Photo by Christopher Nyerges
Sage keeps old-school skills
Longbow’ Safford takes his craft back to primitive times
By Christopher Nyerges 10/01/2009
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Alton Safford is more affectionately known as “Longbow” to his friends. He’s a legend in bow-making circles, one of the old-school bowyers who worked his way up through the ranks. Currently a spry 95, he lives in the mountain region near Wrightwood and has been making bows since age 9.
Longbow was born on the Toppenish Indian Reservation in eastern Washington, where he developed a lifelong interest in Native American culture. I recently paid him another visit at his home and was again treated with a trip to his incredible workshop and “museum” of his life’s work, which includes not only handmade bows and arrows, but flint-knapped knives, leather work, bone work and much more.
Longbow has made hundreds of bows and thousands of arrows in the primitive manner. He is one of the four livingmasters of the old school of archers, along with Frank Garske, Wright Huff and Dr. Charles Grayson. He continues to make bows and go on hunting expeditions using the bows he made.
“A bow is not difficult to make, relative to arrows and string,” he explained. “But you must have a knife. Two knives are better — a machete-like Bowie and a pocketknife. If your plane crashed in the woods and you had no knife, you could still make a shelter and stay warm and dry. But without a knife, forget about making a bow.”
To begin, Longbow says you need a standing dead tree limb at least 4½ to 5 feet long, and about 1¼ to 1¾ inches thick. You don’t want green wood, since it is too heavy and doesn’t cast the arrows well. And you don’t want downed wood, since it will likely be waterlogged or rotten.
You want a piece of wood that is free of knots, checks, bumps and irregularities. A slight bend is OK. “You can make a good bow from just about any type of wood, but some are better than others,” Longbow pointed out. “The best bow-making woods are yew, osage, mulberry, black locust, apple, juniper, hickory and ash. But in a survival situation, you use whatever wood is available.”
Before you start to work on a particular piece of wood, Longbow suggests testing some of the smaller dead branches from the same tree by bending them to see if they will stand the stress.
Next, look at your piece of wood — the stave — and determine which way it will bend. Cut away wood only from the belly of the stave — the part that faces you when you shoot it — but don’t touch the back. “Slowly, carefully and evenly, cut flat strips down the belly of the bow all the way. As you remove wood from the belly, test the bow periodically by bending it,” Longbow explained.
This process can take hours until the bow begins to take shape. When you are satisfied that the bow is bending evenly, cut nocks on each end for the bowstring, and you have a bow. Longbow suggests always carrying good cordage for the bowstring into the woods, since the bowstring can be difficult to manufacture from plants alone.
“And, lo and behold, you have a bow,” Longbow exclaimed. “Twang it gently and listen to it — isn’t that a sweet, ancient and exciting sound? It was the first stringed musical instrument.”
You don’t need to create a monster bow, he said. “Many Indian bows were rated at only 35 to 45 pounds of pressure. Keep your bow light and it will be easier to shoot more accurately, and its arrows will be easier to make.”
"Yes, sad news. While a difficult father, I grew to love him as a remarkable man. We're planning a memorial in Wrightwood on Dec 28th (I'll post details soon). Others are talking about a memorial knap in. Come spring, we'll scatter his ashes over Shepard Pass. We'll have Alton's Wrightwood memorial on Wednesday, Dec 28, 2 - 5 pm at the home of Phyllis Gallagher. 5276 Orchard Drive (off Lone Pine Canyon near where it crests over the town). Informal, drop by any time. Spread the word. Thanks.
- Tony Safford
Alton Safford passed away on Tuesday, December 20th, 2011. He is survived by his wife, Miriam, and his children. His son Tony Safford and his wife Julie will be in Wrightwood for a celebration of his life, which is being held at Phyllis & Ed Gallagher's on Wednesday, December 28th from 2-5pm, @ 5276 Orchard Drive in Wrightwood. Please join friends and family to remember him and to share a story or two about his life...there are so many!
Outdoor Notes / Earl Gustkey : Wrightwood Man, 73, Charged in Bighorn Sheep Shooting
October 17, 1986|EARL GUSTKEY
A Wrightwood man faces a maximum fine of $3,000 and a year in jail on charges that he killed a desert bighorn sheep in an Angeles National Forest canyon.
