Close to thirty years ago I was just getting started in the iron bed business. At that time I was living Washington DC, going to school at George Washington Univ. and doing all my antique buying within a comfortable “one days” drive throughout Pennsylvania, W. Virginia, and Ohio and a little in Maryland and Virginia. Consider the fact that back n the early to mid 1800’s…. this is where the bulk of the population in this country lived. So it stands to reason to search for items from that period of time in the areas people were living. Metal beds were extreme utilitarian and practical back then and nearly everyone had one or two.
As time went on, areas I had been pulling iron beds out of started drying up. So the only thing to do was to expanded the areas I had been frequenting. So I decided to try Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri. I had made a couple of contacts in the Kansas City area and decided that was as far West as I was prepared to go on this trip.
The trip had not netted me many beds and I was anxious to find a few to make it all worth the time I’d already put into the trip. Instead of taking the same route back to DC, I decided to head North and catch route home……..vowing to stop in every small town that looked like it might have something to offer.
While heading north on Rt 35 I stopped to get gas in a small town called Kearney Missouri. It was around lunch time so I decided to stop a a local dinner to grab something to eat. I made a habit of trying to engage the locals whenever I’d stop in a small rural town by asking if they knew anyone that had “old stuff” to sell. I tried to avoid using the word antique, because that had a tendency to escalate the price when you’d try to buy something. I asked the waitress if she might know of anyone selling old furniture ,quilts or beds. She said old Ms. Samuel had a small shop in a barn along side her house on the road going back out of town.
So on the way out , I stopped at a small barn that was along side a clap board house the waitress had described. I knocked on the door to the house and was greeted by a little old lady that appeared to be right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She was short and rather round in shape with a typical calico farm dress on and an apron. She’d been in the kitchen when I knocked. I told her what I was looking for and she said to follow her to the barn. She had quite a good bit of stuff. Lot’s of old oak furniture, wooden ice boxes, oak dressers, quilts hanging over the rafters etc. I asked about beds and she said she had one, but that no one wanted to pay her price. The bed was a very straight line “horizontal brass top bar” style that was as prolific and classic a style as was ever made in the mid to late 1800’s. I’d bought dozens of them usually no more than $5. or $10. In fact many of them had been given to me by farmers wanting to just get rid of them. “How much do you want for it”? I asked. “$25” she said. I told her I had bought numerous beds like it for far less. “Maybe so ……… but I bet none of those beds were ever slept on by Jesse James” . She proceeded to spin a tale how her great great uncle had married Jesse’s mother. It was quite a tale….especially for a little old lady that looked like she was in her 90’s. In fact the story was so entertaining I ended up buying the bed just so the old gal hadn’t wasted such a great sales pitch.
I had bought a few other things and was finishing up loading when she walked out to my truck with a piece of apple pie wrapped in aluminum foil, for the road. “Thought you might like to have this, since you bought the bed” and she handed me a small antique framed photo of a man setting in a rocking chair along side, what appeared to be the antique iron bed I’d just bought. I thanked her for her hospitality and hit the road.
Days later after getting back to DC, I put an ad in the Washington Post to try and sell the load I’d brought back. I’d picked up some really beautiful collectible quilts, one particularly unusual that had been quilted on one side with and old American flag with 24 stars, placing it’s age between 1822 to 1836. The ad for that really brought out the collectors. One of the first people to show up,the day the ad came out was a middle aged man who went straight to the star quilt. I had put what I thought at the time was a ridiculous price on it. In less than 30 seconds he said he’d take it. He continued to look around and saw the little antique framed photo I’d gotten from Ms Samuel in Kearney MO. “How much is this?” I told him the story and that it wasn’t for sale because of the nice old lady I’d bought it from and that I thought I’d hang on to it. “Can I make you an offer?” I was a student at the time and thought …..What the hell. “Sure ” I said. “I’ll give you $1000. for the photo and the iron bed”. “Sold” I said and immediately started regretting what I’d said.
He ended up being one of the dozens of curators that worked for and collected for the Smithsonian Museum in DC. “I believe the person in the rocking chair is Jesse James. He proceeded to tell me that Kearney MO was Jesse’s birthplace and that a Dr Ruben Samuel had been Jesse James third father. Seems as though the little old lady that sold me the bed had actually been a very distant relative of Dr. Ruben Samuel……the third husband of Jesse James’s mother. The curator proceeded to tell me there were only seven known photo’s of Jesse and that if this was, and he thought it was, a photo of Jesse………it was a real historic find. I felt sick the rest of the day thinking I probably had not only a bed that Jesse James had slept in……but an actual photo of him setting along side it.
The photo has never surfaced since that day and may still be buried in the archives of the Smithsonian somewhere.
The photo above is not the bed I’d gotten from Ms Samuel, but is one very much like it. The photo of Jesse is one of the seven know photo’s of him.
I hope you’ve found this blog informative . I invite you to revisit my website
to answer any and all questions you might have about antique iron beds.
I also invite you to take a look at our company Face Book page for multiple photo albums on Custom Finishes, Canopy Conversions and a comprehensive “Before & After” King Conversions album.