Saturday, September 12, 2020

Blue-collar rods and guns


Stevens 311 from the 1970s reborn


Copyright 2020 Erik Helm


A concept of value…


At a gun show last year I lingered at a table where a vendor had on display and for sale a large collection of vintage hunting rifles and shotguns, and also a nice selection of old split bamboo fly rods. As I fingered the rods and a shotgun or two, mentally putting a monetary value to each item often much below the asking price, I found myself in a familiar quandary; what is value? Is it only measured in currency… or do sentiment, historic place, or even cultural and social importance give something value?


As I unscrewed an old aluminum rod tube and found a well used, and slightly bent three- piece Montague fly-rod with decayed varnish, I could hear an echo of the inevitable response as to value given by those experts and collectors who make it their business to let down the finder or inheritor with the words: ‘Barrel rod,’ ‘Wall-hanger,’ or ‘Only sentimental value.’


At face value, those clinically sober collectors are right. These outdoor tools carry very little monetary value since they were manufactured in the thousands. However, when it comes to a place in history or even sentiment these rods and guns mark a place on the American timeline that is much larger than just nostalgia; they accompanied multiple generations of Americans on their hunting and fishing adventures. They got used, scratched, dropped, bent, unbent, repaired with string, rusted, modified, covered with blood, fell out of boats and trucks, and made the American outdoor experience from roughly the 1920s through the 1980s what it was because they were durable and affordable. I call that value.


I juxtapose this with those beautiful hand made masterpieces in firearms and fly-rods that are avidly collected. The Garrison’s, Payne’s, or Gillum’s of fly rods… the Purdey or Holland and Holland double guns that are taken out from under their glass sarcophagus once a year to cast a fly or fire a shot, and then carefully polished and returned to their conservatory. They hold monetary value for sure as well as place in that they represent the very pinnacle of perfection of the hand-craftsman’s art, but they never went trough a briar patch or saw the bottom of a wet canoe…


 American sporting traditions were more raw than, for sake of comparison, British hunting and fishing. Americans got muddy, scratched, and wet. They hunted through swamps full of bugs and fished big brawling rivers. They were self-reliant. The folks who used these blue-collar guns and rods never saw a groomed trout-stream or shot from the butts on a driven hunt where the poorer townspeople banged the pots and pans to move the birds for their ‘betters’. Their chosen tools had to survive those swamps and wild forests.


Back in the day… from Town to Country.


In the American heartland state of Wisconsin, specifically the city of Milwaukee where I spent my childhood, there were factories everywhere. Entire neighborhoods grew up around them. Streetcar and later bus routes were laid down with the necessity of conveying workers back and forth. Small businesses emerged crouched in the great shadows cast by the factories, and one could discover in each factory neighborhood, perhaps sandwiched between a tavern and a newsstand or tobacco shop, a full-service sporting goods store. The nearest to our neighborhood was M&M Sporting Goods, which lay on a side street in the wake of the massive AMC auto plant on Capitol drive. My father took me there several times beginning when I was so young that I had to raise myself on toes and knuckles to peer at the displays at eye level. They had everything for the sportsman… as long as it didn’t insult a working man’s pocketbook. The less expensive fiberglass and cane fly rods were in a barrel. The guns were stacked behind the counter, and any common item such as ammunition, worms, pocketknives, etc. were placed at waist height on display tables in the center and near the door for convenience.


Come around Thursdays or Fridays a few minutes after the shift-end whistle sounded at the factory, the place filled with eager faces dreaming of the outdoors and a weekend getaway with the boys. The workers surged forth like they were released from a prison to get their rods and guns and supplies. Their tools of choice had common names: Stevens, Savage, Marlin, Harrington and Richardson, Ivers Johnson, and lower end Winchesters or Remingtons. On the fishing side were cane and glass rods by Garcia, Shakespeare, Union Hardware, Montague, Horrocks and Ibbotson, and rods made by companies like these for the trade market, (often with the retailer’s name on them.) These guns and rods were made and assembled in factories by mirror images of the workers who now bought them for the field and stream. They smoked the same cigars, and drank the same beer.


A couple of hours later when the dust settled, and the throngs of hunters and fishermen were well on their way to the woods and waters, the proprietors of the sporting goods store would begin the cleanup process. I expect over 80% of business was transacted in those several hours near the weekend. The rest of the week was just preparation.


In the malaise of the 1980s when the factories shuttered and rusted, the nearby sporting goods stores shared the same fate. Packards and Buicks no longer carried their cargo of outdoor enthusiasts northward for the weekend. My father pointed the vacant stores out like so many ghosts as we drove through Milwaukee’s industrial corridors. Empty storefronts staring blankly now with their signs and names fading: Viking, Flintrop, Spheeris, Casanova, Burghardt, and M&M. Pieces of America, and our sporting history where dreams were gently simmered and made.


Rural America was more durable in that respect, for the same sporting goods stores greeted us as we drove the family wagon up north in search of adventure and rest throughout the 1970s and 80s. They had been there for generations, and many are still there today, in the same spot, run by the founder’s grandkids, and selling the same goods to the sons and grandsons of their very first customers. Rural Americans still shared their hunting and fishing traditions with their sons and daughters, and still do today.


 Mom was born in a small town in central Wisconsin with a population of less than two thousand. When we visited, Dad and I and the men and boys sometimes found ourselves rather in the way when a flurry of bread baking and cleaning was undertaken. We did what generations of temporarily outcast members of the male sex did: we went to the local hardware-general-sporting goods store. A role often fulfilled by a single establishment in any small town in rural America. One thing was similar to the working class stores in the city: the goods that were sold had to offer both a high value for dollar spent, but also good functionality and above all durability.


