Kentucky's Artisan History: Brooms, Bourbon, Longrifles
Part art, part utilitarian--all these treasures made by craftsmen are part of Kentucky's heritage
Starting with nothing more than "a piece of wood and a pile of iron," Frank House of Ruddels Mills in Bourbon County can create a practical item that many observers would also contend is a work of art.
But for House, the longrifle he makes from such basic materials isn't only an aesthetic object. It's a tangible connection with the state and the country's history. (Not to mention his own--he claims five ancestors at Boonesborough.)
"That's really the intriguing part," he says. "To have that physical connection with our ancestors and the sacrifices that they made and the hardships that they endured to make a better life for themselves--to defend a young nation and feed their families.
"There's no other single artifact that exemplifies that like the Kentucky longrifle," he continues. "We won our independence basically twice with it, in the American Revolution and the War of 1812.
"And it helped secure the whole Texas Territory during the war with Mexico."
When Kentucky was settled in those days, the way of life that grew up here was an early version of the Western lifestyle that's intrigued the world ever since.
For everything that's changed since then--the computer I'm writing these words on, the television you turned off to give them the concentration they deserve--many of the objects marking that vanished, romanticized lifestyle continue to be made by Kentucky craftsmen (and a few corporations). Objects we can sweep, fire, or sip, depending on our inclinations, and enjoy both for their intrinsic qualities, and for the way they can put us into House's brand of communion with the people who preceded us.
And objects we can also appreciate for introducing us to the interesting characters who continue the traditions.
Henson will "sweep you off your feet"
Richard N. Henson talks with such quickness, certainty, and non-annoying volubility that it's no surprise to learn he has a budding career as a public motivational speaker and humorist.
What's surprising is the item that's taken him in that direction--an item so humble he describes it as "the Rodney Dangerfield of tools": the handmade broom.
Brooms, Henson explains, really don't get any respect. "They're just something to sweep dirt with."
When he started going to craft shows and competing against the potters and Windsor chair makers of the world, Henson decided to do something different that would help raise the broom's status. His showpiece, the Pretty Parlor Broom, has a walnut-stained handle and black-dyed broomcorn; it's sewn twice and then bound with leather. It's intended for display (which may explain why it's Martha Stewart's favorite).
"When you see that broom, you don't think of the word 'broom,' you think of a piece of art," Henson says. "You're not going to use that and wear it out. You can...it'll work..."
There's a lot of nuance to the way it's put together, although Henson is loath to share many secrets beyond keeping the broomcorn balanced, wiring the broom tightly to its handle, and taking care with your stitching. But his products have a classic symmetry and simplicity, and real quality: not long ago, a woman came to him to repair one she'd been using for 16 years.
Executive Director Victoria A. Faoro of the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea calls the handmade broom a great example of the way in which crafts result from "a wonderful coming together of utilitarian need, materials at hand, and the artisans' drive to create.
"Since the first settlers had floors to clean and hearths to sweep, brooms were being made with materials at hand," she explains. "As is often the case, broom makers began to invest not only their skills at strongly attaching materials to a handle, but also their personal aesthetics as they selected or created just the right handle."
While the styles of broom Henson makes go back to the Shakers and past them, the history that matters most to him is personal.
Henson is a third-generation broom maker, following his father and grandfather. He came to it late, after a career in another classic Kentucky trade: high school basketball coach. Shortly before the first game he coached, Henson visited his grandfather in the hospital (the old man had been in a car accident). As Henson left, his grandfather pointed a finger at him and said, "If you learn how to make brooms, you'll always have a job." He died unexpectedly four days later; those were the last words he ever spoke to his grandson.
The admonition took time to work--Henson coached for another seven years before his father called him to take over the family business. The elder Hensons only made one kind of broom; Richard makes 12 different varieties at the shop and general store in Symsonia, near Paducah, which he opened in July 2006. It's built after the style of a country store from the 1930s, and draws tour buses and visitors from across the nation (and from a number of foreign countries as well). Learn more at www.hensonbrooms.com.
House brothers' handmade longrifles
The American longrifle that developed in the mid-18th century was an improvement over its predecessors in certain practical aspects. Its longer barrel, smaller caliber, and rifling gave it greater accuracy over a farther distance. Although it fired only half as quickly as a musket, it could be fired from cover (a characteristic that paid off in several battles of the Revolutionary War).
