This summer I blogged extensively about the Brian Head fire that skirted around the Thunder Ridge Scout Camp in Southern Utah. I had only hinted, however, about my prized, hand-carved bolo tie collection and the potential loss of it in the fire. I also didn’t mention the story about how I received part of my collection from the legendary bolo tie carver, Bill Burch.
When the fire first started, Sheriff personnel came jetting in on a 4-wheeler ATV and alerted us that the fire was only a mile away from the camp. They gave us fifteen minutes to evacuate. Wow! We had all of our summer camping gear and belongings in our large staff tent— what do you take with just fifteen minutes to go?
We rushed into the tent and started randomly grabbing stuff to take with us. In the scramble, however, I neglected to look up to the tent cross-pieces, from which hung my collection of carved bolo ties. Only later did it hit me that I had left the 20 or so bolos hanging up in the tent. I worried for days that they had all been lost in the fire— I have spent years collecting the bolos and most could not be replaced. They were invaluable to me.
Ultimately, the bolo tie collection was miraculously spared and returned to me. (See this blog where I mention them). You may have seen my happy picture as I got them back.
Wearing a hand-carved bolo tie is something that I have done literally for years. It has become one of my “Kevin Hunt” trademarks and I never do anything in Scouting without one on. They are so much a part of me and who I am, that I wear one almost every day, even in my “civilian” life— and, of course, in most of our family photos throughout the years. They are just so, me.
Being a bolo-tie enthusiast, I have always been a big admirer of Bill Burch. He is the legendary “Grand-daddy” of all carved bolo ties. His carved bolos are now found everywhere around the world. Bill perfected the carving art, creating some 50,000 bolo ties throughout his lifetime. He died in 2012 at the age of about 88. Fortunately for us, though, Bill developed many carving protégés throughout the years who now carry on his grand Scouting tradition, carving just as he taught them.
I never had the opportunity to see Bill carve, but as a fellow woodcarver myself (walking sticks specifically), oh how I wish I could have seen Bill in action!
Those who did see him have reported that he would go all over the world to carve, any place where there was a large collection of Scouts and leaders. I’m told that he would sit and carve a bolo in just fifteen minutes or so then string it, paint it and hand it to the Scout or leader, paint still dripping wet.
One of Bill’s greatest enjoyments was to attend Jamborees (and other events) and distribute his large collection of pre-carved bolo ties. He would handpick a bolo for each Scout that came to him and then give them a little talk about the Scout Oath and Law. After his little talk, he would present the bolo to the Scout. (I’m not sure that those boys appreciated or understood how special this gift was, coming from such an amazing man.)
I don’t know exactly when Bill began carving his bolo ties but, it was before the 1970’s. I first read about Bill and his bolo ties in the Scouting magazine when I was about 16. I wanted one of those bolo ties so badly but, being the days long before the internet, I had no way of knowing or finding out how to obtain one. I had that aching yearning to obtain one or more of them for years. I knew that carver Bill lived in Spokane, Washington, but that was all.
I had to wait until I was almost 30 before I miraculously obtained my first prized Bill Burch bolo. My family and I were housing missionaries while we lived in Santa Barbara, California and one of them was actually from Spokane, Washington. Emotion and excitement filled my mind as I asked with hope, “You wouldn’t happen to know a guy from there named Bill Burch, the bolo tie carver, would you?” I loved his answer. With a grin he replied, “You bet! He was my Scoutmaster!” I then told him of my long-time dream to have one of his bolo ties but, that I didn’t know how to obtain one. His answer was like music to my ears: “Well, I have six or seven of them in my drawer at home. I’ll write my mom and have her send one to me for you.”
True to his word, the coveted bolo tie came in the mail about two weeks later, and was I ever elated. That first bolo was a cowboy and had written on the back of it “#6501”. Bill and all of his protégés have traditionally sequentially numbered each of their carved bolo ties. Another carver tradition – probably also started by Bill Burch, is to put their own address and contact information on the back of the bolo. So, with this first Bill Burch bolo, I now had his address on the back of the cowboy. I wore that bolo proudly to everything from then on.
