Two centuries ago, just as today, most tradesmen were simply mechanics who churned out serviceable work to meet commercial demands. True artists were few and far between, but it is the artists’ imagination and skill that allows them to make things of exceptional beauty and genius.
Frank and Lally House are artists. Though they specialize in traditional trades of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, their work far exceeds that of typical artisans. Frank creates Kentucky rifles, tomahawks, swords, knives and powder horns and Lally works with brain-tanned deer
hides and 18th century dyestuffs to create a nearly lost Native American Indian art form of porcupine quillwork and moose-hair embroidery. Both create almost all of their art from raw base materials in the same manner as they were created centuries ago. When not creating, you might find Frank and Lally at the Contemporary Longrifle Association (CLA) gatherings, an organization dedicated to preserving the knowledge of American gun makers and associated arts from colonial times through to the early republic. Recently, the Houses shared some of their observations and experiences as artists who might just have been born 200 years too late.
American Shooting Journal How did you get involved with creating historic weapons and accoutrements? Frank House My older brother Hershel started this all off. He was born in 1941, so he’s somewhat older than I am, and my younger brother John and I spent our young life watching him work, hanging around his work bench, burning up all his coal in the forge and turning all of his scrap wood on the wood lathe and all that stuff. So, we’ve been in this since we were kids. Hershel started building rifles full time in 1966 and then founded the Woodbury gun-making school with hard work and dogged determination. His greatest contribution was inspiring those of us who grabbed that torch. He’s got a great imagination; never followed somebody else’s lead, and I picked that up from him. It’s one thing to copy a knife or a rifle or tomahawk, but it is another thing to come up with the concept from scratch and design your own artwork, your own engraving patterns and your own patch boxes and architecture. The tricky part is keeping it historically relevant.
ASJI’ve read that the drop in demand for gun makers after the wartime needs of the American Revolution led to an increase of competition amongst craftsmen. FH Absolutely! Competition and isolation fed a lot into that. Sometimes these guys were secluded in their own little enclaves and they had to rely on their own inspiration. They couldn’t go down the street to someone else’s shop and borrow their pattern. They had to develop their own styles.
ASJHow do you go about creating a rifle? FH I have to come up with the concept first. I have to say, I want to create a rifle from this period in this caliber for this client who would have to come into my shop. He might want a .50-caliber rifle to hunt bear with or a target rifle that he’s going to take to the local shooting matches to impress his friends. I have to put myself into that frame of mind. I try to build a rifle based on what I would have had to look at, say, Thomas Simpson’s work or John Wilson’s (gun makers from eras gone by). What would I be building if that was my input? If that was what I was looking at and that was what I was seeing and surrounded by, what would I do? How would I make my work different, but still influenced by these guys? That’s the mindset I use.
ASJIn the late 18th and early 19th centuries, weren’t rifles a means of displaying a man’s social standing? FH At that time there weren’t many ways of demonstrating your wealth; one was your plantation house. People always misconstrue the meaning of that. It just means a large farmhouse. A man’s house, horse and rifle were the only ways he had to show who he was, and they took a lot of pride in those things. Now we have cars and speedboats, new iPhones and flat-screen TVs.
ASJThe depth of your historic research is impressive. You’re more informed on early American history than my university professor. FH I quit school in my junior year of high school, and I enjoyed it so much I went back for my senior year and quit again. Some people are cut out for academia and I’m not one of them. However, I’ve been exposed to historic weapons and accoutrements for 40 years. I’ve been a full-time artist since 1988 and Lally since 1990. I do a lot of restoration work on original weapons, tomahawks, the whole thing, so I get the opportunity to handle and take pieces apart to see how the work was done. It all contributes to education.
ASJNeither you nor your brothers started out doing this. How did you come to the decision to make your living creating historically inspired pieces of Americana? I read that you were a boilermaker – nothing seems farther away from being an artist. The boilermakers I knew were rugged, plain-spoken union men who liked sports and drinking beer. FH I still like sports and drinking beer [smiles]. My father was a boilermaker and my grandfather an iron worker. We came from a long line of heavy construction. I was actually national graduate apprentice of the year in 1985 among all the new journeyman in the country. I was a good boilermaker. I was a wonderful welder, but there’s something that won’t come out in a welding rod. There’s something in you that absolutely has to come out. You can’t help it and if you don’t let it out, you’re a miserable son-of-a-bitch.
ASJDid your father think you were crazy quitting a good-paying union job? FH Yep. My father never had an artistic bone in his body. He was one of the hardest working men I’d ever met. My mother was artistically inclined. She was a country music songwriter and musician.
ASJHasn’t this type of gunmaking always been a custom business, with clients coming in with their special requirements and having their rifles made to order? FH Yes, but our work is in such demand, actually, that as long as it’s good it will sell, and our work is always good. We simply don’t turn out substandard work. We spend the time. That’s one reason we’re not as financially successful as some people think we should be, but no weapon leaves our shop until it’s finished. At this point, hell, I could take ten rifles to a show and probably sell five of them, maybe all ten, but then I only make two a year.
