Off to Colorado
I know, it's not a big move from Wyoming to Colorado, but, I suppose it's worth mentioning. It just so happened that my Ag teacher from high school had taken a job as a ranch manager of a buffalo ranch in Brush Colorado and was looking for help. Being young, I wanted to move around a bit so I took him up on his offer and moved to Brush Colorado. For those of you who have never been to Brush, you're not missing much. It was fun however to work with the buffalo, (not something I had done before).
They are like cattle, but a lot different. They're faster than cattle for one thing, you usually work them from further away, the principles are still the same though. They'll outrun most horses. I had a fast horse and could outrun a buffalo, but the buffalo could keep that 25 mile per hour lope up for hours. Not many horses can do that. Also, they get aggressive. If crowded, they'll slice each other up with their horns, they'll slice you up, your horse, they don't care. I've got a picture of a buffalo calf that I tried to bottle feed. It's mother had died and the calf was abandoned in the pasture. So, the other cowboys had caught it and put it in the round pen. It was running around the round pen when I first saw it, and I thought I was going to have to rope it to catch it and get it to eat. But, after just a little bit, the calf put its head down with its tail up and charged me! Keep in mind, buffalo have small calves, so this thing was probably 50 lbs. Of course it bounced off of me, and made me laugh. The second time it did it, I caught it and tried to bottle feed it, but it was too stubborn to be fed, it died a few days later. But, that just goes to show you how stubborn and wild buffalo are. The herd mentality is strong in cattle, it's even stronger in buffalo. (Which is one of the reasons the Indians were successful in getting them to run off of cliffs). You can control a whole herd of buffalo if you keep this in mind. Also, if you've got one out, they're probably all out. Sometimes moving buffalo is like moving a freight train at high speeds. Great line of work for a person in their early 20's seeking some adventure.
I got bored of this. It's not that the job was boring. I just knew that there was more to my life than this. When I worked for the ranch in Brush I did a lot of leather work, and some rawhide braiding, I even managed to build a pistol while I worked for the Diamond Tail. When I was 22 I was sort of at a cross roads, I planned to either to go to college, or go to Alaska.
It's a rainy, cold day here today. Perfect for updating the website.
My apprenticeship to Steve was not really a traditional apprenticeship. By that, I mean In the old days of a true apprenticeship, the apprentice would work for the master for a number of years in exchange for room and board and an education, and usually a set of tools in the end. In this, I provided my own room and board. So, I had to have a full time job as well, and I just drove out to Steve's every chance I got to learn the art of muzzle loading gun building. Like I said, it was a very loose arrangement. None the less, he was a very good teacher, and I'd like to think that I was an above average student. I learned a lot. I'm not sure what Steve got out of it, but he does like to teach.
We traveled West coast to East coast in the span of a month. We went to Oregon to a gun makers fair, where I met a lot of talented, inspirational gun builders. Two weeks later we were on the east coast at several different rendezvous making contacts, selling guns etc. It was a fun summer, but at the end of it, I was broke. Of course at the time I really didn't need a lot of money to live on. But, I lived on about $800 that whole summer. It really was the lifestyle of a starving artist. I had to get a real job.
I did a variety of things during this time period. It is easy for an 18 year old kid with a ranching background to find work probably any place in the country, but especially in Wyoming. I worked for a construction company, worked for a farmer, I had worked for a bullet company the year before but, it had shut down temporarily, when it started back up I went back to work for them. So, I was making pistol bullets during the day, and spending a few hours in the evenings building muzzle loaders. When the pistol bullet company (Cast Performance) started back up, we were trying to run the equipment around the clock, I volunteered for the night shift, which should have been 12 hour days but were often 14. I found that I don't do well with the night shift. I was exhausted all the time. Also, I didn't get a lot of gun building in during this time period. I did make a lot of friends though, I think the people of Wyoming are probably the salt of the Earth. But, after doing this for a year, I started looking around for another job.
Ok, back to the story.
I really got lucky to meet Steve. Like I said I'd already decided that I wanted to be a muzzle-loading gunsmith. In fact I had written a letter to Gary Brumfield, who at the time, was the head gunsmith at colonial Williamsburg, asking about an apprenticeship program. I never got a response from that letter. But, that didn't curb my enthusiasm. Later that summer, which would have been 1996 (I was 16 at the time), I went to my first muzzle-loading rendezvous.
