By John Curry
What in the world kind of a place have I just walked into? Holy moly! I can’t believe my eyes. Non-stop muzzle loading rifles and everything that goes along with them – from sea to dagone shining sea! Bona fide, real-for-real, black powder experts everywhere I look. Lordy lord Toto, I don’t believe we’re in Martinsville any more. Never in my whole twenty years on this planet had I ever seen anything like it… Well then, O.K. Here we go. Let’s do this!
Being swept along through that shoulder-to-shoulder mob like a tiny chunk of driftwood riding a huge, flooded river, further and further downstream upon our roughly graveled, main entranceway; on past the clubhouse and not having a clue where I was going; the gunfire became louder and louder with my every step. Hearing such an irresistible, remarkably curious racket, I had to get a better look, and (in a manner of speaking), simply rolled along with the flow.
Temporarily freeing myself from the undulating masses and more or less embedded now squarely into the extreme southern perimeter of our main range, I could hardly envision the sights, sounds, action, etc. taking place directly in front of me. The firing lines – good grief, all those people up on the firing lines. Such an intense flurry of activity amid the constant, ragged discharge of countless longrifles, bench guns and target pistols: shooting, loading, swabbing out their fouled, meticulously rifled bores, performing all their various, ultra-precise, maintenance regimens! Back home I was used to seeing maybe two or three men either shooting or else preparing to shoot their muzzleloaders – not two or three hundred! (What is this place!?!)
Gazing eventually back over my shoulder toward the southwest, I could tell there were in fact rows upon rows of hardline, heavy duty, muzzle loading shops and black powder oriented businesses. You know, all the ones you see regularly advertised in Muzzle Blasts – arranged in nicely organized, neat and orderly streets… Well, sort of organized, semi-orderly streets… O.K., filled to the brim with enthusiastic, blackpowder nuts charging here, there and yonder thinking, “Geminey Christmas, I’ve never seen so much cool stuff in all my life”! I had no idea I was staring straight into the epicenter of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association’s famous, “Commercial Row” – but I was about to find out.
Momentarily dislodging myself from the throngs of interested onlookers milling about at the edge of our main range, I managed to wriggle and inch my way over to that flourishing, prosperous, highly celebrated business district’s wide, central thoroughfare. And there I was… Young, ignorant Mr. Nobody – standing at the gates of muzzle loading heaven. Gawking “as the crow flies” down that long, spacious aisle way, there didn’t appear to be one square inch of open ground. Men, women, children of all ages, casually moving about, attending to their own individual interests – all the way up, down and bank to bank! Off to my immediate right, Mr. Turner Kirkland of Dixie Gun Works fame sat in his booth, closely examining an elderly man’s, nearly pristine condition, mid-nineteenth century derringer. I knew next to nothing about civil war era derringers, but I knew they loaded from their muzzles with black powder… so I was fascinated.
Across this grand boulevard and to my left, the tremendously respected artist and legendary lock maker, Russ Hamm deftly schooled a tightly packed, attentive group of gun builders as well as motivated longrifle students from the confines of his own booth, on the relationship of time periods and geographic areas in regard to the different styles and shapes of gunlocks – simultaneously selling his fine percussion locks and flint locks at about as fast a clip as he could hand them out. At that particular point in my life, I wasn’t too awfully sure what in the heck a “flintlock” even was. (Flintlock!?!) But I knew they were used on guns that loaded from their muzzles with black powder… so I was fascinated.
A few shops further on down, Jesse Booher’s amazing establishment stretched out along the southern side of the street. A muzzle loading wonderland, thoroughly jam packed and loaded down with all manner of rough cast butt plates, trigger guards, side plates , slender, lengthy, rifle barrels of all calibers, stock blanks, triggers, locks, breech plugs, nose caps, front and rear sights, ramrods, wood stains, files, knives, chisels, scrapers, plans, instructions, gun books and much more. Men of all ages came up to laugh and joke with Jesse, bought the various, specific things they wanted or needed and rambled off with their newly purchased treasures and a big smile on their faces.
