It is a good story to tell at Thanksgiving, that holiday wherein we feast at the supper table but also dine on sentiment and reflection and holidays past, in remembrance of those who have left us. This year, Rich Leonard of Raleigh offers his five children and the larger Leonard clan in Davidson County and at points North, East, South and West a delightful helping of history. Their history. And without exaggeration, America’s history.
Leonard, a federal bankruptcy judge by profession, is the author of 95 of the most charming pages you or your kids will read in this or any other year. “The House by the Creek” is a truth-based tale of his great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, German immigrants named Valentine and Elizabeth Leonhardt.
The story opens, in 1781, with Valentine Leonhardt, a hard-working and prosperous farmer who had made his way in America after immigrating from Germany, showing his 10-year-old son, Jacob, a secret. He had Jacob pull a log out of the wall in the family home in Davidson County, and revealed to him some hidden gold inside a hollowed log. His instructions were specific. Jacob was to protect the secret hiding place no matter what, because the Tories might be coming, after Leonhardt and his three sons left within hours for what would be known as the Battle of Guilford Courthouse.
It is March. In a few months, George Washington will win the last significant battle of the Revolutionary War in Yorktown, Va. But the Gen. Cornwallis that Washington will defeat is aiming to cut the rebel army in half and Guilford Courthouse is part of the plan.
Leonhardt, who had helped rally other German immigrants to the rebels’ side, is known to the Tories.
In Rich Leonard’s story, Valentine Leonhardt’s prediction to Jacob was right. The Tories did come, led by an evil-doer named Col. David Fanning, and they did demand food and money and anything the Leonhardts had that might be of use. Fanning left when Elizabeth Leonhardt pulled a gun on him.
“When I heard about how the log safe might be at the Museum of History here,” Leonard said, “I thought ... now I have a story.” His family, obviously long established in Davidson County, did not have much written history about their ancestors, but they knew about the log safe.
Leonard calls the book historical fiction, but he believes his story is likely to be largely true. “There was a Fanning, and he was evil,” he says. “He was in the neighborhood, so to speak.”
And he believes this distant grandmother was capable of pulling a gun on Fanning. “The women in my family are all very strong people,” Leonard said. “They buried babies, lived through famine and depression and just went right on. And you’ll notice that Elizabeth is always cooking and calling people to the table. That’s what my grandmother and others have always done. During times of stress, everyone comes to the table.”
Leonard recognizes that other long-time North Carolina families may identify with the story. “Absolutely,” he said. “Many families have stories like this in their histories.” The state was not an insignificant player in the Revolution.
He’s included more than a few twists, and a sprinkling of humor, in his story. At one point, the rebels stop Fanning from hanging a man, and then force him to remove his clothes to give them to the rebels. This incident will stir in Fanning an anger he later will muster against Leonhardt.
Leonard finds whimsy in the log safe, about which he has heard too many stories to dismiss the scene between Valentine and his son, Jacob, as pure fiction. “It sounds funny,” he said, “that the family’s fate would be in the hands of a 10-year-old boy. But think about it: He may have thought that the Tories wouldn’t go after a young boy, figuring he didn’t know anything.”
The only point at which he took a briefly questioning view of his ancestor was in considering that he went off to fight and left his wife at home with five young children. “That troubled me,” he said. “But everyone in those days was doing that. And he knew Elizabeth could take care of herself.”
The end of the story is tragic and unpredictable and it is not fiction. It will not be revealed herein. Leonhardt and his sons did fight the Tories and they came home. The Leonhardts prospered and multiplied. (Rich Leonard is descended from Valentine’s son Michael.)
“I really wrote the story for my children and grandchildren,” Leonard said. “I just wanted it for them. I wanted them to know where they came from.”
Now they know. From pretty sturdy stock, indeed.
Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at email@example.com