For those who don't know what a rendezvous is, it is a camp out where the people loosely re-enact the period of the free trappers which would have been approximately 1820-1840. It's a fascinating time period in history and there were several original rendezvous. Originally, the free trappers were basically independent contractors who were outfitted by a trading company, usually in the form of a loan for the supplies they would need to head out west and trap beaver. These were the days of beaver felt hats and they were big business in the day. So the trappers were typically loyal to one trading company or another, and of course sometimes completely independent. But, they were called free trappers because in the end, they worked for themselves, and often by themselves. So, the problem was, how to get the furs from the mountains to civilization. An enterprising fellow by the name of William Henry Ashley came up with the idea of instead of waiting for the trappers to come down from the mountains back to St. Louise, he would take a caravan of wagons loaded with goods that the trappers would need to the mountains. And, so the rendezvous was born. Originally, they were a two week long party where a lot of trading was done, some gambling, competitions, etc. White men and Indians both, and from what I've read even enemies set aside their differences to go to the rendezvous. So, a good time was had by all.
Modern day rendezvous are similar. People come from all walks of life to camp out and get away from their modern lives for a few days. There are always a lot of competitions. Shooting competitions, tomahawk throws, knife throwing competitions, sometimes races, sometimes horse events. That's always fun, plus just getting together with a lot of people who are usually interested in a simpler time and way of life, and away from the TV and nowadays the computer for a few days is rather refreshing. Of course there is a dress code, usually all the clothing and equipment is supposed to be pre-1840s. So, it is the perfect spot for somebody interested in history, and building muzzle loading rifles.
Back to my story. Like I said, I was 16 at the time. There were other 16 year olds there. But, they were all there with their parents. I was always a very independent person and my parents respected that, so they let me borrow the family car and I went to Burwell for the 4th of July rendezvous. It was a very productive 3 day weekend for me.
I sold a gun, (on trade). A guy I met at the rendezvous saw the pistol that I had made and evidently thought I had some potential. He was a pretty good builder himself, he made musical instruments, mandolins and dulcimers. He bought a parts set for a trade gun at the rendezvous and wanted me to build it for him in exchange for one of his hand built mandolins. I am pretty musically talented as well, so I was thrilled to have one of his mandolins. In the end, he thought he got the better end of the bargin, and I'm pretty sure I did, I've still got the mandolin. That's the way a trade should work. I met a lot of interesting people at the rendezvous. Made a lot of contacts. Won a little money in the tomahawk throw. And, met Steve.
I really didn't expect there to be any muzzle loading gunsmiths at the rendezvous. As it turned out, this was a larger rendezvous and there were two gunsmiths set up with their booths. Steve's were by far the best I had ever seen in person. He was so easy to talk to. Of course I showed him the pistol that I had just built, which was rather ugly. He picked it apart, told me it was going to hurt my feelings, but pointed out several flaws, and also, pointed out how it could have been right. It didn't hurt my feelings though. I knew it could have been better and was thrilled to know how. I talked with him for hours that day about guns, architecture of guns, methods, styles, you name it. There were so many things he told me that day that I did not fully grasp until later, I just soaked as much of it up as I could like a young impressionable sponge. It turned out, he liked to teach, he's very good at what he does, and I like to learn. Also, at the time, he was considering taking on an apprentice! It really was a chance meeting, I'm sure that's the only time he has done the Burwell rendezvous, that's the only time that I have been to the Burwell rendezvous, and like I said, that was my first rendezvous ever. Of course we stayed in touch, with letters. People still wrote letters in those days, even though we had the phone. I still had a year of high school to complete but I had a plan. I was not going to go to college, although I was smart enough to go to college. I did not want to work an office job, I wanted to work with my hands and build works of art. One thing led to another, and I did apprentice to Steve.
Thanks to Steve's advice, the trade gun that I built in exchange for the mandolin turned out much better than the pistol I had built. The rifle that I built after that turned out much better than the trade gun. I was still in high school at the time, and I built the guns in the high school Ag shop. It was a different time. One day, the guidance counselor came to the shop and watched me work on a rifle. Looking back on that I know he was really there to pressure me into going to college. He probably gave me up for a lost cause, but he was impressed by the work I was doing. We can't all work white collar jobs. Somewhere along the line, somebody actually has to produce something.
So, I graduated high school 1997 at the age of 17. Son of a dairy farmer. I had managed to save $700. I had no bills, no car, no job, just a passion to build nice things and I wanted to get to Wyoming to learn to build nice muzzle-loaders. I did have a horse though.
