The Horsehair Rope (Part 1)


And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them (Moses 7:18).

“Come in, Thad!” said the bishop, rising from his chair in the tithing house, where he ran the affairs of the United Order of Orderville. “Thank you for coming.” On his desk was a very strange-looking machine—a combination of gears, spindles, and reels, with a handle to turn them—attached to a wooden base on which “Peerless Easy Rope Maker” was printed in gilded letters. I had never seen anything like it.

The bishop came around his desk and shook my hand. “We ordered it all the way from Philadelphia,” he said, nodding toward the machine. “If you’re willing, I’d like you to learn how to use it to make rope from the flax and cotton we grow that aren’t good enough for our cloth factory.”

I tried to look calm and grown-up, but a big grin spread across my face in spite of myself. I had been waiting a long time for a real assignment in the Order. “I’ll do my best, Bishop,” I said.

The bishop patted me on the shoulder. “Thad, I’m sure you’ll be a good worker, just like your brother.”

That hurt. Everyone was always comparing me to my twin brother, Theo, and I usually got the worst of it. He was bigger than I was, had no freckles, and at thirteen looked more like a man than I did. He had already been given many important assignments. This was my first chance. I had to make the most of it.

The bishop handed me the machine. “Take it over to the harness shop, and Brother Spencer will give you any help you need. You will work under his direction.”

The machine was heavy, and it was a hot day and a long way to the harness shop. When I finally got there, I felt as if my arms were stretching. And maybe they were—Sunday Mom complained that my good shirt’s sleeves were getting too short. Anyway, at the harness shop Brother Spencer put the machine in a wheelbarrow and told me to take it to the cabinet shop and have a stand made to mount it on.

The cabinet shop was part of the carpenter area of the Order and was a beehive of activity. The carpenters’ goal was to have a new two-bedroom home completed every six days all summer. The rest of the morning I helped Brother Carling find, measure, mark, and saw the boards into the correct length and size, and drill the holes needed to mount the rope-making machine.

That afternoon we loaded it and its stand on a wagon and took them to the blacksmith shop to be bolted together. Brother Worth, the blacksmith, was a powerful man with huge arms and shoulders. He loved to sing and could be heard singing Church songs as he heated and hammered iron. He was not singing when I arrived but was loading his tools into a wagon. “I have to go up to the factory to help fix a breakdown, Thad. Leave your things, and I’ll send word when we can work on your stand.”

The water in the irrigation ditch looked cool and inviting as I headed back to the cabinet shop. I knew that the swimming hole would be full of my friends keeping cool and having fun. I wondered if running a rope machine would be the end of having a good time.

“Go join the boys for a swim,” Brother Spencer said when I arrived. “Tomorrow we’ll start learning how to make rope.”

At dinner I told everyone about the Peerless Rope Machine and my new job. Theo jokingly said, “You won’t be able to make a rope good enough to hold up a bed.”

Everyone laughed until Dad said, “That’s enough. Let’s kneel down and have prayer.” How good it was to hear Dad pray that I would become a good rope maker.

That night I dreamed that all the horses in town were tied up with my ropes. They broke the ropes and ran away, and someone was calling me to go find them. But it was just the morning call to get up and do chores.

After breakfast I hurried over to the harness shop. By the side of the shop was bundle after bundle of flax and cotton made into short pieces of twine. The machine was still at the blacksmith shop. Brother Spencer picked up a piece of twine and handed it to me. “What does a spinning wheel do to the fibers to make them into thread or string?”

That I knew. I had watched lots of wool being spun. “It twists all the fibers in the same direction,” I answered.

“Right! Has that been done to the cotton and flax we have here?”

“Yes, but they’ve put so many fibers together that I’d call it twine, not thread or string.”

“You’re observant, Thad. But the pieces of twine are short, just leftover bits. How are you going to make them longer?”

I spoke without thinking. “Just tie them together with a knot.”

