INSTITUTE OF TEXAN CULTURES
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
INTERVIEW WITH: Ron HaFdcastle - Folklife Festival
INTERVIEWER: Al Lowman
DATE : SatuFday, August 3, 1985
PLACE : OFal HistoFY Office at ITC
L: Let me begin by asking the fiFst question: How did you
get inteFested in making bows?
H: The inteFest that I FemembeF began when I was five yeaFs
old_ It was just something I was neveF able to shake_ So
it's been with me all along_ In fact it's just a SOFt of a
genetic PFedisposition in inteFest in this aFea of that_
And it's ceFtainly mine _
It was exaceFba ted in 1951, when I was eleven yeaFs
old, by a movie I saw, starring a veFY charmismatic man
named HowaFd Hill After I got out of gFaduate school
and had the wherewithal to implement some of my interest, I
just SOFt of slowly worked into it by corFesponding with old
bowyers and Feading the old tomes that had to do with bowt-y_
And communication with this peFson and that_ I eventually
acquired a few basic skills and from then, it was all
empirical _ _ _ It was hunt and peck to see what wOFks,
keeping everything with just working with just basic
materials: hide, glue and wood_ And eventually I made
H: something I felt like was good enough to sell to
somebody or to give to somebody_ And that was about ten
years ago_ I feel like I've been a decent bowyer for about
L: You spoke a while ago about reading all the old tomes on
the subject_ Is there a substantial body of literature on
H: Well, there' s more than the layman might be aware of_
There's really a monograph on the woods of bowry by Robert
P_ Elmer_ This was written in '46_ He was a physician and
quite a literary guy, who was very well read in a lot of
areas and was an archery nut_ Historian, technician,
competitor, every thing_ He's in the Archery Hall of Fame_
All of his works are _ They peak out where my interests peak
out It coincides with my interests which is 1947,
which was the last year that bows were made strictly out of
wood, before fiber glass came into the picture_ After that
the whole complexion changed_
It got more predictable for a company to make bows; make
a more predictable product_ But that very predictability
just sort of, I don't know, killed some of the spontaneous
grace and poetry that goes along with making a bow out of
So Robert P_ Elmer's work was pivotal to my interest in
making bows and arrows_
L: And all of this started, you say, when you were about
five years old_
L: It was at eleven you saw the movie.
H: That's just the flrst memory I have of seeing, of
watching, somebody shoot a bow and just being stirred,
deeply with in the very essence of whoever I was. And that
feeling has never left . . . It's just been a series of kind
of quantum changes. At a certain age, I would learn this.
At a certain age, I moved on to that. Like I say, for about
the past ten years, I've been making bows that I was really
proud to make.
L: The people who make bows, do you have a lot of peers in
H: Well, it all depends on what level you define it. There
are a lot of individuals that make bows. A lot of those
still use fiber glass. So they use the modern technology.
There are, in this country as far as I know, there are three
of us that make nothing but wooden bows for hunting
applications. For that coterie of people that likes to hunt
with a wooden weapon. There are three or four of the
fellows I know that make really good Indian style bows.
There's a gentleman at Weatherford. The man t.hat is in my
booth wi th a table on the side thet·e, who lives in Austin
also, makes good Indian style equipment.
But as far as making hunting equipment for a
wood-loving archer, there's another guy in Portland, Oregon
that does it. Benita, Oregon. And there's a fellow ~n
England. And that's the only two I know that make wooden
bows for people that want to hunt with them.
L: O.K. Why would somebody opt to hunt perhaps, with a
L: wooden bow over one, with one, let's say, made of fiber
glass? What force is ·at play there that causes them to opt
for one over the other?
H: There's a prac tical reason and then there's a
sentimental reason; sort of a sentimental-poetic reason.
The practical reason is that a properly made ~ d'ar-c bow.,
and make no mistake. about it, b~kT' d' arc, or osage orange,
is a Texas wood. Howard Hill in 1928 established a flight
record wi th a Texas osage orange bow t.hat shot a flight
arrow just an enormous distance.
And Texas ~ d'arc, or
osage orange, are really the same thing, is very springy.
It's got an attraction all its own. One of the reasons is
from the standpoint of being practical. And osage bow, or
~ d'arc bow, made out of Texas b~ d'arc will last
eighty years and be springy that long.
which is, you know the rave of the age
twenty years it's like powder. But a
Even fiber glass,
now, oxidizes and in
~ d'arc bow, yow·
grandson can pick it and t·are back and shoot an arrow two
hundred and fifty yards, a hunting weight arrow.
So the reasons a re two. One of them is practical; it
las ts longer. The other one, the poetic and sentimental
reason, is that we are of the earth and so is wood; fiber is
not of the earth. Ii's a factory. By using purely natural
produc t s , like animal glue, and wood, I, and my brot.hers,
make a weapon that 's a real natural product. And there's a
very substantial feel of confidence and a good warm feeling
that it gives you to go into the woods with a natural weapon
like a bow that's all wood?