Game warden Dick Phillips found a freshly killed bighorn ram Oct. 7 in Vincent Gulch, just off California 2 near Wrightwood. The animal appeared to have been deliberately concealed in brush.
Phillips and other officers from the Department of Fish and Game began a stakeout that lasted 30 hours, on the expectation that whoever shot the ram would return. Alton L. Safford, 73, entered the canyon and was arrested when he emerged with a bighorn skin and a leg.
A later search of Safford's home turned up the rifle wardens suspect he used to shoot the ram, along with illegal animal parts that included eagle feathers and talons. Safford is to appear in Antelope Valley Municipal Court in Lancaster Nov. 18 to answer charges of illegal possession of a bighorn sheep.
Game wardens reported heavy turnouts in several Southern California deer hunting zones on opening day last Saturday. Hunter pressure was described as heavy in Zone D16 (San Diego County and western Riverside County) areas north of Interstate 8. And in the Santa Ana River drainage areas of Zone D14, warden John Slaughter said that hunter pressure was the heaviest he's seen in his nine opening days there.
Pressure was also reported heavier than last year in Angelus National Forest, Zone D11, but hunter success was described as slight.
Arizona game wardens are reminding hunters to observe a cardinal rule of gun safety, a violation of which cost an Arizona hunter his life recently. Rabbit hunter Paul Reece used the stock of his shotgun to flush a rabbit from a cholla cactus patch. The shotgun was triggered and the blast killed him.
Wardens cited numerous accidents over the years resulting from hunters using their shotguns or rifles as walking sticks, or pulling loaded guns out of vehicles barrel first.
In a few years, North America's tallest bird, the five-foot whooping crane, may again be seen flying over the eastern United States.
Federal biologists are studying areas in Michigan, Georgia and Florida where new flocks of whoopers could be established. The birds once nested widely over the eastern U.S. but by 1850 were hunted to near-extinction for their feathers.
Today, about 180 whoopers exist in three flocks, the largest of which is the Aransas-Wood Buffalo flock which winters on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast.
When a site is selected, biologists will begin a process called cross-fostering. They will take eggs from whooper nests in Canada and place them in the nests of sandhill cranes, which are not endangered. Canadian whoopers will then lay new eggs and start over while the sandhill cranes hatch the whooping cranes and raise them as their own.
Briefly The 3,427-pound great white shark caught by Donnie Braddick off Montauk, N.Y., last August has been submitted to the International Game Fish Assn. for world-record status. If accepted, the IGFA said, the shark will be recognized as the largest fish ever caught on rod and reel. . . . The National Coalition for Marine Conservation will hold its "Fish for the Future" barbecue Nov. 15 at Sea World's Nautilus Pavilion in San Diego. . . . Pheasant hunters planning to hunt in Kern County and other counties north of Kern are advised to double check the state hunting regulations pamphlet, where a misprint may cause hunters to incorrectly believe there is an eight-bird possession limit. . . . Art's Fishing Tackle in Gardena will be the site of a long-range fishing seminar Saturday with San Diego skipper Frank LoPreste present from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. . . . Saltwater fly fishing authority Alex Siemers will present a seminar on fly fishing for bonito and shark when he appears at the San Gabriel Valley Fly Fishers' meeting Wednesday at the Legg Lake-Whittier Narrows Visitors' Center in El Monte.
More on Longbow
Just spoke with Terry Cornett who knew Longbow (Alton Safford) well. Longbow was 97 or 98, and was living at home, still in good health, still jogging in town. He just died in his sleep last week! Terry said that Longbow had gotten a little slower (who could blame him!?), and didn’t like living alone with his wife in an assisted care home.
Longbow wrote for Wilderness Way on how to make arrows and bows the Indian way, and he occasionally went to various events, including Dirttime two years ago.
There is no word yet about any service to be held, but I will post if I hear anything. Longbow, you lived a good life and we wish you well
By Christopher Nyerges, on December 27th, 2011
''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''''' Longbow was a really unique man... He was also very easy to like, he was a generous man.