“Think again. Would that make a nice smooth rope?”

“How else could I do it?”

“Watch! You untwist each end, then lay them together and twist them back together to make a simple, twisted splice. When it’s pulled tight, it will be almost as strong as any other piece of twine. Let’s try it.”

Brother Spencer made it look easy. I tried and tried, but it took a long time to get mine to go together and stay, Finally I could make a good splice almost every time. It wasn’t long until I had a mixed-up mess of newly spliced twine scattered around me.

When Brother Spencer came out to check on me, he said, “Good work, Thad, but where is the end? Find it and start winding what you have connected together into balls. When you get the machine, you will put the twine on the spools as you splice it.”

Early in the afternoon Brother Spencer sent me back over to the blacksmith shop and said, “If you can’t help there with the machine, go ahead and go swimming.”

I went swimming. The boys asked, “Thad, can you make a rope that we can hang from a tree to swing out over the water?”

“Sure!” I said. “That will be a good place to test the rope to see how strong it is and how well it lasts.”

On my way home I went back by the blacksmith shop, and there was the machine, bolted to its stand.

Brother Worth said, “The next wagon that comes by will take it over to the harness shop.” All the way home I hummed the song I had heard him singing. Tomorrow I would make rope.

We took the rope-making machine from the blacksmith shop the next morning and we put it close to the harness shop door so that I could work outside but move it inside easily at night.

Brother Spencer took a spool off the machine and handed it to me. “Fill it with twine.”

Round and round I wrapped the twine. One ball was soon used and then a second, and the spool wasn’t even half full. “Can I put some on a second spool?” I asked.

“Sure.”

I put two balls on the second spool. Brother Spencer watched me. “Go ahead and try to make a two-strand rope. Can you see which holes to thread it through on the tightener?”

“Yes—the ones marked with a two. There are also three holes marked with threes and four with fours.”

“You’re a smart young man, Thad. Now pull both strands over the take-up roller and tie them to the big take-up spool.”

Following his instructions, I threaded the machine and began turning the handle. At first the twine kept breaking, but we kept resplicing it, making adjustments, and trying again. After several failures, we finally got it right, and I saw real rope emerging on the take-up reel. “It’s working! It’s working!” I kept turning. Just as I got the feel for how it should be done, one of the little feed spools ran out of twine. My first attempt at rope making had ended.

Brother Spencer unwound the finished rope and handed me one end. We stretched it out, and it was at least twelve feet long! We again each grasped an end and pulled against each other. We couldn’t break the rope.

“There you are, Brother Rope Maker,” Brother Spencer said. “For the rest of today, make rope with just two strands. Tomorrow you can make some of three strands, and the next day four. Be sure to save samples so that you can see if you’re getting any better. Take this first piece home to show your family. I’m proud of you, Thad.”

That night I sat a little straighter next to Theo at the dinner table. It felt good.

The next two weeks, I untangled lots of cotton and flax twine, joined it together, and made it into rope. We got a long plank and put it up on saw horses so that I would have a good place to join the ends together. The pile of short pieces of twine got smaller and smaller, and my pile of finished rope got bigger and bigger. On Saturday I loaded what was done into the wheelbarrow and hauled it to the tithing office. There I turned it over to the clerk, who wrote up a receipt that read: “One wheelbarrow load of assorted sizes and lengths of machine-made rope of both cotton and flax. Quality excellent.”

(To be continued)

About the United Order

The Saints in Orderville, Utah, took good care of each other. They produced their own food, their own clothes, their own furniture, and almost everything else they needed. Orderville was named after the United Order, a system of cooperation designed to help prepare the Saints to live the law of consecration and stewardship as revealed to Joseph Smith. Each man in Orderville worked hard at an Order enterprise, and each family received what it needed from Order supplies. More than two hundred LDS towns established united orders in the late 1800s, and no two were exactly alike. Orderville was one of the most successful.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Paul Mann