The Cribbage Belt

Go West, young man!

Geoff Franklin comes from a long line of craftsmen and women. For the last eight generations, his family and descendants have called the hills and forests of Oregon home. In 1848, six of his ancestors strapped on their boots, hiked up their skirts, and undertook an American expedition west on the now-legendary Oregon Trail. “They were called crazy,” he says, and to understand and undertake the perils of the Trail, crazy isn’t a crazy word.

A typical journey on the Oregon Trail lasted anywhere from four to six months, from numerous starting points along the Missouri River valley, just west of the Mississippi River, to the far hills of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, located in what is now the northwestern part of the state just south of Portland. Conditions were often brutal–days of scorching sun offset by pioneers and animals beset with injuries and illnesses. The terrain was unforgiving. Axles and wheels broke atop rocky paths. Every river was a hazard to be crossed. Cholera moved swiftly. Horses and oxen came up lame, and not all of the Native Americans were friendly.

Nonetheless, the opportunities of the vast western coast called thousands to the Trail; the song “Uncle Sam’s Farm,” adopted from a poem by Jesse Hutchinson, Jr., captures the spirit of this time: “Our lands, they are broad enough, don’t be alarmed, / For Uncle Sam is rich enough to give us all a farm!” Not since the discovery of the New World had there been such a spirit and fervor to go west, and since no one knew how large the United States would become, the Oregon Trail was much more than a beaten path; for all who took those first tentative steps, it represented a dangerous journey away from one life and into another.

Crazy or not, however, Frankin’s descendants made the 2,000-mile journey. Like any Oregon Trail crossing, resources were scarce. What couldn’t be found had to be bartered. What couldn’t be fixed had to be crafted. What passed for recreational time was limited mostly to singing, dancing, bonfires, and card playing–there was no time for leisure during the day. If they could speak to him, however, I’ve no doubt Franklin’s descendants would be proud of their 8th-generation progeny, for this Oregonian has created something useful. Something fun. Something they probably could have used during their momentous adventure into the west.

A cribbage belt.

“I wear one every day,” he smiles, the pride in his work evident. The crib belt is a fully-functional, beautifully tanned and finished belt of dark American leather. You could wear it into the Monday morning staff meeting or interview; you could take it with you on the trail. Once adorned, the front of the belt resembles any other— holes, buckle, clasp. Nothing conspicuous about it. To turn and admire one’s derriere, however, reveals two rows of symmetrical holes on the top and bottom of the leather, with a clean stripe between. Each row has 60 holes. One lap for a half game, two laps for a full.

Business in the front, party in the back.

“The neat thing about it,” Geoff says, “is you’re wearing this belt, and there’s no loss of functionality. It’s just a nice leather belt.” Whether in the city or in the wilderness, the belt performs. At one point, Franklin began carving miniature pegs to accompany his utilitarian fashion sensibilities, but he soon realized something else. The cribbage belt, he points out, forces you to “McGuyver up” a new set of pegs wherever you go. “Whenever we want to play, either at the bar or hiking in the woods, there’s always something around you can utilize as pegs; toothpicks at the bar work perfectly, or wooden matches, or if you’re out in the woods, a nice hardy pine needle or twig.” It’s not a bad way to make a living.

When he was just a toddler, Franklin’s great-grandmother died, leaving the farm–all 540 acres of it–in the hands of her capable daughter, and he grew up with the family ranch. “I am just a hands-on sort of guy,” he says, “I spent a lot of formative time out there.” His grandma taught him how to play cribbage, a generation after she taught his father and four aunts. She was “always up for a game,” he remembers. On the ranch, he grew up with the material that would become his livelihood, growing familiar with horses and horse-tack bullwhips, bridles, saddles, and harnesses, and developed an appreciation and knowledge of leather from an early age. One of his earliest jobs was working at a sign shop in Eugene, just west of the Willamette National Forest and about 100 miles south of Portland. “There was a giant work shop,” Franklin says, “full of substrates and vinyls and every tool you could imagine.” Of all the products churned out of that workshop, he always felt a pull to the cribbage boards. Later, he saw a board with 30.06 shells as the pegs, and recalls, “they represented this idea of explosions and potential energy, and every time I played it was kind of a thrill.”

After graduating from the University of Oregon School of Architecture, Franklin began looking for an outlet to let his creative juices flow. “I was getting more and more into biking here in Portland,” he says, “and I just started thinking about items for my bike that weren’t available and that I could execute in leather.” One day his wife declared she was going to try and sell a few of his items online, and one thing soon led to another. Marrying his creative background with his hands-on know-how, he formed Walnut Studiolo, a shop of leather-craft and design. Though most of his wares are leather accessories for biking–seat covers and seat bags, a crossbar portage handle, and my personal favorite, the 6-pack frame cinch–the cribbage belt carries memories of the old ranch, of his grandmother with whom he was particularly close, and home.

