As the title says, Hunting traditions. Well, just what does that mean?
A “Tradition” is defined as : noun Something, such as a doctrine, belief, custom, story, etc, that is passed on from generation to generation, especially orally or by example; The action or process of handing down something in this way. An established, standard or usual practice or custom.
Thesaurus: custom, institution, convention, ritual, way, habit.
From the Latin traditio = handing over.
Therefore a “Hunting Tradition” is something about hunting or something done while hunting that has become a traditional way of hunting within a family, or culture.
For us, as individuals, it might be nothing more than reading up on the latest statistics on the area we are about to hunt in. It might be going back to that same area or farmland season after season. A particular type of scent we use or do not use; the wearing of a particular cap, our “Lucky” cap for instance. It might even be the act of taking our sons or daughters out for their first hunt. I am sure that if we were to take a poll of our club members, we could come up with an extensive list!
So, this is a story about my families hunting tradition.
Well, at least while I was a little boy because as I grew older, the new generation didn’t hunt, so it fell by the wayside many years ago. My great Uncles & Aunts hunted, but my Grandfather and Stepfather didn’t. So, I was exposed to hunting very rarely while growing up. But when I was exposed to it, my Uncles had a very strict tradition.
My Uncles on my Grandmothers side were all of German decent (my mother had no brothers so all of my uncles were of the “Great” category). I never knew much about my fathers side of the family but they also were of German decent. All of the hunting I was exposed to was always up at my Great Aunt Mary’s farm in McGregor Iowa.
Hunting up on the farm was a yearly ritual; another kind of farm tradition. Since my Aunt & Uncle had seven boys of hunting age, it was a veritable hunting squad that went out every day. And since the farm was self-sustaining, hunting the deer was a wintertime necessity.
The hunting day always started well before dawn. Great Aunt Mary always made sure that a heavy breakfast was waiting for them. After breakfast, the checking of all the gear and weapons began and when they completed that, they would draw out their hunting knives and holding the them by the blade, point down they would stand facing east, press the handle of the knife against their foreheads a say a short prayer into the cross the hunting knife. Once done, they would sheath their knives, pick up their gear and head out the door.
I never did actually hear what their prayer was, it’s just that for a young boy, the whole ritualistic way they did things sticks in my mind. I was too young to go on the hunts as I was only about ten then.
When the day was over, they would come back to the farm and I could see them coming in one at a time or in pairs having met down at the gate. They would stop at the back of the work shed by the barn and clear their rifles. They all would always stop in the mud room to clean off their boots and gear. I could hear them stomping their feet and the bump as the boots hit the floor. I could hear them place their rifles in the cabinet next to the coat rack. Each and every one would do the same as they did before they went out, they would draw their knives and say a prayer, then sheath them and hang the belts on the coat racks.
There was always a hot drink waiting for them, hot chocolate, hot cider or cinnamon laced scalded milk and sometimes for the older men, warm blackberry brandy. After a short while when all had returned, dinner was served and the days tales began flowing like milk from an endless picture. Even after dinner there were still stories to tell by the roaring fire the girls had built in the main room. Some stories about the ones they saw tracks of, but never got close to, stories about the HUGE BUCK that bolted just as the raised their rifle, and stories of the ones they shot at but got away. Of course, the stories about the one they got that day and how they did it.
Years later, as I grew to hunting age, I found out that they never used a blind. Great Uncle believed that it was “taking advantage of a semi-stupid animal”. He also got mad at any of the boys who used more than two shots on the deer. Yes, there were questions forming in my head…. I wanted to understand just why he thought this way.
This day, there are two doe out in the smoke shed, waiting for rendering. “Small, but enough meat for now” says my Uncle.
I glean from the conversations and stories that Uncle wants at least six more to round out the winter larder. It seems he is used to taking about a dozen a season, so two is just not enough. And, he hopes they can get that many before the heaviest of the snows hit for the year. Up till now, there was just a light dusting on the fields.
The hunting ritual repeats itself for many more days, and the stories are getting repetitive but, for a ten year old, each and every one is just as exciting as the last one.
I, since I am too young to hunt, have been helping render the harvested deer. Great Aunt Mary directs this task like a conductor of a orchestra. “NO..NO… Cut that from here to here”, “take that in to the kitchen , put that over in the corner”.. and so forth. It was the girls job to take the meat into the kitchen and prepare some of it for freezing, some of it for smoking and jerking and some of it for sausage and “Blood Loaf”.
I know that many of you have rendered a deer, so you know that it can be a daunting task; but Great Aunt Mary could do it with her eyes closed and in record time too!.