So, I packed my saddle bags, saddled up and rode to Riverton Wyoming. 550 miles to be exact to learn my trade. It took 26 days. You do have to give a horse time to graze along the way. It was a great way for a 17 year old kid to see the country. I knew it was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I figured after that, I would probably always have bills and some responsibility, but at the time, I was completely carefree. So, just to prove to myself that I could do it, I did it.
I see that it's after midnight again. This will have to be continued...
For those interested. This is a blog intended to chronicle some of the projects of Niobrara Timber and Woodworks. It is also going to go more in depth into who we are, and why it is that we do what we do, life in general, and a whole host of other topics.
This has been on my to-do list for a long time. I know some will be interested and others won't be. I want to discuss the business, the tools, the methods, the things that work, the things that don't work, dreams for the future. I'll hold nothing back and try not to bore you with unnecessary details. So, if you're interested come along for the ride!
Of course, now I have writers block...
First of all, it may not be clear from the website, but this is a first generation business. I plan to make it multi-generational, that will be covered in the blog.
To know where we are going, we must first know where we have been. So, I'll start at the beginning.
I grew up on a small Dairy farm/ beef cattle ranch just a few miles from here. I was born in 1979 so my childhood was in the 80's and 90's. I think I had the perfect childhood. Growing up on a farm/ranch was fun! I got to ride horses, drive tractors, work with my hands, use antique tools, (I'll cover that more later). I had a lot of fun, and learned a lot at an early age that I really didn't know, would later shape me into the person that I am today, or later shape our family and family business into what it is today.
It was tough in agriculture in the 80's. I did not know it at the time being a kid and all, just from what I've heard a lot of family farms went bust. Cattle prices were low, milk prices were low, fortunately feed costs were also low, but that hurt the feed producers, all the while prices for everything else were on the rise. Interest rates were high and from what I've heard banks were difficult to deal with. Most of our living came from the dairy farm and milk prices did not fluctuate a bit from 1980-2000. You could set your watch by it, we were paid $11/cwt. for raw milk. (That's $11 per hundred pounds, or roughly 88 cents/ gallon). Of course all this time prices of everything else went up at an alarming rate.
My Dad later confided in me that he thought he'd lost the family farm twice! This was a farm that had been in the family for three generations at the time and that he, and his brothers and sisters had grown up on. Imagine how it would have felt to be the one to loose the family farm.
Through it all, I had no idea that we were so poor. (In a way, poor is a state of mind, we were money poor, that is all.) My Dad always kept a positive attitude and we worked. Milking cows, and running the beef cattle herd, as well as a little farm ground is no small feat. At the same time, my Dad as a side business was a seed dealer. I remember being 7 and asking for chores to do to help out. From that point on, it was my job to feed the bucket calves. (on a dairy farm there are always bucket calves to feed.) Of course when I was old enough I had many, many other responsibilities around the family farm as well. I was in the hay field driving a tractor with a mower at the age of 11. That may not be OSHA approved, but it is life in rural america. I always wanted my birthday off, as my birthday is during haying season, that never happened.
I remember my 8th birthday well, I was so mad that I had to go and feed the bucket calves that morning. I drug my feet, and threw a typical 8 year old temper tantrum, my parents had hid my birthday present in the grain bin! It was a BB gun! They were teaching me a work ethic, way before I even understood a work ethic. And, I thank them for that.
In later years almost every one of my birthdays at least through my teenage years was spent in the hay field. Not a big deal, even today being self employed I work through my birthdays unless they fall on a Sunday. I figure a birthday is great! It's much better than not having one, but the fact of the matter is that everybody does have birthdays. So, it's no big deal. Besides, I like to work. As a grown up I like my job, even as a kid I liked to work. I hope I can instill that work ethic in my own children.
When I say that I grew up poor, I'm really not exaggerating. Other small family farms were going out of business, but some others were driving newer equipment. We just maintained what we had and stayed in business, but barely.
I got told no a lot as a kid. I wanted the normal fun things that kids want, but my parents simply could not buy them, and keep the family farm in business. But, they did allow me a way to earn money, (I raised chickens and sold eggs) and they let me use the tools that they had to build the things that I wanted. That taught me a very valuable lesson, I could either save the money from the egg money to buy the thing, or buy the materials and build whatever I wanted. I had no real building instructor at the time so sometimes I would have to buy the materials and a book. This was pre-internet days.
