One-Way Ticket to Kansas, the autobiography of Frank M. Stahl, as told and illustrated by Margaret Whittemore. University of Kansas Press, 1959. Transcribed by John D. Meredith


IV - Making Barrels

When farm work was not too pressing, Father would always keep me busy in the cooper shop. His chief market for barrels was at Troy, Ohio, nearly thirty miles away. A first-class barrel brought from eighteen to twenty-five cents delivered, and much time and effort went into its construction.

First, there was the trip to the woods, where we selected a large oak tree and cut it down. The branches were sawed into proper lengths and split into stave blocks. We hauled these in and piled them up near the shop to dry. They required much hollowing and planing by hand to give the proper bulge to the barrel. For the barrel heads we used shorter and wider blocks.

Hoops were of second-growth hickory, cut late in the fall when the sap stopped running and the bark was tight. I knew where the best hoop poles grew and would cut as many as I could carry, then drag them out to the woods road to be picked up later. Each pole was about nine feet long and an inch in diameter at the small end. Unlike the staves, these must be kept from drying. We stored them in a damp underground cellar until the time came to split and shave them and form them into hoops.

While the barrel was being set up, the staves were held in place by what we called tree-hoops. Because of the stiffness of the staves, it is quite a trick to bring them into proper shape, and many an amateur cooper lets his barrel fall apart while trying to place the last staves. The crude barrel is now fired over a cresset, an iron box with flaring bars, filled with burning shavings. This operation heats and even scorches the barrel until it is black. The purpose is to soften the staves and prevent their breaking when forced into place by the hoops. The next step is leveling and inserting the head of the barrel, before replacing the tress-hoops with the hickory hoops. Ten hoops were required for a flour barrel.

Although I usually had Saturday afternoons free to do as I pleased, I remember one week-end late in the fall when Father was unusually busy in the shop, and kept me at the task of shaving hickory poles for hoops. He had six or seven other workmen employed. There was to be a shooting match for turkeys that afternoon, and I wanted to go.

Not long before this, Father had given me a new rifle, with a percussion lock, to take the place of an old flintlock musket with which I had practiced enough to pride myself on being a good shot. But Father strongly opposed my going to the turkey match, partly on the grounds that it was a game of chance.

"It's a game of science," I insisted. "To win you need a steady nerve and a good eye."

I kept teasing him to let me go. The workmen in the shop were all on my side. Father finally reached into his pocket and took out three dimes.

"Take these," he said, putting them into my hand. "Go shoot them away as quick as you can, and come back to your work."

I got my gun and ran for the shooting ground a quarter of a mile away. The owners of the turkeys were charging a dollar for each bird. Nine men had already paid ten cents for a shot when I added a dime. A mark was placed fifty yards away and each contestant was to take a single shot, the best one getting the bird.

When my rifle cracked, the crowd cheered. I had won! The same thing happened a second time. Two dimes gone, but I had two turkeys!

A third mark was set up under the same conditions. Nine of us had a shot, and so far, my shot was the best—just half an inch from center. The tenth shot belonged to an old hunter, named Haney, famed for his marksmanship. It was an exciting moment.

Haney's gun popped and he called the shot. If the shot was called before the result could be seen, the marksman was entitled to try again. Unfortunately, he spoke too soon, for he had just hit the bulls-eye.

"The turkey is mine," Haney said. But the judges ruled otherwise.

"You called the shot and must shoot once more."

This time he missed by two inches. I was again the winner.

The match was over for me. My money was gone, but I had three big turkeys. Several boys volunteered to help carry home the fowl, but I preferred to take them myself. Proud as a peacock, I trudged through the town in the direction of Father's shop, bearing the spoils of victory.

When I entered the door, the workmen looked up in astonishment. They could hardly believe their eyes. I laid the turkeys down in front of Father.

"Where did you get those?" he demanded.

"Won them up at the shooting match," I exulted, and then gave the details.

Father had to admit that I must have displayed some skill as a marksman. "Still," he declared emphatically, "that is your last match!"

I was obedient and never again shot mark for myself at a turkey match, but many a time I helped some of the old-timers whose eyes had grown dim. I do not recall that any of them ever regretted having risked a dime on my marksmanship.


 

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