My curiosity had been getting the better of me, so instead of waiting to ask Uncle, I asked Aunt Mary…
“Aunt Mary, why do they say a prayer into their knives??”
This stops work her cold, but she is not disturbed by the question and softly says ..
“They pray for a safe hunt, for a swift kill and a safe return”
“A swift Kill?” I ask..
“Yes, Hon… They pray that the deer will not suffer overmuch when we kill it”.
“Is that why Uncle gets mad when they shoot more than once”
“Yes Hon, it is… you see, if the deer is not downed on the first shot, they may run and then suffer more if they fall and break a leg… it is better that they go down on the first shot and then are dispatched with those Hirshfangers they carry”
I am REALLY curious now…..” Hirshfanger” I stumble over the new, strange word…
“It is Hearsh Faunger in the German tongue, it means Hunting Dagger. You see, many years ago our family was still in Germany and my Grandfather, your Great Great Grandfather was the local town hunting master.”
“Yes, Hon…. In those days, each town had a hunting master, he worked either for the town itself or for the local Baron. It was his job to act as a game warden in the forest around the town to guard against poaching of the animals”
I didn’t really know just what poaching was but I held my tongue just then so she could continue.
“He would also hunt and bring in game for the town larder, which might be shared among the people or used in the local inn. He also led formal hunts in which a group of townspeople could get together and hunt for their own food, and he would make sure that they hunting honorably and didn’t take too many deer, or ones that were either too young or sick.. He could tell at a glance, your Great Grandfather was very revered by the townsfolk and the local Baron too!.. Why, once, the Baron gave your Great Grandfather a custom made Hirshfanger to honor him for all the good work he had done in the Barons service. Your uncle carries it with him now.”
“When did our family come here? What do you mean by Baron? What do you use a Hirshfanger for? How could he tell which deer were sick?” and a couple of dozen other questions virtually leaped from my mouth….
“OK..OK… I will tell you all, just let me catch my breath ….. and don’t stop working, we haven’t got all day you know!”….She said, but with humor in her voice and I think that she was actually glad for the questions about our family.
“I was born in this country and am the youngest of ten of my older brothers and sisters, but the four oldest were born in Germany in a little village in the black forest. It is gone now, it was destroyed during the war. There isn’t even a sign where the village use to be. Grandfather brought the family here during the hard times in the last century, the times just before the First World War. You see, Great Grandfather was becoming disillusioned with the policies of the government and he criticized the Kaiser, so that got him in trouble with the local Bergermiester and since they started not letting him hunt, he couldn’t feed his family, so, his only choice was to leave.
One of his brothers, your Great Great Uncle William was already here in America in a town called Brownsville; so, he brought the family to there and a few years later bought farmland in lower Illinois. They came in about 1896 or maybe it was 1897, but it was well before the war broke out. Two of your Great Uncles fought in the American Army in Belgium during WWI; only one came home, brother Gregor was wounded and then killed by the flu epidemic while he was in the hospital and never came home. I think he is buried in Belgium someplace.
I could hear the pain in her voice, but she quickly picked up the tone and pace..
Well, Brownsville is where I was born and when I grew up, I met your great Uncle and we moved up here, close to his family. They had farms all around here when I was a little girl. Ahhh, but most of them are gone now.
“What about the Hirshfanger Aunt Mary?”
“Oh yes, lets not forget about that!” she said with a just a little mocking tone in her voice; Aunt Mary knew how young boys liked to hear things about weapons.
“Well… lets see….. well.. remember when you asked just why Uncle got mad if the boys used more than one shot..?? yes??.. well… It goes all the way back to the hunting tradition of your Great Great Grandfather. In those days, the cost of bullets for the rifle was very, very expensive….. the times were hard and money short and there were many people starving in the larger cites so every shot had to count when hunting. Grandfather used a rifle called a Drilling. He had two types of drillings, one had two side by side rifle barrels and a shotgun barrel under them; and the other one he used for hunting birds and it was the opposite, it had two shotgun barrels side by side with a rifle barrel under them.”
“Now…. Since it was considered a great honor to be a hunting master and to have a drilling , let alone TWO of them was a great honor indeed. But Grandfather never used more than one bullet to take a deer or a boar, if he missed, then the cost of replacing the bullet fell on him, and from the stories my mother used to tell, he very rarely missed. He was considered the best shot in the four warrens. His hunting dagger was special too.”
