It was a hundred twelve degrees in the shade and there wasn’t any shade. There were yellow jackets though and they were aggressive. Dad and I were pawing through the local dump looking to scrounge up some sheet metal. It was flip a piece of junk and swat half a dozen of the damn things. Mom and the younger siblings were sitting in the cab of the pickup it was so bad. Dump diving was always an adventure and it never ceased to amaze us what some folks would throw away. We had found serviceable boots, tools and equipment, furniture, pot and pans, lumber and steel, all kinds of things just left on the ground, those people must have been rich to toss all that away.
We were actually on a supply run to the local wide spot in the road. They had one general store that served up everything from food to fishing gear. Outside there were even two pumps for gas. It was a two story brick affair with two big plate glass windows set on each side of the door. Behind the windows were display areas. The second floor was the proprietors living quarters. A permanent fixture every time we went in always seemed to be a couple of kids out front with a box of kittens, free to a good home. Dad said they must have had a couple hundred acres planted to cats to have that many kittens. Just to demonstrate they still had one foot in the past, there was a hitching rail along the side of the store where no one parked a rig. Every so often we would pull in and see a horse hitched there, head drooping and tail idly swishing at flies.
The window on the right was showcasing items of interest to those of female persuasion and the one on the left designed to lure the men in. I can still picture the wire dress form with a dress hanging on it and bolts of fabric spread out around its bottom in a fan shape. There was a section of home appliances, primitive by today’s standards and a wood cabinet full of small pigeon holes having all kinds of things like thread, needles, zippers, clasps and even some makeup on display. Someone, most likely the store owners wife had set up a tea set display on a small round end table with a white table cloth having lace edges to it. There was a covered baby stroller on one side, but whoever thought that was a good idea had never tried to walk on our roads and there weren’t any sidewalks.
Over on the guys side there was fencing pliers, horsehide chaps, boots, fishing poles and a whole rack of guns, both rifles and pistols. Clothing in the window display was limited to some work pants, a few work coats and one full set of a Sunday Go to Meeting suit. There was a shelf holding some men’s toiletries like a straight razor, barbers brush and mug with shaving soap in front of it. Several other items, pocket knives, cigarette lighters and pocket watches and so on were spread out across it as well.
Inside the front door it was a little dark and gloomy but a whole world of goods was on display. Shelves went from the floor to the ceiling and every nook and cranny was crammed full of something. On the right side of the door was a glass display case and check out. More guns, fishing lures, ammo, patent medicines, ribbons, thread, buttons and hard candy filled its shelves. On top there was an old cash register and a balance beam scale. Down the center of the floor there were some barrels of dry goods and more shelves stacked to overflowing with canned and other foods. In the back there was ropes and farm equipment, tools and such.
Out in back was bulk storage and things like fence wire and posts, equipment and a stack of lumber. Barrels of oil and hydraulic fluid lined one side of the loading dock, a few of them had hand pumps so you could fill your own container from a quart can to five gallon bucket.
If a fellow wasn’t careful he could get lost in that store looking and longing for things way out of financial reach.
Us kids looked forward to going to the store because mom would always find a way to set back a few cents and let us each buy a nickle bag of hard candy. It was these little chunks of a semi clear, gray color all lumped together but it was sweet and more or less melted in our mouths. Our hands would be a wreck after eating it and mom was always after us to make sure we washed up. The guy that ran the place always seemed to slip in a little something extra for us kids. Other than being a nice guy I still don’t know why he did it. One time my sister opened up her bag to find a pink hair ribbon in a little bag on top. She wasted no time putting it in her hair. As soon as mom saw it she made dad turn around and go back to the store, she was convinced my sister had swiped it, because she sure hadn’t bought it. My mom and sister went storming into the store only to have a very embarrassed mother come back out with my sister still sporting that hair ribbon. When dad asked what happened my sister matter-of-factly told him “mama made an ass out of herself to the nice man”. She skipped the next few trips in to the store after that.
Back at the dump dad lets out a howl and for a moment I thought a snake got him or something but it turned out he struck pay dirt and found an old metal cabinet about four and a half feet wide by two feet tall by twenty inches deep with a door on it. It looked like it may have come off a service truck. We had already found several other pieces of metal so we loaded it all in the truck and headed for the store. Besides the other shopping, dad picked up some welding and brazing rod.
