by Tom Gaylord
A history of airguns
This is a special day. You will notice that I did not use my pen name today.
I’m showing you the first chapter in my next book. My last book was BB Guns Remembered, which is a collection of short stories I wrote about vintage pictures of boys with BB guns. I make nearly $100 a year from the online sales of that book, which beats the thousands I lost on the R1 book. So, I obviously don’t do this for money. I do it for fun. Have some fun on me this weekend!
My gosh! I never looked that clean a day in my life! I had to take a bath and get on my best summer clothes for that picture. See those shoes? Never wore them in the summer, except to church. And the hat? Not on your life! It made me look like a girl.
Now, Buster looks happy because nobody made him take a bath. Heck, he swam in the pond across the street almost every day, so of the two of us he was always the cleaner one.
See that BB gun I’m holding? That’s no ordinary Daisy or King. That’s a genuine Columbian 1906 that no other kid in the county owned. It was heavy black cast iron with animals engraved on the sides and had that beautiful nickel-plated barrel. The wood stock was gorgeous figured walnut that was as nice as any fine shotgun stock. That gun shot hard and straight, or if not, that’s what I always claimed. A gun that pretty had to perform as well as it looked—didn’t it?
I got that BB gun at my 11th birthday, which I am celebrating in this picture. If it wasn’t for the camera, I would be dirty and disheveled by this time of day. I remember this day better now, some 50 years later, than I do almost anything else that happened in my life. You see, I wasn’t supposed to have a BB gun. In fact I’ll tell you another interesting thing. Although I got that BB gun on my birthday, it wasn’t a birthday present. It was a commission!
I grew up in southern Pennsylvania at the time the Great War was raging in Europe. My dad was too old to go to war, but many men in our town had already gone into the service and they had started shipping out in early 1917. The Lusitania had been torpedoed two years before and people were very anti-German by this time. That wasn’t a good thing for my family because our last name was Braun. You wouldn’t think anything of it today, but at this particular time the people in our small town were already talking behind our backs, and I had two fights in school defending our name.
My dad was an engineer on the Maryland and Pennsylvania, Railroad—the old Ma and Pa line that ran between Baltimore and York, Pa. Because the line was short, dad was home more than most fathers, so he had a business on the side with his younger brothers. They had a lumberyard and sold lumber from trees brought in on the river. In fact the pond across from our house wasn’t really a pond, it was a small estuary of the same river and my family owned all of it plus some acreage around it. They kept the logs in that pond until they were ready to cut them, then they hauled them out by sledge and horse teams to the mill.
Dad always told us kids to stay away from the pond, as there were logs that had sunk there years ago and we could get snagged by them if we weren’t careful. We weren’t allowed to swim or boat in the pond for that reason, but my dog Buster didn’t care. He swam there every day.
One day when I went looking for him I happened to stare into the water and I could see a few of the old logs down on the bottom like dad said. So I asked my dad why he didn’t raise those logs and cut them for lumber, too? That’s when he told me his story.
Years before he had wondered the same thing, so he raised one of the smaller logs and took it to the mill to dry out for cutting. He said it took over two years for the log to dry and even then it didn’t dry as thoroughly as it should have. He said they did cut it up and it was a maple tree that produced quite a lot of good maple hardwood. He was impressed that there was even some extra fine fiddleback lumber in among the boards they cut from that tree, and if he had been prepared for it with the right saw blades he could have cut it up to make furniture-grade lumber and possibly even some veneer. He told me that was where the real money in lumber was—in high-grade veneer! A big log that might produce twenty dollars of building lumber could produce as much as one-hundred dollars of furniture-grade lumber if the grain was good enough. And, if it was made into veneer, it might go for ten times that amount!
I asked why he didn’t do that and then he told me the cost of the special saw blades that were needed. They were extremely expensive. Plus he might even have to invest in a new saw for the veneer! His mill was set up for rough building-grade lumber and not for such fine stuff.
