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By ANNETTE HARVISON
Greene County has a reputation, it would seem, for skilled and talented woodworkers. These craftsman have used a wide variety of species of wood in their work. One local crafter says he follows a centuries-old method for making hand-carved longbows.
John Thomas said he began making long bows over 30 years ago as a hobby, something to do with his hands and time. But, in the early 1990s he decided he wanted to get serious about the art form, which is a link to Thomas’s Native American ancestry. He uses many of the same primitive techniques used by his Cherokee ancestors.
“I started researching,” Thomas said. “I read lots of books on what to do. A Cherokee Indian wrote a book on how to make a longbow, and I started working on it.”
These bows aren’t made from oak or pine, and it’s not made from hickory or cedar. The wood is called osage orange, or the French term, ‘bois d’arc,’ which means bow wood. This type of wood is found in the Mississippi Delta and along the Mississippi River Valley to Ohio to the east coast. The tree produces a small green fruit often called a horse apple. Thomas said the wood is used for its hardness and flexibility, and because it repels water.
“It’s a beautiful wood,” Thomas said. “It starts out with a yellow color, and the more it dries, the darker it gets, from orange to dark brown. I like the orange.”
The bows Thomas makes are hand-carved with precision and patience. For a bow, he has to have a strip of wood six to seven feet long. The wood is dense and the trunk twists into curvy branches. To get to a good solid piece of wood can be difficult, though Thomas said he can splice two smaller pieces to make the length. Working with the wood leaves a mark as the saw dust the wood creates is a fine yellow powder that is reminiscent to pine pollen. Making a longbow is more than cutting a long strip of wood and tying a string to it.
“You have to get the tiller perfect,” Thomas said. “If you don’t, the bow will break.”
The tiller has to do with the bow’s measurements from each end to the handle of the bow. For those that don’t know about the mechanisms of longbows (I do not, either), the tiller is an important factor in how the bow will function in use. Adjusting the tiller means scraping the bottom end of the bow to compensate for the pressure put on a drawn bow.
Thomas began making the long bows with primitive tools. Making a bow took quite a lot of time for someone who also worked full-time at Ingalls and then in the construction industry. But he kept working on the bows in his spare time. Through the years, Thomas got a chainsaw, a table saw and a band saw to make some of the task of cutting the wood simpler, and he acquired tools used in making arrows and other hand-crafted items.
“When I first started making the bows, I used a hatchet and a file,” Thomas said. “It took several years to get my tools built up.”
Throughout the past 30 years, Thomas has hand-crafted 70 longbows. He has a list of the bows he’s made and where they have gone. Many were made for family and friends. Each piece is unique, and he has even used buffalo sinew to make the backing of a bow. He makes his own arrows and will string the bows as well. Thomas has crafted quivers from animal hides and made himself arm guards from beaver pelts as well as otter pelts. I was interested in a satchel made from a solid piece of tree bark, another testament to Thomas’s creativity and skill.
The long bows have been a family affair in the Thomas house. Thomas made bows for his wife and children and now his grandchildren. He said when his daughter was younger, she loved to go outside and shoot arrows with her bow.
“She would shoot the arrows straight up,” Thomas said. “I painted her arrows white so she could see them go up then come down. She would run to get it and shoot it back the other way.”
Thomas said when he was younger, he became interested in his Cherokee heritage and always wanted to know more. Making traditional Cherokee longbows has given him a link to his ancestors. He grew up in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee before finding his way to southern Mississippi. He said during his mischievous youth, he had the notion that moving in with his father would help him be free of his delinquent habits. Thomas soon learned his father still had delinquent habits of his own with a bootlegging business, and he worked for his father for a time before meeting a girl that made him change his way of thinking, he said.
Now in retirement, Thomas said he wants to put more time and energy into making his longbows, and he has been working on a few new design concepts as well. A bit of luck recently struck Thomas, and he said he has found a supply of osage orange that will help him get going. He has several longbows in the works and has the wood ready for many more.
Woodworking isn’t Thomas’s only craft. He recently published a book in which he used many elements from his travels in life and while working in construction to write the story.