Mountain Man Spirit Lives On In Leicester

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Mountain men practice throwing tomahawks at the Black Powder Shoot
Mountain men practice throwing tomahawks at the Black Powder Shoot Photo Credit: Daniel Castro

LEICESTER, Mass. — While once flourishing in the rough and untamed American terrain,  the Mountain Man and his rugged, resourceful and adventurous nature has become a thing of the past in a day when many people are almost bound by modern convenience.

Photo Album Leicester Black Powder Shoot Gallery

Yet a group of local enthusiasts are striving to keep the relentless spirit of those early nineteenth century trappers and explorers alive, and last weekend celebrated the many skills once practiced by the original mountain men by holding a Black Powder Shoot at the Leicester Rod and Gun Club. 

"This is an American tradition, it's what started this country," said Leicester resident Bill Burtt, who organized the event. "This connects us to the past. It's about the heritage of it."

Romanticized in films like "The Mountain Men" with Charleton Heston and "Jeremiah Johnson" with Robert Redford, the era of the mountain man was from about 1810 to 1840, when Beaver was in fashion and the fur trade was thriving.

"In 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase, they had all this land and no idea what was out there," said Chuck Terry.

As the mountain men roamed the new territory, hunting and trapping and establishing routes of travel, they also played an instrumental role in the expansion and settlement of the western part of the country, eventually "laying the framework for the Oregon Trail," explained Terry.

"These were the original Doomsday Preppers," explained Ron Thebodo, of Charlton. "These guys could survive through the winter without freezing to death, they lived with the Indians, who knew how to survive everywhere."

In the tradition of the original mountain men, around 60 men, women and a few younger ones came together dressed in authentic garb and coonskin caps (which many of them had made themselves) and with bowie knives, tomahawks and old flint-lock muskets in hand, tested their skills at shooting and throwing as part of a friendly competition.

"Everything we do here is real, it's not play acting," said Gary Vigue. "It's real bullets, a real tomahawk, a real knife — it's living history."

While the group was made up of people from all backgrounds and professions, they are united by their shared interest in reviving these lost traditions, and the people involved have also developed a sort of fraternity of spirit.

"It's the brotherhood of the American Mountain Man, it's a bunch of guys that get together that would die for each other, and help each other when they need it," said  Vigue.

In addition to the common bond, there is also a system of honor that exists between them. 

"You can't put a lock on a tent," said Terry, who explained that even at a rendezvous, a larger camping event that draws some 500 to 600 mountain men together, "there's no theft whatsoever."

While the idea of marching off into the woods in period clothing and firing old-style weapons certainly isn't everybody's cup of tea, others have become fully absorbed in the lifestyle.

"You either want to be part of it, or you want no part of it," said Vigue.

Terry, for instance, first attended a Mountain Man event years ago just as an observer, because he knew somebody involved. 

"It was like hook, line and sinker," he said. "I thought, I have to be here next year, by hook or crook."

Since then, Terry has worked his way through the requirements to become both a North East Mountain Man and an American Mountain Man, and proudly wears tags of both organizations as "a badge of honor."

"It's like Boy Scouts without adult supervision," he said.

Terry and Vigue have even gone on a five-day group horseback ride through the Grand Tetons, the whole time living as if it were 1825. With flintlock rifles and primitive saddles, and not a phone or a watch between them, the men lived off the land, and had to find feed for their horses.

While the trip was certainly trying at times, being far away from the lights and sounds of the city brought them closer to the lives of the original mountain men, and gave them a new and rewarding perspective.

"Let me tell you something, I found a spot on the ground to lay my body for the night, so we went to bed," recalled Vigue. "I woke up during the night and heard the horses moving, and I swear the stars lit the ground. It was so beautiful, I never forgot."

While during the week, the men have to return to the modern world, the spirit of the mountain man doesn't go away, and they're constantly looking forward to the fun and fraternity they can soon enjoy at their next rendezvous.

"It's like a lifestyle," said Vigue. "It's in your blood."

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