Photo by Ric Lambert
Arriving at the home of Mike Whitehouse in mid-December, I first notice the Christmas decorations that adorn the yard. A host of plastic elves, gingerbread men and candy canes surrounds a Nativity scene, while off to the side a small sign insists “Santa Stops Here.” The sky, clear and cold, also begs attention as a flock of sandhill cranes circles, croaking. The house is ordinary in this Valley Station neighborhood of brick ranch houses, one of many such neighborhoods in southwest Louisville.
What barely calls attention to itself is the single board leaning against the garage door. This nondescript piece of wood, slightly cracked, dry and nearly colorless, is, in fact, the purpose of my visit.
“That,” says Whitehouse, “is my next rifle.”
The reclaimed board, salvaged from a barn, is cherry wood, and once it is milled down and cut to a “blank”—the shape of a rifle stock—it will be on its way to becoming a Kentucky Longrifle, one of three Whitehouse plans to build this year.
Mike Whitehouse is a contemporary craftsman, an adequate term, though it may be far more accurate to call him an artist. Standing in his living room decorated with pictures of his kids and grandkids, it is easy to see his love for wood. The rocking chair in which he sits, he’s quick to point out, is 150 years old, and though it could be restored to modern standards, he insists he “won’t touch it.” The fear is he’d ruin it, and nothing is more unconscionable to Whitehouse than ruining a treasure.
The reason why is evident in the rifle that lies on a sheet of newspaper on his coffee table. It is the first rifle he built; he was 19. He lets me hold it. The metalwork, the smooth wood, the carvings, and the perfectly aligned barrel—there’s no doubt, even for someone as unskilled in the appreciation of firearms as myself, that it is impressive, a treasure.
“When you’re completely done with the rifle, and you pick that rifle up,” Whitehouse says, “it just has a feel, a magical feel. Not just to us builders.”
As it turns out, Whitehouse is not the only builder. Many people, young and old, around the country build these rifles, whether replicas of original rifles or pieces with a more personal flourish. One organization in particular, the Contemporary Longrifle Association, dedicates itself to this very art.
The “Kentucky Longrifle” is a bit of a misnomer. In actuality, this rifle, originally developed on the 1740s American frontier, is properly called an American Longrifle. Prior to the Revolutionary War, it served mainly as a hunting tool for early pioneers. Though it’s difficult to imagine in today’s industrialized society, longrifles were made by hand using simple tools: draw knives, mallets and chisels. The metal was forged in a frontier setting, in simple shops and barns.
What began as a hunting device slowly transitioned to a firearm, beginning with Indian skirmishes on this very frontier and later, the American Revolution. Gen. George Washington was once handed one, and he realized without hesitation the possibility of such a weapon against the British. After the war, an increasing number of Appalachian settlers brought the longrifle with them to Virginia, Tennessee and, of course, Kentucky. Even Lewis and Clark’s famed expedition carried versions of the rifle into the interior of the continent.
But it was the War of 1812 that brought fame to the Kentucky Longrifle. A militia composed of Kentucky hunters brought their guns to the swamps of Louisiana and, sharpshooters that they’d learned to be, easily picked off the British troops headed for New Orleans. By the time the British reached the city, their numbers may have dwindled to nearly half, and Andrew Jackson easily defeated them in the Battle of New Orleans. After that, the “boys from Kentucky with their Kentucky Longrifles” became the stuff of legend. They were lionized in a popular song, “The Hunters of Kentucky.”
The names of the “masters,” the original 1700s builders, abound: Jacob Dickert and Adam Haymaker, to name a couple. At the time of their building, these rifles were immensely popular, even mythic. In the intervening years, however, the old flintlock longrifle dwindled in use. Eventually, modern percussion rifles took over, and by the mid-20th century, the famous Kentucky Longrifles were rendered nearly worthless.
In the 1960s, Mike Whitehouse was a boy working in his father’s antiques shop in downtown Louisville. He’d been working since he was 8, when he helped out in tobacco fields. His father, he says, believed in kids working, so though he worked in his father’s construction business, it was in the antiques shop that Whitehouse began to learn the intricacies of woodwork refinishing. “Because some of the pieces were so fine,” he explains, “there was actually an art of restoration, and that was taught to me. How you can take certain pieces and not do this and not do that to ruin the piece.”
His father, he says, had a few of the old flintlocks, which were colloquially known as “smoke poles” because of their characteristic heavy discharge of black powder smoke. At the time, no one gave them a second look. But not young Whitehouse. “They always fascinated me,” he says. “By the time I was a very early age, I started actually working on some of the other different guns, and I got into gun repair. I can’t even begin to think how I did that, but I actually loved it, and I started repairing them, and the next thing you know, people were coming in the shop bringing their guns for me to work on. I just loved it.”