Once we got home dad and I set to work. I had turned out to be a fair hand with an oxyacetylene outfit and could run a pretty decent bead while dad could burn a hole in half inch steel plate in the blink of an eye. I started filling all the holes in the cabinet and once that was done we welded some half inch stand off strips on the sides, top and back of it. We formed up some of the sheet steel and I set to welding those to the stand offs and welding each seam closed. At the very last we drilled a hole in the top piece of sheet metal and near the bottom on one side. In these holes I brazed a threaded pipe nipple.
When we got all done we had a cabinet with a water jacket around all of it except the front and one end, which became the new bottom. We took it up to the house and hooked up a live line to the top fitting and a drain line to the bottom fitting. We were on springs for our water and repeated checking with a thermometer had proved the water stayed at a constant forty to forty one degrees out of the ground. When dad opened the valve on the line, cold water started flowing through the water jacket and before long we had a primitive refrigerator running. By the next day, after cobbling together a set of wire shelves to fit in it, a thermometer indicated it was holding right at forty three to forty five degrees and this was with some food in it.
Another thing we fabricated out of old junk was a shower. All us kids were getting too big to bathe in tubs any longer and mom was needing privacy of her own without having to shoo everyone out of the house. Dad and I rigged up an open top tank suspended from the ceiling, over a bathtub, with a nipple on the bottom hooked to a flexible line ending in a shower head. We would warm up water, pour it in the tank and you had a shower. It was jump in, turn the water on to get wet, turn off the water, lather up, then turn the water back on to rinse off. You couldn’t soak in a hot shower for half an hour but you could get clean that way.
One time we met up with some friends out in the middle of the mountains for a camp out. We already lived in the sticks so heading for the back country really put us out in the middle of nowhere. Dead center of fixing breakfast one morning mom’s turner broke as she was flipping hotcakes. She managed to finish breakfast somehow and later in the day while out poking around I came across a big old cedar tree that had tipped over and broken across another tree. There were some ribbons of cedar just about the right thickness so I started carving one up and made her a wooden turner and spoon. She used them for the rest of that trip and liked the turner so well she used it in the kitchen back to home. Only a few years back she pulled it out of a drawer to show me she still had it all these years later.
Some of us were up elk hunting up in the Washington cascades one year and if you’ve never hunted that country, let me just tell you if you don’t like the weather, wait a few minutes and it will change. The other thing to know is, you’re going to get wet. If it’s not snowing it’s raining or sleeting and most of the time it will do all three at once. Staying warm and dry was somewhat of a challenge so I always wore heavy woolen trousers to at least stay warm if not dry.
I put an elk down on this absolutely horrible stretch of mountainside covered with rock chutes and so steep you could stick your hand out and hit the bank in front of your face. My gun shot echoing off the opposite canyon wall brought some of my hunting partners my direction. There wasn’t an easy way to pack the elk out and being a lazy guy I suggested seeing as how it was such rugged terrain and we couldn’t drive close by we ought to pack it out to the bottom of the canyon because it would be easier to pack it down than up. Getting that elk off the mountain turned out to be an all day endeavor and we still weren’t done at nightfall. The bottom of the canyon was an absolute nightmare of tangled vine maple and swampy bottom crisscrossed with little freshets and fallen timber. The elk gods decided to add some spice to the action and guided one of the rain clouds over top of us. So now were not only packing out in the dark but the rain as well. It wasn’t long before we were thoroughly soaked to the bone.
The rain soaked darkness was swallowing up our light and we kept losing the trail out. Everyone would pull up and I would walk a compass line out to the main trail, get situated, then head back for the group. I finally got tired of the hassle going in and out and sticking a knife in a tree, rested a light in the crotch, facing back towards the guys and the elk. Just about the time I was losing sight of the light I did the same thing with a second knife and light. Now we had two light points to home on to find our way out through the thicket. So I’m trekking back through the dark without a flashlight, missed a step and ran the sharp end of a broken limb through my pant leg just above my boot clear up to my crotch. If felt as if I had ripped the whole inside of my leg open and as wet as I was I couldn’t tell if what was running down my leg was blood or not. I was afraid to look at how bad I might have hurt myself until I had someone around in case I passed out from shock and bled to death. Besides without a light it was as dark as the inside of a black cat and I wouldn’t have been able to see anything anyways. I drug myself part way up the mountain until I ran into the guys and only then did I dare to check how badly injured my leg was.