Christopher and I visited him a few times in his home, the interviews were packed with info. . An amazing place filled with indin artifacs, some real, some he replicated.
He slipped in and out of Dirttime a few times..
Several years ago Christopher and I were at Altons and I noticed his big Didge Ram 4x was loaded.
I asked where he was going.. "Why Im leaving on a hunting safari to Africa to bow hunt". He was 92. How damn cool is that!?
His wife knew my cousins and my aunt and uncle in Lompoc , Ca... ( pronounced Lompoke, an indin word)
I first met Longbow in 1993, at a powwow near Wrightwood. He invited me to come , so I did. We had talked on the phone a few times before that. You can catch pictures of him in some of the Mountain Man publications as well ...
I am really sorry to have missed his service... I left town on Friday... Just got back
I was privileged to meet Alton a little over 20 years ago- don't remember exactly when but I remember where- A yearly meet at a ranch area near Wrightwood. Almost at a dead run you could spot him just about everywhere he went- his beautiful white hair flying- a boyish look on his face saying "I'm busy and I'm about to get busier". A generous man he was- we traded bow wood several times over the years - he even asked me to make a bow for his collection- which I did, an Ishi style plum bow- and, he immediately "modified" it. It was a better bow after he finished. He chuckled "Sorry, you know I can't leave things alone."
I traded him some desert Juniper (really old main trunk wood with very tight rings- counted over 90 ) and he made the most beautiful wide limbed flat bow I had ever seen- such is the craftsman he was. That grove of Juniper still stands- a testimony to Alton's spirit.
For those who didn't know him- count it a loss, for those who did- count it a blessing. A man of his character is seldom seen. In addition to his love of all things natural he was a servant- he retired years ago from the Santa Barbara School system as head of the Special Ed department- dedication being uppermost in his life.
A man I truly loved. AUTHOR? See Paleo PLanet.
(12/27/11 6:01 AM)
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This is an interesting read. I broke it down to more palatable chunks. Hope that's OK.
REWRITE OFTHE 1988 WRIGHTWOOD KNAP IN
The 1988 knap-in started with only Peter Ainsworth, Bob Bean and Ray Harwood, but by friday night the place was crowded.
I remember the 1988 Wrightwood knapin. This was one of the knap-ins held at Jackson lake. Jackson lake is an alpine type lake in the high country. Location and Directions: Jackson Lake is located in the Angeles National Forest near the city of Wrightwood. From Los Angeles take I-10 East to I-15 North. Travel N. on I-15 to Cajon Pass - Hwy. 138. Turn left (north) on Hwy 138 and travel 8 miles to Hwy. 2. Turn Left on Hwy 2 and travel 10 miles to Big Pines, then turn Right on County Road N4 and travel 3 miles to the lake. This is a small lake of 7 surface acres at an elevation of 6,000 feet. It is open all year but sometimes freezes over during the winter. Tent and RV camping is available near the lake. There are no concessions. Nearest supplies are 7 miles to the East in the own of Wrightwood. It was cold at night and warm and sunny in the day. It was the most beautiful place for a knap-in of all. The camp was a flat plateau just above the lake itself and it had a hard sandy floor, it had a good open area for archery, atlatl and knapping.
Jim Winn came up to Wrightwood in 1988, he had skipped a year or two. Jim's interest in flintknapping began shortly after he moved to Oregon in 1979. His neighbor was an avid collector and took him on his first arrowhead hunt. He was hooked! Jim spent the next few years actively hunting points. Some of the points he found were incredibly well knapped, and I became determined to learn how it was done. He discovered DC Waldorf's book, "The Art of Flintknapping" and he been knapping ever since!
Jim Winn used the traditional methods of percussion and pressure flaking to knapp his points. Never use flake over grinding. His tool kit includes both aboriginal or traditional tools such as antler and stone percussors as well as more modern tools such as copper. Most of his knives and points are knapped from spalls or cobbles of chert, jasper, or obsidian. I had done some rabbit hunting, atlatl shooting and Barney DeSimone and I had been to Jim's house, then in the Valley to flute Clovis with a jig.
