Hide And Seek

Boiling brains and hunting voles in search of the old-time fur trader's life

You thought the sun-worshiping fitness junkies circling Lake of the Isles had a hungry, predatory look in their eyes? Consider this passage from The Recollections of Philander Prescott: Frontiersman of the Old Northwest:

As [the Chippewa] were leaving, two Pillagers, relatives of the man that was killed by the Sioux the summer before, went out to Lake Calhoun to see if they could get a scalp. They said the Sioux owed them one. They went and placed themselves in a trail that led from Lake Calhoun to a shack half a mile south of Lake Harriet, or a mile and a half south of Lake Calhoun, and hid themselves in the bushes. After a while an Indian came along. He was Neka (the Badger), one of the best Indians in the Lake Calhoun band. As he passed, they, the two Chippewa Pillagers, shot him and took his scalp and made off.

Prescott worked as a fur trader in the early 1800s buying hides from Native Americans and mountain men and then distributing them to craftsmen and retailers in the surrounding areas. He describes the procurement of at least one deer hide as follows:

The Indian turned the deer over and said he had killed the deer without making a hole in the skin. "How can that be?" said I. "Well, said the Indian, "the ball went straight into the backside, through the entrails, and lodged in his shoulder." The Indian hastily took off the skin and a considerable quantity of the meat with it, and shouldered it. We went on, expecting to meet with [some Indians], but we traveled and traveled and traveled until we got tired and sat down to rest. We started again and traveled until dark and found no Indians that night. So we had a good roast of our venison and went to sleep, not dreaming of the trouble that we were to meet the next day.

By contrast, present-day leatherworker James Hastings buys his deer hide frozen from a butcher and has nothing more than a power-walker with a doublewide stroller to fear when he canoes Lake Calhoun. What Prescott and Hastings have in common is an affinity for the adventure and simplicity of life in the woods and a working connection to the function and beauty of deerskin.

On a recent Thursday evening, Hastings turns up at Dulono's Pizza in Lyn-Lake to talk about his work. He is back in the city working odd jobs and regrouping after spending fall in a solitary cabin in a swamp outside Ely. Hastings wears a veteran, but serviceable, winter coat, and a wool cap pulled down so that it skims the tops of his ears. He's been putting the finishing touches on a pair of deerskin baby moccasins and has brought them along to display.

Both tiny shoes fit in the palm of his hand. He picks one up and examines the gathers near the toes. With a workman's fingertip callused from flicking its fair share of cigarettes, he shows where he plans to attach a delicate, lacelike edging of antique seed beads made from white glass. He explains that he has made many pairs of baby moccasins, mostly for friends' children, and proudly declares that they'll last forever. Then he seems to remember that babies outgrow shoes quickly, and he pouts a bit that the little boots won't have time to prove his point. The tiny slipper smells like a late-night campfire, feels like plush or new suede, and moves like fabric. And it originated wholly from the handicraft of this scruffy-bearded, twinkly-eyed, cigarette-scented 28-year-old bike messenger-turned-mountain man sipping root beer.

Hastings came to this ancient craft under distinctly 20th-century circumstances. His first experience in leatherwork was at age 13 in a correctional facility for boys. An instructor named Mabel helped him make a little pouch from commercial leather. In his late teens and early 20s he lived in Minneapolis working as a bike messenger--a death-defying cowboy of the urban landscape. During his off hours he made sturdy, decorative, zippered pouches for his colleagues who would frequently load them with herbal products geared toward consciousness enhancement.

He now sells work at a type of historical reenactment known as "rendezvous," which imitate the mountain-man fur-trading meetings of old. The rendezvous--not unlike Civil War reenactments or Society for Creative Anachronism meetings--is a social event with a historical focus. Sometimes referred to as "experimental archaeology" or "living history," these outdoor festivals offer enthusiasts a chance to gather, dress in costume, live in character, explore antiquated trades, revive ignored crafts, and celebrate the legacy of their putative ancestors. Modern technology is left at the parking lot, and only historically accurate costuming, tools, and shelters are allowed within festival limits.

The original rendezvous were check-ins for early-19th-century mountain dwellers and fur traders. After months of solitary travels, hunting, trapping, and the attendant privations of mountain life, men would come in from the wilderness, gather together, and... well...party. Rendezvous served practical purposes, such as replenishing dwindling supplies, passing on news and warnings, and providing a time for the selling and buying of goods. But they also served social purposes. Storytelling, feasting, drinking and general merrymaking occurred in abundance, as nothing of the kind would be available again until the next year's rendezvous.

Original rendezvous traders traveled from the wilderness into relative civilization. Nowadays, rendezvous-goers move from civilization to relative wilderness.

"They're mostly an escape," says Hastings. "You leave your cell phone in the car, you park your truck far away. You have candle lanterns. It's cooking in a Dutch oven, having wonderful food, meeting your neighbors, dances at night, waking up in the morning and everybody has their fires going for the morning cookout. It's a return to a simpler life. Generally it's peaceful. It's a different pace. It's hard sometimes, because you have to say goodbye to everyone and pack up, and then you're back on the highway--back in the cities, with the cars and the radios." He rolls his eyes and flings up his hands as he finishes with an "ugh."

In addition to providing an escape, Rendezvous events fuel Hastings's business. Many of his customers are fellow reenactment enthusiasts. "The majority of my beadwork has actually been sold to Native Americans--which is cool," says Hastings. "I made a pipe bag once. Pipe bags are sacred and ceremonial. They're heavy-duty"--he hesitates, as if to imply that it's a strange for a white man to be making ceremonial Native American objects, then continues--"but I made one anyway. An elderly Native American woman who lives on a reservation came into the shop and bought it. That was pretty cool to me, because she probably knew her beadwork."

