From Pennsylvania to Bleeding Kansas: The Journey of a Desk
The Kennedy Desk Came to Kansas by Covered Wagon....
The desk has always been there in my memory--a lovely hand-crafted antique of cherry wood. In a family that didn't have much more than love and books, the cherry slant-top desk was a cherished possession, passed down through my father's family.
It held the family's important documents and my father sat there to pay the bills each month. Maybe part of its appeal was that we kids weren't allowed to use it. It was Dad's domain. But I loved its little cubbyholes and miniature drawers. And it had special slides on each side that pulled out to support the desk top when opened. I knew it was special, even when I was small.
Fast forward from the 1950's to 2002, when the desk was handed down to me. My folks had remodeled their house and decided to let me take the desk rather than move it back into the house. They knew I loved it and I'd had many conversations with my Dad over the years about the desk's history.
I'm continuing to research the desk's history. Oral history, as well as written records, tells me that it came to pre-Civil War "Bleeding Kansas" in 1861 by wagon train when the Kennedy family immigrated from Pennsylvania to support Kansas entering the Union as an abolitionist state.
But I know nothing about the desk prior to 1861. Its design is from a much earlier period, but designs in frontier America were often used long after they were no longer fashionable in the settled East.
So come along with me as I explore the known history of the desk and try to learn more about its origins!
All photos property of the author.
Here's Where It's Been...
David Greacen Kennedy--1861 to 1906.
The desk remained with David Greacen Kennedy from the time he brought it with him by wagon train from Butler County, Pennsylvania to Vinland (near Black Jack), Kansas in 1861.
After moving to Kansas, David took up farming. In Pennsylvania he had been a school teacher for 7 years and then was a bookkeeper for Chess Bros. Tack Factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for 10 years. He married Elizabeth Rosebaugh in 1848. They raised their family of 5 sons and a daughter on a homestead in Douglas County, Kansas. They moved into Vinland in 1892.
David Greacen Kennedy, Sr. passed away in Vinland in 1906 at the age of 85. Elizabeth Rosebaugh Kennedy passed away in 1918 at 92.
The desk was passed on to their daughter Marie, but we don't know when.
Found a photo of David Greacen Kennedy!
We have a studio portrait of my great-great grandmother Elizabeth Rosebaugh Kennedy taken in Lawrence, Kansas, and I always wondered why there wasn't a companion photo of her husband David Greacen Kennedy. It seemed likely that they both would have had their photos taken at the same time. Well, yesterday I stumbled onto that photo in a thick file of papers my Mom made for me long ago. It's a photocopy, but at least I know the photo exists and now I can try to track it down within my Dad's extended family. It's wonderful to find this photo and to see the family resemblance. He certainly has the look of the men in my family in the last two generations!
Upon closer inspection, I see that the two studio portraits were taken at different studios: David's was taken by J. L. Morris in Lawrence and Elizabeth's was taken by Mrs. Brockway in Wellsville. So they weren't necessarily taken at the same time, although they do look like they were taken in the same era. More research is called for!
David Greacen Kennedy and Elizabeth Rosebaugh Kennedy - The desk came from Pennsylvania by covered wagon with David and Elizabeth in 1861Click thumbnail to view full-size
Books on Amazon to Help Me Research the Kennedy Desk
I found some excellent resources for researching antique furniture and specifically Pennsylvania antique furniture on Amazon. My Kennedy ancestors were Scotch-Irish, so I steered clear of the Pennsylvania-Dutch reference books. But I think that may be a mistake on my part not to check out those resources. The furniture styles may have just been dependent on what craftsmen were available. In addition, David Greacen Kennedy's wife Elizabeth Rosebaugh was German.
The Kennedy DeskClick thumbnail to view full-size
Family Antiques: Love 'em or not?
Hand-quilted by David Greacen Kennedy's granddaughter Cora Joy Martin for her granddaughter Karen.
In 1861 he came west with his family and settled near Black Jack, Kansas, famous in history as John Brown's first battle field.— David Greacen Kennedy's Obituary
A Little Bit About Slant-Top Desks
Although we've always referred to the desk as a slant-top desk, it might also be considered a drop-front desk, slope-front desk or bureau desk. Slant-top desks evolved in the 18th century from an early form called desk on a frame, which was a portable desk.
While some slant-top desks use chains or levers to hold the writing surface in an open position, our desk has sliders or lopers, which pull out to provide support to the writing surface.
Researching the Desk
It's been difficult to pin down anything more about the history of our family desk prior to its journey to Kansas in 1861. Our Scotch-Irish Kennedy ancestor, David Kennedy (1751 - 1840), immigrated from County Monaghan, Ireland, to Pennsylvania shortly after the Revolutionary War. His son Edward Kennedy (1789 - 1864), our David's father, lived in Pennsylvania his entire life.