Though the six-pack holder and other items sell well, his favorite item (besides the crib belt, of course) is the braided drop-bar wrap, a project he pursued after looking at historic images from the golden age of biking, of dainty ladies with wide dresses and extravagant hats pedaling next to dapper men in three-piece suits in a sepia-toned world of yester-year. When asked why leather appeals to him, Geoff opens up. “There’s nothing else out there like it,” he says, “there’s just a lot of really neat things about leather that I think we’ve gotten away from. It’s not as producible [as other materials] and slightly more expensive, but it’s an ideal material. It gets better with age. From the oils and sweats from your hand, it starts showing signs of wear and tear and conditioning; it becomes darker and more polished. You have to earn that character with use.” From the journey that leather takes, I’m not at all surprised.

He tells me his items begin life as a by-product of the American beef industry. While ostrich and alligator hides are much more prized than the flesh within them, cattle are bred primarily for their meat, and their hides are sold as remainder at much cheaper prices to leather companies near and far. The leather is tanned, and sold again to leather stores and distributors around the nation, who in turn sell it to individuals like Geoff. He prefers leather from the Hermann Oak Leather Company in St. Louis, Missouri, one of the last great tanneries still operating in the United States. Louis Charles Hermann started the company in 1881, meeting the increasing bridle and harnessing demands of the local cattle trade, and then expanded to supply and outfit settlers heading west along the Lewis & Clark trails–trails that predated and informed the cartography whereby the Oregon Trail was broke several years before Franklin’s descendants (and Pontiac) made their trans-American journey.

Leather is bought in the half-hide, from the crest of the cow’s back to the bottom of the belly. Leather, Geoff tells me, has a grain just like wood, and belts of the highest quality are cut parallel to the back and as close to the top of the back as possible; strips from areas nearer the belly are less strong because of a protein called elastin, which gives both animal and human skin alike its elastic properties. Backs are generally stronger and thus possess less elastin. Once Geoff acquires the hide, the real time over the workbench begins. He uses an edging tool to cut a straight strip and round the edges off. Next, the leather is stained with oil-based dyes and coated with Montana Pitch Blend, a preservative and water repellent. The edges are burnished to finish the sealing process, and the process of laying out the cribbage board begins. The holes are punched and awled by hand, a process, Geoff says, “that takes hours upon hours.” Once the parallel rows of holes have been cut, the belt is completed by installing a small metal eyelet into each one, then hammer-finished and secured.

"MacGuyver up some pegs"

The belt itself, according to Franklin, “is kind of alive” and holds a singular and unique place in the thinking man’s or woman’s wardrobe. The entire belt, from the leather Franklin finishes to the metal eyelets he hammers into the hand-awled holes, is made from natural resources and can be used with natural resources. It’s an environmentally holistic accessory. In fact, one might argue Franklin is literally strapping on the legacy of his forefathers, or pegging his way through the generations. But I doubt that’s what Geoff is thinking of when he and his wife settle down for a game.

When it’s all said and done, and because Hermann Oak leather is from domestic cattle, the American dollar is circulated three or four times–pasture to paunch-line–“five if you buy the belt,” Geoff adds. The shade of the leather is often determined by his customers, a further embellishment and custom nicety. Just imagine–a cribbage belt for every occasion!

Maybe it was destiny. Of all the people I’ve spoken to, Geoff is one of the only ones to answer “yes” to the big question: have you ever been dealt the 29 hand? He was playing with his father as a late teenager, after he had learned to drive. He was dealt three fives and the off-suit jack. Laughing to himself but without revealing why, he told his father, “dad, turn a five.” The deck was cut, Geoff flipped the top card, and there it was, odds of 1 in 216,580 out of a possible 12,994,800 hands. Geoff laid his cards down, and declared “this is history right here!” They played the hand out, and took their sweet time counting it up. Cribbage stories–like fish stories, hunting stories, and fantastic tales of life and limb–tend to become embellished with time, adding a pound here, a tine there. Not this one, though–”I have no reservations about the validity of it,” Geoff says. In recounting the story all these years later, Geoff smiles through his words. “You have fun, and you’re honest, and he is the one person I would have wanted to know about it, and he was there playing with me. The whole world be damned, he saw it! It sticks with me.” It sticks to his walls, too–he’s got the hand framed inside his home.

Has Franklin changed the way cribbage will be played in the Pacific Northwest? Only time will tell. After all, he’s got a lot to live up to–Joseph Watts, that bold ancestor of his, is listed on the frieze of the House Chamber of Oregon as one of the 158 individuals who changed the state for the better. So next time you’re camping way up north in the great wild outdoors, don’t be alarmed when everyone starts stripping. It’s just the cribbage belts coming out, waiting to make more memories.

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