FROM THE VAULT: Vicksburg visit leads New Jersey man to Arkansas roots

Published 8:00 am Saturday, June 17, 2023

By the Late Gordon Cotton | Originally published in The Vicksburg Post on July 14, 2013

“Where’d you get that?” John Wolf asked as I moved a CD cover from the seat of my car, making room for him to sit. It was a recording by The Leatherwoods, friends in Stone County, Ark., and I explained the name “Leatherwoods” is also a mountain range in Izard, Stone and Baxter counties just below the Missouri state line.

John said he had a relative, John Quincy Wolf, who wrote a book “Life in the Leatherwoods.” I told him I had a copy, “and it is great.”

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Over a supper of sumptuous Southern victuals at Walnut Hills, he told me a bit about his Arkansas heritage (he lives in New Jersey). That night I pulled the book off the shelf and read it again for the second time in 25 years, but it took on new meaning as I found that his ancestors lived near Calico Rock and Norfork, not far up Highway 5 from Mountain View and my Ozark cabin, Gloryland. Family names in the book, from more than a century ago, are still well-known in the Leatherwoods. 

John came to Vicksburg about two months ago because of his interest in history — his double major from Rutgers is history and English. He always had a love for history, but it was a sixth-grade teacher who really lit the fire. Today he has a room in the family home so full of history books that “it may make the house collapse.” To him, the study of history is like a big book — and on each page is a fascinating story.

In Vicksburg, he toured the National Military Park, but a terribly rainy day drove him indoors. He spent much of the day at the Old Court House Museum where John was born. The Wolfs lived in Houston for a while before moving to New Jersey. They visited the family home in Norfork, but John was just a little chap and hardly remembers it. 

The Wolf House in Norfork, built in 1816, perhaps earlier, is the oldest public building in Arkansas. It was the home of Maj. Jacob Wolf and his family — he was married three times and had children with each wife. The two-story log structure was not only the family home but also served as a post office, courthouse and general store.

It stands on a hill overlooking the White River. A few miles away is the family graveyard with many of the graves marked by rocks and boulders. Included are several Confederate soldiers, some of Jacob Wolf’s children and his wives. Somewhere in that shaded setting lies Jacob Wolf, but his last resting place is unknown.

Born in North Carolina in 1786, Wolf went to Arkansas in the early 1800s after living for a time in Kentucky. His frontier dwelling was a gathering place socially and politically; one of the clerks in his store was a Houston, a brother to Sam, the president of Texas.

Wolf was an old man, 77, when the War Between the States began, and when Yankee soldiers invaded Izard County and the Wolf home in 1863, bent on pillaging and plundering. Wolf is said to have caned one of the thieves, for which they arrested and placed him in jail, where he died after developing pneumonia.

While serving in the Arkansas Territorial Legislature in 1816, he proposed an amendment to a bill that would have paid a bounty for every wolf that was killed.

Jacob wanted to make sure all two-legged Wolfs were excluded. Evidently, Jacob Wolf had a sense of humor about his last name, and John has had to contend with remarks all of his life — things like crying wolf, wolf packs, wearing sheep’s clothing — it goes on and on, and, he said, “I’ve heard them all,” but it gave him an explanation when he was a kid if a teacher wasn’t happy with his behavior: “I was raised by wolves.”

The Wolf House has been meticulously restored and is open to the public. It is typical of the frontier – squared logs, dove-tailed on the corners with a dog trot down the middle on the first floor. Large chimneys on each end served as fireplaces for cooking and heating, and outside stairs on the porch lead to the large second-floor courtroom.

John’s exploring of his roots included more than history — he needed to get a taste of life in the Leatherwoods about which his kinsman had written. We spent most of one day at the Ozark Folk Center, where artisans do things that were routine in frontier days — making soap, candles, weaving baskets, making guns and knives, quilting and even creating toys from shucks.

Music was an integral part of life in the mountains, so on Saturday night some of the best musicians in Stone County gathered at my house for a pickin’ and John heard some music like he had not heard before — banjos, fiddles, guitars. Some of the lively tunes dated to the time of the Revolution, music Jacob Wolf probably heard and might even have danced to.

A driving trip through the Leatherwoods — you can hike it if you have stamina and a few days to spare — concluded with a stop at City Point Bluff, upstream on the White River from Calico Rock. There’s a view of the river bottom several hundred feet below. It’s beautiful, but also scary if heights bother you.

We left the bluff with a new member of the expedition — a pretty gray kitten with a few stripes and a spotted belly. She had been abandoned there, was skittish but hungry, so when she had her head stuck in a pile of tall grass looking, I suppose, for a bug to eat, I grabbed her and after a few scratches on my hand she was subdued and wrapped in a towel in the car.

I bought her some food and that began the taming process. I, too, have been tamed with food. I usually bring home cat figurines, which I collect, but I’ve now graduated to the real deal.

She needed a name, one in honor of my visiting friend. I thought of Wolferene but settled instead on Miss Johnnie Wolf.

John indicated he wasn’t much of a cat person and said something to the effect of, “I hope you don’t think I’m going to hold her all the way home.”

Within a day she had adopted him. Back home we did some exploring — Rocky Springs, Grand Gulf, Port Gibson, Windsor and Rosemont at Woodville. The climax to his visit was a spectacular view of the fireworks on the Fourth of July from the clock tower at the Old Court House.

Despite what we’ve all heard, you can go home again. John Wolf did, and it all began at the Old Court House Museum because of a rainy day.

Gordon Cotton (1936-2021) was a Vicksburg and Warren County icon who spent a lifetime learning and sharing history.