It was also an aesthetic improvement. Mel Hankla, a gun maker, past president of the Contemporary Longrifle Association, and a historical educator, describes the longrifle as "a three-dimensional work of art."
Its German progenitor was "kind of short and stubby," Hankla says. The American longrifle, however, uses the eye-pleasing proportions of the Golden Mean.
"There are no straight lines on a longrifle," Hankla says. "The barrel is tapered and flared. If you look at one, when you lay it out, all of the lines are flowing. And you decorate it with two-dimensional art that accentuates these flowing lines."
Hankla protests against the idea that contemporary longrifle makers make "replicas." He sees rifle makers as "carrying on the evolution of a Kentucky and, even larger, an American tradition" and creating "new art, original art."
Hankla is especially struck by "Nechasin," a sculpture Frank House made in collaboration with his wife, Lally. It's a carved wooden figure, its arms and face covered in mosaic bone and ivory, of a Delaware chief squatting in watchful anticipation, holding one of House's longrifles. Hankla likes the way in which the sculpture transposes the rifle into a purely aesthetic realm.
House, 49, became a full-time professional gun maker in 1988. His brother Hershel, 18 years older, started making longrifles in 1966 and is one of the best-known and regarded contemporary makers.
"He's the one who got me and my younger brother (John, age 48) started," House says. "I always say he ruined us, we didn't have a chance."
The House brothers' style is known, among those who make and collect contemporary longrifles, as "the Woodbury School," for their Butler County hometown. (The three of them have worked together to create a rifle that's being raffled off to benefit the Contemporary Longrifle Association at the group's August meeting in Lexington. See sidebar below.)
The Houses' style follows the guns made by early Virginia and Carolina gunsmiths--the rifles that were used in the settlement of Kentucky. Their work possessed a distinctive look that House describes as being "a little more naïve in some ways, because these guys were more isolated--so their stuff is a lot more individualistic." One distinctive aspect is that most of the Houses' guns are mounted with iron rather than the more typical brass (although they do mount some in brass).
To be a longrifle maker, House says, you have to be able to work "at a master level" with a variety of skills: Blacksmith. Silversmith. Foundryman, so you can cast your own iron parts or forge brass parts. "A wood carver on the level of crafting Chippendale chairs." Engraver. Mechanic. Metallurgist.
The most difficult part, House says, is the flintlock. "They're fairly simple but extremely precise pieces of work, kind of like a watch." It's not easy "to get them tuned and timed exactly right" to get the strike radius where it delivers the best spark.
"These things are very simple, but they're also very complex in their own right."
Each handmade rifle House makes takes about nine months; he averages two or three rifles a year. (He also makes tomahawks, knives, and powder horns.)
Improving on ancient bourbon
The most famous product of Kentucky originated as a way for farmers to get more commercial value from their corn crop. And it was the corn that made it distinctive. According to bourbon expert Chuck Cowdery, "Corn was still new to Europeans and European-Americans, even as late as the late 18th century, and the whiskey from Kentucky was the first whiskey anyone had tasted that was made mostly or entirely from corn."
Small craftsmen distillers haven't yet quite gotten into the bourbon business, because for it to qualify as straight bourbon, the whiskey must be aged at least two years in new charred-oak barrels. (Contrary to prevailing opinion, however, it doesn't have to be made in Kentucky.)
Bill Owens, who runs the American Distilling Institute that tracks and promotes small distilleries, points out that the two-year requirement makes straight bourbon a challenging undertaking for a small operator, because that would tie up the inventory for such a long time. (Most distributors eschew the word "straight" and simply call it bourbon to get around the two-year requirement.)
But even though Kentucky bourbon is mostly made by large corporations rather than some craftsman with a still, some barrels, and a dream, there aren't many industries with more mystique.
Among the eight or so Kentucky distilleries, one of the most interesting would be Lawrenceburg's Four Roses, which traces its history in the state back to 1884. After being the country's best-selling bourbon after Prohibition, the distillery and brand were purchased by Seagram's in 1943.
Toward the end of the 1950s, Seagram's decided to limit the bourbon to the export market. By 1960, Four Roses bourbon had disappeared from this country. Until the distillery's 2002 purchase by Japanese brewery giant Kirin, the only place you could buy Four Roses bourbon--as opposed to Four Roses Premium, the blended whiskey made by Seagram's in Indiana that took the same name--was Europe or Japan, where it ranked as one of the most popular brands. Now, it's in 29 states.
