Know the ropes

Rope-maker has been in the craft since his childhood

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— As a child, Steve Cattoor spent more time on the road than in one spot, thanks to the business his father had chosen.

"Dad had a machine like this, and we traveled through areas making ropes," he said, pointing to a gadget with four hooks on the face and a handle on the back. "We went up and down the coast following the food harvest."

Cattoor's father, Joseph, was a machinist who improved an earlier rope-making device and held patents on it in the 1940s.

Operating out of a trailer and tents, the Cattoor children grew up close to the business as the family traveled across the west supplying ropes to whatever businesses or ranch hands could use them.

"Lariats were made out of polished cotton, and he could make one of the best hard-twist cotton ropes on the market at the time," Cattoor said about his father.

By age 5 or 6, young Steve Cattoor was making ropes himself, as did all of the 14 Cattoor children.

Steve was literally born in a cotton patch in Arizona, he said, and his family lived a nomadic lifestyle, selling ropes from roadside stands before moving to Craig in 1945.

"We would stop at ranches and trade ropes for chickens and eggs," he said. "It was a way to make a living."

The Cattoors sold ropes to fruit growers along the coast to hold down boxes of produce while shipping their products to market, replacing the previously used heavy chains.

Cattoor's father constantly improved the machine, adding a fold-up stand and handle to make the device more portable, and updating the patents as improvements made the machines more efficient.

That portability helps today, as Cattoor demonstrates the rope-making procedure at different events around the valley.

He can sometimes be found at the Sombrero horse roundup in Maybell, or at Grand Olde West Days or Art Walk demonstrating the way ropes were made in the past.

The procedure is a fairly quick one, thanks to the machine that had been improved throughout the years by his father.

"Today, I use a poly-string or baling twine to make ropes," Cattoor said. "Back then, they were made from hemp, and that became hard to find during the war."

For longer ropes, an electric motor and pulley are added to the machine replacing the hand crank, although "it's more fun for the demonstrations to do it by hand," Cattoor said.

When twisting long strands into rope, the machine inches forward as the rope comes tight.

A finished rope will be about 20 percent shorter than the length of the strands, due to the twisting process.

Cattoor's dad could make a 100-foot rope in 10 minutes using the electric motor, Steve said, using a pull cord to stop the motor while making adjustments.

A swivel attached to a wall or truck is used on the rope's end opposite the machine, and the strands are twisted into rope beginning at the swivel end, and moving toward the machine.

A wooden block keeps the strands separated until it's time to twist them into a rope, with a second person holding the block and walking toward the machine as the rope is twisted behind them.

Spreaders are used on long ropes to keep strands from tangling, something that happens occasionally with polypropylene strands and frequently with baler twine.

Although appearing quite complicated to a casual bystander, Cattoor makes it look easy, quickly wrapping the strands around the hooks with speed only experience can account for, placing them in the correct position so the strands are unwinding as they are twisted into rope.

More weight is added to the machine's base for longer ropes to prevent it from being pulled over by the weight of the material being twisted.

The lifestyle of the Cattoor family had the children being born in different locations around the west.

One brother and sister in California. Another sister in Grand Junction and Steve in Arizona.

Cattoor never had a birth certificate until the military required one when he joined at age 18.

"I moved around until I was a freshman in high school," he said. "Mom had enough (of moving) by then, so I stayed with her in Craig."

In about the late 1940s, automated machines took over rope making, and factories now produce miles of the product out of nylon.

Cattoor, however, remains faithful to the traditional way of producing his ropes.

Hand-cranking the twine together whenever possible and always avoiding nylon.

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