I decided that it would be great fun to have a Bill Burch bolo carved to look like me. (Yeah, a bit of vanity… but why not?) I sent him a photo of my ugly mug, as well as one for Richard Hale, a long-time great friend and neighbor. A while later, I received a small box from Bill Burch! In it was a note that read, “Kevin, I don’t do portraits … here it is!” And there was one for Richard also, which I later enjoyed presenting to him as a special “thank you”. Mine was numbered #29,855, he had carved a few since that first one I got!
This bolo and I became inseparable, it went everywhere with me. It has been great fun to see people see it and try to figure out who it is.
“Is that Howdy Dudey?” one asked. “Is that President Kennedy?” My favorite is, “Is that Ronald Reagan?” I didn’t realize that I had so many famous look-alikes.
The most classic comment so far, though, came from a lady while I was waiting for a transfer bus in Arizona. She saw the bolo and looked at it, looked at me, back at the bolo, then back at me. She could contain it no longer and finally pointed at it and asked, “Excuse me, Suh! Is dat you?”
Later still, I got online (Wow … amazing!), went to the Bill Burch website and ordered a bolo of “Uncle Sam” and received number #37,209. (Bill loved to just give his slides away but he did create a website to sell his bolos just because so many people bothered him to buy one.
Soon thereafter, I had the opportunity to actually meet Bill Burch at his home in Orem, Utah while I was in town. One of the wooden tibs on the cord of my own bolo had come off and I decided to pay Bill a visit since I had his new address. He had recently moved to Orem, Utah, probably to be closer to his Aspen wood for carving.
I showed up at his townhouse, unannounced, and he came to the door, dragging his respirator along behind him. He didn’t acknowledge me nor did he ask who I was. He just looked down and saw the tibless bolo tie. “You’ve got a problem … come on in!” he said as he took me into his home.
We went downstairs, respirator and all, and—to my surprise— he gave me a tour of his entire bolo tie manufacturing area. He showed me the floor-to-ceiling stacks of “rounds” of Quaking Aspen wood, his favorite carving wood. Each round was about ten to twelve inches in diameter and was cut to about two and a half inches in thickness, (the thickness of a single bolo tie). Bill told me how he let the rounds “cure” and then when he was ready to use them, he used a band saw to cut 20 or more “blocks” from each round. He then used these blocks to carve each bolo.
Bill also took me into his display room, where he had pegs all over the walls. Each one had a different bolo style with about 10 or 20 of that bolo style. There were pegs of Baden Powell, Indians, cowboys, Scouts, old guys, cowboys, Uncle Sams, and many more. Wow, was I ever impressed! He then showed me his personal collection that consisted of his first bolo, every 100th bolo, and every 1,000th bolo that he had ever carved. I wish I had that collection now! What a fascinating visit with this grand master and living legend, bolo carver. I could have stayed there for hours talking to him.
He then got to fixing my broken bolo by gluing on a new tib and I bought one of his pegs, a mountain man, #43,668.
While I was with Bill, Gary Dollar, his main protege and carving partner, visited us. Gary has worked with Bill for years and, after Bill’s death, he has maintained the bolo tradition by carving his own bolos and selling some of Bill’s. Later I learned that Gary grew up in my hometown of Mesa, Arizona and is actually the cousin of my brother-in-law.
While at Camp Thunder Ridge this summer, I had a conversation with an adult Scouter who told me that when he was at a Jamboree as a teenager, his cousin died tragically in a tractor accident. as he was the farm worker substitute and as this boy attended the Jamboree. And after the cousin’s death, this guy flew home to attend the funeral. He said, “And some Scouter volunteered to take me to the airport. And he gave me one of these bolo ties.” He thought this was cool but he had no idea that the good turn guy was none other than the famous Bill Burch, himself. And he didn’t know that he had a Bill Burch slide. As we talked, he texted his wife. He knew exactly where the bolo was (in his safe) – even after all those years. He had her take a photo of it and she soon did this and texted it back to him. He showed it to me and sure enough, it was a Bill Burch. The Scouter was a happy guy after he realized what a valuable bolo tie treasure he had.
Stay tuned for Part 2 …
To read more about carver, Bill Burch, check out his website, now maintained by his friend and fellow carver, Gary Dollar.