Ghost Town: Bannack, Montana

Ghost TownWhen I say, “ghost town,” what images pop into your mind? If I’m truthful — and I think that I have to be — I will admit that I think of that episode of “The Brady Bunch” where the Bradys are on their way to the Grand Canyon and they stop off in a ghost town. The guy who played Thurston Howell III from “Gilligan’s Island” is there as an old prospector. He steals their station wagon and leaves them stranded in the ghost town’s jail. I know what you’re thinking. And, yes, I will readily admit that I have watched far too much television in my life. But I’m still intrigued by ghost towns. Recently, I happened across a doozy of a ghost town . . . Bannack, Montana. Bannack is a town that is filled with enough ghosts to satisfy the most ardent lover of Old West History.

GHOST TOWN: Bannack, MontanaTo prove that I do possess a bit of culture that doesn’t involve 70’s television, I feel the need to include a John Steinbeck quote. In his travelogue about a 1960 road trip across the U.S. with his standard poodle, Charley, entitled: Travels with Charley: In Search of America, Steinbeck wrote, “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” (See, I’m not a totally uncultured dolt!)

Thicker’n a Swarm of Grasshoppers

GHOST TOWN: Bannack, MontanaSteinbeck wasn’t alone in his love of Montana. Almost a century before Steinbeck and Charley visited Montana, a group of prospectors began making their way to the town that would become Bannack. (Prospectors. Shoot. Now, I’m thinking about that episode of “The Brady Bunch” again!) It was 1862 and the prospectors were panning for gold in a creek surrounded by grasshoppers. (Bonus points if you can guess what they named the creek!) It was there in Grasshopper Creek that they found part of the biggest gold strike in Montana—even though it was technically still in Idaho territory at the time!

By the winter of 1862, more than 500 people had descended on Bannack in swarms thicker than, well, grasshoppers. Tents, shanties and huts sprang up all around and Bannack became a booming mining town. Word spread that the gold in Bannack was over 99% pure—a level of purity that was not to be exceeded until Ivory soap hit the market seventeen years later. Winter ended, but the influx of people seeking their fortunes didn’t.

Bannack, MTBusinessmen, outlaws and Civil War deserters joined the miners who thought that Bannack seemed like a pretty good place to stake a claim. By 1863 and the town had some 3,000 residents, made up mostly of men and “career women,” when they applied to the U.S. Government for the name of Bannock. Someone in Washington hadn’t brushed up on his “Hooked on Phonics” and the name was misspelled as Bannack. Well, whatcha gonna do? The name stuck—sort of like when Oprah’s mom misspelled Orpah.

Law and Order, Bannack style

Bannack4As surprising as it may be, crime was a real problem in Bannack. Oh, sure, they had a surplus of gypsies, tramps and thieves, but what they needed was a lawman. (Note: I have no idea if there were gypsies or not. But far be it from me to miss the opportunity to reference one of Cher’s greatest hits.) The seventy-mile stretch of road to Virginia City had become perilous, with road agents waiting to rob the stagecoaches of their gold. In fact, the halfway point between Bannack and Virginia City had come to be known as Robber’s Roost.

Henry PlummerIn 1863, the people of Bannack hired a man named Henry Plummer to serve as sheriff. Unfortunately, in the days before LinkedIn, it was virtually impossible to do a thorough background check on someone! And it didn’t take long before people began questioning Plummer’s sincerity. Many believed him to be the Grand Pooh-bah of the thieving road agents! Well, they would have believed that, if the term Pooh-bah had been around before Gilbert and Sullivan used it in The Mikado in 1885.

Bannack, MTSome people believed that Plummer was appointing members of his band of thieves as deputies. Together, they were said to have robbed and killed more than 100 men. And, if the bad guys carried badges, where were the people of Bannack supposed to turn? The gang is said to have become even more brazen as time went on. They were rumored to have spies working for local businesses. They knew exactly when and where to strike. Skinner’s Saloon was their suspected headquarters. Saloon owner, Cyrus Skinner, was said to be in cahoots with the gang. If you own a metal detector, you might want to head to Bannack because legends say that Skinner buried a fortune in gold before he was hanged for being a thief.