ASJTo say your work is good is quite an understatement. You don’t just make rifles either. FHI also do restoration and knife work and a few other things. Hershel makes guns in addition to his knife work. John is primarily a knife and sheath maker and Lally is “eye ball” deep in her porcupine-quill work and moose-hair embroidery.
ASJSo there aren’t now and never will be a whole lot of House rifles out there? FHNope. Never will be. Hershel in his career, early on, did a lot of simpler, plainer mountain rifles and things like that to pay the bills getting started, but after he got his legs under him and got his mojo working, he slowed down. These guns are a tremendous amount of work. One of the things that makes this a very difficult occupation is that you literally have to master six, eight, 10 different vocations to be able to build a rifle from start to finish by yourself. You have to be a pretty damn good blacksmith, an architect, and you have to do some engineering work because all the mechanical aspects of the rifle have got to work. You have to be a foundryman, a carver, an engraver, a silversmith and a goldsmith. There’s a whole lot involved in making a rifle, and it takes a lifetime to master it. That’s one reason there’s not a lot of people who do it. If you’re talented enough to build a rifle from start to finish, there are a whole hell of a lot of other things you can do that can make a whole lot more money. I’m just being honest.
ASJThe rifles you make now are not the basic weapons that the
average guy looking to hack himself out a homestead on the frontier would buy. They are the high-end
pieces that would have been commissioned by the most successful and wealthy landowners. Back in 1790, fine guns like that would have taken a master gunmaker a half a year to build too. FHExactly right, and that’s one reason why these really great rifles are so rare. Because there wasn’t a great deal of them built to begin with. Only a handful of really great guns have survived.
ASJYou have a depth knowledge of American culture that most museum professionals will never have. How did you and Lally get involved with Hollywood, where they have a reputation for never letting the facts get in the way of a good story? FHIt’s a strange story. Randy Wilkenson, a friend of ours in Los Angeles who was working on the film The Patriot, brought in a rifle I’d made him and a horn strap that Lally made for a prop department show-and-tell where the director looked over all the props to decide what he liked and didn’t like. The director said he wanted our pieces for the movie. Wilkenson said he couldn’t have them because they were his own personal pieces. The director asked him, “Well, who made these, because I want them to do this for us.” That’s how it started. Then Mark Baker (a subject matter historian and writer) and I went down there and did the gun training for Mel Gibson, Jason Issacs, Heath Ledger and all the actors, and did a really good job for them. They got my name in their rolodex. We went from there to Master and Commander and Pirates of the Caribbean and even Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, for which Lally and I did all the monkey war clubs, spears and staffs props to give them an aged Neolithic look. I’m up to 16 shows now. Some of them major, some of them minor but all of them pretty big productions.
ASJLally, it seems to me that an unfortunate byproduct of today’s vast world market is that it has cheapened the value of handwork of all kinds, including art. What would have been a prized possession a century ago is now something you buy at the dollar story. Have you observed this too? Lally House Yes. An example is Native American beadwork, which was once a highly collectible American art form until the Japanese started making loom beadwork. That changed the whole game for the really good bead workers out there. Because shop owners and importers brought in cheaper Asian-made products, people started to feel that the American handwork wasn’t that important of an item. I’m so glad they don’t do anything with quill work or moose-hair embroidery.
ASJ Embarrassed to admit my own ignorance, I had never heard of this art form until I saw your work. LHPorcupine quill and moose-hair embroidery were almost extinct as art forms by 1800 when European-made glass beads became the dominant trade item with the native tribes on the America frontier. It’s not hard to understand how this almost happened 200 years ago. A handful of brightly colored glass beads was easy to store and the Indians didn’t have to do the preliminary work that goes along with quills and moose hair. Imagine having to trap the porcupine, pluck and clean the quills, gather the natural dyes and dye the quills before you can even get started.
ASJ So, porcupine quill and moose hair embroidered items were commodities? LH The pre-1800 eastern woodland Indians commonly used quill and moose hair embroidery to decorate their personal items. Since it was so popular as a decorative art, it was a highly valued trade item between individuals and tribes. They made a lot of what we would consider tourist-souvenir decorative items, like wallets that would be hung on the wall to hold important personal items, pin cushions, eye-glass cases, picture frames and anything you can imagine that a European or Native American might want. More traditional items would be powder-horn straps, hunting bags and knife scabbards.
ASJHow many artists still do this type
of embroidery? LHThere’s probably less than a dozen of us who do Eastern Woodland Indian-style work. Of that dozen, maybe five or six of us make our sole living this way. For many, many years, I was the only person using all-original 18th century natural dies, the same dyes used in early settlements and
ASJHow did you get started in this esoteric art form? LHI grew up in Louisville. I had a great history teacher in 4th grade who sparked my interest and I learned how to do research from some elderly ladies in my local branch library. I found a book on quillwork and the rest I had to learn from studying surviving pieces in private collections and museums. My main goal is to ensure that this beautiful and culturally important
art form is kept alive. We aren’t just in jeopardy of losing an Indian art form, we are in jeopardy of losing a uniquely American art form. ASJ
Note: Those interested in helping Frank and Lally House preserve our nation’s history through the living art of its craftsman and women should consider supporting the Contemporary Longrifle Foundation. You can get more information at their website at ContemporaryLongrifleFoundation.org.