Weaving my way back across to the other side of the crowded avenue once again, I chanced upon a couple of hard working men who were busily engaged in sizing rather lengthy, absolutely huge bullets with a long iron ramrod through the bore of a clamped down, bench gun barrel. (Hmmm…) Nearby, the immortal Red Farris hit you all over again with basically all the same terrific merchandise Jesse Booher was selling. A wealth of cool, old-timey equipment and accouterments positively lined his walls and shelves. Now “a kid on a mission”, I made my way up and down those graveled streets of the N.M.L.R.A.’s mind blowing commercial row fully enveloped by a level of intensity I’d never known before. Wonderful, informative, considerate people with an assortment of thought-provoking items, objects and thingamajigs at every single shop and booth. I had no idea what ninety percent of any of the thingamajigs I saw, much less any of the specialized activities which were going on around me were, or implicated, or signified. But I was relatively certain it all had something to do with guns that loaded from their muzzles… with black powder. And so, once again, I was utterly charmed and fascinated.
Mid-afternoon and by now I’d heard a number of exceptionally interesting, historically dressed men and women making a lot of fascinating references to a fairly large parcel of wild, unsettled territory – some distance across that big ‘ol, black topped road (highway 62) and off to the south. I also noticed they invariably kept calling it… “the primitive side”. (The what!?!) I’d never seen people dressed like this before, other than on that brand new, Fess Parker TV series, Daniel Boone or else in the movies. So, I figured I’d better just seek this primitive side out they kept talking about for myself, and learn a little more. Maybe a whole lot more! Keeping my eyes and ears open, I managed to pick up a vague idea of where it was and how you went about getting there. Touching bases with Wig and Rita over by the clubhouse, I let them know of my quest and (not realizing I was headed straight toward a major turning point in my life), rather inconspicuously drifted away.
You ever wonder what it’s gonna be like that very first moment you pass through those Pearly Gates? Well, that was me – walking into the northwestern edge of the old primitive grounds! Back then I wasn’t so finicky nor particular with regard to period correctness or spot-on, historical accuracy. Actually, I didn’t know beans from apple-butter about any of that sort of thing and… gazing around at the many teepees, wall tents, lean-to’s, blanket traders, reenactors, buckskinners, etc., in addition to all the general activities associated with that hallowed ground – my youthful, inexperienced, twenty year old brain was instantly fried. Folks in every manner of eighteenth century and early nineteenth century type lodges, settled into their new, primitive digs, thoroughly enjoying their marvelous, highly prized, early American lifestyle: Angling around from behind his intricately painted teepee; a man dressed more like Jim Bridger in long fringed, handsomely beaded buckskins carries an armload of freshly chopped and split firewood into his lodge for the coming night.
Across the way a lady who could just as easily have blended in on the commons at Fort Pitt or Fort Harrod calls for her little children as she bends over a sputtering cook fire to strengthen the blaze while at the same time, expertly readjusting an old, iron spider and a soot blackened, Dutch oven. Further down and around an attractive, tree-lined bend, a sinewy, bare chested blanket trader with a turkey feather stuck in an old, beat up slouched hat beckons me come over and look at his extraordinary trade goods. Hand-made knives, tomahawks, shot pouches, powder horns, old books, a nice flintlock pistol, freshly cast round balls, back-issues of Muzzle Blasts, bolts of cloth, gourd canteens, deerskins, tin cups, beaded leg-ties, rough-split ramrods, brass candlesticks, a good looking trade gun, pewter knives, forks, spoons and drinking mugs. Wow… just simply, Wow! Explaining that I didn’t have any money and apologizing for it, this thoughtful, deeply tanned, WWII vet gave me to understand that “selling me something” was the least of his concerns. Perceiving the obvious, awe-struck wonderment in my eyes, his main interest was merely to show me a thing or two and help me along upon this fascinating new road I’d so recently chosen. (Now how’d he know that, I silently wondered!?!)
