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October 01, 2020

The Black Walnut King

This is the story of a man and his furniture.  The man was Burrell Francis Sisco, and his furniture is the beautiful, solid walnut furniture produced in his furniture factory in the hills of Patrick County, Virginia beginning in the 1940’s.  His love of furniture making helped to create a style all its own.  Some people might say that his furniture took on a Shaker style in appearance, although the pure simple lines that he created were all his own.

Burrell Francis Sisco was born on a farm in Marion, Kentucky on November 29, 1881, to Lemuel Preston and Drucilla Frances Enoch Sisco.  He was the third of twelve children.  Not content on staying on the family farm, “Sisco” headed out west where he ended up in Minneapolis.  There he saw a chance to see the world by enlisting in the army.  He was stationed on an island named Jolo in the Philippines where he was a gunner in the artillery during the Spanish-American War.  Below is a letter that “Sisco” wrote home to his father. 

Kind Father,

I will write to you today to let you know that I am well and alright; hope this to find you all well.  I was very much surprised when our Captain handed me your letter you had written to him.  I have been writing to you regular, guess my letters have been mislayed somewhere.

Well, I have never told you about the fights, but as you have read about them in the papers, I will relate them to you.  We have had four fights since I came over here.  The first fight we had was March 2.  We were out marching when we came to a very narrow place in the road and before we knew anything, the bullets were flying every way.  We were ambushed and surrounded; all we could do was to lay flat down and form a skirmish line.  We kept up a heavy fire for about three hours and drove them back until we could retreat but they would fire at us from up in the trees and behind rocks; we suffered awfully for want of water for it was very hot.  There was but one man killed, one wounded, and several horses wounded.  So, we retreated to Jolo; after that every night the Moros would come and shoot into town keeping up a continual disturbance; the killed the governor’s secretary and several Philipinos; there had to be something done, anyway Gen. Leonard A. Wood, who is in command of the island, came down with over one thousand soldiers and laid waste the island.  The morning we left Jolo there was a string of soldiers over a mile long; the Philipino scouts in front of the infantry, in front the battery and the cavalry brought up the rear guard with all the pack trains and ammunition.  That is the position we were marching.

We were about five miles from Jolo when all of a sudden we were again ambushed.  Bullets sizzed over our heads like rain but the battery was thrown into action and all the carbines pumping steel bullets; we drove them down a big slope and they melted like snow in summer; nothing could see them hiding behind trees to hide from the bullets but our rifles will shoot through a thirty six inch tree and kill a man on the other side.  The third fight we found them in rifle pits with a strong wall around them; we battered down their wall with cannons, then the sharp shooters poured in their “leaden hail”, the infantry went in after them hand to hand soldiers using their bayonets, the Moros their spears and knives.  There were sixteen killed and wounded, and one of my comrades was severely wounded.  It was terrible.  We never took time to count the Moros that were killed, they were in great piles, then we burned every house and shot their animals, stole, killed and ate all their chickens and goats, it was a sight to see the destruction of the property going up in flames, any way you looked you could see the smoke of destruction.

As soon as the dead were buried and wounded cared for we set out again (we have good gentle mules and we carry the wounded on a cot on the mule’s back) after the fleeing Moros; we overtook them the next day well fortified behind another stone wall.  After another severe little fight in which we had thirteen killed and wounded, the Moros were all killed.  They fought until they were shot full of holes.  That ended the fighting on the island of Jolo.

Well, I must tell you one more thing, then I will close.   I have a special duty job now, working in the post exchange, get $10.80 extra per month so, you see, I won’t have to drill or be on duty any more, also have better eating, now take my meals at the restaurant.  I am very busy all the time; don’t have time to write only of a Sunday.  I am very proud of my position, almost forget I am a soldier.  Everything in the army is carried on like clock work.

You spoke about how long I would have to stay over here, about fifteen months from date of this letter.  I will say to you  that if anything happens to me, I should get killed or anything, you will be notified at once but you need not bother about me now for I will not go out in the field anymore, everything is quiet over here now.

With compliments to mamma and the babies, I close.

Burrell Sisco

Burrell Sisco was honorably discharged from the army on August 31, 1907.  He put himself through college at Bowling Green University in Kentucky from 1908 to 1910 graduating with a Bachelor Degree in Commercial Science.  He worked for the Anderson Lumber Company in Gidion, Missouri and then for the U.S. Spruce Lumber Company in Marion, Virginia.  “Sisco” was elected Captain for his hometown militia at the beginning of World War I.  He, again, served his country well and as a First Lieutenant was stationed at Camp Humphrey’s.  He was discharged after the Armistice was signed in November 1918.  From 1920 to 1929, he ran sawmills and supplied a large veneer company with walnut logs and stumps.  During this time, he met Lula Hester Tatum and, after a somewhat lengthy courtship, married her on February 6, 1926 in Martinsville.  Soon after they married, they made their home in Stuart.  Times were quite rough and managed to find work at small sawmills.  One company that he worked for was the Ely Thomas Lumber Company where he recommended tracts of land for the company to purchase.  His start to his own furniture making happened when the stock market crash of 1929 came and he found himself stuck with close to twelve car loads of walnut lumber.  The year 1929 also marked the year that he and his wife expanded their family with the birth of their only child, Margaret Tatum Sisco.  Even though “Sisco” had had no professional training in the field of furniture making, he relied on his raw talent.  He opened his cabinet shop in 1940 in Stuart making made-to-order furniture out of walnut and cherry.  His small business quickly grew and he became well-known throughout the eastern states – from New York to Florida – as the “Black Walnut King”.   People today still remember Burrell Sisco and continue to admire his beautiful furniture including dining tables and chairs, dressing tables, double spindle beds, dressers, blanket chests, coffee tables, and corner cupboards.  After a long life of serving both his community and his country, “Sisco” died on June 13, 1972 at the age of ninety. 

Information for this article was found in the files at Bassett Historical Center and in books of local history.










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