Bannack, MTSkinner wasn’t the only one to meet the wrong end of a rope. Eventually, the honest men of Bannack got tired of looking over their shoulders and they formed a group of vigilantes. Surely, some of them must have been responsible for naming Grasshopper Creek because they had an obvious flair for naming things (or a flair for giving obvious names)! They called themselves, yes, you guessed it. . . The Vigilantes, and set out to take back their town—one swinging noose at a time. They hanged around 30 men suspected of being road agents, and they buzzed through it all in record time because they didn’t wait for those pesky trials.

Bannack, MTOne of the men caught by The Vigilantes turned informant and ratted out Sheriff Plummer. On January 10, 1864, The Vigilantes captured Plummer and two of his companions in the middle of the night. The following day, Plummer was hanged from the gallows . . . the same gallows that he had built himself as sheriff of Bannack.

The Last Best Place

Bannack, MTFrom that point on, life in Bannack became almost serene. Murdering stopped. Robbing stopped. It’s too bad the gold strikes stopped because that would have been a prime time to get rich. Those swarms of miners began heading for Virginia City, looking for new gold strikes. By 1870, the population of Bannack had dwindled to fewer than 300 people. I find it interesting that a Masonic Hall, constructed in 1874, still stands. I suppose the people of Bannack thought, “If you build it, they will come.” But, it didn’t work. The final residents left in the 1940s.

Bannack, MTBannack is now a state park. Each year, thousands of visitors load up their cars and visit Bannack, just like the Brady family visited the ghost town. Bannack is one of the nation’s best-preserved ghost towns. One of Montana’s unofficial mottos is, “Montana: The Last Best Place”. I think that’s a pretty fitting motto for Bannack. Filled with finely preserved buildings and enough “ghosts” to make your hair stand on edge, Bannack really is a last best place.

Watch a little video, and see what Bannack looks like today!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Leave it to Beaver!

Leave it to beaver!I’m having one of those days when I feel like Maria from “The Sound of Music.” But, instead of singing about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, I have the urge to sing about beaver fur pillows and Native American legends. You have to admit; it promises to be a pretty darned original song!

Oh, what the HEY! I’m going to give it a go. Everybody sing along to the tune of “My Favorite Things”!

Beaver fur pillows with Indian legends.

Bright leather runners all wrapped up as presents.

Handcrafted placemats to match your décor.

We make the things you can’t find in a store!

You see, this is one of those days when all seems right with the world and I realize that I am a very fortunate person because I get to do what I love to do, every single day. Designing new products happens to be one of my favorite things. I get to combine my love of art, history and the West. I am particularly pleased by the fact that our products are so much “bigger” than what they appear to be. To me, they’re as big as the history they represent! And few products have a bigger history than those that are crafted with beaver fur.

Native American folkloreIt would be impossible to cover the importance of the beaver in Native American folklore, in one blog post. The tales and the symbolism vary from tribe to tribe, and the legends are endless. In stories, some tribes tell of industrious beavers that persevered through adversity. That makes sense since the beaver does have a reputation for being busy! In other tribes, the beaver represents selfishness. If you’ve ever wanted to get beavers to stop destroying the trees on your land, that makes sense, as well! Some legends tell about the beaver being responsible for a worldwide flood, while others tell of the beaver equivalent of the tooth fairy.

(Slightly) Fractured Beaver Tales

Fractured Fairy TalesDo you remember watching “Fractured Fairy Tales” on television? I used to love those. As I started collecting Native American Tales about the beaver for this blog post, I realized that I would never be able to do the original stories justice. So, I’ve decided to paraphrase a couple of my favorite beaver tales. Hopefully, they aren’t too fractured!

