, went back and paid the people he had beat by trickery, all except one, and I never learned which one that was.
“In telling these Bob Riley stories, I am reminded of some Cordell Hull stories. Cordell would sometimes buy rafts and take them down the river to Nashville. He was an expert at judging timber. Raftsmen always tried to take only logs without blemishes. I heard about a man sitting on a knot on a log in the raft so Cordell would not see the knot when he appraised the raft.
“Cordell was also known as a master poker player. When his memoirs were written, Cordell was given a copy to correct any discrepancies. The only thing he changed was an account of his breaking his entire battalion playing poker when he was in Cuba in the Spanish-American War. He marked through the word “battalion” and wrote in above it the word “regiment.”
“In the rafting days, some of the local raftsmen would sell their rafts in Nashville, take their money to gambling houses in Nashville, and take on the professional gamblers. The pros would allow the men to win long enough to boost their confidence, then when the raftsmen would bet their entire wad, the professionals would pull the rug out form under them and send them back home broke.
“Cordell kept hearing about this and devised a plan. He took a raft to Nashville, sold it, and made a big show of how much money he was carrying in a big bag with dollar marks on it. He had studied the professionals’ tactics and knew about how long they would let the raftsmen win before pulling the run out from under them. Cordell went to one of the gambling houses and stationed a man to watch him from outside. He started playing and immediately began to win every hand. When he figured they were about to make their play, he gave a signal to the man watching. The man hollered, “Cordell Hull, I want to see you outside!” Cordell grabbed up his winnings and said, “Don’t go away, I’ll be right back to win the rest of your money.” They waited and waited but he never returned.
“My grandfather, Steven Hunter, used to go to the Hull house to play with their children. He said sometimes he played too long and would be afraid to go home in the dark, so he would stay the night. He said about dark, they would all get in firewood for the night. The doors would be opened to let the house air out while the ashes were being carried out. He said they would make a “blast” meaning that dry brush would be piled in the fireplace to make a quick heat to warm the house back up. Grandpa said Cordell never took part in the “night work” as it was called, but could be seen lying under the edge of the bed by the fireplace reading by the light of the blast while it lasted. Cordell was a rapid reader and spent every available minute increasing his knowledge by reading. They said when he took a raft to Nashville, he would buy books and would read them as he walked home from Nashville. The raftsmen nearly always walked home rather than pay to ride a steamboat back to Celina.”
It is said that children who are read to regularly have better academic performance and are more well-adjusted individuals. I’m sure this is true, but there’s one other thing I wondered about. After hearing these unusual bedtime stories, did James Hunter’s son dream about floating down the Cumberland River on a raft or maybe being out somewhere on the river bank chasing a turkey? If he did have dreams after hearing these stories, hopefully one thing they didn’t include was gambling away his hard-earned money.