I didn’t think much more about it at the time. It just seemed to me like a treasure that was waiting to be found, and it was right in front of our noses. But in time I forgot about it until one eventful day when I met a very special man.
We had a rifle range close to our house and in those days rifle shooters were the superstars of the day. Men like Hinman, Hill and Dr. Mann were the names everyone knew, and of course at the top of the list was the great Harry Pope! But the man I revered the most lived in Pottsville, right in my own state. He was the great Georg Schalk! I never met him face to face because he had died in 1893, several years before I was born. But I met another man who was connected to him, a Dr. Moore.
Dr. Dennis Moore was a dentist who was also a schuetzen shooter. But more importantly, he made custom rifle stocks—beautiful rifle stocks. And his stocks were in high demand from professional men who had the money to afford them. One of his custom stocks might cost as much as the rest of the man’s rifle and kit! And they were gorgeous! He had been a protégé of Mr. Schalk and now was the region’s recognized master stockmaker—a profession he had to weave into what little free time he had as a dentist.
Dr. Moore worked in many beautiful hardwoods, but his specialty was fiddleback maple. One stock might use as much of this fine wood as a dozen violins, so the good doctor was on the outs with the fiddle-makers of the day. And nowhere in America were there more luthiers than in Penn’s Woods. The German heritage was so strong in those people and many of them brought their crafts to this country when they came from the old country. In fact Georg Schalk himself was also a German-born luthier as well as a master schuetzen rifle maker the equal of Pope!
Dr. Moore lived in the next township over and often came to the local schuetzenfests. He came to compete but his popularity often kept him off the firing line while his customers badgered him over the details of their next stocks.
Well, I normally watched the matches from the gallery, but this special day my father and I were attracted by an absolutely gorgeous piece of curly maple on one of the rifles. Father was pointing out to me the tight grain and perfect oil finish on the stock. We stood in front of the rifle rack when Dr. Moore asked my father, “Would you like to hold it, sir?” Father said he would so the good doctor removed it from the rack and gently handed it to him. As he turned it over in his hands he remarked on the perfection of the stock’s shape and finish of the wood. That opened the doctor up and the two of them talked for several minutes.
I wasn’t paying attention to what they were saying until I heard the doctor exclaim, “What? You have a board as nice as this?”
“Probably even a little nicer,” allowed my father.
This got the doctor really excited, but one of his customers came up just then and the conversation had to be postponed. We left the match before the doctor was free again and I thought that was all there was to it, but just after suppertime that evening we heard a knock on our front door and it was Doctor Moore. Father invited him in and the two men retired to the parlor to discuss something over coffee. After a few minutes the two of them walked outside to the stable where they were for quite some time. When father came back inside he said Dr. Moore had left but he would be back the next Saturday to pick up a board.
It turned out my father had kept that fine maple board he talked about from many years before. He knew it was too fine to be used for lumber. And the doctor had purchased it from him. I didn’t learn the price at the time but in later years I found out it was twenty dollars—for one board!
Dr. Moore drove up in a flivver the next Saturday and loaded the thick eight-foot board onto the passenger side running board and over the front fender, where he tied it down with rope. As he was loading it, I asked him if he would like to find more wood like that. He said he would, so I walked him across the street and showed him the pond, where several large logs could be seen on the bottom. I told him his board had come from a small log in the same pond. I said some more things but I didn’t seem to be getting through to him. He just stared at the bottom of the pond with his eyes unfocused.
Then he asked me about the logs in the pond. Why were they there? How long had they been there? How many were there? I answered him to the best of my ability, and finally I told him that my father knew they were good logs, but the cost of the right saw blades and possibly a new and better saw had prevented him from doing anything about them. Well, I didn’t know it then but I had just forged a business partnership.
Dr. Moore and I went back to the house and he went inside to talk to my father. After about an hour father and mother came out and Dr. Moore took the whole family to dinner at the hotel in town. I had to take another cold water bath real quickly, but everything seemed so exciting that I didn’t mind.