 

The early trappers and tanners likely sold their furs and hides to a trader instead of directly to the customer. Traders worked from a home base, exchanging goods and hides with trappers at annual extended gatherings such as the Grand Portage Rendezvous. Traders would frequently extend credit for supplies in return for a season's worth of furs and hides.

In his 1979 book Voyageur Country, Robert Treuer explains, "The rates of exchange varied from one time and locality to another, but they were always weighted in favor of the trader and against the trapper. A kettle or blanket worth $3 was traded for 60 muskrat skins worth $12, and in other exchanges, beads worth pennies against pelts worth dollars were commonplace. As in today's consumption economy, Indian trappers were encouraged to draw guns, ammunition, tools, blankets, and other goods on credit against which they pledged future furs."

As a result the early trader's position was quite lucrative, often generating salaries ranging from $20,000 to $60,000--a sizable sum. The trappers, however, seem to have found their real reward in the adventure of solitary lives led hunting and trapping in the wilderness. Hastings shares this love for the remote experience of the wilderness. Recently he traded in his road bike and Nicollet Mall-riding privileges for a shotgun shack outside Ely, nestled inside a 660-acre swamp.

The cabin, located 100 yards on foot past the paved road, was originally an 8-foot-by-16-foot deer hunter's shelter. According to Hastings, its previous inhabitant "got drunk one night and started it on fire," at which point the shack's owner--a professional carpenter and rendezvous enthusiast--removed the burned parts and added an extra five feet. The interior now boasts a set of bunk beds and some steel shelves that are obscured from view by piles of supplies, groceries, and whatnot. For heat, it's equipped with what Hastings refers to as an "ancient, very leaky, cool-looking but inefficient wood stove." There is no running water.

The cabin is also equipped with a family of red-backed voles, which insist on sleeping in the top bunk. Hastings describes the creatures as being larger than a mouse, but smaller than a rat--approximately the size of a hamster. "I'd be sitting there at the table, lights on, fire going--the whole bit--and the little shits would run between my legs. One tried to run up my leg. One ran across my gun. I chased one into the corner and thought he looked weird. Then I realized he'd run away with the cookie that I'd put out a couple of nights before to try and catch him. He's got half a cookie! He's running and gets into this backpack I have, so I can't shoot at him. I tried to scare him out, and couldn't. I messed up. I messed up my one shot." He laughs and shakes his head saying, "They were all over. They're very stealthy."

For its lack of creature comforts and its abundance of unwelcome creatures, Hastings still prefers cabin life to any other. "I love the terrain out there," he says. "You can hear the wolves, the coyotes. The northern lights are like curtains of light going across the northern sky in red and green and white. I saw some particularly good displays in the winter of '97. I sat on the roof on the top of my cabin. The lights were so bright that there was a glow on the snow on the roof. That's a big part of it--of my wanting to go up there."

The other draw to cabin life is that he can refine his leathermaking there without interruption. Tanning leather can be a gruesome business, and city dwellers--drawn by the sight or the smell (more on this later)--can't help but become a nuisance.

In baking circles, learning from experience is called "getting your hands in the dough." In Hastings's case, "getting your hands in the brains" might be more applicable.

Hastings's leathermaking technique, known as brain tanning, is the process of treating raw deerskin in a mixture of brain and water so that it cures into a buttery, almost clothlike material. According to Braintan.com's "A History of Brain Tanning," the earliest recorded instance of this tanning method is Homer's Iliad. Hastings's current method is not much different.

"I use pork brains," he explains, "because it's the most available noncommercial tanning agent. I can buy them at the supermarket." He freely admits that working with brains is not for the squeamish. "I've cooked many a brain and I can't get used to the smell. It's pretty dang funky." During his city-dwelling days he attempted to hide the odoriferous nature of his work from friends and relations with copious amounts of air freshener. In the woods he has no such worries.

"I literally cook up the brains," he continues, "letting them boil for about 15 minutes--not furiously, but a low boil using just enough water to cover. They'll turn from a pinkish to more of a gray. When there's a froth, I know they're done.

"There are tanners who use raw brains and accomplish the same thing," he continues, adding with the tone of a self-satisfied hot-dish champion, "I cook mine. I mash up all the brains so it's like sludge. I then pour the warm--not hot--brain mixture over the rawhide. When it's completely saturated in brainy, sludgy water, I take [the rawhide] out and wring it just like a wet towel. Then I continuously move and stretch the hide while it's coated with the brains until the hide is dry."

The incredible campfirelike smell of the finished leather obviously doesn't owe to the "dang funky" stink of cooked brains. This is accomplished in the final step of smoking. "I take the hide, fold it in half, and sew it like a pillowcase," Hastings explains. "I build a fire and then reduce it down to coals. For the smoking I use pine or cedar." With a grin, he whispers that he bought cedar chips in the form of pet bedding at Kmart during his city days, but in Ely he uses sweet-smelling moss gathered from the woods. In a flourish worthy of a junior high filmstrip, he concludes, "And that's how I take it from a bloody, hairy deer hide to a soft, supple piece of usable leather."

As he says this last piece, he picks up some of his handiwork--a tiny pouch with intricate beadwork and a row of fringe adorned with little tin caps on the end of each string. As the fringe sways, the tin caps clink together, making the most pleasing sound--the sort of sound one might expect to accompany the crackle of feet walking on a gravel road.

"Listen to that," Hastings says, and he jingles the fringe again. "This spring when Calhoun opens up, you've got to go down there and listen, because that sound--that tinkle tinkle of this tin--is as close to the sound of ice breaking in the spring as you're going to get."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...