history-channel-magazineIn the spring of 1837 my great-grandfather Arthur Watts was born in Randolph County, Missouri. He was the son of his master and a mulatto slave named Silvia. Arthur was raised a slave, but his father favored him a bit and allowed him to work as a houseboy. The master’s wife detested the blue-eyed slave boy immensely so when the master was away from the farm, Arthur took to the woods. His friends and relatives would bring him food until his father’s return.

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Arthur tended horses and tobacco crops. He witnessed the atrocities of slavery and survived a horrible kick to the head from a horse. A week or so after the kick, he passed out; the wound had become gravely infected. His father had the wound cleaned out, cauterized, and treated with a mixture that included beeswax, alcohol, and mineral oil. He then had a blacksmith heat and sterilize a silver coin, which he cooled and placed in the wound before dressing it. “You can see it,” my grandfather would tell me and point to the back of his head. “Ol’ Arthur’ll never be broke.”

Arthur watched his brothers run away to fight for the Union in the Civil War, and he took great pride in having once crossed paths with Abraham Lincoln. As he matured, his physical strength became legendary; he could shoulder a keg of whiskey, and, for a time, a county ordinance forbade him to strike another person with a closed fist—even in self-defense; co-workers and friends dubbed him a “double-strength man.”

Arthur became especially famous for his talent for and love of open-pit cooking, or barbecue. His formula for a delicious red barbecue sauce came with him from Missouri to Kewanee, Ill. He instructed his sons, including my grandfather Eudell, as well as his nephews in preparing gargantuan amounts of smoked pork shoulder for the annual Pork Capital of the World celebration, which survives today, along with his famous barbecue sauce, in Kewanee.

In 1945, Arthur died at the age of 108. He’d had a horse and wagon waiting at a railroad crossing. When the long train finally passed, he started across. Unfortunately, he met another train coming in the opposite direction. His horse had to be put down on the spot, and Arthur, refusing medical attention, went home with an injured leg. Several months later amazed neighbors saw him attempting to put in his crops with a horrible limp. He was persuaded to go to the hospital for the first time in his life, and after treating him doctors wanted to keep him overnight for observation. Arthur woke up disoriented in the middle of the night, and in a frightened state he attempted to set out for home. He fell and broke his hip. His first trip to the hospital was his last.

Arthur enjoyed having his great-grandchildren visit so he could tell them (and anyone else who would listen) the stories of his youth and about the years he spent as a slave in Missouri.

Member Eudell Watts III writes from Rock Island, Ill.