How the Beaver Got His Tail

BeaverThe Ojibwe tell the legend of “How the Beaver Got His Tail.” In the story, the beaver was originally very proud of his fluffy tail. He went from animal to animal boasting about his attractive posterior. We’ve all heard enough mythology to know this kind of pride did not bode well for the fluffy tailed beaver. His boasting irritated the other animals. In a huff, the beaver went into the woods to cut down trees. (Cue the ominous music. Dum, dum, dum!) That is when a tree landed on the beaver’s tail and turned it into a flatso! The beaver was devastated until the Creator told him the other creatures liked him for his kindness rather than his tail. The Creator told the beaver how to utilize his flat tail for swimming and signaling. From then on, the beaver stopped his endless bragging and his popularity among the other animals soared! I wonder what his KLOUT score was.

The Pretty Woman

Lenape legendLenape legend tells of a woman who was punished for being rude to Beaver. Long before the Julia Roberts’ movie, there was a pretty Lenape woman. She was so pretty that all of the men wanted her as a wife. But she would have none of them. One day, Beaver, Skunk and Owl had a meeting and decided they wanted her as a wife. Well, sure! That makes sense. She wouldn’t have any of the regular men. Maybe she was holding out for an animal!

She turned Owl away by saying that he was ugly and his eyes were too large. Harsh!

She turned Skunk away by saying that he was ugly and he smelled bad. Harsh, but let’s face it . . . it’s understandable.

Owl, Skunk and Beaver

Beaver was a clever suitor and planned a way to claim the pretty woman for his own. Beaver must have heard a fairy tale or two himself, because he knew that damsels in distress are usually much more receptive to living happily ever after. So, Beaver went to the creek and chewed through a log where the pretty woman normally stood while collecting water. The following morning, the pretty woman stood on the log and went, “Splat!” into the water. Beaver immediately went to her rescue. Before rescuing her, he proposed marriage. But, the pretty woman scorned Beaver by saying that he was ugly and that his teeth were too big and his tail was too flat. In hindsight, perhaps the pretty woman should have said she would like some time to consider his proposal on dry land. But she didn’t. So Beaver left her, and returned to Owl and Skunk, presumably because they understood his pain. In the meantime, the pretty woman was washed away and drowned.

Yeah, those Native American legends aren’t always so cheery!

Native American legend

Dam Right!

Beaver Totem PolesImages of the Beaver can be found carved in totem poles throughout the Pacific Northwest. Cherokee and Creek tribes include a beaver dance in their ceremonial traditions. So, you see, the beaver is far more than just an animal with big teeth that fells trees and builds dams. The beaver is the stuff of which legends are made. When I admire our beaver fur bolsters, that’s what I see. I see a few of my favorite things, and I hope you do too! Have a look-see!


Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Western Lingo Rides Again!

Cowboy lingoIt’s time to play Western Lingo again! Hold on tight, Pardner, ‘cause we’re about to explore some of my favorite Western words and phrases. Yee-haw!

Barking Up the Wrong Tree

To Westerners, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” is of rather obvious origin. However, I was recently talking to a Canadian friend and learned that she had no idea that the phrase was a reference to hunting dogs. I was telling a story about a relative’s old hunting dog, Bugle Ann.

Western lingoBugle Ann was beautiful and loyal, but let’s just say that Bugle Ann was not the brightest bulb in the barn! When I mentioned that Bugle Ann would literally bark up the wrong tree, my Canadian friend had a startling revolution and screamed, “That’s how the phrase originated!” Yes. Yes, it is. But, oh, it didn’t start with Bugle Ann. After all, she was not the first hunting dog with more beauty than brains.

Hunting dogsYoung hunting dogs are often trained with older, skilled hunting dogs. In the case of Bugle Ann, she watched as the other dogs treed a raccoon and stood barking at the base of the tree. Perhaps, in an effort to avoid the crowd, Bugle Ann selected a raccoon-less tree and began to howl for all she was worth. She was worth a lot for companionship and entertainment value, but not for her hunting skills.