Barney DeSimone came up "the A-wop-a-hoe", was his joke- he is Italian and everyone thought he was an Indian, so he said I am a "wop" and a hoe -so people thought he was a "A-wop-a-hoe", which is not a real tribe! Steve Carter came up from Ramona in his old flatbed truck, Steve was into pattern flaking and amazingly thin percussion bifacing before anyone else I have known about. Alton Safford was there and he demonstrated using sinew, bow shooting- did knapping and ate a lot of apples, he also brought some longbows he had made, his nickname is "Longbow Safford" . Peter Ainsworth and Jeannie Binning showed up from the acedemic knapping community and were doing very nice "Crabtree" large biface work. I can't remember much more about that knap-in except it was really fun and wonderful 4 days in heaven.
WRIGHTWOOD KNAP IN STARTED IN 1984, SET UP BY RAY HARWOOD AND ALTON SAFFORD AT JACKSON LAKE., BUT OUR FIRST CALIFORNIA FLINTKNAPPING RENDEZVOUS WAS IN 1983 AT CSUN. SET UP BY RAY HARWOOD. AT THE FIRST KNAP IN 1983 : RAY HARWOOD, ALTON SAFFORD, JOHN ATWOOD, RICK WESSEL, CLAY SINGER, GEORGE HUFF, JENNIE BINNING, ROY VANDERHOOK, TERRY FREDERICK, JOE DABIL, FRED BUDINGER, TED HARWOOD, NANCY HARWOOD, BRIAN GUNTHER, AND A HOST OF OTHERS. FIRST LOCATION: C.S.U.N. . SECOND: JACKSON LAKE FLAT. THIRD; CAMP GUFFY (TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN) FOURTH: INDIAN HILLS RANCH.
Ray had flintknapped in an artistic vacuum until he was in his early 20s. This is when Ray met fellow Ishi fans, Joe Dabil, Barney DeSimone, Steve Carter, Jim Win, Jennie Binning and Alton Safford. Barney had a small business called Yana Enterprises where he marketed his Ishi posters and items and had become an expert Ishi style knapper, to the point that he had killed a wild boar on Catalina Island armed with a sinew backed bow and Ishi tipped arrow of glass of his own making. Atlton was an avid traditional bow hunter and knapper, he had even hunted big game in Africa a few times with stone points.
Years later Alton and Ray started the yearly California Flintknapping Rendezvous. Joe Dabil had become a California legend by the late 1970s and had the nick name of "Indian Joe", this name given to him by the prominent archaeologists of the day. Joe could make fire in of minutes with a natural yucca file board and mule fat stick. Joe was also a master of the Ishi style flintknapping methodology. Joe's Ishi points of both glass and obsidian were each an impressive work of art. Ray and Joe became friends and Ray began to study Joe's flintknapping methods. Joe Dabil had learned the arts of wilderness survival hands on. Joe was an Olympic class long distance runner in the 1960s, and when a Doctor informed him he had a life threatening decease he fled into the wilderness. There in the woods, alone, Joe eked out a survival on natural foods. Eventually Joe relearned the arts of Ishi, sinew back bow making, arrow-smithing, fire drill technology, cordage making, brain tanning and of coarse...flintknapping. As miracle have it, Joe lived out his death sentence and is still practicing wilderness skills today.
Steve Carter was already an established master knapper when Ray met him in the early 1980s. Steve had been friends with J.B.Sollberger of Dallas, Texas and with J.B.s inspiration, at the 1978 Little Lake knap-in, Steve developed his own unique knapping style, one in which he detached the flakes of the top of the preform as opposed to the bottom that rests on the palm of the hand. Steve was versatile and also used the Ishi style knapping techniques. Steve's work even impressed the Grand Masters; Sollberger, Titmus, Callahan and Crabtree. Jimm Winn was there at the second or third Wrightwood knap-in with Barney Desimone and George hough and George Hough and Dick Baugh. Jim did a lot of heat treating of local materials there in the famous Wrightwood fire pit at Jackson Lake Flat.
