What did no-spending-money farm boys do to acquire things like a bow and arrow, slingshot or snow skis in the 1940s and 1950s? We made our own on the Scheckel farm outside of Seneca in the heart of Crawford County. We had mixed success.
We built our own bow from a long willow stalk. We knew where to find them. Phillip, Bob and I kept a sharp eye out for the long, thin wooden stalks while working the fields on the 238-acre farm. It was not uncommon to spot a straight piece about 5 or 6 feet long and less than an inch in diameter. We often found them along Kettle Creek. Cut several thin poles with a hand saw or ax and take them back to the farmstead.
We cut notches on the ends of the thin shaft with our jackknife -- deep enough to hold string in place but not too deep to compromise the strength of the tips by having the pole split. It was a trial-and-error process.
Binder twine was our choice for the bow string, because binder twine was all we had. We tied a loose loop with a very secure knot at one end of the bow. Bracing the prepared end against the inside of the foot, we gave the bow a bend with the natural curve down. Using body weight, flex the bow with one hand on the bow and the other holding the loose end of the bow string. Wrap the binder twine bow string over the notch in the wood and secure with a knot. When you’re 10, 11 or 12 years old, this can be two-boy task.
We made arrows from any straight stick that was about a quarter-inch thick. We weren’t fussy about the length, 1 or 2 feet would do. We sharpened that stick with our jackknife. We fashioned some chicken feathers and glued them to the back end of the arrow. They usually fell off after one or two shots.
How good was our bow and arrow? We thought pretty good, but we had no notion of how far an arrow should go. We figured about 100 or 200 feet at best. Certainly couldn’t hit anything. Any predators or stray cats were safe around the Scheckel boys.
Phillip, Bob and I made our own slingshots from Y-shaped branches. We used strips of old rubber tire inner tubes. Inner tube rubber was the only stretchy thing we could get our hands on.
Using a jackknife, we cut a shallow groove that went almost all the way around each arm.
The groove was about a half-inch down from the end of each prong.
With a scissors, we cut a piece of old tire inner tube about an inch wide and 18 inches long. Next, we tied the long, narrow strip of rubber to the Y-shaped frame with a knot on each end. Our homemade slingshot was ready to fire.
We launched a lot of small rocks and gravel with those slingshots. We had competitions on accuracy (there was none) and distance.
We had reasonable success with making our own bow and arrow and slingshot. Fashioning homemade skis out of barrel staves was a complete fiasco, but it didn’t stop us from trying.
Dad bought nails in wooden kegs or barrels. He also got hold of a few old white oak whiskey barrels. Prairie du Chien had a whiskey distillery and they sold old white oak barrels at a dirt-cheap price. Dad and Mom stored butchered, salted-down meat in the basement in those barrels. The staves were held together by a metal band top and bottom and two additional bands spaced between top and bottom.
When any one barrel disintegrated from use or abuse, it became material for homemade skis. The staves were about 30 inches long and 3 inches wide. We nailed 2-inch wide strips of inner tube rubber to the sides of the barrel stave to act as toe holds. We sanded down the bottoms to make the skis slicker and applied grease.
Ski poles were constructed from a branch in the front yard. Behind our Big Barn was a fairly steep hill going down into the hog pasture. I’m guessing the greatest distance we ever got on those skis was 10 or 15 feet on the steepest part of the hill, and that was pushing with the poles.