When it comes to collecting, Steve Boyleston is a big believer in the maxim of quality over quantity. “I don’t have a collection of 3,000 items,” he says. “I’d rather have a small collection of really special pieces.”
That’s not to say a lot of antiques haven’t passed through the hands of the Fairhope resident; Boyleston estimates he’s bought and sold at least 1,500 Kentucky long rifles in his lifetime. Born in the backcountry of Aiken, South Carolina, Boyleston first fell in love with the weapon of the early American pioneers while watching Disney’s “Davy Crockett” series, released in 1954.
“I remember thinking, ‘That is the greatest thing in the world, to live out in the mountains and wear buckskin clothes and carry one of those long guns,’” he says.
Boyleston was a teenager when he built his first long rifle, an experience which only deepened his appreciation for the craftsmanship of those early gunmakers. Since then, he has spent more than 50 years researching and trading the antique firearms, and he joined the Kentucky Rifle Association in 1985. Along the way, whether working as a professional painter, paper hanger or hotel developer, Boyleston began performing living history demonstrations and collecting an assortment of early American artifacts: tomahawks, powder horns, knives, keys, walking canes.
“I became very deeply involved,” Boyleston says, “and I got to know a lot of people with the best collections in the country.” Boyleston says the key to collecting the rarities is to keep your eyes open; besides auctions, he has found treasures at estate sales, antique shops or just looking around online.
His first love, however, remains the Kentucky long rifle. A lot of what Boyleston has learned about designing and building his own rifles comes from observing the work of the 18th- and 19th-century masters — backwoodsmen with rudimentary tools but incredible skill. One such master was Wiley G. Higgins, a gunmaker in Macon, Georgia. Born in 1799, Higgins is known for having made some of the most exquisite weapons of the time period, so it’s little surprise that a pistol credited to Higgins was discovered hidden away in the wallboards of Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee. Boyleston has owned two Higgins rifles, including one which gives him strong reason to believe it, too, belonged to Andrew Jackson.
“I just love the history,” Boyleston says. “When I think about how I have this long rifle that belonged to Andrew Jackson, just down the road from Jackson’s Oak,” the Daphne tree where the general allegedly urged on his troops during the War of 1812. “I just think that’s incredible. And after 200 years, they’ve ended up so close to each other.”
Size: 18 inches
This Tennessee-made tomahawk features a black walnut handle, an iron blade, an ivory tip — and it even doubles as a pipe. A silver plate on its handle identifies its previous owner as Tennessee attorney and governor Aaron Brown. When the Mexican-American war began, Brown’s call for 2,800 volunteer soldiers was answered by over 30,000, solidifying the “Volunteer State” reputation gained during the War of 1812. According to Boyleston, this tomahawk was likely made as a presentation piece for Brown following a settlement he arranged between Native Americans and settlers.
Size: 5 inches
Patch knives were a standard addition to a rifleman’s equipment. Usually hanging from a hunting pouch, the knives were used to cut patches — pieces of cloth or leather which were wrapped around the rifle ball to ensure a tight fit against the rifling in the barrel of the weapon. These particular knives, carved of black walnut, were made by Moravian gunsmiths in Winston Salem, North Carolina, and Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. It’s little surprise that the Moravians, part of an early sect of Christianity, chose the Christian symbol of a fish for their knives. Boyleston says these are three of only five such knives known in existence.
Wiley G. Higgins Long Rifle
Year: ca. 1820
Size: 60 inches
This exquisite Kentucky long rifle, made of curly maple, features a silver nameplate on top of the barrel, a telltale sign that it was made by master gunsmith Wiley G. Higgins of Macon, Georgia. More interesting still, that nameplate reads “Jackson.” Combine that with some of the gun’s other characteristics (such as its rare Damascus twist barrel, ornate silver etchings of Southern imagery, carved eagles), and it leads Boyleston to strongly believe this rifle belonged to President Andrew Jackson. In fact, Boyleston explains, Higgins served under Colonel Jackson in the Creek Indian Wars, and the pair remained friends later in life. This might explain the other engraved silver plate, which reads “CJ,” near the rifle’s breach. Higgins would’ve referred to the president as “Colonel Jackson.”
Lafayette-Inscribed Walking Cane
Year: ca. 1780
Length: 33 inches
This walking cane is made of two pieces of carved bone joined at the middle by a silver-plated copper band. The ivory knob is scrimshawed with the name Marquis de Lafayette, leading Boyleston to believe that the cane belonged to the French hero of the American Revolution himself. Signs of wear tell Boyleston this was an everyday walking cane for its owner. “The problem you have with a lot of old things today is people will find something that might not look great and then they ruin them trying to fix them up. So the rule is, don’t ever do any restoration. Leave it just like it came.” For many years, the cane descended through an old Philadelphia family who likely acquired it during Lafayette’s Grand Tour of the United States in 1824 – 1825. “I couldn’t believe it, but I was able to get it,” Boyleston says.