A Sawyer’s Tale

Posted on February 28, 2019 under Storytelling with 2 comments

This story was written by Patty Mason Riley and edited.


My father always loved to tell stories about ancestors of his grandfather and his father before him. These were mostly humorous stories. I can still remember his laughter when he got to the punchline of a story, or what he thought was the funniest part. Being a child with ADD that went undiagnosed or treated in those days, my attention span to sit down and listen to one of the stories was limited but I picked up bits and pieces. I do remember the last story he told me before he passed away. I was glued to my seat absorbing every word.

At the time, his voice was affected by Parkinson’s disease. His voice was low and barely audible. It was an effort for him to talk and for me to hear what he was saying. There is little doubt in my mind that the events that occurred in the winter of 1865 are true.

There has been a sawmill in my family for several generations in Guysborough County. The nearest town of Sherbrooke was a bustling place during the gold rush. My quadruple great grandfather was Levi Mason who came from a family of devout Protestants.

It had been a hard winter and supplies were dwindling.  His young daughter was sickly and needed some medicine. He needed to go to Sherbrooke for supplies. A journey that could be made in 30 minutes today took between 3 to 4 hours back then using an ox and a cart. He set out early one morning.

After completing his chores, including the purchase of sweets for his children, Levi decided to take a walk around to get the news.

As he was passing by a group of men one of them called out him. “Are you here for the hanging?” He wondered what terrible crime must’ve been committed.

“No,” he said. “This is the first I’m hearing of it. Who is being hanged and why?” They pointed towards the jail and said go see for yourself.

Levi made his way over closer to the jail to have a look at this hardened criminal that they were about to hang. A crowd had assembled.

He heard bits and pieces of the story. The crowd were made up of sympathizers and an equal number who condemned the actions of the accused. He squeezed through the crowd to have a closer look.  It was just at lunchtime and the jailer was taking the prisoner his last meal. Whatever it was it smelled gruesome.

Members of the crowd closest to the jail we’re jeering and mocking the prisoner who was just a boy of 16 or 17, not much older than his own son, Joe.

He was dark skinned .The guards decided to put on a show and brought him out into the yard where everyone could see him.

Levi was shocked to see the poor fellows back where it been whipped repeatedly. They dragged him out and strapped him to a post where they proceeded to try to force him to eat the slop they had brought him for a last meal.

The guard announced there was to be a postponement of the execution. That needed to question the young man further as they believed the man had accomplices. They wanted to find out where the friends of the accused might be located.

“Damn Yanks,” thought Levi. The crowd started to disperse a little realizing they were not going to see a death today. As they left Levi inched closer to the accused. Compassion filled his heart. He walked over to the young man and he said that he was sorry for him and that he would be back to help him.

He reached into his pocket for some of the sweet treats, including a piece of jerky that he had purchased for his children. He gave them to the criminal when the guards were not looking.

Levi noticed a glimmer of hope in the young man’s eyes.

The guards noticed Levi and issued him a stern warning. They told him to leave immediately as the prisoner was dangerous or else he might be strapped to the pole next to the accused.

The Mason clan did not respond well to threats. Those were fighting words.

Levi gave the guards the impression he was complying. He went back to his ox and made the trek back home.

He arrived back home around three in the afternoon. The chances of making it back to Sherbrooke before night fall were slim. He gathered up some tools from the mill that he would need to break into the jail as he planned to set the young man free. He asked his wife to gather up some things the young man would need to survive in the wilds of Nova Scotia in the winter. She quickly put together a bag which included fresh bread, a jug of water and a few other odds and ends. And one more thing: a couple of bottles of his brother’s homemade moonshine!

He had a quick bite to eat and headed back to Sherbrooke. His wife was concerned but she knew that Levi always did the right thing. He had kindness enough for his family, friends and complete strangers.

“Why don’t you take your brother John with you” she asked? “No,” he said. “It’s one thing for me to put myself at risk but I cannot risk someone else getting caught.”

He arrived in Sherbrooke not getting there till well after dark. He tied his oxen and cart as close to the jail house as he dared.

One of the guards was pacing back and forth in front of the jail. Grabbing a jug of moonshine out of the back of the wagon, he poured some of it over his clothing and proceeded to stagger towards the jail.

“Good evening, gentlemen,” he said, purposely slurring his words.

