Willow Bows or Sling Shots!
By Norris Chambers
When Clifton and I were growing up, like all the other country kids in our area, we passed through the bow and arrow phase. The simplest bow was a tree branch about three fourths of an inch in diameter and two or three feet long, depending on the size of the boy who intended to use it. The arrow was any small wooden rod as straight as could be found. A small notch was cut across the top for the bow string and the end was sharpened for easy penetration of the target. Some arrows were split at the top and a large turkey feather was bound inside it with string. The reason for the feather was to keep the arrow traveling in a true, unwavering direction until it reached the target.
We built our Indian weapons and began our archery study by shooting at baled oat straw. We had been told that this was an idea material for a beginner’s target since the hay bales were not hard enough to damage our arrows and they could be easily retrieved. We had access to a large stack of hay bales.
We had been told that willow trees provided the best source of material for bows and for arrows because its boughs are straight and pliable. The creeks and many dirt tanks had willow trees growing along the banks providing plenty of raw materials for experimenting.
One day we were strolling along the creek bank occasionally shooting at a bird, squirrel, lizard or other big game when we found Mr. Pearl busy doing his favorite thing, fishing. Clifton greeted him in the usual manner, “Any luck, Mr. Pearl?” He answered with his usual reply, “I tell you it’s not so much in luck as it is in knowing what you’re doing!” Before either of us could reply he continued, “What’ve you got there? Going buffalo hunting?” I told him that we were just practicing some with our bows and arrows. He pointed at Clifton’s bow and told him that his bow could be improved in several ways. He told us that he spent many years traveling among the Indians. All of the tribes depended on their hand fashioned bows and arrows for their small game food and had perfected the weapons. For larger game, such as buffalo, they usually used heavy spears.
He told us that willow was not useable for making bows but that it was probably the best available in our area. He mentioned a few trees with which we were not familiar. He said many tribes preferred bodark. We thanked him for the information and told him we would try them. I asked my dad about bodark trees and he said he was familiar with the name but had not had any personal experience with the wood. He suggested that I look in the encyclopedia at school and see what I could find.
I couldn’t find bodark in the encyclopedia so I decided to ask the teacher. “Bois D’Arc” is the approved spelling,” Mr. Phyler told me and continued, “We don’t have any in this area. You will find it in the encyclopedia by using the correct spelling.” I found it, read all about it and came to a quick conclusion that we would not be using it for our bows. It would have been ideal for our use but it was not available. The wood was recommended for fence posts because it did not rot and for any use where a hard, orange-colored wood was needed. Surveyors used it for boundary stakes because of its long life.
The tree produces many large green fruit balls that were called “horse apples, hedgeapples or bugbeaters.” These were used to rid a house of unwanted insects such as roaches or spiders. Many early settlers planted the fruits to produce a fence row. Livestock would not try to pass through such a thick accumulation of brush because of the production of many irritating thorns. The fruit is not poisonous but apparently is not very well accepted as food by forest creatures or birds. Squirrels will nibble on them if nothing else is available. Occasionally a bird with a bad memory will peck on one.
Clifton and I graduated from our bows and arrows to a .22 rifle class and pretty well forgot about the tree with the crazy spelling. It was many years before I actually saw a bois d’arc tree. At least one of the few trees in White Settlement in 1946 was located beyond where our back yard would be and was already producing the large apples. A knowledgeable native told me that there were male and female trees and only the females produced the green fruit I wrote Clifton a letter and told him I had located a bow and arrow tree and that I was ready to start when he could spare the time. His answering letter told me that he was busy on his job and maintaining some rent houses he had bought, but if I could visit him we would go deer hunting. As usual he was complaining – when he opened my letter he got a paper burn and emerged with blood on his shirt and a sore hand! He didn’t think that was funny.