Our desk seems to be a simple American country piece and the details point to it being made sometime in the 19th century and possibly earlier. The square nail heads, hand-cut dovetails, hand-planed and chamfered drawer bottoms and wide boards all seem to indicate that time period, as well. The cherry wood has a lovely patina. Cherry wood was used by Pennsylvania cabinet makers dating back to colonial days. The back of the desk and underside of the central drawer show extensive oxidation, almost to the point of being black.
As a kid, I always assumed our desk had been painted, but actually it's just the color of cherry wood that has darkened to a rich, red-brown color over time. New cherry wood is a light, golden color. The wood darkens gradually as it is exposed to light.
I've looked for comparable pieces online many times over the years, but have never come up with anything quite like our desk. I'd love to hear from someone who has a similar piece in their family!
Indicates Furniture Made in the 1800's or Earlier
Square nail heads ~ hand-cut dovetails ~ hand-planed and chamfered drawer bottoms ~ wide boards.
Pale Pink Paint--Really?
One particular thing that puzzles me about the desk is that the interiors of the four small drawers and the large center drawer are painted a pale pink. This just seems unusual and might be a clue in helping me date the desk. Does anyone have any idea of a particular era that this would point to? Of course, maybe my grandparents or parents painted the drawers that very popular retro color in the 1950's!!
UPDATE! I'm investigating the idea that the pink "paint" may be a tinted lime wash or milk paint, which was used for furniture until at least 1873, when ready-to-use paint was introduced by Sherwin-Williams. Sherwin-Williams introduced the first resealable tin cans several years later. Until that time, paint had to be hand-mixed in small quantities.
The drawers do have "the characteristic dull, flat look with no sheen" and the color is consistent with some shades of tinted milk paint. Milk paint is known for its "flint-hard painted surface that has withstood the wear and tear of centuries... [it] was finished with a homemade concoction based on milk [and lime]."
"And, though the surface may be dirtied and dulled by the passage of the years, once it is cleaned the color is as vibrant as yesteryear." When milk paint is applied to new wood, it is absorbed by the wood rather than coating the wood and does not chip as modern paint would.
Well, I'll have to do more research, but I think I'm on to something!
Looking for Antique Desks Like Mine on eBay... - Beautiful pieces, whether they're like my desk or not!
As I mentioned above, I keep my eyes open for other desks similar to mine in style, but have never really come across anything close. But I frequently go to eBay and browse their desk listings, because, one of these days, I will find it!
New Amazon Spotlight Personal Review - Field Guide to American Antique Furniture: A Unique Visual System for Identifying the Style of Virtually Any Piece of Ame
This field guide to American antique furniture would be my personal choice to add to my research library. It is well-indexed and chock full of line drawings to show the evolution of American furniture styles over the centuries.
Where It's Been (with approximate dates)...
Marie Kennedy Joy--1896 to 1945
Marie Kennedy married Alfred Joy on January 18, 1896 in Baldwin, Kansas. Henry (Henry Alfred) Joy was a hired hand for the Kennedy family before marriage. Marie was a school teacher.
They moved to Hamilton, Kansas in 1908 and operated a feed store and mill until they bought a farm in 1913, 5 miles south, 1/2 mile west and 1/4 mile south of Madison.
Marie passed away in 1945 at age 80. Her husband Alf had died in 1937 at 63. She had been living at the Methodist Home in Topeka since 1941.
The desk passed on to their daughter Cora, but again, we don't know when.
Cora Joy Martin--1915 to 1956
Cora Joy married Charles Lorenzo (Ren) Martin southwest of Madison, Kansas on February 24, 1915. They lived in Greenwood and Lyon County their entire lives.
They farmed until 1944. Ren then worked at a grocery until December, 1949, when he and Cora bought a grocery in Reading, Kansas. They retired in 1956 and moved to Emporia, Kansas. I remember that as a child I thought they owned a candy store!
Ren passed away in 1968 and Cora followed him in 1969.
The desk was passed on to their son, Clyde Owen Martin, when they retired in 1956 and moved to a smaller house.
Clyde Owen Martin--1956 to 2002
Clyde Martin married Gail McGhee in 1945. They set up housekeeping near Madison, Kansas, in Greenwood County.
Most of Clyde's working life was spent in the oil fields of Kansas. He and Gail finally settled in El Dorado, Kansas, in Butler County and raised 1 son and 5 daughters. Gail was a writer.
Clyde passed away at age 87 in 2012. Gail followed not long after in 2013 at age 88. They were married 66 years.
They passed the desk on to their daughter Karen in 2002.
Karen Martin Kolavalli--2002 to Present
The desk continues its journey with David Greacen Kennedy's great-great granddaughter Karen Kolavalli--me! I live in Butler County, Kansas. The desk is now at least 152 years old (2013).
2016 Update: The desk has made two more moves since I first wrote this post: from El Dorado in Butler County to Lawrence in Douglas County, Kansas in late 2013; then from Lawrence, Kansas to Lexington, Kentucky in August, 2014. It's now at least 155 years old.