“What do you have there sir?” With that Levi offered the guard a swig from his jug. “Best moonshine this side of the Atlantic,” Levi boasted.

Soon the guards were fast asleep outside the jail in a drunken stupor. Levi ran back over to wagon and grabbed the peavey, a tool used to roll the logs into the sawmill which has a giant hook on one end.

Using the peavey, he pried open the jail cell door. He yelled at the prisoner and told him to get ready to leave. The young man was shackled and chained and shivering from the cold cell. Levi went to work with the peavey and broke the chains.

He wrapped the cold wretch in a bear’s hide and tied some deer hide around his feet which appeared to have incurred a beating.

Levi helped him into the wagon and told him to lie down in the back until they got out of sight.

Once they had travelled outside of the town of Sherbrooke, Levi lit the lantern. It was a stormy night and although it made travel difficult, there was one benefit. The wagon wheel tracks were being filled in quickly with snow making tracking next to impossible. Small blessings.

The young man now had warm clothing and a full belly. They made their way slowly to Levi’s home.

Levi told the youth that he could stay for just a few days as it was likely that his house would be an obvious place to look. This assumed, of course, that the guards could remember who gave them the moonshine, a tribute to the talent of Levi’s brother for making the hooch.

The young man told Levi the story of his incarceration. He had been travelling with his family when they were apprehended by slave hunters. They managed to escape and he thought some of them might be in Halifax in a newly established settlement for the Black community. But he had had the misfortune of being caught and jailed in Sherbrooke by his captors, referred to a “Yanks”.

When they get back to the house, Levi’s wife Abigail attended to the young man’s ghastly wound. She made sure that he had a full belly and a warm place to sleep.

It took a week for the news to seep out of Sherbrooke about a daring jail break and the ineptness of the drunken guards.

Levi met with his father and told him the role he had played in the jail escape. His father beamed with pride that his son had come to the rescue of this poor soul. He also had some choice words for the man’s captors. “Damn Catholics,” for allowing such a thing to happen.


Levi’s uncle Grant (his father’s brother) lived a few days away in a place called Garden of Eden. Grant agreed that if they could get the young man to his home, he would assist him in getting to Halifax. They were planning to go there to sell furs.

All young black men at the time were given the name of Tom by their owners. Tom became fast friends with Grant and Abigail’s son, Joseph. He pleaded to make the trip to Halifax with his uncle, Grant. His mother was appalled at the idea but his father was more understanding figuring that no one would care about the matter in a few years’ time. He permeated Joe to go, after convincing Abigail, of course.

Tom’s journey to reconnect with his family commenced in the spring with the aid of the Mason clan.

Before delivering Tom to Grant, the Masons did their best to prepare Tom for survival in the wilds of Nova Scotia.

Tom thanked the Mason family profusely for their kindness and pledged this generosity would be shared with his family for generations to come. Levi was taken aback by Tom’s kind words. “I was just doing what any good Christian would do.” “No,” said Tom. “There are not many families who would put themselves at risk to help a stranger.”


With that they embraced, the young man and Levi knowing that they might never see each other again.

This tale of the daring escape and the kindness of the Mason clan were passed down from generation to generation.

More a half a century later Levi’s great grandson Abe and his brother Joe went to Truro to bid on some livestock.

Now, Joe was a young man of twenty and somewhat naïve in the ways of the world. While in Truro, Joe rescued a boy from drowning by diving into a river in the dark and almost drowning. The boy he rescued was black.

When they were safely back on shore, a group of local men asked him what was wrong with him for risking his life to save a man of color. Joe was hot tempered and before you know it, fists were flying. Joe and Abe found themselves in the middle of a brawl where they were outnumbered 10 to 2.

From out of nowhere came 4 young black men came to their aid. Thanking them for their rescue they got to talking. Before too long, they all realized that their families were connected with a tale from long ago.

Abe asked the young man why he had helped him and risked himself in this way.

The young man proceeded to tell him the story of how his great grandfather had been rescued from execution by a stranger.

He said that they were raised to never turn your back on someone in need. The story was all too familiar to them. Joe and Abe listened with rapt interest and realized that the story that had been passed down over the generations was not a tall tale after all.

The boys compared stories and there was little doubt that it was their great grandfather who orchestrated the break out from the jail of the young black man whose relatives just rescued them from a beating.

Kindness begets kindness. The Mason legend continues to this day.




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