Making my way further yet toward the south, this entire, “primitive settlement of sorts” began to narrow down by degrees, coming at length to an end, while the ragged, staccato sound of gunfire decidedly increased. Up ahead of me, I could see a score or more of primitively dressed shooters standing within a picturesque, tree enshrouded glenn – taking careful aim; then firing their graceful long-guns at something a distance on up the big, rugged, heavily forested, eastern ridge. Maybe two or three times that many spectators positioned directly behind the roped off firing line were as well, cheerfully and enthusiastically caught up in observing this singularly unique spectacle. No level, grassy, open rifle-ranges here, no conveniently placed loading benches, no covered firing lines, other than being naturally shaded by the great, massive trees soaring high overhead. All the men (and a few women) loaded straight from their shot bags, stepped up to their irregularly positioned, makeshift firing line and cracked away at their own particular targets, deceptively nestled somewhere up there in the deepwoods.
Much to my amazement, more gunfire could very plainly be heard further on up the valley! But… there was nothing any further on up that valley other than a heavy, continual woods!?! (Well, well – interesting…) Crossing their little, hard running, rocky bottomed creek; a match aptly named the “Seneca Run” with its various, peculiarly shaped targets extended out along the stream at the base of the ridge for a total of around one quarter mile. Asking lots of questions and making inquiries, I soon found out this fine little simulated donnybrook involved the shooter’s running time as much as his score. Imagine that! Now… Beyond this, the much acclaimed “Hawken Match” was being (very loudly) shot, an additional eighty or so yards up through the uneven, ever rising and narrowing holler by a small knot of stoic, determined competitors – either offhand or over a log (choose your poison), with open, iron sights, at an astounding 130 yards! Let me tell ya boys and girls, whenever those big bored, heavily loaded hunting rifles went off; it seemed like the very ground trembled and shook! My, my, my.
Having so incredibly much to see and learn here at Friendship, over soooo large an area… with virtually no proper amount of time to grasp or take it all in; I eventually reversed my direction of travel back toward the north and most reluctantly, departed that enchanting, semi-magical, ”primitive side” I’d just discovered. Even so, a veritable barrage of ideas/perspectives/emotions had definitely arisen deep within me. I knew I’d ran across something very special and in the process, found my true passion in life. Crossing the big bridge over Laughrey Creek and its adjacent, two-lane, farm country highway, I dove back into the surging melee which was the N.M.L.R.A.’s enormous, sprawling, Walter Cline range and commercial row – now wrestling with a great many more questions than answers.
Sunset found me happily drifting (for the sixth or seventh time) squarely down the middle of the main aisle on said commercial row; deep in a pleasant, but nonetheless, murky contemplation. My eyes desperately jumped from one center of activity to another. Lights were just beginning to come on but the crowd was still relatively heavy: “Black powder experts – all around me… Accomplished, knowledgeable historians – everywhere you look”, I lamented. By now and throughout the course of this long day, I’d managed to acquire a faint glimmer of an inkling as to the point of their myriad conversations or what on earth they were physically doing. Nevertheless, the unavoidable truth kept crashing down upon me: “So much going on here – things I don’t understand. Things I’ve never seen. And it’s getting dark! Wig and Rita are probably wanting to go by now… Maybe they wouldn’t mind if I just hitch-hiked back home. Then again, they’d probably kill me for even asking. Ahhh well, my luck.”
Suddenly, a husky, booming voice bellowed out from one of the larger booths off to my immediate left – “Hey… Hey you… Yeah, you! Come here!” Standing directly, in the middle of the entryway to his vast, black powder/living history/muzzle loading business with some sort of an elegant looking, brilliantly colored accouterment in his hands; a great, hulking bear of a man, the distinguished, National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association legend, Mr. Wes Kindig beckoned me to walk into his shop. With so much fine merchandise, I’d been in and out of that same place a million times during the course of the day – gawking, staring, occasionally picking something up to study it in closer detail. So my first thought was, “Uh-oh, what in the world have I done now?” Sensing my apparent trepidation Wes once again shouted, “No, no, you’re O.K. son. Come on over, I’ve got something here I think you might be interested in”. Well… Didn’t have to yell at me twice – (or I guess maybe he did, huh)!