L: How long does it take you to make a bow from start to
finish ? ..
H: That is real hard t.o say for this reason. The wood,
the magic ingredient, the Texas b_<*5 d'arc wood, is not
something that you can order anywhere. Nobody traffics in
~'i!Lt d' arc wood. One must, if one wants this wood, go get
it. You talk with farmers; you talk on the telephone and
you follow leads. You'll see one as you travel on the
highway and you'll find out that that's on this man's
property but his foreman is so and so and you have to ask
him. To make a long story short, it's an enormous,
non-ending headache to have an adequate supply of good Texas
L: I wish I'd known this. My brother and sister and I own
about six hundred acres of woodland over near San Marcos.
And I've been cutting down ~3~d d'arc there for years and
burning it in t.he fireplace and it's not very da~good
firewood. I'm glad t.o know that. it makes good bows.
H: That's a sacrilege. (laught.er) At my boot.h I hear a
lot. of the farmers that come up, "That's b~ d'arc. I know
t.hat stuff. I've cut. it down. I've ruined more chain saws;
I can't stand that stuff."
L: It does; it. ruins lots of chain saws.
H: I see it as a gift from the gods, myself. I see it as a
sacred product t.o be used in almost. a mystic way. There are
a lot of mystic things about it. It. gets almost as hard as
st.eel when it stays out in the sunshine for a while. You
really can't hardly cut it with a chain saw. It's the
H: springiest wood there i s and like I say, prior to 1947,
it was the wood that was used for all the top dollar bows
that were made in this country: Fred Bear Archery Company;
Ben Pearson_ If yOU called up and said, "I want the best
bow yoU make, it would have b •• S d'arc wood in it_ And
probably was going to be Texas b.~8 d'arc wood_
L: How much does a top dollar bow cost an archer these
H: The ones I make, based on the time I s pend _ _ _ to get
back to your question, we kind of walked around the side of
the barn there, with one of the questions you asked was how
long does it take to make a bow? So much of my time 1S
involved as a broker for the customer in finding the wood to
make his bow with, that it's hard to say_ So let's define it
like this: once I get in the shop with some wood to work
wi th, it will take anywhere from twelve t o t.hirty hours to
make a good bow_ I have a recipe bow that's made up out of
glued laminations that I can make in about twelve hours_
The purest version which is really made out of a slice
of the tree, the outer side of a tree, takes about thirty
hours of realy careful scraping and tillering and bringing
it down t.o the right weighL
L: And so a top dollar just depends on the amount of time
H: Sure_ I would say that. the bows that I ___ I sell
mos tly target shooters opt for a fiber glass rig_ The
hunt.ers, and a poe tic hunter at t.hat, a gUY who likes the
gr-ace and the sentiment that goes with shooting a wooden bow
H: ... those bows sell between $350 and $600 depending
upon how they're made ·and what his draw weight i s , draw
length, and that sort of thing.
L: Again to dis play my ignorance, a little bit further
here, you've got people that hunt with bows, people who
shoot targets with them. What dictates their choice of one
bow over the other? One who hunts, apparently, he uses a
bow made from ~ d'arc. One who shoots targets, you
intimated a minute ago, i s likely to use fiber glass . What
are the characteristics of each of the two types of bows that
dictate the use of one for archery and the other for hunting?
H: Well, it doesn't segregate quite like that in that most
people that hunt with a bow and arrow, use a fiber glass set
up. And that i s to say, you've had people that shoot a light
weight bow for target work and people that shoot a heavier
bow for hunting work. You have wooden bows for both kinds
and you have t.arget bows for both kinds in fiber glass bows
in both areas. So what it boils down to is that for target
work, a person who shoots target. bows wants something that he
can shoot all afternoon with without killing him; without
exhausting him . So it has to be something of a relatively
light draw weight.
The hunter wants a bow of a little bit heavier draw
weight so that he can have enough killing power to bring
down the ga me that he's after.
Beyond that, what ma kes a person gravitate toward wood
is a predis position toward the grace and the sentiment that
goes with shootings a natural weapon.
L: Have you seen an appreciation or an acceleration or
decelaration of interest in this activity of yours in the
last few years? What's the stat.e of healt.h of this hobby,
profession How do you regard it? Is it a hobby with
you or a .
H: I'm a science teacher by profession. And a wooden
bowyer by avocation and by sentimental; intensive interest.
It's like everything else in life, it moves to the tune of
a pendulum that. swings first. one way and then the other . And
we have been now, for some time, in the middle of a return to
the earth. And it started with Rachel Carson in '63, Silent
Spring, when she wrote that, or '62, whenever it was. That
has put everybody on a mind-set of getting back to what's
good in the earth. Mother Earth News, that sort of thing.
And so the black powder, t.he muzzle loader interest
. f\- t at cont~es to grow every year. It's part of that whole
mind-set of getting back to a simplified, more dependable,
more fundamenta l and sat.isfying approach to life's pursuits
as compared wi t.h the high t.ech, pollut.ed sort. of thing that
goes with civilization in all of it.s trappings. Most of my
customers, a lot of them, are att.racted to black powder
shooting and they're attracted to generating your own
electrical power at home. I have a lot of Mother Earth
customet·s and a lot of black powder shooters that come to my
booth, too. It's all part of the same mind-set.
