Nile Wilson, the north-central Missouri traditional fiddler who loved to share his storehouse of rare “tie hacker” tunes, died at the age of 95 on March 21, 2008. The inheritor of numerous rare tunes and local variations on well-known melodies, he enjoyed a national, if not international, reputation for the depth and interest of his repertoire and his central Missouri playing style. For us here in Missouri, Nile and his wife Effie Gillespie Wilson, who passed away in 1995, were famous for their generosity, and for the hospitality they showed at their home in Bucklin, which Nile built. He was always delighted when people expressed interest in his music and his stories about life and work in former times.
Nile Wilson was born August 6, 1912, in the New Boston agricultural community of Linn County, in the north-central Missouri countryside of hardwood forests and rolling prairie farmland. The family farm was in the northeastern corner of Linn County within a mile of the Macon County line. The region was settled principally by Protestants, including many Welsh-American and Scotch-Irish families, and later German-speaking people and others. (After the Civil War, railroads and coal mines brought in new ethnic groups.) The community tended to disapprove of slavery in antebellum times, but just as across the border state of Missouri, slaveholding families lived side by side with those who did not take part in the system. The two sides of the Wilson family had been in opposite camps during the Civil War. Nile’s mother’s family had a saying that he always remembered: “Abraham Lincoln had a big mouth, sent an army to whip out the South.”
Nile’s mother's family, the Davises and Moores, were long-established Missourians with Virginia roots. They came from Kentucky well before the Civil War. His grandfather Wilson’s people were from Thorntown in west-central Indiana (Boone County), and had lived in Virginia and Kentucky before that. His father’s mother’s family, the Bobbitts, came to Linn County from Virginia in the 1850s and records show that the family had been in Virginia as early as 1744. All these branches were predominately Scotch-Irish, with strains of English and Welsh.
Nile’s grandfather Isaac Roby Wilson (1843-1906) and a friend named George H. Flint (1848-1917) were Union Army veterans who met in Indiana after the Civil War. Wilson and Flint took jobs hewing railroad ties as the railroads were being built across the Midwest. Part of their job was to help set up tent camps for the itinerant laborers who followed the rails inching westward. In late 1876 or early 1877, Wilson and Flint arrived in Linn County with a group of fellow itinerant railroad laborers. They began hewing ties for contractors in the old-growth, prairie-ringed white oak forest of Baker Township. Farmers who lived within a half-day’s wagon haul of the rail lines could realize additional income by leasing timber to contractors whose crews produced ties.
Tie hacking knew no politics. There were Confederate as well as Union veterans among the tie hackers. For the most part, they were young unmarried men who found themselves with few prospects or roots after the war. In the 1860s and 1870s, railroad labor was among the few decent jobs available. Contractors supplying the railroads found plenty of toughened, unmoored young men with a bit of adventure in them, boys who saw no future or comfort in the postwar environment “back East,” even in the victorious northern states.