Now that Christmas is behind us, I know for certain that Santa forgot to load Easy Feet or Eggies or a Forever Lazy on his sleigh for me. I
didn’t get any of those things on my December 29 birthday, either. But earlier in the month, for no particular reason, I got one of the best presents ever.
A genuine Polly Crockett coonskin cap.
Polly was Davy’s first wife—the one he married for love rather than convenience. Born in 1788 in Hamblen County, Polly Finlay was a teenager when she and Davy met. “She was pretty to look at, interesting to talk to, and sweeter than sugar,” Davy wrote about her years later in his autobiography. The couple married in 1806 and soon produced three children, two sons and a daughter, who were left motherless when Polly died of “milk sickness” in 1815.
Though Polly was a tough-as-nails pioneer woman, it’s unlikely that she ever went hunting in a coonskin cap. Or, indeed, ever wore one at all. In fact, historians are doubtful that Davy himself donned a coonskin cap nearly as often as Hollywood would like for us to believe.
But no matter. When “Crockett mania” swept the nation in the 1950s, coonskin caps became the rage among children of all ages and their parents, thanks to Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett movies. At the height of the fad, coonskin caps sold
at a rate of 5,000 per day, causing the price of raccoon fur to rise from 25
cents to eight dollars a pound.
Authentic coonskin caps originally worn by Native Americans and later by frontiersmen like Meriwether Lewis and Davy Crockett used the entire coon pelt, including the tail and head. Not so the replica hats of the 1950s. The
nightmare-inducing coon head was gone. And some of the nicer hats had skull caps fashioned from rabbit rather than raccoon, though they generally had a genuine coon tail attached. Cheaper models were nothing but poor quality
I’m proud to say that, as a child of the fifties, I own a genuine rabbit fur Davy Crockett coonskin cap. But until recently, I didn’t know
there was a Polly Crockett model.
After listening to my book review of Michael Wallis’s biography “David Crockett, Lion of the West” (which, by the way, is excellent), my friend Melinda told me that as a child she had been given a Polly Crockett cap. Sadly, it had been decades since she’d seen it. She was resigned to the fact that it
had likely gone the way of most childhood playthings.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Melinda handed me a small wrapped gift in early December. “Open it now,” she insisted. You’ve no doubt guessed what was inside. A pale pink rayon-and-cotton coonskin cap with a picture of Polly herself adorning the plastic crown! “I found it in my attic,” she said, practically bouncing up and down with excitement, “and I can’t imagine anyone
I’d rather give it to than you.”
It was all I could do keep my happy tears from soaking my new treasure.
The bad news is that the cap is way too little to fit my head. If it weren’t, I’d be sporting about town in it every chance I got. The good news is that it’s hanging on a hook beside the fireplace in my bedroom, right next to my Davy cap. Every time I look at those caps, I smile.
And think about poor Polly Crockett, who died too young. But I’m happy to report that though she’s gone, Polly’s not forgotten. Every September for the past 29 years, the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce has sponsored the Polly Crockett Festival in Cowan, Tennessee to honor the pioneer spirit of Davy Crockett and his beloved first wife.
Next year, I’m bound and determined to go. And I’m taking Melinda
and the cap with me. Polly would have wanted it that way.
(January 1, 2012.)