Frank Willis wasn’t wearing his buckskins when he spoke at a program sponsored by the Durham Historical Society. The temperature was soaring but it was a bit cooler for his program in the iconic Durham Grist Mill built in 1820. The speaker looked at ease in those surroundings, a perfect setting, as he spoke about the craft he practices.
The program was one of a series of Sunday afternoon gatherings sponsored by the group.
Willis, an expert in the construction of contemporary Pennsylvania-style powder horns, transported those attending to a time before plastic when animal horns were used to store powder for muzzle-loading rifles and for almost everything else plastic is used for today.
Willis traces his love for the past to 1954 and what he claimed, amid laughter, was “the life-changing experience of watching Davy Crockett, Indian fighter, on television while wearing my coonskin cap.”
Willis, who lives in Shimersville, Lehigh County, is a member of the 300-strong Honourable Company of Horners. He brought along his friend Jim Steele, who is co-chair of the group’s education committee and a collector of powder horns. The men brought with them an incredible array of horns and secondary items, all made of horns from cows, sheep and oxen.
Turning a discarded animal part into a useful item is an ancient art that flourished in Colonial America and almost until the mid-20th century, when the invention of plastic dealt its death blow. It is an art, however, that reaches back to the beginnings of firearms and even before. Think Vikings, for example.
Willis spoke of life in a time when nearly every town in America had a horn shop. There pioneers could buy powder horns and their wives could purchase combs, both plain and fancy, for their hair. Customers could browse an entire range of common household items such as spoons, buttons, shoehorns, snuff boxes and other containers of all shapes and sizes.
“Horn was the 18th-century plastic,” Willis said. Plastic did not come into being until the 1880s and was not commonly available until just after World War II, he noted. “Cows, sheep and oxen horns were used right through the 19th century and into the 20th, he said.
“Horns are made of keratin, the same material as our fingernails. It cleans up and polishes,” he said. Many Colonial powder horns were purely functional, but by the time of the Civil War, soldiers began to mark them with their names to denote ownership, he explained.
Then inevitably, others began to draw on them. Powder horns became handsome works of art, as more serious artists turned to scrimshaw, echoing sailors’ carvings on whale’s teeth. Some popular themes for the scrimshaw on horns were historic buildings, leaf patterns or naval designs, he said.
Items Willis passed around to the audience included a truly gorgeous engraved powder horn and a horn book reminiscent of “Little House on the Prairie” days. The horn book, used to help children learn their letters and numbers, featured printed material on a tablet protected by a translucent sheet of horn.
In addition to being an expert horn craftsman, Willis is known for his leatherwork. He makes replicas of the leather hunting bags frontiersmen traditionally carried with their powder horns. He is particularly proud of a bag he crafted to match an old one passed down through generations of a Lower Bucks County family.
Willis conducts classes in his craft at the Jacobsburg Historical Society in Lehigh County.