Of course, we use the phrase, “barking up the wrong tree,” to indicate that someone is misguided in an assumption. It can mean that someone is wasting an effort by attempting something that is doomed to fail.

Westward ho!The origin of the phrase is undoubtedly Western. The first known written citation of “barking up the wrong tree” appeared in 1832, in James Kirke Paulding’s book, Westward Ho! In 1833, the phrase appeared in Sketches and Eccentricities of Col. David Crockett, of West Tennessee where it says, “I told him that he reminded me of the meanest thing on God’s Earth, an old coon dog barking up the wrong tree.” By 1838, there is record of the phrase being used in the U.S. House of Representatives, when M. Duncan of Ohio said, “Instead of having treed their game, gentlemen will find themselves still barking up the wrong tree.” I have no idea of what good ol’ M. Duncan was referring to, but it doesn’t sound as if Washington has changed a lot in that last 175 years!

Brushpopper, Brush Popper or Brush-Popper

Brush-PopperBrushpopper is another good Westernism. It means a cowboy who works in the brush, although it sort of sounds like a deep fried appetizer that should be sold at state fairs! (“I’ll take an order of spicy brushpoppers, a fried Oreo and a funnel cake, please.”)

Now, most people could figure out the “brush” portion, and that “popper” can refer to a person who pops. But anyone who has ever tried to chase a cow out of brush knows that when ripping a hole in a wall of thorns and thickets while on horseback, there’s not much “popping” taking place!

Texas brushpopperThat explains why, in the 1936 book, Cowboy Lingo, Ramon F. Adams wrote that brushpoppers worked “where brush was so thick a bird couldn’t fly through and snakes had to climb to see out.” Brush-hand, Brush whacker, brush thumper and brush buster are all synonyms of brushpopper!

The term “Brushpopper” dates back to, at least, the 1920s, when it appeared in the writings of J. Frank Dobie, a Texas folklorist. The term made an appearance in both the 1969 and 2010 versions of the film True Grit. There was nothing like the movie magic of John Wayne, as Rooster Cogburn, telling Glen Campbell’s character, Le Bouef, “You do and it’ll be the biggest mistake you ever made, you Texas brushpopper.”

Texas brushpopper

In 2006, a rifle was trademarked with the name, “Texas Brush Popper”. It sounds like the term is here to stay.

Brushpopper rifle

Galoot or Galloot

"Big" galootMy first few attempts to find the origin of the word, “galoot” were unsuccessful. Well, I’m sorry, but I’m not about to accept “origin unknown” as an answer. At least, I’m not going to accept it as an answer until I’ve spent countless hours using my mad Googling skills! While I didn’t find a lot on the origin of galoot, I did find a cute slideshow of unusual animal partners. But, instead of telling you about the dachshund nursing a lion cub, I’ll tell you what I already knew about the word galoot.

  • To call someone a galoot can be on par with calling that person a nincompoop. Some words don’t need a definition! Galoots seem to be rather sizeable—as in, “You big galoot!” You never hear anybody call someone a little galoot! When it comes to galoots, it’s all or nothing!
  • Galoot manages to be a playful term of endearment and an insult all rolled up into one word. It’s sort of the “Aloha!” of nouns!

And, here’s what I actually learned when I wasn’t looking at pictures of animals:

  • The word galoot can be traced back to the early 1800s.
  • Galoot was once a nautical word. In C.S. Abbey’s 1859 book, Before the Mast, he wrote, “Some Gilute let go the… sheets before hauling down the chewlines.”
  • By the time of the Civil War, galoot was also used to refer to young, inexperienced soldiers.
  • By 1905, galoot was used to mean, “fellow,” in W.S. Kelly’s book, Lariats. Kelly wrote, “All the local galoots assembled at Wilson’s ranch to see him off.”

