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Owen Historical Society News: Treasured powder horn returns to Owen

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By Bonnie Strassell

Engravings snaking their way around the aged powder horn reflected the soft lights of the room; and their story embraced over 200 years of American history.
The horn belonged to Jacob Hesler of Heslerville, the first county seat in Owen County.
Traveling to the territory of Texas with Jacob’s descendants, it was eventually  purchased by broker of fine Americana, Kentuckian Mel Hankla.
Last week, it made a poignant  journey back to the land of Owen where long ago it assisted Jacob Hesler in his quest to conquer the wilds of Kentucky.
Towering above most, the rugged Hankla captivated the Owen County Historical Society audience last week  as his riveting voice took on the cadence of  the color, life, and movement of the American frontier.
Whether portraying the Chautaugua personalities of George Rogers Clark or Simon Kenton, or discussing Kentucky long rifles, powder horns and frontier history Mel Hankla’s admiration of our forefathers was evident in his compelling presentation.
Mr. Hankla contends that many in the art field do not recognize the true value of the craftsmanship and finely executed art  inscribed on these priceless pieces of history.
Jacob Hesler’s powder horn has been identified as a Tansel horn. The Tansel family of Kentucky were early powder horn engravers with a very distinctive style. Jacob’s horn was not only intricately engraved, it also made a political statement. The Federal Eagle, a symbol of America, was commonly depicted on early American horns. Some of these magnificent  birds were clutching the despised tyrant King George of England in their talons.
On the Hesler horn, a dog was engraved with the head of King George affixed to its body and its tail was tucked between its legs symbolizing defeat.
The date, March 20, 1818, was inscribed on the horn beneath Jacob Hesler’s name. Both were added long after the horn was made. However, it is likely that this horn accompanied Jacob as he fought in the War of 1812 at the Battle of the Thames and at the Battle of New Orleans.  Supported by a strap positioned diagonally across Hesler’s chest, the powder horn was vital to the survival of Jacob Hesler and his companions.
Displaying rich hues of brown and impressively engraved scrolls a Kentucky rifle in Hankla’s collection proudly took center stage. Its story was as powerful as the Kentucky man who built it.
Thomas Simpson was a gunsmith in Lexington. In an issue of the Kentucky Gazette, he claimed he  could make a rifle as fine as any man in the United States. Simpson proceeded to hand forge a barrel and lock, and in 1791 he built and engraved this masterpiece for Gasper Mansker of Tennessee.
A Chickasaw chief, Piomingo, was so impressed with Mansker’s rifle that he wrote to the Indian agent at that time and asked if the United States government would commission Simpson to build him one in return for his peace efforts. The government agreed and paid a little over $53 for the piece, a goodly sum at the time. At his death, the rifle was buried with Piomingo.
Mel Hankla has researched Kentucky rifles and their accoutrements for over 30 years. He emphatically declared that some of the finest rifles were made in Kentucky between 1790 and 1840 but only about 50 of these have survived.
Mel has built Kentucky rifles himself, and in 1984 received a grant to study under the famous gunsmith Hershel House. Hankla lives in Jamestown which is located in Russell County. This was included in the area known to early settlers as “the Cumberland.” Chuckling a bit, Mel recalled when he was a boy and an old timer in the area still referred to Russell County as “the Cumberland.” This elderly gentleman claimed he couldn’t see a state line so Kentucky was still just  “the Cumberland.”
The Kentucky rifle and powder horn were essential for survival on the frontier. Their stories ignite the imagination and invade the hearts of Americans. Unlike some who keep their collection under lock and key, Mel Stewart Hankla travels the land sharing  his rifles, his powder horns and his knowledge of the frontier with folks who cherish the memories of the past. and its impact upon our lives.
Our thanks to all who contributed their time and efforts to create a delicious dinner last week. Special thanks to chief cooks Larry Dale Perry and Tom Strassell who grilled hamburgers and hot dogs and to everyone who not only spent time cooking and baking but to those who remained after the meeting to clean up. Our joint efforts contribute to our success.
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We are still searching for a wood block for the tomahawk throw for our History/Kentucky River Day June 21.
If anyone can contribute to our efforts please contact us at 502-484-2529. We would also appreciate volunteers to help with museum tours and setting up.
Big Tricky will be on hand with a wide variety of scrumptious food that day so please stop by and enjoy his offerings.