Four Roses' master distiller, Jim Rutledge, is a 65-year-old who's been in the business since 1966. He nods at the long history of bourbon--he feels a connection with the whiskey makers who started working in the late 18th century, and believes he's carrying on a tradition that started earlier than the Commonwealth of Kentucky--but he doesn't feel confined by it.
There's been much talk lately about bourbons made from "ancient recipes" that date back to, say, 1830. Rutledge doesn't believe, however, that great-great-great-great-grandpa knew best. "If we don't make better bourbon today than we did even 50 years ago, we're not doing our job right," he says. "It's carrying on a tradition, but it's also improving that tradition." Rutledge points to all the controls in the distilling equipment that used to be set manually, on valves, but are now controlled precisely by computer.
But if Four Roses' recipe isn't ancient, it's intriguing. Or rather, they're intriguing. Four Roses uses five different proprietary strains of yeast and two different recipes of grain (known as mashbills) to make a total of 10 different bourbon recipes that are combined in various ways to make the distillery's seven brands.
And while Rutledge can sound like a production engineer when he talks about the advantages of the computer era, there's a human factor involved in distilling that wouldn't be unfamiliar to the original bourbon distillers.
"We still use the old-time methods," Rutledge says. "I walk up to a fermenter and I tell everybody I use all five senses. I can tell by looking at the top the way the fermenter's working"--in other words, the way in which the carbon dioxide is bubbling off.
"I can look at it and tell if there's too much bacteria--there shouldn't be a crust, shouldn't be too much foam. I go to lean over the fermenter--I'm not going to stick my head in it, because it'd knock me out, but I take a scoop full, or a cupped hand, up to my nose and smell it. Stick my finger in it, tell what the temperature is up at the top. That's touch.
"And then I taste it." In the early stage, "it should be sweet, because you're just converting starches to sugar." As the process continues and alcohol's generated, the batch becomes acidic and sour-tasting.
"So over the 80 hours of the fermentation process you can tell within 20 to 30 minutes how old that (batch) is. So you've got sight, feel, touch, and taste. Then the fifth sense is just, I've got to listen to what all those senses are telling me--that's just a play on words.
"We have instruments today that can take a sample of what's fermenting, or of the end product, and measure everything in it in parts per million. But we can still use our senses of smell and taste in parts per billion.
"So the human is still better than any instruments made, when we know how to use our senses. And that hasn't changed over all these years, and I don't think it ever will change."
SEEING KENTUCKY CRAFTS
This summer's meeting of the Contemporary Longrifle Association, August 14-15 in the Grand Ball Room of Lexington's Convention Center, will feature a rifle made by all three House brothers that's being raffled off to benefit the CLA.
It will also showcase a rifle that West Virginia collector Brian LaMaster argues was built by Daniel Boone (with another maker named William Arbuckle).
The public can come and decide for themselves. While the meeting is technically for members only, non-members may pay $10 for a CLA temporary membership.
While many of Kentucky's distilleries are open for tours, making the Bourbon Trail one of the state's prominent tourist attractions, a more focused way of celebrating the state's native spirit is by attending the Kentucky Bourbon Festival in Bardstown. In its 18 years, it's grown from 250 attendees to 55,000, and stretched to six days filled with concerts, tasting, and other events. This year's festival lasts from Tuesday to Sunday, September 15-September 20. Details are available at ww.kybourbonfestival.com
or by calling (800) 638-4877. Make sure and say hello to Jim Rutledge of Four Roses, who is this year's festival chairman.
Watching broom makers
There's no broom festival, although broom makers such as Henson and younger artisan broom maker Christopher Robbins of Brooms by Chris in Brodhead appear in craft shows throughout the state. (Read about Robbins in Kentucky Living's Traveling Kentucky column, December 2008). In the western part of the state you can visit Henson's Broom Shop and General Store, Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m., and Sunday 1-4 p.m. at 1060 Highway 348 East in Symsonia. In the east, you can stop by Robbins' Log Cabin Broom Shop at Brodhead in Rockcastle County. Go online to www.broomsbychris.com
or call (800) 991-7035 for directions and times.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: YOU OUGHTA BE IN PICTURES
To learn more about the origin of the Kentucky longrifle and which well-known movies and television shows these Kentucky products--House's longrifle, Henson's brooms, and Bulleit Bourbon--have made appearances in, go to You oughta be in pictures.