Friday, August 25, 2017

Old Time Things

Wooden johnboats from another era
       A few years ago I was in West Plains Missouri at some local community event when I met some fellows who called themselves ‘flintnappers’. They were making arrowheads and spear points and they were really good at it. Each had wooden bows and arrows they had made themselves. They also had ‘throwing sticks’ also known as atlatls which you can use to hurl a spear as the early bluff dwellers of the Ozarks most likely did before the bow came along. If you know how to use one, you can use an atlatl to throw a spear, or something like a long arrow, completely through a deer if you can get close enough. One of those men had actually killed a couple of deer with his homemade bow and flint tipped arrows, and one was planning to hunt deer that winter with an atlatl.
       These guys were old-timers who amazed me at what they could do, and I always wanted to see them again. I found out that they are going to have another get-together on the weekend of October 7th and 8th at a little place called Chapel Grove 15 miles east of Ava Missouri. It will be billed as “The Pioneer Heritage Festival of the Ozarks”. The whole thing is free, for visitors or vendors. If you make or use things from that era like tools, knives or rifles, baskets, buckskin clothes, or blankets, etc. that were used in the settling of the Ozarks from 1800 to 1900, they’d like to have you join them. 
Building a johnboat in 1975 for the National Park Service at Buffalo River.
       They will welcome you and allow you to sell your goods or just put on a demonstration. I am thinking of attending and building one of the old time Ozark river johnboats out of white pine. I have a friend who still makes sassafras boat paddles and I hope he will join me. If you have an interest in this weekend event, call Donna Eslinger at:
417-496-2711, or Nina Carter at: 417-543-3401. Or you can email for more information.

       I think it was 2001 or 2002 when my Dad, my Uncle Norten and I spent the whole of October at the annual Fall Festival at Silver Dollar City building a wooden johnboat and making boat paddles… talking to visitors about another day and time decades ago. Norten made the sassafras paddles, and Dad built the johnboat, with my help.

       People flocked around us to watch and ask questions. At the time, I had published only 3 or 4 books and we were set up in front of the bookstore. Folks would buy my books in the bookstore and they would bring them out to me to sign. If back then I had all ten of my books available there, they would have sold well more than a thousand. On some days they would actually sell more of my books than all the others they had combined.

       As it was, they sold more than 200 of my books and paid me a little more than half of what the bookstore collected. For some reason, that didn’t set well at all with the two old ladies who were in charge of the October event. Another thing they didn’t like was the fact that uncle Norten sold a bunch of paddles to people. He had to make about 25 or 30 that winter, and only got 30 or 40 dollars for each. But those ladies did not like that at all. They wanted him to set there and attract a crowd and make paddles for nothing. Seems like Silver Dollar City bought Dad’s johnboat and when it was over, the three of us had made way too much money for the satisfaction of those two old ladies.

       Besides that, the whole operation attracted crowds that sometimes jammed up that narrow walkway and it detracted from the candle-makers and butter churners and other craft people. At any rate, the two women told us they didn’t want us back the next year. Dad was the last of the serious johnboat makers. I still make a few, but my dad and grandfather likely made several hundred over a period of 60 or 70 years. Dad made one at a time but Grandpa sometimes was working on 3 or 4 at a time, at different stages, sitting on saw horses outside his cabin.

       You know why I intend to have another wooden johnboat built somewhere, before November?  Because this winter I want to use it… when no one else is on the river, to fish or hunt ducks or deer or trap an otter or two.

       I’m not the only one who likes to paddle them. Last spring I stopped at a truck stop and there were three johnboats on trailers just like the ones we made for years on the Big Piney. They were owned by some young men who were master craftsmen, apparent by the way those boats were trimmed and finished. I found out they had built them after they bought my book, Rivers to Run, and used the johnboat building plan I had added toward the back of my book, in one entire chapter, with all measurements, blueprints and photos of Dad building one that he used for years.

       My Dad and Uncle are gone now, as are most men and women who lived in the early decades of our last century, the days before technology put aside that way of life, and those kinds of people forever. Today, as young generations curiously like to learn about their roots and a slower, more peaceful time, you will see demonstrations on all old-time ways, crafts and works at festivals and events around the Ozarks each fall, but there is no one ever building johnboats. But it was on display once about 15 years ago at Silver Dollar City. There may be a few of you who remember.

To contact me, email or write to box 22, Bolivar, Mo 65613  our office number is 417-777-5227.

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