Even in a digital world, learning do-it-yourself, stockman skills remains invaluable. These early authors helped thousands of horse owners.
There’s great satisfaction that can be gained by doing things that aid in our “non-alienated labor” that is working with horses and stock—simply because we want to. Every stockman has found himself or herself in situations where something needed to be tied up or tied on. And learning how to be efficient with knots and skilled in ranch and farm settings can be greatly aided by calling up some instructional video someone posted on the Internet. Easy peasy, right?
Yes, but before digital shortcuts came along, the Western genre was blessed with some unique individuals who created some elegant & classic learning tools. Their ideas were unique to the West and appealed to an inquisitive, I-can-do-it-myself–thanks frame-of-mind that one could proudly describe as “American folk culture skills.”
One of the most influential of these folk culture curators was Eric Sloane (1905 – 1985). The writer and artist had an abiding love for America, a nation rooted in the simple virtues of love of freedom, respect for the individual, sensible frugality, and determined self-reliance. All of those qualities made up what Sloane perceived as our true and unique heritage. Sloane saw great importance, and example, in the work and ways of the early Americans of past pioneer days. They understood the importance of home and hearth, farm and field, the virtues of hard work, and doing things yourself with just what you had around.
Sloane wrote and illustrated a number of books that celebrated these ways, using them as inspirational examples for a contemporary life well lived. Once Upon A Time: The Way America Was, reprinted by Dover Press, reminds us of days long past, but in Sloane’s mind, the way it should continue. In the book’s postscript he writes, “The spirits and habits of yesterday become more difficult to apply to modern life. You never could grow pumpkins on Main Street but the whole nation is becoming a vast Main Street. The American heritage, however, is a lot more than yesterday’s pumpkin’s or romantic nostalgia, and if we can only mark time with our scientific progress long enough to let the old morals and spirits catch up, we shall be all the better for it.” Sloane went way beyond showing value of being able to tie a bowline knot or a diamond hitch; he showed readers how to work leather, build packs and erect all sorts of fencing. He even demonstrated a handy way to fold and pin a three-foot square piece of canvas that could carry water, in a pinch.
Sloane wrote, illustrated and gloriously hand-lettered over 40 books with titles such as The Seasons of America, A Reverence for Wood, Look at the Sky and Tell the Weather. Probably his most famous, Diary of an Early American Boy: Noah Blake – 1805, was based upon a diary Sloane discovered at a local library book sale. Most of Sloane’s books are still in print today.
Walter Bernard “Ben” Hunt (1888 – 1970) was an artist and outdoor educator who wrote over 30 books and innumerable articles on outdoor skills, as well as Native American crafts and art forms. His books contained intricate drawings and descriptions—especially those dealing with outdoor survival skills and what was called “Indian Lore” back in the day. The books were must-reads from the 1940s to the early 1960s. He was diverse in his interests, sharing his skills with readers on all kinds of how-to subjects including rustic construction, how to build a log cabin, Indian silversmithing and whittling. Hunt valued outdoor skills and felt they were applicable to everyone’s life—even “city folks.” A great supporter of industrial arts classes in local schools, Hunt stressed the ability to use simple tools, as he wrote in his book, Ben Hunt’s Big Indiancraft Book, “Most of the projects in this book can be made with nothing more than an ax and a pocketknife. It pays to get a good knife, one with two or three blades. Keep it in your pocket at all times and keep a good edge on it—always. A dull knife can reflect badly on its owner.” Solid words.
Born in 1893, Texan Bruce Grant wrote the book Leather Braiding, published in 1950, and it was quite possibly the first of its kind to describe and illustrate all kinds of leather braiding. In 1972 he published a larger volume, Encyclopedia of Rawhide and Leather Braidingthat also contained information on rawhide and rawhide braiding. Both books are considered must-reads for any aspiring braider.
Another classic book, first published in 1959, is Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails, written by Joe Back, who was born in 1899. His book gives a great history of horse packing and knot tying, and what Joe could do with a length of rope is still flat-out amazing. Joe operated long before the age of verbalized environmentalism, but always advocated leaving nothing behind in your camp other than “foot prints, hoof prints and unimportant conversations.” About packing in rough, isolated country, he wrote, “Most problems encountered by the packer and guide are the same as if you packed 100 years ago. You may have better materials to use in the rigs you now have, but the horse is still the horse of yesterday and you are your own grandpa.”
Everyone that reads Western Horseman knows the name Randy Steffen (1917 – 1977). Steffen’s Horseman’s Scrapbook was first published in 1959 and contained pages of ranch-raised DIY wisdom that were accompanied by Steffen’s own, detailed illustrations. Everything from fencing and gates to ropes and knots to truck and trailer tips are included in his complete and efficient volume. The book has been revised over the years, but the bunkhouse wisdom it exudes keeps it practical for today. There is an inescapable charm to Steffen’s tips and drawings, and like all the historian/artist/educators mentioned, what comes through is their honest desire to make the lives of their readers—who love working with animals and the outdoors—more fulfilled, meaningful and skillful.