So, at an early age I was taught a work ethic, and I was shown that sometimes instead of buying stuff, that I could build the stuff that I wanted. If I did not know how to build something, I would search for a book on how to build it. The answers are usually out there if one is willing to do the research. From that young age I've always thought that I can build anything that I set my mind to, and so far I have not been proved wrong.
Basically, I grew up on a working museum. We drove tractors from the 1930's. They built them to last back then, and with the proper maintenance they can obviously last 60 plus years. We stacked hay in those days and the rakes that we pulled with the old tractor were actually horse drawn rakes from an even older era. Keep in mind, we used this equipment and it was probably 2002 before my Dad and Uncle switched to baling hay. Prior to this, we ran a 1935 John Deere B for the rake tractor, a 1936 John Deere B for the sweep tractor that my Granddad had turned around backwards so that you swept in reverse, a 1937 B, a 1947 B and a 1934 A as mower tractors. That's just some of the antique equipment that we still used. All of the horse drawn equipment, and equipment that was put out of service before I came of age to use it was still on the place parked neatly and most of it covered with tin, as if waiting for the next use. I love to show people the old equipment, planters, choppers, mowers, rakes, etc. Of course scrap iron dealers would love to get it, but I think it has so much more value than that. I like to just look at it and think of a bygone era. Two row corn pickers, one row corn pickers, when today we have combines that can harvest 32 rows at a time. A lot of the old equipment in the trees was horse drawn as well. In fact in the old barn we still have a lot of the harness that was used, of course it's degraded over time, but it get's the imagination working, especially for a young boy.
So, there I was in my early teens a solid American farm boy with a good work ethic, and I found a forge in the back of one of our sheds. When I say that I grew up on basically a working museum, this particular shed was the homestead shack of the original pioneer who homesteaded the property. Yes, it is still standing. But, back to the story, my Great Grandfathers forge was still in the building, untouched, unneeded for several years. I put it back into service. Of course there was some learning curve that went into that. One of my other Grandfathers, my Grandpa Birch happened to teach black smithing prior to WWII (He fought in the war). But, he made a special effort to come to Nebraska and spend a few days teaching me the art of black smithing. I am forever grateful. He passed away a few years ago, but the life lessons I learned from him are invaluable.
You're all probably wondering where the guns tie into this, or even if they tie into this. Well, I'll tell you when I was 14 I really wanted to go deer hunting. And it's not because I like to kill or anything like that, it's probably more of a right of passage for a young man, for those non-hunters just bear with me a little. All of my friends were going deer hunting, it's just what people of age do in Nebraska. So, I wanted to go deer hunting as well. My Dad was not a hunter, I wanted to buy a 270, he said no, but I did convince him to let me buy a muzzle loader. Of course as I was earning my own money at the time selling eggs value was a concern. I found a kit gun that came with two barrels, a 36 caliber and a 50 caliber. So, I assembled the gun and interchanged the barrels a few times, but I had seen the insides of the gun, and I realized that they weren't really very complex. And, I decided that I could use the spare barrel to make another gun. So, I did. Keep in mind I was 14 at the time. It took me three attempts to make a workable firearm, and that was crude at best. Then, I made another slightly better. By then, I had read a little about the old time gunsmiths and seen some examples of fine firearms, and that is what I wanted to do with my life.
I was 16 by this time. I don't like firearms for their ability to kill. What I really like are the golden age flintlock rifles, the ones that built this country. I like them for their grace and beauty, but also for their history. And, I realize that at one time these guns sole job was to kill whatever or whomever was in their path. They were the assault weapon of the day. But, they were also beautiful.
Once my Grandmother told me I was obsessed with guns. To this day I do not know why she felt compelled to tell me this. I'm really not obsessed with guns, and I never have been I like beauty, style, grace, tools, which is what I see a gun as a tool. If you get the chance check out golden age guns. this all ties into federal style furniture as well. If you can make a gun, you can make a cabinet and you can make a dresser and a house as well. The point is. Don't limit yourself, I don't limit myself.
So, when I Was 16 I happened to meet Steve Zhin. He took me on as an apprentice, it was a very loose arrangement. I learned a lot, but in the end had to do something that actually brought in money. So, I went back to ranching, LOL.
I just looked at the time, this is going to have to be continued...