A workingman or farmer only had enough disposable income to afford or justify a few well-chosen tools for the outdoors. These had to perform multiple duties…


Ever wonder why many of the old bamboo fly rods are a wee bit crooked? They didn’t start off that way. It may have happened through poor care and storage, but often it happened doing dual duty. Old Elmer, the farmer who also worked at the grain store part time had one fishing rod. It had a little stamped tin reel with a button that controlled the drag selection. The button had two settings: on and off. The rod could be used to cast a fly or chuck a worm or minnow, or with the reel drag turned off, it could be used to troll in a rowboat or canoe. It wasn’t a trout rod, it was a ‘Fishing pole.’ The bend in it might have come when old Elmer was trolling a chub and hooked a Musky that featured in a tale that grew taller each time it was told over a beer at the local tavern. The rod caught panfish that helped feed the family, cast plugs to bass, and placed a McGinty fly deep into a dark hole on the tannic river where the big trout lived.


When Elmer got back to his battered pickup, he placed the rod in the back next to the shotgun that always resided there. That gun was most likely a rusty pump or a side-by-side double. They defined the term “Twenty dollar gun.” They had a couple of features in common…


Any gun sold to a working class stiff or a farmer had better work, and work well and as hard as he did. It better hit what it is aimed at. If it didn’t, the new owners would be likely to show up back in the store where they purchased it wearing a frown and a dangerous look in the eye. Ornament and fancy hand-work had to take a back seat to durability as well. The duty list of the average blue-collar American shotgun might include in a given season: hunting grouse and duck, warning off the neighbor’s dog, shooting coyotes and foxes raiding the hens, eliminating feral cats, providing meat for the table, training the young’un in gun safety and responsibility, accompanying a farmer on his tractor, or even providing self-defense for his family.


For many Americans, the thanksgiving turkey did not come from the supermarket, it came from the woods, and that fish fry originated in a warm Saturday spent on a lake in a rowboat. Game was earned, not bought.


The theme of useful frugality is woven into this history because it was necessary. It also became part of our native culture and psyche.


My parents generation and all the uncles, grandparents and family relations and acquaintances had not come through America’s Great Depression unscathed or unmarked. The fear that someday everything you worked hard for might disappear, and that every household possession from the sewing machine to the shotgun and fishing rod had better be taken care of and valued was very real. Families rarely owned anything that did not see regular use, even the good china for Sunday dinner.


This frugality became a matter of pride: a sort of workingman’s ethos. Dignity was found in dirty fingernails and sweat. The memories of the Depression infected or affected the sons and daughters of Hoover and Roosevelt. Nothing was thrown away, and tin band-aid containers in the bathroom medicine cabinet or the kitchen contained rusty nuts and bolts, buttons, bread twist-ties, and collections of safety pins squirreled away, and only found when their grandsons and daughters dissolved their homesteads. They also found these old rifles, shotguns, and fishing rods, even after the tradition died; they had no clue of their family value, or how to use them anymore.


This is why, even if our farmer or factory man had a windfall miracle and could purchase the finest guns and rods available, or even knew there were higher-end choices than the local store offered, they still would shy away. For one thing, it would offend their sensibilities. It also might cause Grandma to break said high-end firearm or fly-rod over Grandpa’s head. The main reason would be that they would not wish to put on airs or get snubbed by the boys hanging out at the cracker barrel. “Who does he think he is?” Keeping up appearances is as necessary in the field as it is in the parlor.


Pride of Ownership


Yes, durability is one reason that these pieces of American sporting history can be enjoyed today handed down through the family or found as bargains at second-hand stores, but the stronger reason is that they were cherished.


Back at the gun show, I fondled an old Sears single-shot 12 gauge. Talk about no frills. This thing had a black painted finish to the receiver, a simple barrel, and a stock made from some awful wood. The barrel was polished like a mirror. Despite being 70 or 80 years old, it had no rust anywhere. It also had several repairs carefully done. Not by a gunsmith mind you, but by the owner or owners who repaired a split forearm with wooden pegs and glue so that you almost couldn’t see the repair, and who had also fashioned a new butt-plate out of leather. This gun was loved and cared for. Along with a fishing rod, it may have supplied food for the table when it might otherwise be unaffordable or unavailable. The labor of the factory worker built these, and they came back to serve the laborer and farmer. Born of sweat-equity, their usefulness outlived their users because they were so very important to subsistence, recreation, and dreams.




Marks of honor


Some of the shotguns that I caressed that day at the gun show were full of scratches, dents, spots of rust, and dings. Those were the marks of memories made in the outdoors, memories etched forever in the tool that got well used. The fly-rods had cork handles full of dirt with the finger and hand imprints of the owner who dared to dream of hunting and fishing before somewhere in the 1980s Dads got too busy or just forgot to pass on to their sons the traditions so dear to generations of men and boys.


So now, several generations removed, the grandchildren, digging in the attic or basement, find Grandpa’s old rusty Stevens 311 shotgun, or his crooked Montague fly-rod, and seeking it’s value, are told it is nearly worthless.


A beg to disagree. They are testament to a place in time in America that defined our thrift, our sense of adventure, our manufacturing ingenuity, and our freedom.


They contain memories more precious than gold.