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“They were a hardy set of people, honest and upright in all their dealings, social and kind, the latch string always on the outside.” That was how Presley Garner Donaldson described the early settlers of Northern Fayette County who commenced coming about 1825.
Around 1910, there was a popular movement for people to publish their memoirs. Fayette County is fortunate that Presley G. Donaldson told the story of his life in a book titled, "Life and Adventures of P.G. Donaldson," printed at Cowden’s Jewett Printery in 1908.
Throughout the 225 pages of the book, P.G., as he was commonly addressed, takes the reader from his childhood days to the wild oats sowed during his youth, and on to the life of a husband and father, farmer and preacher of the Universalist faith.
Born in 1839, Presley was the second child of Elvina Hicks and William C. Donaldson, who were among the county’s early settlers. When P.G. shared the events of his life, he began with a memory imprinted in his mind more than 60 years earlier.
“I was born and raised on the headwaters of Hurricane Creek. My earliest memory is from the year 1846. I have a dim recollection of them beating up for volunteers to go to the Mexican War, and also of a large crowd of men and women at (the home of) Uncle Johnny Sears. Here, husbands, their wives and kindred were bidding each other farewell.
"Poor fellows, for many it was a last farewell. The playing of fife and drum make a lasting impression on my mind that I shall never forget."
The gathering he speaks of took place just east of the present-day town of Bingham, at the home of John and Hannah Sears, who lived not far off the "Shelbyville to Greenville Road." The road cut north of Ramsey, angled through Bingham to Pleasant Mound, continuing its route on to Greenville. Their son-in-law, John B. Wilson, was one of the recruits who did not return.
Presley was raised up in the years when this area was, as he said, “a howling wilderness, infested with wolves, catamounts, bear, panther, rattlesnakes and other wild animals too numerous to mention.”
The area had many lakes and sinkholes, and the “shaking ague,” a form of malaria, was a common ailment among the people.
The green-headed horseflies were part of the reality for the early settlers, who would emerge from their cabins before dawn, walk until 9 a.m. and came in with the horses bleeding, take breakfast and return to the field around 4 p.m. to 5 p.m., working until the lightning bugs showed their lights.
Throughout his memoir, Presley returns again and again to the saying about the latch key being on the outside – a message of welcome. The latch key, also called a latch string, was a common lock on the log cabins of yesteryear.
The latch key is described as a wooden latch fastened on the inside of the door. There was a wooden catch at the inner edge of the wall into which the latch was dropped when the door was closed. A string fastened to the upper edge of the latch passed to the outside through a hole by which the latch was raised to open the door.
At night the latch key would be pulled inside and the door could not be opened from the outside.
Presley Garner Donaldson was among several Fayette County citizens who published their memoirs before their death. Our understanding of pioneer life in the Fayette County of yesterday is the better for it.