Family Secrets

My great grandfather, Frank Lattrell, was a musician with an unusual gift. By day he cut hair ( in the 1900 US Census he is listed as being a tonsorial artist) and by night he played a cigar box violin, or “gar fiddle” as he called it. Frank came from unusual stock. For generations his family stole horses by night and played music by day. The Lattrell clan became so well known for their ability at equine felony that they were infamous on both sides of the border. They held horses in local rock canyons in the northern Adirondacks that were stolen from Quebec and driven across the St. Lawrence river. They stocked horses in broad hedge rows between agricultural fields in Quebec kidnapped from New York. The Lattrell name became synonymous with the term horse thief. They wore this label like a badge of honor. This family of horse bandits proved capable of avoiding the authorities for decades. Their ability to move seamlessly across the border between two countries became legendary.

The Lattrell tribe was just that; a tribe. They hailed from French Canadian and Abenaki ancestry. Their skill at disappearing into the woods with a herd of horses was uncanny. The Lattrell’s knew that the best cloak was knowledge of the land. They used natural camouflage long before it became a tool for soldiers or hunters. But all things must come to an end. During one particularly nefarious adventure they were caught selling horses that they had already stolen and sold. For some strange reason they decided to steal horses from someone they had just sold them to. That loss of honor amongst thieves was their ultimate undoing.

My great grandfathers grandfather was hung in Quebec (after all he was an Abenaki), and his son, my great grandfathers father, was given a long sentence in the New York state prison system. My great grandfathers family, for he had many brothers and sisters, were sent to be raised by relatives. Some of them lost touch with each other for the rest of their lives.

About ten years ago I was visiting a friend in Waddington New York on the St. Lawrence river. When my friend introduced me to his neighbor she looked at me with wide open eyes. And then she inquired “You’re not from the Lattrell’s that used to steal horses, are you?” I replied with a certain amount of pride “Why, yes, I am!” She looked at the ground and didn’t say much. A short while later she excused herself. My friend laughed and said “She’s probably putting her horses in the barn!”

Generations had passed and the legend was still alive. This made quite the impression on me.

Frank eventually married a woman from Quebec, Mary McIntyre. Mary spoke only French, despite her Scottish/Irish name, so it is assumed she had a French Canadian mother. Mary was employed as a cook in the Adirondack lumber camps. To her dying day she made pots of beans that could feed no less then 30 hungry men. Small proportions were not in her culinary skill set.

It is said the Frank played his gar fiddle every night. Throughout the village of Schroon Lake (where they settled) his fiddle music would pierce the shroud of night. The music was light and happy, much like what we refer to as bluegrass music in this day and age.

Frank and Mary had only one child, a son named Francis Holland. Francis looked like his mother who was bigger than Frank. Francis Holland became known as “Dutch”. Dutch would learn to play the piano at age seven. Like his Dad he never had a music lesson and never learned to read music. They played by ear and their abilities to play like no other became their one true joy in life.

The genetics would prove to be strong. Dutch would have a one son with my grandmother, Thelma. His name was Allan and he could play the clarinet and saxophone with such clarity and feeling you would swear he was directed by Apollo, the mythological God of Music. Allan also played only by ear and never read a note of music.

And if you are wondering this lineage of artful musical ability stopped with Allan. Neither my sister or I inherited this natural ability. Both of us like to sing and we sing well, but that ability to just pick up a musical instrument and have it become an extension of our mind was not in the cards. As my father said, you either have it or you don’t.

I’ve often wished I had these natural musical abilities. I can remember my father playing clarinet in the evening for hours on end. He would put a record on the stereo, Dinah Washington, Glenn Miller, or any other artist or band from that era and he would play along as if he were in the orchestra. On occasion, especially when he was blue, he would play without the benefit of these other recorded musicians. His solo instrumentals were both haunting and sad. His music was nothing short of his ultimate expression.

So, on this day, as I wander this open pasture I am thinking of my family. The first month of spring has passed. The air is fresh. A pileated woodpecker drums in the distance. A turkey gobbles from a hill to the north. A mourning dove sings solo from the ecotone to the west. I enjoy these moments. This is music to my ears, and although I am only a guest, perhaps even the audience, I am glad that I have the ability to appreciate this concert.

Up in front of me the field takes a strong right angle bend. I can’t see around the corner. I have a sense of what lies ahead. It is my own distinct instincts that I hold from my heritage. As I round the corner my dreams come true. There, in front of me at the other end of this green field, are three horses; an Appaloosa and two Paints.

I am restless. I hum gleefully. And in my mind I want to rustle them to a deep dark canyon in the woods.

Nobody would be able to find them.

Written for in April of 2012.

  • sandy

    I laughed when I read where your love of the woods, and skill came from!  You might now have the musical genes, but you have the other in great abundance.  Is that lady slipper from this year?