Whitehouse researched as best he could, probing the Louisville library for books, of which he could find only one, and it stirred his interest even more. He worked with woodworkers, blacksmiths and metalsmiths, steadily learning the tricks of restoration.
Things took a turn when an old man walked through the door of the antiques shop. The old-timer realized young Mike had already begun restoring—and selling—the old smoke poles. In a single six-hour period, the man informed the young boy about the longrifle, and even taught him a few tricks of building. The old man gave Whitehouse a whittler he kept in his car and left without the boy ever learning the man’s name.
“I can’t remember why he was here, but he happened to walk into Dad’s antiques shop for whatever reason,” Whitehouse remembers. “We sat there, and we went through the rifles and he told me what they were, and you could tell his pride and joy was in them flintlocks. And mine was, too, because they had a look, they had a feel, and once he finished, it changed my life forever. And one of the things that really struck me was when he told me I could build one. And that he was a builder. I believe I was 19 years old before I built my first. It took that long for me to perfect, to even think of building my first rifle.”
The boy’s ambition matched the apprenticeships that followed. Working with a sheet metal man one winter, he learned soldering, welding and braising. He learned blacksmithing from an actual blacksmith. After learning from an expert wood carver, he practiced for two years, taking wood from old furniture to use in restoring broken antique pieces—a trick commonly used to restore the woodwork of longrifles.
So it was that, in the latter half of the 20th century, Whitehouse helped the longrifle once again take on its sheen of history. He is but one of numerous crafters, each in his own way trying to achieve what the old gun makers of the past achieved with tools in frontier settings.
“I don’t want to say I’m a master,” Whitehouse insists. “There is something about these rifles, though, I do want to say: Each of these makers had a style and way, and I found this out through making rifles. Each one of them had a feel that at some point or another made them that master. I’d like to say that I had found the same thing picking up the contemporary rifles of the makers today. Some of us have found that feel; some of us haven’t. And I think that, to me, is what [represents] the true artist, the difference of the artist.”
Frank House, one of the notable artists of the longrifle world, lives at the end of a dirt road in Woodbury on a bluff overlooking the Green River. The town, incorporated in 1854 and set at some remove from the busy world, is the perfect place for an artist.
The house is actually the old lockmaster’s house, built in 1838 to house the man who took care of the locks and dams on the river. “I was born and raised in this house right here,” House says, having recently bought the place. Outside, a large outbuilding will hold his future studio, but for now, tools—many of them antiques—are arranged on a workbench beside the original stone walls. The brick fireplace in the center of the house is an imposing historical presence, at least compared with the table saw set in the middle of the floor.
His current project is building weapons for the next Planet of the Apes film, what he calls the “monkey stuff.” In fact, House is well known in longrifle circles for this very work. His first break was to build a rifle, pistols and powder horn for Mel Gibson’s film The Patriot. His wife, Lally, an accomplished artist herself, created Mel’s powder horn strap, an elaborate threading of porcupine quills that she learned from a Native American woman. House is obviously proud; the first thing he offers to show me is Lally’s glasses case, a sheath entirely woven and embroidered with quills.
Other films followed, including Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and, most recently, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. When I ask him about the prop work, he explains, “It’s like working on this monkey stuff. I had to take a break from it. I had to pull that little rifle out, start working on it, gluing it back together. I’m just setting and vibrating until I can get my shop built so I can go in there and start building some stuff.”
The rifle he refers to is a restoration project, a Jacob Riser rifle from Bardstown. A single project like this could take months, and some have taken a year. “This stuff is so time consuming to make,” he says, “and they [the filmmakers] have such a short pre-production period—three to four months. You’re only going to be able to make and supply two, three pieces for them, four at the most.”
Then he lays a pistol on the dining room table, an exquisite piece embellished with expert silver work, all of it by Frank’s hand. “That’s a six-month project there, at least,” he says. Beside them, he lays an array of knives, all of which he has conceived, designed and fashioned himself.
House readily admits that he is an artist rather than a craftsman. The historical pieces, to him, are what ground his own work, but rather than follow a strictly traditional way of building longrifles, he sees himself as interpreting the spirit of the original makers.
“Art is an idea,” he explains, “and it’s the same thing with my guns and my knives. It’s hard to be an artist making knives. Like this knife here—this is purely my concept of what a Booth dagger or an armpit dagger would be. It’s my design. I do all of my own engraving; I do all of my own carving. I do it all. I don’t farm out. And [Frank’s brothers] Hershel does it and John does it, and so does Lally. We do our own work; we execute our own work; we conceive of our own work. And if that isn’t art, I don’t know what the hell art is.”