The guys shined some lights on the mess and I was really surprised to find I only had some relatively shallow gashes up my leg. There was some blood running but nothing too serious. My pants however were a real disaster. I limped back off the mountain and we followed my lights out and finally got the elk packed out to a road and then one of the guys showed up with a rig and we hauled it to camp.
The next morning my leg was so sore I opted to stay in camp. I only had two pair of wool hunting pants with me and had been changing them every other day to dry the other pair out. Being knocked back to only one pair was going to be a problem. None of us had a sewing kit with us so I went over to the elk and working one side of the backstrap stripped off some sinew about fourteen to sixteen inches long. Using a knife by the fire I started working some pieces apart. This is a job that goes a lot easier if you let the sinew dry out all the way first but I didn’t have the luxury of that kind of time. I would get a piece picked out and then hang it above the fire over a line to dry out some. Eventually I had a couple dozen pieces drying out. That evening I stripped the pieces down into individual strands. Once that was done it was on to stitching up my pants. Using the point of my knife blade I made small holes next to the tear on both sides, then using a running stitch with the sinew, pulled the torn sides tight. It took me awhile but eventually I had the leg closed back up. I left the pants to hang next to the coals of the fire over night and the next morning the sinew had pulled down tight and there wasn’t a gap in the leg anywhere. I wore the pants through the rest of that elk season with no trouble other than the leg hanging a little odd around the knee. You have to make do with what you have or go home.
I first got taught about stripping sinew by an old indian fellow way up in the mountains when I came up on him while he was working on a deer carcass. I mean I had read about it but never seen it done in real life. We had run into each other several times as he lived on the top of a knob in a little house, having a white picket fence around it of all things, right out in the middle of nowhere. My summer job was riding herd on a few bunches of cattle on open range up in that area. I was living in line cabins and where ever I dropped a bed roll. I would shoot a grouse or catch some fish and head over his way and get invited to stay for dinner, which beat my cooking all to hell.
That’s where I ate dog for the first, and I might add, the last time and when I found out what it was it didn’t stay down long. I showed up one evening at his place and he had a big pot of stew hanging on a hook in the fire box of his fireplace. It was ready to go so I dished up a big bowl and chowed down. It tasted really good and I had a second bowl. We had this little game we played. When I would show up to eat I never knew what kind of meat he was going to have. If I could guess what the meat was he would tell me I was right. If I couldn’t guess it, it remained mystery meat. I couldn’t figure out what was in the stew so I started guessing out loud. I knew it wasn’t rattlesnake and it wasn’t deer or elk. The pieces were too big to be a game bird. It seemed to be too tender to be bear, maybe it was cougar? He just shook his head no. By the time I was leaving I still hadn’t figured out what kind of meat it was.
Just as I got to the door it dawned on me I hadn’t seen his dog around. He had this white dog that was just out of puppy stage and normally when I would show up it was all over me. “Say where’s your dog?” I asked him as I was turning around at the door. A little gleam came and went in his eyes and I knew what the mystery meat in the stew was, it was his dog. Well every bit of that stew came back up in a heartbeat and I barely made it to his little fence before I hurled the whole mess. He was pretty disgusted with me for letting my brain rule my belly, as he put it.
Back to the sinew, he stripped the sinew from both back legs and both sides of the backstrap. He had some that was already dried and showed me how to pound dried sinew from the backs of the hind legs to break out the individual fibers. The sinew from the backstrap didn’t need to be pounded. Once it dried it was relatively easy to separate the individual fibers.
Sinew really intrigued me because I was going through a primitive mountain man phase about then. I ended up using it to lash rock points to staffs making spears and another time, after knapping an obsidian knife, sinew was used to lash a handle on it. If you ever want a sharp edge, learn knapping obsidian to make a knife. The edge you can get, though crude, was sharper than any metal bladed knife I’ve sharpened. You won’t get a blade formed just like a steel knife but you can get an edge so sharp it can cut you just by looking at it. Take a hint and get a pair of goggles and wear a good pair of heavy leather gloves when you first start to experiment, either that or purchase band aids by the gross.
We spent an awful lot of our time growing up figuring out how to make do with what we had or could rustle up. As a kid, mom and dad at first, then us as we got older made a lot of what we had. If you lost or damaged beyond recovery your knife sheath for example, you didn’t go purchase a new one, you made or fixed what you had. When our boots wore out so bad they couldn’t be repaired any longer, and trust me, at one time my old man was a boot and saddle maker, so if we couldn’t fix them there was nothing left, then we made moccasins. The hide from the back of an old bull elk was preferable for something like this but we used what we had. When mom ran out of fabric and there was no money to purchase more we used buckskin. I went through many a pair of buckskin pants over the years. My mom said I was so rough I wore my clothes out from the inside first.
