Love of history leads to profitable business

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ashley McKnight-Taylor

CHUCKATUCK — Every time someone stops by R.A. Flick’s shop, he gives them a “magic mountain man bead,” whether they make a purchase or not. The colorful little trinkets have become his trademark.

Children sometimes get more than one, with a prediction to go with them: “You’re going to look at them two weeks from now and they’re going to make you smile.”


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How does he know the beads will work, they ask? Well, nine times out of 10 the premonition has them grinning as soon as he makes it, he points out, so surely the beads can illicit another in a few days time. Giggles abound.

The beads serve more than just to make people smile, Flick said; they are an extension of friendship.

Flick is proprietor of Spilt Rails, a business that offers historical clothing and moccasins. All of the goods, which include leather saddle bags, knife sheaths and belts, bean bags and wooden swords, are handmade by Flick and his wife, Sharon.

Sure, it’s not the most conventional business. Perhaps one wonders who the heck would buy those sorts of things nowadays? Folks who are up for a little rendezvous, that’s who.

A lifelong love of history prompted Flick to participate in a few Civil War re-enactment events, but the strict nature of the hobby quickly turned him off. At an event at Fort Branch in North Carolina, he saw some people wearing buckskins and “I said, ohh, I can get into that!”

Again the history grabbed him n the adventurous tales of Lewis and Clark’s expedition and the ways of the Northern Cheyenne n and Flick started going to what they call “rendezvous.”

A primitive rendezvous is a gathering of people who are interested in recreating the lifestyles and traditions practiced by people who were involved in the fur trade and exploration of early America.

Modern-day folks who participate in the events portray people from the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War, early American hunters and fur traders of the frontier, according to

The Web site goes on to explain that primitive rendezvous, also known as primitive market fairs, take the form of large encampments, where history buffs gather and practice living as trappers, traders, boatmen, long hunters, natives, voyagers and soldiers in pre-1840’s style.

They camp in canvas tents, cook over an open fire, wear historically-accurate clothes and participate in period contests of skill (can everyone say tomahawk toss?).

Flick said he likes the fact that people from all walks of life, from surgeons, to blue collar workers, participate in the events. Following the rules and traditions of an 1800’s encampment is a true equalizer.

“Once you walk through those gates, everyone is the same.”

It was through attending rendezvous that Flick picked up the trade that would blossom into his business. He had some guidance from fellow tradesmen, and attended various seminars at the rendezvous to learn some techniques, but eventually taught himself most of what he knows about leather work.

Making goods by hand, knowing everything that goes into them, “you have more respect for things that way,” he said.

It took him eight years, though, to get his wife involved. She just couldn’t understand the appeal of the lifestyle until he took her to a rendezvous and told her to just sit with her eye closed for a while.

Once she couldn’t see the tents or strange clothing, she could absorb what really permeated the atmosphere: laughter. And some good music, of course. She was hooked, and soon started making all the period clothing sold by Split Rails.

Flick was serious about the store, and insisted on the highest quality.

“When I got into the business I told my wife ‘we’re not going to start making crap,’” he said.

He retired from Norfolk Naval shipyard, where he “hated every minute,” in 1996, and now happily works for himself. A music man and self-proclaimed rambler, the life offered by the rendezvous culture suits Flick well. He’s been to New York, Florida, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania n everywhere, basically, and has friends in all those places.

He says n convincingly n that he would have no problem giving up the convenienceS of modern life, especially if he could move back to his home state of Pennsylvania, or out West.

“I love it out there,” he said of the latter. “The air is cleaner.”

Lend him an ear for 10 minutes, and he’ll have no trouble convincing you the events are something worth experiencing. The fairs are open during the day for what they call “flatlanders,” or folks who wear modern clothes and stop by to shop and learn. At night, anyone not dressed and equipped for the period must leave.

And that’s when the fun really starts.

“We’ll just have a big shindig,” Flick said.

Traditionally, one “shindig” always takes place at Baby’s, a fry-bread establishment owned by the place’s namesake and his good friend.

The participants, who can number in the thousands depending on the event, play Celtic and acoustic music with guitars, mandolins, a bass made from a washtub and more.

Add to that some tequila shooters, and a rendezvous must-have, rumalade (a combination of rum and lemonade), and you’ve got one heck of a party.

Flick insists they are quite safe, too, since everyone knows and looks out for everyone else, and, of course, no one drives. No modern stuff allowed, remember.

For Flick, it all boils down to the good times. And that doesn’t mean tying one on, because he’s not a drinker.

It means breathing the clean air of the West. It means playing a washtub bass and singing songs he wrote about the friends he’s made. And there, perhaps, is the truest allure of rendezvous: friendship.

“I’m not a millionaire, but I am, you know what I mean? The friends you make there will be friends for life.”