Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

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James LeCroix

Catahoula Parish

James LeCroix is one of the few hunting horn makers practicing the traditional craft in Louisiana.

"Horns and Dogs Just Go Together": James LeCroix's Revival of the Hunting Horn Making

By Marcy Frantom


Hunting horns are making a comeback in rural Louisiana Delta game hunting clubs for their effectiveness in handling hunting dogs and as folk art objects of beauty. They were formerly used to call dogs or send important messages to neighbors. James LeCroix, a pre-veterinarian college major turned carpenter, is one of the few hunting horn makers practicing the traditional craft in Louisiana. This Harrisonburg resident, born in 1954, learned how to make hunting horns by asking advice from local old-timers and experimenting with new materials when need be. His desire to preserve the tradition is fueled by his love of hunting with dogs; they seem to "naturally respond to the horn," he says.

Hunting horns came from the European, particularly English, sports hunting tradition. However, more often than not, American settlers used horns hunting with dogs for wild game to supplement their diets or sell the pelts. According to an 1890 sports hunting publication, different types of animal horns were once used to indicate to the dog pack which type of game they were to seek (Trigg 62); but today dogs are trained to hunt only one type of game. Hunting dogs are specially trained to handle cattle, hogs, coons, birds, fox, and coyote.

Hunting horns made by James LeCroix. Photo: Marcy Frantom.

James LeCroix says rabbit hunters use hunting horns more than most other dog sports hunters today. Beagles are the breed of choice; the sporting events are called trials and held in open fields and woodlands. Clubs are AKC-affiliated and use full-bred beagles divided into classes by sex and size. He believes these trials are closer to traditional sports hunting than events using pens or enclosures because the beagles must use their intelligence and skills to find and track down rabbits rather than pens where prey is trapped in confined areas. LeCroix and his friends use hunting horns at beagle field trials in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama. Hunting with beagles got him interested in learning how to make horns since traditionally hunters made their own; however, he is able to sell his handmade hunting horns at the trials, as well.

In pioneer days, "blowing horns" made of cow, bull or goat horn were used to alert neighbors of family emergencies, to call workers home from the field, or to signal community hunting expeditions (Sandel 25). LeCroix relates stories he's heard on the subject:

I know I've heard some of the older fellows—we sit around talking about hunting horns or something—and they say that when they were children and their dads would be off hog hunting or moving cattle and be gone for a day or two, they would be in the yard playing and hear their horns way off and run in the house and tell their mothers 'Daddy's coming home!'

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I know I've heard . . .

LeCroix notes that while the use of horns in sports hunting survives in Catahoula Parish, the signaling and communication function of horns has been replaced here, as elsewhere in the South, by modern technology.

James LeCroix has crafted hundreds of hunting horns since he began in 1991. At first, he made a great quantity of them, but now works more slowly to concentrate on quality. He sometimes experiments for fun: he made a horn from a Texas long horn that sounds like a tuba and fashioned a tiny horn with a deer horn mouthpiece as a gift for an exchange student's mother. He employed the offset mouthpiece design used on goat hunting horns to make an extra curly cow horn "work." Once a friend asked LeCroix to put a mouthpiece on a carved water buffalo horn and he fell in love with its dragon scale design—he may try carving illustrations on horns in the future.

Raw cow, bull, or goat horns are available from local farmers who raise cattle. Yearlings are dehorned in the fall and the farmers save the horns, throw them in a gunny sack, and hang them from the barn rafters to dry. LeCroix says older cattlemen often save horns "not even knowing whether anyone is going to use them or not," but young cattlemen often do not save the horns.

Working with little more than a selection of wood rasps, pocket knives, and sand paper, LeCroix fashions the hunting horns he often gives to children or avid hunters. The only power tool he uses is an electric drill to cut the hole the air passes through to make the horn sound. It takes him about a month to complete one horn. He could finish them faster, he says, if he worked on one horn straight through, but usually has several going at once, since he makes them in his spare time.