After the close of the Flintknappers' Exchange in 1981, there was a void for two years. Communication among flintknappers slowed to a stop. In 1984 at the knap-in at the Northridge Archaeological Research Center I was talking about the need for a newsletter to Clay Singer and Terry Frederick, they suggested I do it, well I had dyslexia, couldn't type and had no money, okay! Alton Safford, Jeannie Binning and Joe Dabill encouraged as well. I couldn't get anyone to help me with the project so I did it myself. I started work on the first issue, all the words were misspelled, the grammar was just as bad, I cut and past the cover. I wanted to call it the Flintknappers' Monthly but I couldn't find those words in the old NARC newsletters so I got close with "FLintknapping Digest" and cut and pasted it on the cover.
I used the address list in the old Flintknappers' Exchange at the end of each article to find the knappers. It worked I began to get a flood of mail about it. It was really amateurish and I got a lot of flak, but everybody who got it loved it. Clay Singer said "it has a folksy, underground publication look" . In any case it got better with each issue. I remember asking J.B. Sollberger to write an article for me and he got really mad. He said that I was just trying to associate with his name to gain fame and make the newsletter sell better , I was unaffected and said yes, so do I get the article? We got along fine after that and I did get the article, I think he trusted me to tell the truth after that. He even made me some fluted points. The "J.B." in J.B. Sollberger is rumored to stand for "John the Baptist" . So you see with a reputation like that truth means a lot. I was amazed that the little newsletter was doing so well, my mom was too, she never thought such a weird newsletter would work. I was 24 years old when I started the newsletter and didn't have a whole lot else going, it was great, I met all my flintknapping heroes.
One day I got a letter from D.C. Waldorf and he was asking about something, I can't remember, but he referred to the Flintknapping Digest as "The Digest", I put the letter in the next issue and from then on that's what everyone called it. Even now I see it referenced to time and again and it is almost always given its affectionate name "The Digest" it gave knappers a worm and fuzzy feel, like an old dog that you had when you were a kid. Even old dogs pass on, and in the late 1980s, even with Val Waldorf's help, I couldn't do it anymore. After some coaxing the waldorf's took pity on me and took the newsletter over. They gave it a face lift and a new name "Chips" . .Paul Hellweg, a fellow Army Tanker. Paul, likes to specialise inground stone axe manufacture, and he is quite good at it. He was actually a Crabtree and Flenniken Student, but went over to the servival camp when he got a job teaching it at C.S.U.N. where I first met him in the early 1980s. Paul wrote some nice articles for the Flintknapping Digest in 1984 and published a book on knapping the same year, Flintknapping, The Art of Making Stone Tools that has sold over 50,000 copies. Hellweg has also writen many other books and is doing quite well financially. I attented a week long Callahan school with him in the summer and and he appears to be thinking of redoing his book and becomming more active in the knapping world.
San Diego, California was a hot bed of really good knappers in the early 1970s, it sprung from a visit from Sollberger sometime in that era. Only Steve Carter remains of that group. Navodne (Rod) Reiner, another California sad story , Rod was one of the San Diego flintknappers that Steve Carter hung around with in the 1970s. Like Steve, Rod was a really good flintknapper, all traditional, and good person. Rod did a lot of knapping and made nice pieces of lithic art but was also interested in the experimental aspect as well. Rod came up with the two man fluting technique; Reiner gripped the biface in his left hand, held it down tightly against his thigh, while his right hand used the full weight of his body from the shoulder to bear down on the flaking tool. Then, to this he added a little more force by using a second person to deliver a light tapping blow to the end of the pressure flaker with a mallet. Reiner stated that the mallet strikes just at the instant that the pressure flake is pressed off. With Rod's method both constant pressure and a releasing percussion impact a nice flute is detached. Rod, whom was also at the Little Lake knap-in was a very good knapper and a big influence on Steve Carter, but Rod was killed early on in a hunting accident.
Chris Hardacker was another, he just faded into the woodwork, I saw him working as a digger for Jeannie Binning at one of her digs in the middle 1980s. Robert Blue of Studio City, California was inspired by a collection of Reinhardt's points , Reinhardt had been long dead but Blue did find fellow Gray Ghost collector, Charlie Shewey in Missouri. Robert offered to buy all of Shewey's Gray Ghosts and Richard Warren points and that money was no object. Charlie refused Blue's offer, but directed Robert to Richard Warren. After Robert bought a fair number of points, Warren shared some of his secrets with Robert Blue and introduced him to Jim Hopper, whom Warren had taught. Jim Hopper andRobert Blue became good friends and Robert became very good at art knapping. Barney DeSimone, couched Robert through his early years of knapping. Later Robert inspired Barney to return somewhat to lapidary knapping.
