Rope is one of mankind’s oldest tools. Though it does not preserve as well as stone and bone tools, evidence of rope use has been found dating back at least 15,000 years.
In rural America, it was common until quite recently for farmers to make their own rope as needed for various uses. In Yellow Medicine County, Master Ropemaker David Norman’s family boasts five generations of rope makers. Norman demonstrated his skills at the Yellow Medicine County Museum on June 13.
“When I was a kid, my father would go to fairs, and he’d make rope for a halter,” Norman said. “My grandfather and his brothers could do it in their teens. Grandfather bought this machine.”
The machine Norman inherited from his grandfather is a hand-cranked device with three hooks to attach strands of twine. These days, Norman uses plastic twine because natural fibers such as manila, hemp and sisal have become expensive.
“When my father discovered plastic twine in the ’60s he got into it again,” Norman said. “He got out this machine, sandblasted it and fixed it up.”
Norman cranks the machine, his wife Kaye holds the other end attached to a power drill, one concession to modernity.
“I’m part of the crew; I married into it,” Kaye Norman said. “It was a fun hobby to get into.”
While twisting the fibers together from both ends, a helper moves along the length of the rope with a device called a traveler that keeps the fibers separated until there is enough twist in it to keep the fibers together. When demonstrating rope making, Norman calls for volunteers or enlists his brother-in-law Allard Stevens.
“I used to help his father make rope, too,” Stevens said.
David and Kaye Norman demonstrate rope making at area events and for schools, and sometimes make commemorative ropes of multi-colored strands for special occasions.
“My brother-in-law celebrated his 50th anniversary, so we made him a 50-foot gold rope,” David Norman said.
Museum director Brian Schulz brought David Norman as part of his program to bring demonstrations of traditional skills to the museum once a month.
And the family rope-making tradition is not dying out.
“We have a 9-year-old grandson and a 6-year-old granddaughter, and they both love it,” Kaye Norman said.