Billings man teaches history through beads

2014-06-21T00:00:00Z Billings man teaches history through beadsBy SEAN PLEMMONS splemmons@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Steve McCracken is a history teacher of sorts.

He gives presentations and shows diagrams. He talks about old trade routes and the Silk Road. He covers topics that range from ancient Roman times to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The material is pretty hands-on as well, because McCracken views history through the beads.

As part of the 2014 summer program at Chief Plenty Coups State Park, McCracken gave a lesson about the history and origin of early trade beads Friday afternoon.

He showed off his collection of ancient beads made of shells, bone and glass. McCracken said the old beads have a unique history.

“It was so labor intensive to make the beads in the past,” McCracken said. “For some of the glass beads, each individual layer had to be poured separately. It took a lot of time to make those beads.”

McCracken has been interested in beads since he was young. When he was growing up, McCracken hunted for artifacts. He started to make arrowheads and moved to carving and then on to jewelry with old beads. He now makes all of his own jewelry to sell while he shows off his personal bead collection, which is not for sale.

“All of these beads are artifacts,” McCracken said. “The ones that were found buried will never be circulated or sold.”

McCracken said a majority of of his beads originally came out of Venice, Italy, some more than 500 years old. His other beads have come from Africa and ancient Rome. The Roman beads date back to the 1200s.

Part of his collection is also made from shell and bone. Some of the early Native American pieces in McCracken’s collection are carved out of elk teeth. McCracken said the detail in some of the beads will likely never be repeated.

“There are some Czech and Chinese plants still making beads,” McCracken said. “But all of the old beads were made by hand. The detail is precise.”

Some of the more important beads in McCracken’s collection are chevron beads. McCracken said some Native Americans used to carry around a chevron bead in case they needed to buy a horse because the bead was worth so much.

A large part of McCracken’s collection is a result of the fur trade from the 18th and 19th centuries.

McCracken makes custom jewelry for clients and sells beads whenever he goes to an event like the program at Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Three state parks and other locations also sell his jewelry. He makes necklaces, earrings, bracelets and other silverwork.

McCracken wants to conduct his business the traditional way.

“I don’t have a website and I am not on the Internet,” McCracken said. “If people want to buy my jewelry, they can do it in person. I like to do things the old-fashioned way.”

The bead history talk is just one event this summer at Chief Plenty Coups State Park. Park manager Chris Dantic said the park will put on free programming every Friday for the rest of the summer.

“We didn’t do much programming in the past, so now we decided to bring in more events,” Dantic said.

Chief Plenty Coups State Park is often overlooked by the public, Dantic said. But now with the addition of signs on the interstate, telling motorists where to go, Dantic hopes the park can get more attention.

“Some people come in and don’t even know there was a state park here,” Dantic said. “Hopefully the signs and the programming will get more people out here and give a bit more exposure to the park.”

McCracken said he plans to continue making jewelry and teaching about the history of beads as long as he can. He taught his kids about beads and his granddaughter is into making jewelry.

“These beads used to be used as money,” McCracken said. “Many are so intricate. They are part of our history and I don’t want their history to fall by the wayside.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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