Later that evening father called his two brothers over and they held a discussion long into the evening. The next day he told me that we were going in partnership with Dr. Moore who was going to provide the money for the new saw and blades. My uncles were going to raise the logs from the bottom of the pond and we would saw them into furniture-grade lumber and, hopefully, even some veneer!
Over the next month my uncles worked out a way to safely raise the logs from the bottom of the pond while my father built an addition to our mill for the new equipment. As that was happening he was also searching for a good deal on a new saw. The logs came up one at a time and turned out to be even older than we had thought. The cold river water had preserved them perfectly, so they only needed to dry for about a year before they could be cut in two. Once that was done they would dry out a lot faster. By the time the first log was dry enough to cut there were 48 large maple logs drying and no end in sight on the bottom of the pond.
It took father half a year to find a sawmill two counties over that was going out of business. He arranged to buy their almost-new saws with extra blades for a very reasonable price. It took a gang of six men and two large trucks to bring everything over to our mill and set it all up in the new building father had erected.
The first log was cut in half almost exactly a year after we had seen Dr. Moore’s beautiful stock at the schuetzenfest, and we could see there was going to be a lot of good figured grain come from it. One of my uncles had built a drying room in the new building and I helped keep the fires stoked day and night. As a result we were able to cut the first log only three months after splitting it and only then did we see the beauty of the grain.
Dr. Moore came by to look at the lumber we cut up and he selected a choice board for himself. Father told me then that that was his part of the profit—he got to pick any of the boards he wanted for stocks. Father paid him back for the loan to buy the saws from the profits he made on all the good lumber and that loan was paid off in two years. But he let Dr. Moore continue to select lumber for his stocks, because he said without his help none of this would have happened.
As for me, Dr. Moore came to my 11th birthday with a special present just for me. My mother didn’t want me to have a BB gun because she was afraid I would shoot at cats, but Dr. Moore persuaded both her and my father that I was responsible enough to have one. So, in a special ceremony on my birthday, Dr. Moore presented me with the thing I wanted most in the world, the finest BB gun I had ever seen! It had been for sale in a gun store down in York and was truly a thing of beauty.
Dr. Moore said if I hadn’t told him about the treasure in the pond, none of this would have happened. He had asked me weeks before what I wanted most in the world and I told him I wanted that fine BB gun. He asked me why I wanted it and I told him it was a gun I could have that most reminded me of Schalk’s fine schuetzens, like the beautiful one with the maple stock that he owned. So he presented me with that BB gun as thanks for getting our fine lumber business started. I was extremely glad to have such a fine BB gun and I secretly resolved to treat it as carefully as he did his powder rifles. Then he surprised me with a second presentation. It was in a long oaken box that was lined in deep green felt. It was a real Schalk schuetzen rifle that the doctor had stocked with the first piece of curly maple he got from us. He told me that when I was a few years older he would teach me how to shoot it, but for now I could just keep it and look at it. My father and mother were both flabbergasted by this extravagant present! I didn’t know what to say because it didn’t seem real to me. Dr. Moore told us that this was the last schuetzen rifle Schalck ever made and he left it unstocked. He told the doctor to give it to the most worthy person he met with Schalk’s blessings, and the doctor had stocked it with the first fine presentation wood we harvested as a tribute that he believed was fitting.
That was over five decades ago and I still have both that fine rifle and my beautiful BB gun. Dr. Moore, my uncles and my parents all left the range many years ago and the lumber mill has passed to me. The logs in the pond finally played out, but not before they made our family a small fortune. But greater than even that are the memories I have, watching the whole thing unfold.
The pond is now in the middle of a small park that I created and gave to the town several years ago. And, across the street from where my old house used to stand I built a park bench of the most beautiful figured maple boards. I often sit on that bench and look out over the pond, remembering my parents, my uncles, Dr. Moore and Buster.
York, PA 1967