  • Wild_Bill

    My forefathers were criminals of a different kind.  As part of their ability to avoid the law they were great a fabricating stories; perhaps, in part, where I get my joy of writing and telling stories.  As I child I was a gifted liar.  There was no truth that I couldn’t stretch to wild proportions.  But I think that also came from my mother’s side of the family.

     The flower pictures show wild pea, clover, and blueflag iris.   None taken this year.  We barely have coltsfoot.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    I absolutely Love this post. Your family history with nature threaded through, intuitive feelings telling you about the horses just around the bend and to see them as you described it. Musicians and horse thieves. It’s irresistible. And a perfect ending. Really enjoyable.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you.  I liked writing this.  It’s been bouncing around inside my head for a while.  Then I just put my fingers on the keyboard and voila!

  • Emily

    LOVED this, Bill! I read the comments below, and I can absolutely tell that this just fell from your heart to your fingers to the screen. Cohesive and moving and rich with images. For some reason, I’m not surprised your ancestors lived on the wild side–or that you’re proud of it. The moment my grandmother told me that part of our ancestry was gypsy, my dreams were off and running, full of crackling bonfires and wild dogs and full moons. :) Great post!

  • Wild_Bill

     Part Gypsy, eastern European, you’ll have to write about that!  I love the Gypsy culture.  It is so rich!

    And yes, it has been stirring in my head, more of a book than a story, but this just sort of jumped out as soon as I wrote Frank Lattrell.

  • Cirrelda

    You show well your inheritance. I really enjoyed reading this post – your honoring of family and how connections are made from long ago to today. Mysterious how you heard your family legend out of the mouth of a new acquaintance.
    On a side note, a tiny bit related, I wonder if the term “gar fiddle” refers to gar, the fish, with its long snout. We have a tank of live gar in the Museum where I work, sweet things, they give their lives so folks can see the connection between aeons ago and today.

  • Wild_Bill

     ”Gar” fiddle comes from the last three letters of cigar.  The body of these wonderful violins were made from wooden cigar boxes.  Although it is hard to imagine, they sound beautiful.

    Evidently my family was a well known group of horse thieves.  Of course they partook in this activity for generations.  Yes, I was surprised to hear this from someone I just met.

    Thank you for stopping by, it is wonderful to hear from you!

  • Guy

    Hi Bill

    A lovely and really enjoyable post. I also enjoyed the photos, we are still having snow mixed with rain here so everything remains quite brown.


  • Cirrelda

     Oh the background of words! Of course, ci-gar. Now I want to find out if Gar fish are named after cigar, too. I know about little guitars made out of cigar boxes – me hubbie has one – does sound so good. Thanks for the good reading, as always.

  • Wild_Bill

     A guitar with a cigar box for a body?  Sweet, I’d love to hear that.  I’ve been told that the older cigar boxes were made out of wood that resonated wonderfully.  I doubt they make them like that any more.

  • Wild_Bill

    I really am glad you enjoyed this piece because I had a lot of fun writing it.  Eventually spring and summer will find your way, out leaves just came out yesterday on the first trees.  This is the earliest they’ve broken bud in my lifetime.

  • Jamworks

    True Story Teller, you would be welcome at our family campfire anytime.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you.  That would be a pleasure.

  • Anonymous

    Bill, I’ll wager money you could hide horses.  Frank and Allan were so talented.  I remember my grandmother playing and singing with the guitar.  I’ve always liked borders: changes in styles, language occurs drastically in some cases (I’m thinking border towns with Mexico).  Your family secrets make us what we are — my family secrets involve horses, desert and relentless holding to the land.  And, there’s been a few violent deaths, too.  I really like your photos, Bill.

  • Wild_Bill

    Every time I see a herd of horses I experience an involuntary response as if rustling was built into my genes.  Of course, I’m never going to steal a horse, but I just know I would be good at it.  A talent I will never get to use.

  • Vagabonde

    This was a fascinating post.  You may sing well and you sure know how to
    write.  How wonderful to know so much
    about your great great grandparents – few of us do.  I just know that my great great or even great
    grandpa had land and married a poor noble woman, maybe a countess, who gave him
    19 children – her name was Celine, which is what I named my first daughter, but
    that’s all.  I guess I could go and dig
    about all this in France but I doubt the story would be as interesting as your
    family story.  You do have the genes it
    seems.  Great story and the last picture
    is beyond peaceful and lovely.

  • Wild_Bill

     Thank you.  It has taken by decades to learn about my family and I still have a long way to go.  After a post I put on an Abenaki website I heard from a long lost cousin who was able to help fill in some of the information.  She was a descendant of one of my great grandfathers siblings. 

    Nineteen children is an enormous number of children and definitely something worth exploring.  You must have relatives all over the place!

    I am grateful for your visiting my site and the wonderful compliments. 

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