As you can see by the last example, the term galoot was adopted by Westerners and has come to be a sort of synonym for, “good ol’ boy.” Oh, and if you’re interested in the origin of galoot, well, that is still unknown. The internet told me so!

Happy (word) tales to you! Until we meet again!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

The Patron Saint of Rockabilly: Nudie Cohn

Nudie CohnWhoever said, “Less is more,” was really bad at math. I’m sorry people, but MORE is MORE! It’s true whether you’re talking about money, cookies or fun décor! Even birds will happily collect shiny objects to incorporate in nest building. Why? Because shiny is so…SHIIIIINY! Well, I like shiny things, too—both figuratively and literally. I think the people who claim that less is more are trying to throw the rest of us off so they can keep all of the good stuff for themselves. So, in keeping with my belief that more is more, today’s post is dedicated to the Rockabilly Style and its patron saint, Nudie Cohn.

I can hear you asking, “What do Rockabilly music and the accompanying style have to do with a Ukrainian immigrant and some of the design inspirations for Stargazer Mercantile?” I’m getting to that!

A Little Bit Hillbilly, a Little Bit Rock and Roll

Elvis PresleyRockabilly is typically described as a mixture of Country and Western and old school, Rock and Roll. It started with music and it gradually spilled over into other areas. Urban Diction has a definition of Rockabilly that I pretty much think is sublime: “Rockabilly is not a style; it’s a way of life.”

Modern musicals like “Million Dollar Quartet” have kept that original Rockabilly flair in the public’s consciousness. Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins are all prime examples of people who rocked Rockabilly!

Many great performers influenced Rockabilly music, but Western Rockabilly style, with its fringe, conchos and rhinestones owes an eternal debt of gratitude to one man—Nudie Cohn.

Nudie’s Colony

Nudie CohnNudie Cohn (whose name was originally Nuta Kotlyarenko) was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1902. That was well before the birth of Rockabilly. At the age of eleven, Nudie’s parents sent Nudie and his brother to the U.S. to make it on their own. (In case you’re wondering, Nudie wasn’t trying to select a provocative moniker for himself; the immigration official at Ellis Island couldn’t spell Nuta!) For Nudie, that meant spending some years as a shoeshine boy and some time in Leavenworth for drug trafficking.

Helen BarbaraBut, in 1932, Nudie married Helen Barbara (“Bobbie”) Kruger and his life took a change for the better. In 1934, Nudie and Bobbie opened a business in Manhattan—Nudies for the Ladies. You have to admit, it has a certain ring to it! And, the name was not without irony since they specialized in custom lingerie and g-strings for showgirls!

Nudie5The Cohns relocated to California, and in the 40s and Nudie persuaded Western swing musician, Tex Williams to buy him a sewing machine, in exchange for some fancy singing duds! Ah, do you see where this is going? In 1947, Nudie and Bobbie opened “Nudies of Hollywood,” which dealt solely in Western wear.

Nudie CohnNudie is credited as being the first person to decorate clothing with rhinestones. Who knew that the original rhinestone cowboy was a tailor from Ukraine? He was also known for his chain stitch embroidery work and elaborate designs. The Western world ate it up! Nudie was also a brilliant marketer! Why waste money on billboards and advertising? Let the clothing speak for itself! In 1962, he created a flashy little number for Porter Wagoner. The peach suit, which had a wagon wheel motif and enough rhinestones shine like the night sky, was given to Wagoner, free of cost. Yep. F-R-E-E. Nudie gave the suit to Wagoner, knowing that he couldn’t buy publicity like that. His plan worked. The “Nudie Suit” had solidified its place in design history.

Nudie Cohn

Over the years, Nudie dressed such notables as Hank Williams, ZZ Top, George Jones and Glen Campbell. And he was solely responsible for the trademark look that Roy Rogers and Dale Evans wore to public appearances. He created a $10,000 gold lame’ suit for Elvis Presley. Why? Because Nudie, too, believed that MORE is MORE! His designs were not for shrinking violets, but they were enjoyed by the likes of Liberace, Elton John, John Wayne, Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and Cher. And, it was fitting that Robert Redford was wearing a Nudie Suit when he starred in Electric Cowboy.