Weaving my way through the teeming flow of the crowd at a more or less, ninety degree angle, I felt sort of like a salmon trying to swim upstream. As I proceeded the few steps on up into his amazing business (known world-wide as “The Log Cabin Shop”), Wes placed a relatively large, middle-eighteenth century, raised-carved, engraved and abundantly engrailed, polychromed, pre-revolutionary style, mint condition powder horn an inch or three in front of my nose. Quite the impressive, F&I period artifact! A knowing smile on his face, Wes queried; “Got any idea what you’re looking at?” Searching for an answer, I stammered, “uhhh, a powder horn? I think?” Quietly chuckling at my bewildered, thoroughly puzzled countenance; that kindly gentleman thereupon proceeded to give me a detailed, twenty or so minute seminar on the particulars of high-end, professionally built, French and Indian War era, powder horns emanating from the New England region.
It would turn out to be some time before I came in need of this specialized type information. As of 1968, a mid-eighteenth century, frontier lifestyle was completely beyond my realm of understanding. My flimsy, historic persona (if you could call it that) was at this early point, more a subtle combination of Jed Clampet meets Fess Parker and Tonto with maybe a bit of Clint Eastwood thrown in for good measure. Notwithstanding, this brief encounter with Mr. Kindig remains yet today – nearly fifty years later – indelibly etched in my memory as a landmark occurrence. Why? Here’s the deal: Back during the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, very, very few were as highly regarded or held as much of a, shall we say “celebrity status” among the N.M.L.R.A. rank-and-file as did Wes Kindig. Everyone knew him. Everyone did business with him. Everyone loved him. Everyone wanted to be him. Here was a guy whose time and attention was being regularly sought out by the likes of such Friendship heavyweights as John Baird, Jesse Booher, Jim Coon, Red Farris, Max Vickery, Curly Gostomeski and more. Bottom line – Wes Kindig most certainly didn’t need to bother with me… this brain-dead ignorant kid, stumbling down the main aisleway there at the Spring Nationals; gawking at one thing or another with his goofy, deer-in-the-headlights look. I had nothing to offer that man. Wes could hang out with black powder royalty any time he pleased. He had no reason to even acknowledge my existence, let alone present a young, penniless nobody such as myself with so articulate and in-depth a lesson on high-quality, eighteenth century, powder horns. No reason that is, other than pure and simple kindness.
Ambling out of the one and only, Log Cabin Shop that beautiful, spring evening a tad more educated than when I’d ambled in, I said my good-byes and a sincere, heartfelt thank you to my newfound friend and mentor – Mr. Wes Kindig, knowing I had people… people right there in Friendship, Indiana who didn’t really care about how much money I might have nor what sort of social influence I possessed. All these folks seemed to care about was me. Me! Young Mr. Nobody from nowhere U.S.A. If they’d made me feel like I was included – like I was part of “the gang” – well then: mission accomplished. Quite evidently that was good enough for them. Hah, what a concept! What a place!
As you may have noticed, this whole experience had a very profound effect on me. I very much liked what I was doing and (more importantly) I liked all the wonderful folks I was doing it with. This new path I’d been set upon (along with all the reassuring back-up I knew it held) rather compelled me or say, “motivated” me into discovering and exploring new options – heretofore relatively untapped, overlooked possibilities within the current muzzle loading arena of that time. Things like maybe: seriously taking all these cool eighteenth/early nineteenth century, frontier weapons, accouterments, equipment, clothing, technology, etc., back out into the deep, unbroken forests and the wild, lonely places from whence they came. Sort of “live the life” all over again so to speak. Whadayathink? Maybe call it something like “living history” or “experimental archeology”? I don’t know… It just might work.
#1. (no caption)
#2. “The firing lines – good grief, all those people up on the firing lines.”
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#4. “You ever wonder what it’s gonna be like that very first moment you pass through those Pearly Gates?”
#5. Holding an original flintlock rifle, the renowned Wes Kindig patiently waits his turn at a big, muzzle loading rifle shoot on a friend’s farm in Ohio – many years ago.
#6. Deer season, late 1960’s. With everyone primitively dressed and accoutered to the absolute best of their understanding; (l-r) yours truly, along with Bobby Richards and Rex Young study a fresh pile of droppings on a pleasant, three-day, historically based scout/hunt into the guts of the magnificent, Hoosier National Forest. (Hey! This could turn into a thing… ya know?)