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 www.wildramblings.com in April of 2012.