Nudie Cohn Designs

Nudie didn’t just design clothing. He was also famous for his over-the-top decoration of automobiles. The interiors of his “Nudie Mobiles” were decorated with rhinestones, silver dollars and often used longhorn steer horns as hood ornaments. He didn’t design the cars. He mostly left that up to Pontiac and Cadillac. But, he did make them unique! Nudie Mobiles could be spotted everywhere from early country music videos to a Monkees’ movie!Nudie Cohn

When Nudie died in 1981, Dale Evans gave the eulogy at his funeral. It was a sad day because his clients understood that the world had just become a lot less SHINY. He had brought the Rockabilly style to the world. I suspect that without the influence of Nudie Cohn, Las Vegas would just be a desert town filled with people wearing cotton/poly blends and the performers on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry would look like they were shopping at Walmart.

Rockabilly of Ages

Nudie CohnWhen I see something that makes my heart sing, I sort of turn into Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. (My PRECIOUS!) But, unlike Gollum, I want others to share in my joy! In fact, that’s sort of how Stargazer Mercantile started. I had a vision of what I wanted, but I couldn’t find it anywhere. I said to myself, “Well, hmmph, Self! You’re just gonna have to make what you want!” So, I made my first leather pillow. (My PRECIOUS!) I looooooved it! I made more. I looooooved them, too! My friends loved them and wanted me to make some things for them. And, so began Stargazer Mercantile…

And that’s why we do what we do. We go to work each day, feeling just a little bit giddy that we get to create things that will make someone else’s heart sing! We have fun incorporating Rockabilly elements and small tributes to the great Nudie Cohn in our items. And, we hope you agree that Rockabilly is not a style; it’s a way of life, Man! It’s a SHINY way of life!

Have a look-see at some of our favorite Nudie-inspired items!


Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia

Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Barbecue

American BBQ

American BBQThe 4th of July is upon us! Break out the red, white and blue. Wave the flag. Watch a parade. Set off some fireworks. And, most important . . . eat some barbecue! Oh, yeah! I’m pretty sure that the Founding Fathers got together and said, “We need to hurry up and sign this Declaration of Independence so the new nation can have a day set aside for eating smoked meat!”

License to Grill

BBQ RibsBefore we start talking about barbecue, we must establish what it is. Can we please all acknowledge that there is a difference between REAL, WESTERN barbecue and grilling? Now, I’m all for grilling, you understand. In fact, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with a craving for a grilled hamburger, portabella mushroom burger, sweet potato burger or black bean burger. It’s like the grill of my dreams. But I’ll be the first to admit that’s not REALLY barbecue. Delicious? Yes! Barbecue? No! (And, let the record show that I don’t think a hot dog should meet anyone’s definition of barbecue. Or food, for that matter.)

USDA BarbecueDid you know that the USDA has an official definition of barbecue? According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, barbecue is “(meat) cooked by the direct action of heat resulting from the burning of hardwood or the hot coals therefrom for a sufficient period to assume the usual characteristics of a barbecued article, which include the formation of a brown crust on the surface and the rendering of surface fat. The product may be basted with a sauce during the cooking process. The weight of barbecued meat shall not exceed 70 percent of the weight of the fresh uncooked meat.”


That definition brings up two points:

  1. “Therefrom” is really a word. I looked it up and it is, but it still looks weird to me.
  2.  By the official USDA definition, meat cooked in a water smoker, which does not lose much of its original weight, is NOT barbecue. That’s sort of difficult for me to swallow (the idea, not the meat!). It looks like barbecue and it tastes like barbecue, but the government has declared that it cannot be sold as “barbecue”. Well, since barbecue is pretty near a religion in the West, I would argue that the USDA is infringing upon the separation of church of state!

