As early as the 1600’s professional tinsmiths or white smiths were creating their wares in London. It wasn’t until about 1720 that tin ware and other tin items became more commonplace. The tin business was so important to Britain that in 1750 they instituted the British Iron Act, which prohibited the erection of new rolling mills in America. This kept the tin business out of America until after the American Revolution.
Tin itself is very soft and malleable metal, so creating wares requires making an alloy, which is made by combining different amounts of lead and cooper. Depending on the combinations of these metals will also yield either pewter or bronze. The most important tools a tinsmith uses are big shears, snips and nippers for cutting and lastly an anvil for shaping.
To become a tinsmith, a person had to be accepted as an apprentice by a master tinsmith. Apprenticeships could last any where from 4 to 6 years.
There were two men in our family that practiced this trade. Augustus “Guss Steele and Tommie Lee Rainey. It is possible that both of these men worked to help install the tin roof on the Trinity AME church.
On the Steele side of the family is Augustus Steele. Guss as he was fondly called was born in 1845. He was the second child of Sarah “Sallie” Keen and William Steele. He is listed on the 1860 census along with the rest of his family as Augustus Brooks. Sometime after the civil war he began using his father’s last name Steele. Guss was married to a former slave named Lucinda. Guss was also the great grandfather of the original historian in our family Laura Pauline Gersham Johnson (mother Gertrude Davis).
Guss apprenticed and worked under Joseph Staley. Staley was born in Lancstershire, England, which is probably where he learned the trade. I have no factual evidence but I think it is possible that William Steele took a part in getting Staley to bring on Guss as an apprentice. Staley was a member of the Baldwin Blues, which William Steele founded in 1848, and he was a businessman who owned one of the only hardware stores in town but also later served as mayor, which William also served as mayor in 1851. Either way Guss was well known and liked in town. Here is his obit from the Union Recorder when he passed away in 1903.
September 15, 1903 Union-Recorder
Guss Steel, a well-known negro, died at this home in the city Thursday night. He was a tinner by trade, having served his apprenticeship under Mr. Joseph Staley, and worked for him a long number of years. Guss was a violin player of local reputation, and played and called at dances through many years, in this city. His remains were buried Friday afternoon.
I found an old photo from Des Steele and I think this might be a photo of Guss based on photos of Frank and Charlie. I’m totally guessing on this one so please let me know if anyone can confirm the identity the Steele man in the photo.
The second person in our family that was a tinner was Thomas “Tommie” Lee Rainey or Uncle Bubba. Tommie Rainey was born July 20, 1877 (died Oct. 14, 1928) in Eatonton, GA. He was the only son of Katherine “Kate” Broyle Rainey and William Suther. I am not sure why he chose to continue to use the Rainey name and not take his father’s last name. Tommie was the brother of Mollie Reid. Mollie Reid married Warren C. Bell. Just to review the connection between the Bell’s and Steele’s, Warren Bell’s father Warren Bell Sr. was married to Laura Mitchell the niece of Sallie Keen and granddaughter of Jane Gilbert.
Tommie Rainey probably learned his trade from his father William Suther who was a builder and coffinmaker in Eatonton. Not only is he listed as a tinner but also on the 1900 census as a blacksmith. I think Uncle Bubba was a great craftsman. I have a silver bracelet that Big Mama said Uncle Bubba made her. There is also a train that was in our house for years that Uncle Bubba carved. Daddy told us a story that Uncle Bubba took the train to the fair and won first place. After he won his prize someone stole the train and they had to pursue the thieves to get it back. Tommie Rainey also carved the podium for the Trinity CME church. That podium now sits in the basement of the Trinity CME church located on Wilkinson St. One of my father’s toys that he played with as a child, and I’m sure other generations before him, were two chinaberry guns that were carved by Uncle Bubba. Daddy said Uncle Bubba would ride his bike from Eatonton to Milledgeville on Sunday's to visit the family. He also was there to help Mollie out with the Bell girls that were still in Milledgeville (Annie Laura, Ione, Leo, and Ella) after Warren Bell died in 1903. He called them the “Four Roses”. I think Tommie Rainey was a true Georgia Folk artist and craftsman.
Does anyone else have a few handcrafted treasures? Please share!
Tommie Lee Rainey 1877 - 1928
Uncle Bubba’s train (photo credit Barbara Braddock)
Podium in the basement of Trinity CME Church
Chinaberry “pop” guns notice the T and 1890 date
Quick Family Research Update
In a previous newsletter I attached a photo of an unknown meat market. Thanks to George and Leslie it was confirmed that this was Steele’s Meat Market. It started and owned by Willie T. Steele.
During my last trip to Milledgeville I found out more information about Jane Gilbert. Listed on the Free Person of Color census of 1837 she is listed with 5 of her children. She also filed a petition for guardianship on August 9, 1837. It lists her 5 children which one is Sallie (mother of William Steele’s children). So now we know 6 of her thirteen children, the sixth one being Jane Mitchell (McComb). 7 more to go! Miller Grieve a fellow Scotsman and friend of David B. Mitchell agreed to become her guardian. Mitchell died in January of 1837, so this might be why Grieve was willing to accept the responsibility. Remember in 1842 Mitchell’s son John J. Mitchell served as agent for Jane Gilbert and Jane Mitchell (McComb). The question now remains was Jane Gilbert free prior to 1837 and who was the father of her other children? On the census it list Chatham County as her birthplace. That search is another story for a later time! I have transcribed the document and added it below for everyone to read.
Happy researching! Hope to see everyone again soon! T
Transcription of Jane Gilbert Petition for Guardianship
August 9, 1837
Milledgeville Court House Probate Office
Minute Book B 1829 Page 111
The petition of Jane Gilbert a free woman of Color respectfully prays the appointment of Miller Grieve as the guardian of herself and her five children vig(?) Patrick Brooks aged about 17 Ann Brooks aged about 15 Charles aged about 12 Sally Brooks aged about 10 and Becky Beck (Butler) aged about 7 years of age.
And it appearing that Miller Grieve consents to act as Guardian.
It is therefore ordered that the said Miller Grieve be appointed guardian for the said Jane Gilbert and children and the clerk take Bono and security in terms of the law.
Actual Document from the Baldwin Courthouse