And they like the idea that here's something that. is
made of natural materials; that i s strong enough to drive an
arrow through an elephant if you're a professional in that.
H: situation, which in North America is not going to be a
problem_ It is a weapon that i s very formidable and it can
be made from just native Texas woods_
L: Osage orange at one time was used for fencing here in
H: Yes, right_ By virtue of the resins and lignins in the
osage orange or b~ d'arc (that's two names for the same
thing, by the way) in the wood render it impervious to attack
by microbes as well insects_ Matter of fact, I heard a
charming story about the nature of _ _ The star of this
show, by the way, is Tex~s b~ d'arc_ Let me put that
encapsulate that every thing_ Had a black gentleman
stop in my booth yesterday and he told me a c harming st.ory_
He said, "We always said when you cut. a ~ d'arc fence
post, you put it in the ground, wait until it rots, turn it
over and stick it. in the other end and then let it rot at.
that end_" So that' s how long it lasts_ They're almost
impervious to weathering and rot_
For all of their refractory characteristics and how
hard they are to cut down and how many tires they puncture
and ·how many cows choke on the osage fruits and all the
other negative things about them, they are extremely hardy;
they't-e very tough; and if you need a wood for that purpose,
that's the one_
L: I would say that. ~ d'arc i s the cockroach of the wood
H: Well again, i t.s a sact-ed gift. of the gods t.o me _ It.
depends on your perspect.ive_ Let me put it t.his way_ If I
H: see a piece that's straight enough to make a bow, I see
it as a gift rather than as a curse_
L: Next time I'm in the pasture and I happen to spot
something that looks like it'll meet your purpose, I'll give
you a calL
H: All right_ Sure_ You bet_
The upshot of all this, and by the way, that's an
archery term itself, upshot_ In medieval tournaments, when
the tournament was ovet-, there was a final summation of the
proceedings by shooting arrows st.raight up in the air_
That's called the upshoL And we use that in a figurative
sense now to indicate a summation of things_
The ups hot of all of this is that this is a natur a l
product; it's a Texas wood; and it makes something that
makes people feel good to shooL It' s part of this mind-s et
of a return to bas ics_
L: And tZ.J,TI d' arc is the only wood that you pick for use in
making bows _
H: Absolutely_ There is another one , the yew wood_ But yew
i s of a different part of the country _ Yew grows in the
Pacific Northwes t and Europe_ It is not our native bow
wood_ It i s a true b ow wood but it's not ours. And it's not
as hard and tough as ~~~1. d'arc_ Again, a ~ d'arc bow
will last seventy-five years a nd still s hoot well_
There' s one at t.he Texas Ranger Hall of Fame down next
t.o the Witte Museum and it i s _ _ _ ~ d' arc starts off
being almost a bright, bright yellow_ As time goes on it
deepe ns and darkens like a fine wine until finall y , when it's
H: almost a purple. Well, this thing must be, this bow I'm
talking about, must be" s eventy years old. It looks to me
like if you took it out of the case, you c ould shoot an arrow
well over this building with it.
L: Who were the first users in Texas of the kinds of bows
H: Of course, the Indians made their Indian bows out of
osage orange, or IiIea!.t d'arc.
L: Your cohort up here, you indicate, I thought you
indicated earlier, that his bows were somewhat different
from yours. In what way?
H: Well, his are the Indian approach. In other words.
L: In what way? How is that different from what you're
H: All right. They're shorter. They take a shorter,
lighter arrow. They can't be made to the same draw weights.
In ot.her words, wi th that design of bow, you can't, they're
not as accurate. The longer a bow is the more accurate it is
because the more stable it is in two di ffer-ent. places wi t.h
your bow arm.
So if you'r-e inter-ested in a ser-ious hunting weapon,
you look at mine. If you're interested in something in what
the Indians used, you 'look at Frank's.
L: Who in Texas first used your kind of bow? Was it the
archer? It was not the pioneer-, was it?
H: No. The kind of bow I make is typical of the high water
mar-k of wood bow technology, which sor-t of peaked out around
1940. And all of the Texas ar-chers that s hot this kind of
H: bow were the ones that shot in the teens and twenties
and thirties and forties_
The people like Howard Hill and Robert Elmer_ I've
talked with a lot of people here at the Festival and met
some people in Austin who say, "That looks like the bow I
shot when I was a young man_ I consider myself a maker of
the best bow that you can make with wood_ The fastest, t.he
most stable, the prettiest, and most satisfying to hunt with_
L: Well, we enjoyed very much having you here and hope
you'll come back again next year to t.he Festival_
H: My pleasure_ It's been great_
L: It brings a lot of arts and crafts together and people
wind up learning new things_ Having their horizons expanded
END OF TAPE I, Side 2, 20 minutes
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