Each month the museum displays one specially selected item from the wide variety of artifacts held in the museum’s collections. The monthly exhibit shows an artifact worthy of note including information about the artifact itself as well as the history connected to the artifact. The museum preserves artifacts from the region and records the history of the people connected to the objects - their unique characters that make up the rich heritage of west central Illinois. The object on display tells the visitor more than just what is seen in the exhibit– it tells the story of our shared past. This is one of those stories.
This month’s “Artifact of the Month” is an antique firearm, a double-barreled muzzleloader once owned by Edward (Ed) Whittier of Bushnell. Born in 1914, Ed Whittier learned trapping as a boy and worked with furs all his life, until old age made it no longer possible. He died in 1998.
Although he was a quiet man, Whittier was a recognized figure in town. Always occupied, Ed Whittier worked a variety of jobs, from a mechanic at International Harvester to foreman at Ready-Foods meat packing business. In addition to these jobs, Whittier was an accomplished wood worker and operated his own independent fur and trap business.
Located on Coal Street in the heart of downtown Bushnell, Whittier’s fur and trap shop had no sign posted outside. His widow, Phyllis Whittier, recalls that the shop was so well known that it did not need a sign. All the trappers in the area knew Whittier and came to his shop for their trapping needs.
Whittier used his woodworking talents to building the drying forms to stretch and prepare furs for sale. His handcrafted drying forms were well known for their quality and Whittier sold them as well as traps all over the country. Mrs. Whittier remembers that her husband “sold to trappers as far away as Alaska!”
Whittier also bought furs from trappers in the region and then sold the furs to wholesalers. Whittier was extremely active in the fur-trapping community, and was a founding member of the Illinois Trappers Association as well as one of the first hundred members of the National Trappers Association.
In the 1980s Whittier focused more on his woodworking and terminated his fur and trap business. In fact, Mrs. Whittier notes that Ed was such a talented woodworker that a person would walk into the shop and ask for something to be made out of wood and he could make it “just like that.” He did not need plans or drawings or designs, he had it all in his head. Mrs. Whittier remembers how clever her husband was with wood. She recalls the time when someone asked Whittier to make a skateboard and brought him the wheels from a pair of skates. Although he had never seen a skateboard, he made a board, figured out how to configure the wheels and created the first skateboard in Bushnell.
Margaret and James Foster of Colchester, (James is now deceased), donated Ed Whittier’s muzzleloader to the museum in 1979. How Ed Whittier’s muzzleloader ended up with the Fosters is unknown. According to Margaret Foster, her husband, James, was involved in many different businesses and known as a “trader” who sold hunting and fishing licenses. Foster and Whittier must have crossed paths and the double-barreled muzzleloader came into Foster’s possession. In 1979, Foster decided to donate the gun to the museum.
The firearm on display measures 4 feet, 7½ inches long. A muzzleloader is any type of firearm that is loaded from the muzzle, i.e. from the forward, open end of the barrel. Any firearm with two barrels is referred to as a double-barrel. The one on display with its with two barrels placed side by side and attached to one another is the type called a “side-by-side” muzzleloader.
The double-barreled muzzleloader at the museum feels heavy and solid in the hands. Artisanship is evident in all the details of this artifact. The handle on the wood stock near the grip area displays a pattern of small raised diamonds called checkering. Checkering is a carving technique long used in gun-smithing and its purpose is to improve the grip and enhance the appearance of the wood stock.
Engraved metalwork around the trigger is traditional scrollwork based on acanthus leaves. Used since antiquity, the acanthus leaf motif is seen in Greek and Roman temple ornamentation. Throughout history, in the Gothic, Medieval, and the Renaissance periods, the acanthus leave motif was commonly used.
Gunsmiths carry on this long-established decorative detail by including it on guns up to the present day. Before the development of corrosion resistant treatments for metal, gun surfaces were engraved to retain more oil to prevent rust.
Nestled conveniently and efficiently beneath the double barrels, tucked into its slip-holder, is the wooden ramrod used to tamp down the bullet in the barrel. Needed for every single shot, it was imperative that the ramrod be stored near the forward end of the barrel within easy reach.
Firearms played a tremendous part in the expansion of our country. Seeing an antique firearm such as this double-barreled muzzleloader graphically illustrates the savage nature of life back in a time when most men had to hunt for survival, for food and furs for clothes and trade. This muzzleloader, as an artifact, represents a facet of all that makes up our American heritage.
Muzzleloaders are enjoying a recent surge in popularity. Some hunting enthusiasts embrace the muzzleloader for its unique qualities and the feel of hunting as they did long ago. As deer populations continue to soar in many parts of the United States, more and more regions of the country are extending hunting season by adding primitive weapons only seasons. As a result, some hunters are taking up muzzleloader hunting in order to take advantage of these enhanced hunting opportunities. In Illinois, muzzleloaders are permitted for hunting and there are special muzzleloader-only deer hunting days.
A word of caution regarding antique firearms: As with any firearm, approach an antique firearm with extreme caution. Never attempt to use a muzzleloader or any antique firearm without training. Using a muzzleloader is more complex than most modern firearms and requires specialized knowledge. They also present greater risks.
Ed Whitter is third from the left with curator, Libby Nickols taken in 1979 during the installation of the fur trapping exhibit in Sherman Hall.