The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

In the Spotlight

May 16, 2014

Powder horn maker keeps frontier art alive

JOHNSTOWN — When a man’s hobby differs greatly from those of others, it’s probably a sign he should have been born in a different era.

Bill Legdon, 56, of Richland Township, would feel right at home in the 1700s.

The professionally trained artist uses his engraving skills to produce powder horns that duplicate those used in the French and Indian War.

Judging from the authenticity and intricacy of his engravings, Legdon would have flourished in the 18th century.

While he makes a living working at Precious Metals & Diamonds Co. at 1011 Eisenhower Blvd. in Richland, his interest in engraved powder horns and muzzleloading firearms can be traced to his youth, when he enjoyed watching television series featuring Daniel Boone and Davey Crockett.

“My interest in engraving started back in the early ’80s when a lot of people were doing mountain man re-enacting,” he said. “I saw engraved horns (that) guys had and thought I could do that.”

Legdon created his first engraved horn in 1982. But it wasn’t until he started to become a French and Indian War re-enactor that he began to see and understand this mid-18th century American art form.

The war (1754-1763) was a battle between Britain and France, with the French allied with the American Indians. This period is often referred to as the golden age of engraved powder horns.

An exhibit of Legdon’s craftsmanship can be seen at the Community Arts Center of Cambria County in Westmont.

Nealy two dozen powder horns and a select number of his handmade leather bags are on display in the case at the entrance of the Goldhaber-Fend Fine Arts Center.

Arts center Executive Director Rose Mary Hagadus said the exhibit will be on view through May 31.

“It’s just astounding work,” she said. “He is delighted to share his work with the public, which has been of particular interest to men and older children.”

Hagadus said it’s a good example of how art can be combined with history.

“Seeing the detail work depicting the era of the French and Indian War in the 1700s truly makes it an educational display,” she said.

Being able to execute this art in its traditional style, feel and look are what Legdon enjoys most about his hobby.

He is one of about 200 people who practice French and Indian War powder horn engraving.

Legdon is a 1977 graduate of Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh and has worked in many types of media including television, radio, newspaper and retail advertising.

For the most part, he is a self-taught artist when it comes to powder horns.

“In 1982 when I started, there was no Internet and not much research material to refer to,” Legdon said.

Horns can be decorated using a coat of arms, hunting scenes, maps, inscriptions, eagles, deer and floral designs. Legdon’s favorite is engraving maps of  upstate New York.

He is a member of The Honourable Company of Horners, a group dedicated to preserving and identifying original horns and furthering the lost art of making and engraving them.

The prep work involves a lot of filing, scraping, reshaping and polishing before engraving.

“Some of my tools for engraving include a tungsten steel scriber, an X-Acto knife and lampblack, to bring out the cut,” he said.

Legdon duplicates designs that he discovered during research on original horns. Sketches are drawn on with pencil and sprayed with hair spray so the lines don’t smear.

“My eye is only about 5 inches from my work when I engrave,” he said.

This technique gives him better eye-to-hand control.

“It also helps if you’re very nearsighted,” he quipped. “I don’t use any magnification.”

Legdon’s designs are all drawn freehand. Sometimes he starts engraving without the use of reference lines.

“You just hope you don’t slip with the knife while you’re engraving because it could ruin the entire piece,” he said.

Horns vary in size. Most French and Indian War horns were large – 14 to 16 inches in length.

It takes about seven or eight hours to make a plain horn. To engrave a horn may take as long as 18 hours, depending on its complexity.

The horns are for sale, with plain horns going for up to $200.

“Engraved horns go for $300 to $1,200, depending on the complexity and quality of the horn,” he said.

Legdon has won many awards for his engraved horns at the yearly Dixon’s Gun Makers Fair in Kempton, Berks County. He also is an accomplished leatherworker, recreating historically correct rifle pouches and accessories.

Legdon has earned an enviable reputation for his craftsmanship, style and design.

“In powder horn circles, my work is very recognizable,” he said.

Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on LavisTD.

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