It may sound odd these days but we really did live off the land a lot. The wilds gave us meat, we foraged for wild edibles, we used rawhide all over the place and used buckskin for clothing. Many a time our drinking water came from a spring and our heat for cooking and warmth came from wood. Let me tell you something, though a lot of people romanticize living off the land it is hard, hard work that never ends. Yes sir, food and raw materials came from the land and we used just about every bit of everything we grew or harvested.
Though it was seldom any usable part of a game animal was left on the ground I never developed a taste for brains or tongue, besides the brain had a different use than being eaten. After more or less being force fed liver and onions as a kid I developed a rather strong aversion for it that is still with me to this day. Rather than waste it I just give it to someone that likes liver. The same went for the kidneys but other than these few things most the rest of wild game was utilized in one form or another.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned it somewhere else but beyond the meat we always used the hide turning it into buckskin most of the time using a brain tanning method. It might be of interest to note that most of our game animals have a brain just big enough for brain tanning their own hide. Making buckskin actually started well before an animal was ever harvested. Even though we didn’t live in or near a hardwood forest and mostly burned tamarack or fir we always kept a rick or two of hardwood around. The stove would get cleaned and we would burn hardwood for a few weeks keeping all the ashes. Once cooled they would get stored in plastic five gallon buckets. When it got close to hunting season the buckets would get topped off with water from a spring or creek. The hardwood ash and water would start forming lye. After sitting in the buckets for a few days it would be allowed to perk through a plastic bucket with holes drilled in the bottom. The liquid that ran off was a lye solution. There’s a lot of different ways to determine how strong the lye was. One a lot of folks employed consisted of trying to float a raw egg in it. Depending on how much of the egg stayed above the lye level determined how strong it was. The more egg that floated the stronger the lye. We never messed with worrying about how strong our lye was because we used it for causing the hair to slip on a hide. Just a word of caution, even a weak solution of lye can burn the shit out of your skin and eyes so if you start messing around with it, be safe.
Anyway tanning a hide started well before you’re skinning the animal. When you got to the skinning part you wanted to take extra effort to not cut, slice or otherwise damage the hide. This includes things like skinning too tight and making a thin spot in the hide. Once the hide was off it was washed it to get all the blood and dirt off it. This isn’t absolutely necessary at this point but it sure made it a lot nicer to handle the hide.
Post cleaning the hide got tossed on a fleshing tree and fleshed. A fleshing tree was a big piece of log or beam, rounded on the edges and the end that let you drape the hide over and around it. It was usually mounted to the base at an angle. Then, using a fleshing knife (you can make a serviceable fleshing knife by grinding down an old file and a couple pieces of wood for handles, but don’t put too sharp of an edge on it) you want to remove all the meat and connective tissue from the face of the hide. Basically this is a big scraping job and you will get dirty, tired and pissed off before you’re done.
After this the hide was dumped in a plastic barrel and covered with lye and left to soak for anywhere from a day to several days, getting turned every day to ensure the lye was reaching every part of the hide. The reason for specifying a plastic barrel is lye can eat through a metal bucket and it’s almost a certainty that it will react with metal or wood and cause coloring of your buckskin. You can tell when it’s ready to be removed from the lye solution by checking to see if the hair is starting to slip. Another reason for using lye is it helps open up the structure of the hide making it easier for the brain tanning mixture to penetrate the hide. The third reason is it’s something we could make ourselves so we didn’t have to spend money on some commercially produced tanning product.
Coming out of the solution the hide was carefully washed again to remove the lye. We had an old water trough filled with water where we dunked the whole hide and sloshed it around, then it got draped it over a hanging rod and a final rinse was performed on both sides and it was left to drip dry some.
When the worst of the water had drained it was back on the fleshing tree to remove the hair and the epidermal layer of the hide. If you only removed the hair the hide would dry hard. This, just like the fleshing, is a big scraping job and you will get dirty, tired and pissed off all over again.