It was Robert Blue that taught Ray Harwood to knap in the lever style of Reinhardt, Ray produced dozens of "Raynish Daggers" with the lever flaker. The Raynish Daggers were simply slab points in the form of 10 inch Danish Daggers ("2-D daggers" -not 3 dimensional). These were what Callahan called the ugliest Danish Daggers he had ever seen. After Robert's death and some prompting from DeSimone and Callahan, Harwood returned to traditional flintknapping. One interesting bit of knapping lore I overheard at a knap in goes like this:" Steve Behenes had invented this steel fluting jig that could flute supper this preforms. Steve was close to Robert Blue at the time and he sent Robert a thin Folsom and the detached flutes, Robert returned the detached flute -and he had fluted them !
Joe Dabil, Joe had become a California legend by the late 1960s and had the nick name of "Indian Joe", this name given to him by the prominent archaeologists of the day. Joe says he learned his style by trail and error using books with Ishi points as a pattern,same for the knapping tools. His notching style comes a great deal from Errett. Joe could make fire in of minutes with a natural yucca file board and mule fat stick. Joe was also a master of the Ishi style flintknapping methodology. I first came to here about him in about 1969 and then in the 70s, he gave demos on Catalina Island for Archaeologists and movie people. His points were often seen for sale for $3.50 up and down the central to northern California coastal towns, these populated by thousands of hippies. I remember buying one in a hippie shop in Pismo Beech in 1976. The hippie lady at the counter said I could meet the knapper, but like as ass I sais "naw it's OK. I did end up meeting him 8 years later, in 1984, at CSUN. Joe's Ishi points of both glass and obsidian were each an impressive work of art. Ray and Joe became friends and Ray began to study Joe's flintknapping methods. Joe Dabil had learned the arts of wilderness survival hands on. Joe was an Olympic class long distance runner in the 1960s, and when a Doctor informed him he had a life threatening decease disease he fled into the wilderness. There in the woods, alone, Joe eked out a survival on natural foods. Eventually Joe relearned the arts of Ishi, sinew back bow making, arrow-smithing, fire drill technology, cordage making, brain tanning and of coarse...flintknapping. As miracle have it, Joe lived out his death sentence and is still practicing wilderness skills today.
The information set forth in this text relied heavly on the fallowing publications: Fintknapper's Exchange: Atchiston, Inc. 4426 Constution N.E. Albuquerque, NM 87110 Etidors: Errett Callahan, Jacqueline Nichols and Penelope Katson. Flintknapping Digest. Harwood Archaeology 4911 Shadow Stone Bakersfield, CA 93313 Editor: Ray Harwood Bulletin of Primitive Technology. Journal of the Society of Primative Technology P.O. Box 905 Rexburg, ID 83440 Dave Wescot, Editor Chips Mound Builder Books P.O. Box 702 Branson, MO. 65615 Editors: Val Waldorf, D.C. Waldorf and Dane Martin. New Flintknapper's Exchange. High Fire Flints 11212 Hooper Road, Baton Rouge, LA 70818 Editors: Jeff Behrnes, Steve Behernes and Chas Spear 20Th Century Lithics. Mound Builder Books P.O. Box 702 Branson, MO. 65615 Editors: Val Waldorf and D.C.
Tate Tanka Date: 23-Dec-11
Yes,..I `ve known Alton since the mid-90`s. We have camped to gether many times, knapped together ( no wise cracks) ..he taught me how to build bows.
He received a phd in psychology @ USC in 1951. Worked with Doug Easton on the first silk backed recurves. He sent me a Christmas card and said that he had an Oregon Ash longbow for me. I wrote him back ( an actual letter) and told him I`d be up in a few weeks and we`d go kill a crow with it. I`ll miss the guy. At least he didn`t end up in a nurseing home. Last year he crossed Shephard Pass in the Sierras on horseback and then spent a week in the hospital with a staff infection he got in his saddle sores. I truely tough old bird.