“Most Hunting masters didn’t start out a master at all. When a young man showed promise when using a rifle, he was bound to a hunting master to learn the trade and if he was good enough, he might even become a hunting master himself in time. The first kill won you a little medal or acorn shaped lapel pin which showed everyone that you were learning and a good shot. After a few of these, the hunting master would guide you to a particularly large deer to see if you could handle it. If you did, than upon reporting to the townspeople that you were now considered a “Jaeger” (hunter) the town would give you a hunting dagger blade. Some of these were just a plain blade with no markings, some had the name of the town engraved on them with hunting scenes and so forth. They wouldn’t have a handle on them, it was expected that you would make the handle from the antler of the deer you had taken and a sheath from the skin. Sometimes, if you were really good, like your Grandfather was, the local Baron would present a complete dagger and sheath to you; but most of the time, the hunter had to build the dagger himself.”
“It was a great honor to carry a Hirshfanger on your belt. Also, some of the little acorn pins would he set into the handle of the dagger for decoration”
“When he shot an animal, sometimes the bullet would not kill it right away. Then he would approach the animal and dispatch it with the Hirshfanger. One great thrust to the heart to finish it. Your Great Grandfather would always say a short prayer before killing an animal, especially a deer. I think it was “God knows that I only take your life so that others might live”… or something to that effect.”
“So… now…. Any more questions?.. we are almost done here and we have to get cleaned up and get dinner on soon”
I had been so fully wrapped up in her words and visions of deer and wild boar and the thrill of the chase, even if it was just in my mind, that I also forgot a question.. But the wonderful fog lifts and I ask “Yes Aunt Mary… Great Grandfathers rifles… those “Drillings”… may I see one??”
“No, Hon… sadly, those are the first things the town took from him before he came to America….”
“Then…. Can I see Uncles dagger later today?”
“Yes Hon… I will make sure he shows you his dagger”….
We finish our work and go to clean up a little. I am soon involved with the evening chores with my cousin, we have to feed the milk cattle in the barn before dinner and bring in more wood for the fires, so off we go to do our work, all the while, visions of hunting race through my mind.
The evening tradition continues, and tonight, all seven have deer they took so there will be stories till the late hours of the evening. For a young boy, it’s a story time smorgasbord!
Dinner is over and the men retire to the great room for hot drinks and stories.
Aunt Mary whispers is Uncles ear and he give her a strong look! Usually the kind of look he gives just before he complains about something. But, just as fast, it passes and gets up to leave the room.
Soon, he comes back and says in that large voice of his..
“SO… you want to see my knife eh??.. well…. Don’t cut yourself…”
And he hands it to me, and my cousin sits just a bit closer to see also.
The sheath is worn but clean. It looks as if he uses shoe polish on it regularly. The sheath tip is a slightly tarnished brass as is the pommel and hilt. The cross hilt is curved and ends in the shape of an acorn. The side of the hilt has a sea shell shaped fan that drops just below the top of the sheath. It is worn as show some small dents in it, but nothing that detracts from its overall beauty. The blade is engraved with hunting scenes on one side, a deer being taken down by a mountain lion. The other side has Oak leaves and acorns all down the blade.
The blade is about fifteen inches long and looks like a bayonet. That is, one edge is sharp as it can be and the other edge only goes about half way up the blade. The whole thing is about twenty-two to twenty-four inches long.
A large knife that borderlines on a short sword.
My cousin and I share holding and generally fondling the dagger for a long while. Just as the stories start to end, Uncle gently takes it from us and puts it back on the hook in the hallway. There to be ready for another days hunting.
So…. That my friends is a story about a family hunting tradition.
I do not hunt very much any more, but even if I just go out with my son and his friends, I carry a Hirshfanger… just like Uncle and Great Great Grandfather did those many long years ago. However mine was bought, not passed down to. But, it IS a German Hunting Dagger from Solingen, just like those of old.
Mine is a bit worn also now, but, for your pleasure, here is a picture of what is being sold today by the very same people that make the blade of Great Grandfathers.
I hope that you enjoyed the story, it brings many old memories back to me.
Re: Hunting Traditions
Great story! Thanx for sharing it with us !
While I don't have any stories such as that, I quess i do have a hunting tradition. My grandfather always wore a specif kind of hat hunting or just "going to town". While i never actually got to hunt with him, I have always worn that same style of hat. It's by no means a modern desgn with some name on it. It's not a typical baseball cap style like most wear hunting. It's just an old hat with a 360* brim. Lightweight too. It's the only hat I'll wear hunting regardless of when and where I am.
We also have a tradition whereby we alsways park in the same spot that grandpa always parked. We still hunt the same area of woods he did some 50 yrs ago.
Waiting to get the chance to go there with my hat and his old Ithica shotgun I now have and make the circle complete. Next yr. :)
Re: Hunting Traditions
Thanks very moving
Re: Hunting Traditions
Thanks for your kind words gentlemen.....
Re: Hunting Traditions
Thanks for a fine story, Mith. :) :)
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