Storytelling – The Eight–legged Martin

Storytelling is seen as a special talent unknown by most folks. You can tell stories. Anyone can tell stories.

“I don’t have any interesting stories,” is a common lament. “None of my ancestors ever did anything famous.”

That simply isn’t true. Storytelling isn’t about heroes. It's about common folks. It’s a little slice of life of folk like that.

For example, Henry Robert Martin didn’t live an especially fascinating life. He was probably as ordinary as any of his neighbors living in that community in that time period.

Take Tobacco Charlie, for instance. If you asked what Tobacco Charlie’s claim to fame was, what would folks say? Most of the people in Colleton County would say, “Why, he can hit a spittoon dead center from a dozen feet away.”

“Anything else?”

“Naw. He’s just a cotton farmer like everyone else around here.”

Do you see a storytelling subject here?

Same thing with Wild Bill Anderson. His claim to fame was that in one Fourth of July parade he rode his old milk cow down the middle of the street. It earned him the title “Wild Bill,” and his name wasn’t even Bill!

This is great storytelling fodder. How did he get that cow to let him ride her? And why did he do it? A bet? Drunkenness? Storytelling isn't hard. It just takes a little imagination.

Storytelling and a little imagination could easily be used to weave a tale about each of these folks. That’s what was done with Henry Robert Martin.

One of his descendants heard about Henry’s creativity after losing a leg in the Civil War. A copy of Henry’s first love letter was in this descendant’s possession. This descendant [who asked to remain unnamed] submitted the following story for our newsletter. It is an excellent example of storytelling. It is rather long for the newsletter so we asked permission to publish the story on this website. The following is an example of what can be done in storytelling.

The Eight-legged Martin

When the War of Northern Aggression [misnamed the Civil War by some] began, Southern farmers, Southern gentlemen, merchants, craftsmen, and even sluggards responded.

They took down their rifles, packed up their ammunition, and reported for duty at units that were springing up all over the place.

Probably, most of them were farmers.

Henry Robert Martin was.

His mother, Winnie Benton Martin, looked on with pride and some apprehension as her twenty-one year old son marched off to Buckhead SC to “join up with the army.”

She watched with tears four years later when he returned. He was lying in the bed of a farm wagon. One leg was missing.

“Don’t worry, Ma,” he later told Winnie. “I’ll whittle me out a leg and I’ll be good as ever. If that worthless mule of our’n don’t lissen, I’ll yank off that there wooden leg and whomp it in the head. That’ll git his attention.”

Winnie smiled. Henry always did have a wild imagination.

But Henry did whittle himself a wooden leg. He set out doing chores as always. They’d always been dirt farmers doing their own work. No slaves on their place. They could do their own work.

Then, one day, Henry tracked some barnyard leavings into the house. When he’d done that as a boy Winnie had sensitized him to the rigors of women’s work. First, she used a peach tree switch. Then he was given the chore of scrubbing the floor where he’d tracked the filth in.

He never forgot that. So when he saw Ma scrubbing the floor where he’d tracked in barnyard dirt, he swore he’d never make her do that again. And that was the beginning of “the eight-legged Martin.”

That very evening he sat down and carved all night to create another wooden leg–a house leg.

You see, he hadn’t tracked the manure in with his shoe. The men had field shoes and house shoes. When they came into the house, they took off the field shoes on the porch. Then they put on the house slippers. So it wasn’t the shoe that had done the tracking.

It was the wooden leg. Henry had a house slipper. What he didn’t have was a house leg.

Until that night he saw Ma scrubbing the floor. Without scolding him.

Now, he was a three-legged Martin. One good one. Two wooden ones.

And that’s when the idea struck. When he finished the house leg he thought of other special needs,

If he went into town on business, he ought to have a business leg. Now he was a four-legged Martin.

On Sunday he should have a church leg, making him a five-legged Martin.

And how about when he went to the Masonic meetings on Friday night. That gave birth to a lodge leg, a sixth leg. He then was a six-legged Martin.

He became a seven-legged Martin when he decided Saturday evenings with the gang at the local watering hole deserved a leg, a carousing leg.

That seemed to do it. Until he saw Mary Margaret Ulmer in church one Sunday. Oh, she was there every Sunday. He just didn’t see her.

Then BOOM! There she was in all her beauty and glory.

He irritated the preacher that day by paying more attention to Miss Mary than to the sermon.

A few Sundays hence he slipped a note to her saying:

Dear Miss, I take my pen in hand to drop you a few lines stating that I am quit [e] well at present and I do warmly hope that these few lines will reach you when due you and find you well and enjoying good health. Dear Miss, I hope that you will not get offended at my boldnes[s] in writing for I mean no harm by so doing. I saw you a few Sundays ago and you made a complete capture of my heart and I can only hope that this note will be excepted [accepted] and answered, for I wish to form an acquiantance [acquaintance] with you and be allowed to visit you and talk to you instead of writing. Well Miss Mary as this is my first letter I will have to come to a close by hoping to hear from you soon so will you please excuse bad writing and mistakes, and believe me to be your most sincere lover until I hear from you.

Henry Martin

My heart to you is given, Ah
give yours to me. And we’ll
lock them up together and
throw away the key.
To Miss Mary Ulmer
Write soon. Write soon.
Do not expose my letter

She, no doubt, was thrilled, for on November 8, 1868 they were married. Henry showed up at the wedding with the fanciest carved leg anyone had seen before or since.

His best man praised it and said, “Just how many legs do you have, Henry?”

He thought a minute and said, “Well, I’ve got my good’n. I got one for field work. There’s one for the house. And one for Sunday-go-to meeting.” He was counting them on his fingers. “I got one for business in town, one for lodge meetings, and one for...” the organist pumped away and began the wedding march. Henry looked at his bride coming toward him and continued, “ for Saturday night hoots,” he grinned, “but I guess I won’t be using that’n much any more.” Just before the bride reached the altar rail he patted the leg he was wearing. He said, “Now, my wedding leg. I guess that makes eight in all.”

One of his drinking buddies on the front pew overheard the conversation. The word was out. Everyone began calling Henry the “eight-legged-Martin.”

But never to his face. Someone once saw him yank off his wooden leg and whomp that stubborn mule.

[Based on a true story, letter and all. All characters are real and incidents basically true, but fictionalized for more interesting reading. ]

The storyteller could have said, “Henry Martin was called the eight-legged Martin because he had seven wooden legs, and he carved them all himself.”

But that's not storytelling.

That’s a fact.

Notice, however, what storytelling does. It takes the fact and embellishes it with other facts
      service in the Civil War
      age [implying the approximate
        date of birth]
      mother’s name
      wife’s name
      date of wedding
      a preserved love letter

The storyteller throws in some local color like
      the choler still felt by some
        Southerners over the Civil War
        [though most of these diehards
        have now passed on]
      stubbornness of mules
      Masonic meetings
      Saturday night carousing
      and the pump organ.

It’s all woven together by storytelling into a believable story, basically true.

You see, storytelling can be a rich source of genealogical information. Family Search Secrets relies on storytelling. That is basic to "secret." Storytelling.

Basic to "Family Search." Storytelling.

You, also, have some interesting ancestors, like Tobacco Charlie, Wild Bill Anderson, and the eight-legged Martin.

You also have an ancestor worth storytelling.

Think about it.

With imagination.