Wednesday, January 20, 2016

From Tree To Memory (w/pics)

When my paternal grandfather bought the farm on which I would someday be raised, it was an active orchard and dairy. The farm lay mostly on a ridge top and was about four times longer than it was wide. About two-thirds of the way back the ridge, a high bench circled the head of the main hollow that ran back about three-fourths of the length of the farm. On the right-hand side of that hollow, the bench had been planted in peach trees in years past. For quite a few years, granddad continued to run the orchard and dairy, but gave up both sometime before his retirement from the oilfield. However, even many years later, that area of meadow was referred to as “the peach orchard field,” despite there being not a single peach tree remaining.

There was, however, a row of half-dead York Imperial apple trees along the brink of the bench and a huge, ancient wild cherry that marked the property line on the left end of the meadow. It was, perhaps, three feet thick at ground level, but tapered to about 30 inches just above where the top strand of barbed wire exited the bark. It was in even worse shape than the old apple trees and had only one or two live limbs, which died shortly after I was old enough to pay attention. The resulting snag served mainly as a place for the crows to perch, but and Dad left it since it was on the line. The day finally came when the last apple tree was dead and removed, but the old cherry tree remained, its outer few inches gradually succumbing to rot.

Finally, about the time I hit my twentieth year, Dad decided to cut the old tree. That was mostly because he’d recently moved his part-time sawmill operation from the wooded ridge three miles away, where I now live, to the farm. Cutting the tree off above the barbed wire, he found that he still had nearly 24 inches of solid wood which tapered, of course, to a smaller size as he went up the tree cutting logs. I don’t remember how many logs he got, but not many, as the rot got deeper toward the top. Still we got what we got some usable wood, sawed the logs on the mill and stickered the lumber in the upstairs of the barn.

There it sat until a few years after Dad’s untimely death, when I took the best plank to the muzzleloader shop where I was working and sawed a full-length gunstock blank from it. It also yielded a couple slender pistol stocks on the Tower pistol pattern (which I inletted for 13/16 barrels), and a few scrap pieces, which I saved. I further processed the stock blank into a slender, southern style stock blank with about a quarter inch of “cast out” and inletted it by table saw for a 13/16 barrel. I also drilled the ramrod hole.

My plan was to use iron mountings (as opposed to brass) to make it a “poor-boy” rifle. Though I didn’t belong to a re-enactment group or have period clothing, my plan was to set up a “long-hunter” kit of accoutrements. I traded some over-time for parts and ended up with a 40” Douglas barrel in .45 caliber with breech plug installed, two Small Siler flintlocks, a North Star double-set trigger, a set of iron sights, and a simple butt-plate from another gun that been “upgraded.” I’d planned to get a third Small Siler flintlock, a pistol barrel in .45 and a smooth-bore pistol barrel that would take the same size ball (probably about .46 caliber, since there’d be no rifling to accept the patch) and some simple triggers for the pistols. The idea was to hit the woods either with a rifle and two pistols loaded with round balls, OR load the smooth-bore with shot, for those frustrating times when a grouse practically climbs on your toe when you’re deer hunting.

Unfortunately, I parted ways with the shop after three-and-a-half years when they demanded that I work for them full-time all year. I was making more money at that time working part-time for myself than when I worked full-time for them, so I couldn’t really afford to capitulate to their demand. As a result, I never got traded for the third lock or the pistol barrels. I DID, however, find a horn with some reddish tones in it and make it into a powder horn with cherry end-plugs.

Full-time self employment can be an endless job, so work on the rifle kept getting put off. I finally decided to save it for a retirement project, along with a partially completed half-stock squirrel rifle that I’d been working on.

One thing that I did work on after leaving the shop was large knife for my intended kit. A neighbor had literally made the deal for another neighbor’s property at the man’s funeral. The little house and outbuildings were falling in, so the new owner took everything he wanted one day and told me to take anything that I wanted before he bull-dozed the place the next day. The only thing I found worth keeping was what I took to be a large, home-made butcher knife, though it could have been a corn-knife. It was rusted and pitted and nothing a normal person would want, but it caught MY eye. At nearly 20” long overall and 1-3/4” wide, I figured it would be the perfect “fighting knife” for my long-hunter kit. Many of the old-time woods runners carried a big butcher knife or something similar that could be used like a short sword or small saber; the big knife would be my version of the same. I got so far as to fit and glue a cherry handle on the tang end after drilling the two handle pin holes exactly where the originals were. I’d panned to cast a “pewter” hilt on the knife, but never got to it, and there everything has stayed these many years.

After learning that I had heart trouble and being off work because of it, I decided to sell the rifles, despite them being incomplete. Luckily, the friend that I jokingly call “the guru” was kind enough to buy the full-stock rifle for a little more than I might have had to settle for in this economy and locality. I threw in the powder horn and the big knife. I would have thrown in the pistol stocks, had he bought the second lock, but his generosity may have been straining his own budget. Maybe it’s just as well; I haven’t been able to uncover the pistol stocks yet, though I know very well that they are in the basement SOMEWHERE.

The guru is a bit of a Renaissance man, and a craftsman, so he needed a project. I hope I get to see the rifle when it’s done, though his vision for it is a little different than mine was. A photo of the incomplete rifle and knife are below. Click the images to enlarge.

The Cherry Full-Stock

The Big Knife
© 2016


Gail said...

What wonderful memories. We do the same thing here. The orchard hasn't had a tree in fifty years and the New Ground was cleared and planted seventy years ago but it will always be the New Ground and The Orchard to us.

I'm sorry you have to sell some of these items but they seem to be going to a good home where they will be loved.

Gorges Smythe said...

Yeah, folks really get confused when I refer to "the end of the pavement" on our road from town. The old brick road turned to gravel at the district line, which happens to be by a neighbor's corner fence post.