He was a man after my own heart, Rob Wilson.
Although we never met, I am guessing that his spirit must often amble along with me when I am wandering in the woods, drawn to curious formations of tree branches and roots, twisted by wind, water, and time into shapes from “A” to “Z.”
Which brings me to the root of this story.
Wilson was born and died in Pickett County, Tennessee, but lived for several years in Clinton and Taylor counties in Kentucky. For many years he roamed the woodlands on each side of the border in search of white oak and hickory bark that he used to make chair bottoms and weave baskets.
The woodlands that he loved so dearly were to yield Rob Wilson a unique treasure.
Exactly when he first noticed a tree branch or root in the shape of a letter of the alphabet we do not know. Maybe it was an “N” or an “F”peeking from the limbs of a sassafras, ash, or hickory, or a perfect “S” in the exposed root of a sycamore along a stream bank.
In any case, Wilson began searching for other, more complicated letters of the alphabet each time he ventured into the woods on foot. The project consumed much of his life.
He is said to have told the late Dr. Floyd Hay of Albany that he searched for the letter “Q” for seven years.
Finally, he had assembled all the letters in the alphabet, with duplicates of many, and the numerals 1 through 9. The letters were not carved, but a few were trimmed in a place or two.
Ironically, though Wilson was said to be unable to read or write, he dictated several booklets of poems and, with help, arranged his wooden alphabet into simple Scripture verses.
One of his granddaughters, Isabella Nicholas of Pickett County, Tennessee, remembers her grandfather in his later years as a tall man with a happy and contented disposition. He wore a felt hat and suspenders, played a banjo, and sang. He died in 1973 at age 88.
“I never heard him say a bad word,” she says.
The unusual alphabet was eventually bought by Hay, who displayed the collection in his office in Albany for several years. After Hay’s death, his friend Dr. Steve Aaron, a prominent Louisville surgeon and Adair County native, acquired the alphabet and displayed it on boards at his home.
“It’s art,” Aaron once told me, “because it’s the end product of some individual’s creativity. Even though Rob was illiterate, letters were very important to him. You can look at them and see that a letter, to him, was just like a silver dollar.”
A few years before his death, Aaron donated the collection to the Pickett County Public Library in Byrdstown, Tennessee, where it remains on permanent display, a remarkable legacy to an exceptional woodsman: a man of letters.