Frank is one of three brothers, each of whom build Kentucky Longrifles. In fact, Frank learned from Hershel, who is 18 years Frank’s senior and has been making guns full time since 1966. Hershel became interested after hearing riveting tales of their grandfather, a venison hunter who supplied meat for the men building a railroad through the frontier of Arkansas. Along with stories of Daniel Boone, there was 1950s television and Davy Crockett. “Hershel got consumed by it,” Frank says.
“I hung around out there every minute I could,” Frank says, “from the time I was just a little baby fella. I started making knives and tomahawks and swords and forging, and [Hershel] always said all I did was burn up all his coal and burn up all his steel. I started when I was just 14 years old, and then I worked with Hershel in his shop with him in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and then in ’88, I went full time on my own.”
To Frank House, as with Mike Whitehouse, the longrifle is history. “The art and the history as it relates to our history as an American, as a Kentuckian—you know, Daniel Boone, Simon Kenton and all those guys. It’s a really romantic period of history. These guns, these Kentucky Longrifles were a huge part of that, a huge part of that,” says House.
The mythic frontiersman, roaming the mountains of Kentucky, would have had precious little, says House. The tools of the frontiersman were necessities, but the quality of their craftsmanship also hints that they revealed social status, too.
“Today, we demonstrate our wealth or our social status in a lot of ways,” House says. “In the 18th century, you only had so many ways to demonstrate that. You had your horse and your rifle and your gear: your saddle, your tomahawk, your hunting bag, your powder horn; that’s how you demonstrated who you were. These were extremely personal items to these people. You didn’t go into a store and buy one. They might have a few stock pieces standing up in the corner, but they were just building for the ‘trade,’ they called it. You went in and contracted with an individual to build this for you.”
This is an essential element of contemporary longrifles—they are tailor made, custom built items meant to be cherished, even handed down. This is what separates art from mere craft, says House. “I think to really be successful, that’s what you have to do; otherwise, you’re just building another ‘thing.’ And that’s not art to me—that’s craftwork. Or worse.”
More than anything else, the Industrial Revolution destroyed much of the longrifle-making tradition. The practice of the master handing down the skills to an apprentice nearly vanished by the late 1800s. In a culture where the purpose of making things is so intertwined with money, it’s little wonder such crafts are vanishing. Though there are numerous builders in the contemporary longrifle culture, they don’t number in the thousands. Sometimes the craft has been made more visible, as when Hershel House taught Mel Hankla (now a devoted craftsman and preeminent longrifle historian; see sidebar story below) under the auspices of a National Endowment for the Arts folk art grant, but more likely than not, the general public is largely unaware of the artistic endeavors going on not only in the backwoods of Kentucky, but also in its urban areas.
What is it that consumes—as Frank House said of his brother Hershel—these contemporary makers? Is it purely an artistic endeavor, or is it something deeper, something vaguely spiritual?
“I think it’s kind of both,” says Frank. “It’s that sense that you are creating something. I’m not a spiritual person, but there is something verging on spiritual with some of this. You can get on a level where it’s almost like someone else is guiding your hand.”
Mike Whitehouse likewise sees the art form—and striving to understand what the original craftsmen experienced during their own moments of creation—as something transcendent. “My mentor told me that there would be a day that I would feel the [original] maker,” he explains. “And he said that’s when you know that you’ve got it, and that you made it. Would you ever become that maker? Never. He’s the master. But at the same time, you will, without sounding freaky, walk into that world of that perfectionist. And it’s happened to me.”
As with any artist, the deepest love, and the spirit that Kentuckians should most feel for the Kentucky Longrifle, is the spirit of creativity itself. Frank House, a former boilermaker like his father, knows the difference between mechanical industry and the rigor of the artist’s life.
“There’s something in you. It’s in there; it’s got to come out; and you can’t express it with a welding rod or setting a hundred-ton piece of equipment, or a machine, or building a powerhouse, and it was driving me crazy,” he admits.
“We’re all only going to be here for so long, and I believe in trying to enjoy yourself a little bit, and do some things that are in you that need to come out. If you don’t, you’re going to be a miserable son of a bitch.”
Master Craftsman, Master Historian
Mel Hankla of Jamestown is an authority on the history surrounding the Kentucky Longrifle and is himself an avid builder, having acquired a National Endowment for the Arts Folk Arts Apprenticeship grant to study with Hershel House. The Russell County native says his interest in making longrifles and keeping its history alive is “an internal urge. It’s as if it’s in my blood.” He is past president of the Contemporary Longrifle Association and editor of the organization’s magazine, American Tradition, and author of the book-in-progress The Kentucky Rifle—America’s Excalibur.
“This craft is certainly not in any danger,” he says. “There are more American Longrifles built each year today than ever were during their original period of use.”
Special thanks to Mel Hankla for his assistance with this story.