Let the Smackdown Begin

Barbecue varies from region to region about as much as the accents of the people who serve it. My personal preference is barbecue cooked on a closed pit by people who sprinkle the word, “y’all,” through their conversations as liberally as they sprinkle spices in their barbecue sauce. Pork or beef? Tomato based or vinegar based? Dripping with sauce or coated in a dry rub? There are so many choices!

Barbecue Treats

Texas is known for smoked beef brisket, served sliced or chopped with sauce. Tennessee is known for pulled pork. The Carolinas go whole hog for their barbecue by smoking . . . well, by smoking the whole hog! In Missouri, barbecue is more likely to mean ribs with a dry rub.

American BBQI’m a fan of Mom-and-Pop-hole-in-the wall barbecue joints! If you stop in virtually any town west of the Mississippi and ask for the best barbecue place in town, you will get a response! People have definite opinions when it comes to barbecue and the places that serve it. I like the kind of place that is decorated with glass Coca-Cola bottles and hazes of smoke wafting from the kitchen for ambiance. A friend of mine grew up working in her family’s barbecue restaurant in North Texas. She thinks I’ve romanticized barbecue and points out that, while her friends were wearing Jean Nate’ and Bonnie Bell Lip Smacker, she wore the alluring scent of hickory smoke and brisket! That doesn’t sound so bad to me!

It’s the Pits

BBQ MeatBarbecue has long been a favorite food in the West. It goes well with the rugged Western persona. I mean, let’s examine it. To make good barbecue you need:

  • Wood
  • Fire
  • Meat
  • Time

Good barbecue cannot be rushed. Don’t think you can wait until noon to decide to cook some barbecue for dinner. Like a fine wine, barbecue takes time! The good stuff is cooked for a long, looooong time over a low heat.

Barbecue cartIf you are fortunate enough to own a smoker or a barbecue pit, you’re all set! I’ve long had a hankering to own a mobile barbecue pit. Don’t ask me why! Maybe I just like the idea of meat on the go! While I really don’t need it, I’ve had my eye on a John Wayne Custom Barbecue Trailer known as “The True Pit”! Well, maybe I do need it because that’s pretty clever!

Get Sauced

Barbecue SauceI don’t know about you, but I like my sauce on the side. Tomato based is my preference—with a bit of sweetness, if you please. But I’m willing to branch out and try different types.

As I reflect on the real meaning of Independence Day, I am led to believe that the world of barbecue is big enough to accommodate people of all tastes. I want to live in a country where people are free to spell barbecue as “Bar-B-Q,” “B-B-Q” or even “barbeque,” if they so choose. I want to see a land where people with different cuts of meat and all types of sauces and dry rubs are able to put aside their barbecue differences and live in peace and harmony. That’s the way the Founding Fathers would have wanted it!


Happy Fourth of July, all y’all!

Anita Lequoia

The (Horsehair) Hitching Post

HorsehairIt’s probably no surprise to you that we at Stargazer Mercantile have a deep love for all Western art forms. It’s sort of our “thang”! And we take pride in incorporating traditional Western craft into our products. One of my favorites of the traditional arts is horsehair hitching. That’s why I’ve decided to devote an entire blog post to the art of horsehair hitching. Yep, this is my hitching post! (You know I’ve been waiting all week to say that!)

Let’s Get Hitched

Horsehair HitchingThe history of hitching horsehair is pretty vague. Many people assume it traveled to the U.S. with Spanish explorers. Since they brought the horses, in the first place, that sounds like a reasonable hypothesis to me! Others say hitching horsehair originated with the cowboy. That’s a definite possibility, as well. A lack of Spanish artifacts would indicate that hitching horsehair could be Western through and through. I always like to imagine how things started. In my imaginings, the art of hitching horsehair started with the words, “I’m bored,” and ended with, the words, “Well, I’ll find you something to do!” With no craft stores around, people used what they had and what they had plenty of was horsehair!

