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An artisan's craft that's history in the remaking

April 09, 2006|John Balzar | Times Staff Writer

Kalamazoo, Mich. — ON a display table, Ken Scott lays out a hunting pouch. A purse-sized bag of leather, lined in vintage fabric, this is the kind of essential accouterment a man carried over his shoulder 200 years ago when he ventured into the woods with a muzzleloader in search of dinner. Crowds line up to admire the weather-beaten hide and faded lining. Invariably someone remarks, "I'll bet that old pouch could tell some stories."

Scott smiles. Isn't that the best? Comments like this make his day.

In fact, the leather hunting pouch does have nostalgic stories to tell. But probably not the stories a passerby might imagine.

This is a new bag, handmade by Scott in the studio of his home in Indianapolis and richly aged to look like a museum artifact of the 18th century. In the realm of those who make hunting pouches, game bags, haversacks and "possibles" bags, Scott is among the most accomplished and best regarded -- no small thing considering that there are scores of worthy craftsmen now engaged in the obscure enterprise.

One story his bag can tell, the most obvious one judging from the appreciative audience it gathers, is that crafts from pre-Industrial Age America are booming. And if you are of a mind to scratch a little deeper, the existence of such a bag provides a tangible expression of a phenomenon that is laced throughout America's history: a reach back to simpler times and simpler ways as a reaction to a contemporary era of accelerating complexity and grave uncertainty.

On a recent weekend as winter yielded to spring, some 9,000 people from across North America gathered at the fairgrounds here in southern Michigan for a curious event called the Kalamazoo Living History Show.

With nearly a third of the crowd outfitted in period costumes, from face-painted woodland Indians to antebellum belles in hoop skirts, from Civil War soldiers with shouldered rifles to French-Canadian canoe voyageurs, the scene resembled something like the backstage at a Hollywood revue of early American life.

People were drawn by the displayed handwork of 100 craft artisans -- blacksmiths, weavers, toymakers, tailors and tinsmiths, plus a "Sutlers' Row" of an additional 170 purveyors of trade goods from the continent's past.

Now in its 31st year, the Kalamazoo show serves as a vast wardrobe department for those who are both actors and audience in their own theatrical reenactments of American history. For craft artisans, it showcases what might be called "living archeology" -- the celebration of those hearthstone goods that reconnect Americans with pastoral myths of self-reliance.

The show is an outgrowth of a speakers bureau started by 24 members of Kalamazoo's Yankee Doodle Muzzle Loaders club. They would dress in period costume and deliver history programs to local schools.

"This became so popular that we had to look for other ways to reach students and the general public," recalls Larry L. Coin, chairman of the event. "We formed the show so people would come to us."

Today, Kalamazoo is among the largest and best of dozens of living history expos staged around the country annually, with the peak season beginning in spring. The monthly Smoke & Fire newspaper that serves the living history community lists about 2,000 events and sites nationwide each year where living history is on display, most of them featuring a traders' row. Generally, these gatherings are unlike Kalamazoo in that they are focused on a single period of history. In California, the Civil War era seems particularly popular, with organizations hosting events throughout the state, including at Fort Tejon just outside Los Angeles.

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Artfully filling a need

ONE of the star craftsmen of this year's Kalamazoo show, Scott is a former broadcaster who now operates a small advertising agency with his wife. A jocular man with a dimpled chin and an eye for minute detail, he has been an artist for most of his life. His passion for history traces back to his boyhood, listening spellbound to his 100-year-old grandfather tell adventure stories of traveling West after the Civil War.

In about 1973, Scott got interested in black-powder muzzleloading. He needed a traditional bag to carry the assorted workings to load and fire his rifle, so he made one. Today, he has an eight-month backlog of orders for his intricately hand-stitched shoulder bags, which command prices of up to $1,800.

Scott's work is faithful to an era when Americans had fewer things -- and great devotion to those that became everyday companions. He uses arrays of leathers, ranging from burnished cowhide to exotic beaver tail, cut and sewn to mysteriously appear rustic and finely finished at the same time. Accents of woven straps, fringe, porcupine quillwork, period buttons, and copper cones with red horsehair add the feeling of hearth-made individuality.

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