These are the steps LeCroix generally follows making a hunting horn from a cow horn. First, he lets the horn dry until the insides turn to dust and can be shaken out (people also boil them to speed up the process). Then he runs a metal clothes hanger inside to see what the depth is and marks it on the horn. He saws off the pointed end of the horn about 1-1/2" closer to the tip from this mark. This tip will form the natural horn mouthpiece. Next, a 3/8" drill bit is used to drill out the body of the horn and the sawn-off tip. He makes a cut 1/2" back from the cut end on the body to form a lip. This cut makes a clean stopping place for his knife as he thins the body of the horn down to make the finished hunting horn resonate properly. A small round rasp makes this cut edge smooth so the horn body now has a lip similar to that of old fashioned Coke bottles. Now, he works on the sawn-off tip, beveling the flared end to fit smoothly with the narrow end of the body of the horn and epoxies it in place. Finally, cracks or mistakes are also epoxied and sanded smooth. LeCroix notes that goat horns are harder to work and fewer horns are available, but are worked in much the same way except that the mouthpiece is offset to one side. He has heard that boiling goat horns makes them easier to work.

Sometimes, LeCroix is given horns that have been "nubbed," that is, the tips have been cut off to keep the cattle from hurting one another. This presents a special problem, because LeCroix can not make the mouthpiece out of the tip, as he usually does :

One thing that hinders me or stretches my horns out [takes more time to complete them] is that the cattlemen nub the horns off making it blunt. When I get a hold of that horn, I don't have anything to make the mouthpiece out of. I've made them out of screwdriver handles or wood—anything I can carve. But that's my biggest problem is trying to find something to make the mouthpiece out of.

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One thing that hinders me

He then carves pieces of heart cedar or buys clear screwdriver handles to form the mouthpieces. Such mouthpieces generally are not tapered and the horn body has no lip—they are just mounted flush with the horn body.

A great deal of the enjoyment derived from hunting with dogs is the pleasure of listening to the various "voices" in the pack (Frantom 2), but hunters also love the sound and beauty of their hunting horns. James LeCroix says that a "good" horn should be easy to blow and look attractive. Different colors of horn material "work" differently and affect how much the horn can be thinned for proper sound. Some people prefer a "coarse" low-pitched horn and other prefer a "fine trill" high-pitched horn, he says. The sound has to do with the length and opening size at the flared end of the horn, and, he states, one can't tell exactly how a horn will sound until it is made. A good horn has "ring and carry," which means that it can be heard at a great distance. Of equal importance, particularly to older hunters, is an easy horn to blow. To help with this problem, LeCroix standardizes the size of the mouthpiece with his drill bit. Some people have a preference for the right horn of an animal because it's supposed to make a better horn. There's one more thing a good hunting horn should have: "Most people who buy my horns or want me to give them one seem to want one that's pretty." He accommodates them by producing horns with gleaming finishes.

Although not as frequently used as they once were, hunting horns in North Louisiana seem to be again growing in popularity for sports hunters with dogs. James LeCroix happily serves this tradition by listening closely to the advice of old-timers who still prizing hunting horns. Whether they make or buy them, these men would agree with James LeCroix: "Horns and dogs just go together."

Works Cited

Frantom, Marcy. Moses Poole on Pen Hunting in Catahoula Parish: "You've Got to Know Your Dog's Mouth". Northeast Louisiana Delta Folklife Project, 2012. Web. .

LeCroix, James. Interview by Marcy Frantom. 4 Jan. 1994.

Sandel, Luther. The Free State of Sabine and Western Louisiana. Many, LA: Jet Publications, 1982. Print.

Trigg, Haiden C. The American Fox-Hound. Privately printed (1890). Reprinted in The Hunter's Horn Jan. 1978. Print.

Marcy Frantom has an M. A. in English, Folklore Track from Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. An historic preservation contractor, Frantom helps conserve French Creole architecture in the Cane River National Heritage Area. This article was written as part of the Delta Folklife Project in 1994 and revised in 2012 for publication of Northeast Louisiana's Delta.