After all the hair was removed the hide would get washed again and then draped over what we called a raking board. This was a board or plank that had been cut to a pretty sharp edge on one side with the board mounted so that edge was facing up. The hide was draped over it and allowed to start drying. We would work every bit of the hide back and forth over the edge, breaking down the connective fibers in the hide. This is a step that could be done at several different points in the process but we found it easiest to do before the hide had a chance to dry out all the way and needed to be re-wet again.
Now came the brain, usually it had been sitting in a pail with just enough water over it to keep from drying out. It would be mixed with just enough water to completely immerse the hide and the hide would be soaked for a day. The hide would get worked by hand in this solution making sure every bit of the hide was worked and then it would get left to soak for a second day.
Once the hide soaked for two days it would get rung out removing as much excess water from the hide as possible then stretched on a constructed platform or frame, flesh side up. We would poke series of holes in the edge of the hide and using rawhide tied off to anchors pull the hide tight in every direction. Finally, using a wooden scraper with a fine, but rounded edge, on one side and a fine toothed edge on the other side, the whole hide would be drawn using the smooth edge to remove as much water as we could. We would try to recover as much of this water to return brain solution as possible in case we had to perform another brain soak.
As the hide dried it would get worked with both sides of the scraper. Penetration of the brain solution would be checked by cutting a piece of the hide near the edge. The coloration difference would let you know the penetration depth. If we didn’t feel it was enough we would hand work more of the brain solution into the stretched hide and continue the raking process with our scraper as the hide dried.
Once the hide had dried thoroughly it was checked to make sure it was fully pliable. Any spot not pliable would get more brain solution rubbed into it and more work with the rake.
At the very last the hide would get hung in the smoke house and smoked in a low temperature environment for a day or two up to a week. Different woods would provide different coloration and varying degrees of finish. We usually used hemlock for the amount of tannin present in it. Dad hated to use pine because he felt the extra creosote from pine left the buckskin feeling tacky, especially if it got wet. Once it came out of the smokehouse we would hang it outside for several days to let it cure, for lack of a better name. This made a buckskin that was soft and supple enough you could wear it next to bare skin without discomfort.
Another thing we pulled from the wilds were a few primitive medicines. There’s a lot of plants in the wilds that can treat a variety of ailments.
We used a solution made from the roots of Oregon grape for sore throats and as a general disinfectant. In this case you want to shave the orangish colored root from the white core and use the colored root steeped in alcohol for several weeks to make a tincture. A few drops added to a hot drink was what mom made us drink. She would wipe down our counter and table tops after processing meat on them with it too. We also used it as a topical disinfectant on cuts and scrapes. When I got older and researched it I found out it contains berberine which is a strong antimicrobial.
In the late spring and early summer mom used to send us through the woods to collect Old Man’s Beard Lichen. This is a greenish gray lichen that hangs from limbs and brush and looks like a loose spun, long fiber moss for lack of a better description. It’s pretty dry in its natural state but we would finish dry it then grind it into a powder. It has anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties and we used the dried powder directly on cuts and to treat ringworm and athlete’s foot.
Devil’s club, if you ever run into it you’ll never again wonder about its name. It is a somewhat viney plant and the stem is covered with thousands of little barbed thorns that will raise a fester in a heartbeat. Out hunting one time I went to jump a short coupled ditch on a steep hillside and just as I leaped the bank gave way. I reached out to grab a hold of anything in reach and it a happened to be a Devil’s club. Damn, my hand looked like I pushed it into a porcupine’s back. It took be the better part of an hour to pick out all the thorns and my hand swelled up so bad I just about couldn’t close it. Yet for all its negative attributes when hiking or hunting it does have its good points, it’s a member of the Ginseng family and a steam of the roots and stem will help the aches of rheumatism. We drank a weak tea made from the bark and leaves to help lower fevers and based only on empirical evidence it worked. It was said the pulped berries would treat head lice but we, fortunately, never had to test this out.
When the crud would hit us and we’d get so stuffed up we couldn’t breath mom would whip up a tea and poultice from yarrow leaves. We’d drink some tea and then have the poultice smeared on our chest. I’ll tell you one thing, it breaks up mucous like you wouldn’t believe. She also used a thick poultice to stop bleeding and reduce pain on cuts and scrapes.
We used a lot of other plants for different things and there’s over a hundred plants and herbs in the Pacific Northwest that can stand in place of modern medicines and it behooves everyone to spend some time learning about what’s out there in your particular neck of the woods, especially if everything ever goes to hell in a hand handbasket.
I don’t know if this kind of stuff even interests you guys (and gals) so I better wrap this one up.