Horsehair - USA FlagFor the uninitiated, hitching horsehair involves making a series of half-hitch knots along a string that has been wrapped around a wooden dowel. To begin the hitching process, hair from a horse’s tail is cleaned and turned into strings known as “pulls”. Fewer hairs in a pull mean a finer finished product. The pulls can then be dyed to create a colorful design. I wonder if this is where the phrase, “jerk a knot in your tail” originated. Hmm…

Stitching patternsThe hitching itself is not complicated, unless you want to get fancy about it, and then… Whoo-boy! An accomplished horsehair hitcher can create diamonds and spirals and brands. Oh, my! Today, many designs are first sketched out on graph paper before the process of tying a bazillion knots begins. The technique is used to create designs that can be made into belts, hatbands, bridles, quirts and Western decorative items. It is about as time-consuming as milking a chicken, but a lot more rewarding.

Hitching horsehair is a great hobby for people with a lot of time on their hands, since it takes about two hours for an accomplished hitcher to make one inch of hitched horsehair. This brings me to my next point…

Hitched Up and Ready to Go

Horsehair HitchingWho has a lot of time on their hands, besides cowboys? Well. . .prisoners do! Prisoners in some territorial prisons began hitching horsehair, at least as far back as the mid-1800s. It seems this was a skill most often taught to one prisoner by another as a way to pass the time. I’m so thankful it was. Without the work of prisoners, it’s quite likely this beautiful art form would not have made it to the 20th century. In fact, most of the surviving horsehair bridles were created by cowboy prison inmates between the years of 1890 and 1925.

Horsehair products at prisonsThe best-known prisons for creating fine horsehair products were located in Deer Lodge, MT, Rawlings, WY, Yuma, AZ and Walla Walla, WA. In the old days, cowboy prisoners would trade their horsehair products with guards or sell them to affluent ranchers, through the guards.

Blog7While the art form has died out in the other prisons, hitching horsehair is still going strong within the Montana state prison system. Inmates continue to pass down the skill to newcomers through unofficial apprenticeships. For more than 30 years, inmates at Deer Lodge have sold finished items to the public at the Montana State Prison Hobby Store in downtown Deer Lodge. During the summers, around 40 tourists a day visit the shop in search of handmade items and a piece of history. In recent years, the store has expanded to allow for additional display space. Three quarters of the selling price goes directly to the inmate, unless he owes restitution or child support, in which case he receives a smaller percentage.

Montana State PrisonPrisoners buy their own supplies and set their own prices on their finished products. In this way, they are able to keep tabs on the outside economy. If a project doesn’t sell within a year, they can reevaluate their asking price. An estimated 700 inmates from Deer Lodge, Deer Falls, Glendive, Shelby and the Montana Women’s Prison contribute to the store’s inventory, which includes a wide variety of handmade crafts. Since hobbies are a privilege in prison, any infraction could result in the loss of their materials. Many people consider hitching horsehair to be rehabilitation at its finest!

A Slight Hitch

The cost of hitched horsehair items is commensurate with the number of hours it requires to craft them and the scarcity of the skill. Belts can cost several hundred dollars and a vintage headstall and reins in pristine condition can fetch well over $10,000. Collectors are becoming more and more common, making the hard-to-find, hitched horsehair products even more desirable.


From Hair to Eternity

At Stargazer Mercantile, we strive to create beautiful products that you can incorporate in your home’s décor. But, there’s so much more to it than that. We also care about keeping the old art forms alive. Horsehair hitching may be a dying art, but it’s not dead yet! Whenever it is appropriate, we incorporate extraordinary horsehair accessories into our designs, and we purchase them all from the Montana State Prison Hobby Store in Deer Lodge. We’re doing our level best to keep this art form alive, so it can be enjoyed by generations to come! And, have a look-see at some of the items we offer that feature hitched horsehair!


And for a real treat, watch this wonderful interview with contemporary horsehair and silver artists Shoni and Ron Maulding!

Happy Trails, y’all!
Anita Lequoia