Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

Today my Uncle Harry would have turned 99.

He was the oldest of four sons. My dad always said it was Harry who got the family through the Great Depression. He was like a second father to me. He gave me my first Bible, my first dictionary, my first rifle, my love of the mountains, and along with my dad, my love and appreciation of America and its history.

While I have no recollection of my parents ever hitting me, I very clearly recall the day when I was five years old, bumped my head getting into my dad’s car, and uncharacteristically uttered an expletive. As soon as the word left my lips, I felt Harry’s hand smack the back of my head. It was the only time he ever did something like that. Lesson learned.

In the late 50s, Harry purchased a little over two acres of land in Sussex County, New Jersey. His plan was to build a house there for himself and his aging mother, to grow his own food, and to hunt and fish in the as yet unspoiled countryside.

First he built a small, one-room cabin in which he could live while working on his project. Shortly after the house’s foundation was put in, he took ill, and the house project was abandoned. But he kept the land and the cabin, and it became my favorite summer destination.

My dad and I (and later my younger brother Joe) would ride out there with Harry in his ramshackle Ford Falcon. It really was paradise for a young boy. Fishing. Exploring. Catching newts. Learning to shoot targets with a muzzle-loading rifle. Campfire cooking. The night sky ablaze with more stars than I’d ever seen. The thrilling mystery of being able to pull in stations from Canada through the clear night air on the portable radio. The stillness of the deep woods, with no planes or cars humming in the background. Just the wind in the trees, the cicadas, and later the sounds of all those night creatures.

When Harry died, he left that cabin to me in his will. He had stipulated that it be sold and the money used for my education. I convinced my parents to hang on to it, and I did return there a couple of times with Dad. But it wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Eventually, my parents did sell it to the owner of some adjacent property, because he promised not to develop it. I’ve returned there several times over the years, just to see if I could still find it. Though the cabin is slowly returning to nature, the gentleman has kept his word.

Given my later appreciation of the works of Henry David Thoreau, I have wished more than once that we could have kept the cabin. Regardless, Harry and the cabin are with me still.

Happy Birthday, Uncle Ha.

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5 thoughts on “Harry Root Merklee (1912-1971)

  1. I was a lanky high school kid who had this quest to have a flintlock rifle. Buying one was out of the question, so I bought the parts, not from a kit but from a variety of sources. It was coming along nicely….the last big task was the patch box. I’d be making it from scratch from flat sheet brass. About that time, I would go with an muzzle-loading acquaintance to a range in NE New Jersey used by a band of muzzle-loading enthusiasts. This was around 1968-69.

    One sunday at the range a special guest showed up. His name was Harry Merklee, and it seemed like everybody there (except me) knew him or knew of him. He had recently appeared (on the cover I think) of the magazine “Muzzle Blasts”.

    There was a small crowd around this visitor, conversing about muzzle loading stuff mostly. I wasn’t part of the group, being the shy type, plus the only teenager in the midst of all these adult black powder experts.
    But Harry noticed me and broke away from the crowd to come over and talk to me. I remember telling him that I was working on my first flintlock and was struggling with what design to use for the patch box. He responded by giving me his advice: “stay with the traditional designs” which he spoke in such a way that it seemed like something terrible would happen if I did not.

    I had already decided the patch box design would be based on those found on original old flintlocks, so Harry’s advice just confirmed that I’d made the right decision. I went home and started working on the patch box right away. I was very pleased with how it turned out,and I was also pleased knowing that I’d gotten advice from from an old time expert like your uncle. That really meant a lot to me–almost as if, by his passing on his advice to me, he was keeping the chain unbroken that connects these special firearms and their makers; that he was ensuring that the rifle I built would carry on the Kentucky Rifle heritage.

    • John,

      Thanks so much for writing this, and my apologies for such a late response.

      I remember going to shooting matches as a kid with Harry and being vaguely aware of his “celebrity” status among muzzle-loading enthusiasts. I have all his handwritten manuscripts for the Muzzle Blasts articles, a smooth-bore flintlock he built (in addition to the boy’s rifle he gave me way back when), the last hunting pouches he was working on, and all his books and tools.

      It’s amazing that his name still resonates with some people in muzzle-loading circles. I came across an online message board where someone from Virginia was asking for help identifying the maker of a hunting pouch he’d recently acquired, and a number of people confirmed for him that it was a Harry Merklee pouch.

      I had to laugh when you described the gravity with which he advised to “stay with the traditional designs.” He always said he was born 150 years too late, and I have to agree. I think nothing would have pleased him more than to have taken part in the founding of America.

      Sorry to say, I haven’t done any shooting since my dad passed in 1987. But I still have the ball molds for the rifles, and Harry’s black powder notes, so who knows?

      Again, thanks for writing. It means a lot to hear from someone else whose life he touched.

      Warmest regards,

      Bill

  2. Pingback: The Cabin | the zen parent

  3. Pingback: The Cabin | the zen parent

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