When we travel, I look for people or places I can turn into a story. One summer, we pulled into an RV park in Lebanon, Tennessee. Our plans? To attend a granddaughter’s marching band competition. However, I looked out our window and spotted a cargo trailer behind a motorhome. When I investigated, I discovered Bill Mains seated at his work bench in the trailer, engraving the grip cap for a rifle. After introducing myself, I asked if I could return and interview him as a Workamper who took his business on the road. Bill happened to be parked in that particular spot because, he, too, was visiting a daughter and her children who lived in Mount Juliet, Tennessee. This past week, his daughter notified Workamper News that her dad had passed away. She remembered the feature I wrote about the lucrative business Bill Mains conducted on the road from his motorhome. I honor Bill Mains’ life and his genius in taking what he knew best – jewelry engraving – and incorporating it into the RVing lifestyle.
Growing up in the Everglades west of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Bill Mains found his calling at age 16 and he never looked back. After apprenticing as a goldsmith and a watchmaker before the age of 18, he listened to people in the jewelry trade speak reverently about two hand engravers – Mr. Miller and Mr. Dongees. That’s what I want to be, he said.
Following high school graduation, he swallowed his fear and hopped a Greyhound bus to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, carrying $500 borrowed from the Fort Lauderdale Ladies’ Aid Society in his pocket. I enrolled at Bowman Technical School, one of only two schools for hand jewelry engraving in the United States, found a job at a gas station, and a place to live, he recalled. I set a record by finishing the school’s eight-month self-advancement course in two and a half months. I had no money, so I had to get going!
At the height of the Cold War, Bill was drafted into the Strategic Air Command of the United States Air Force. I had learned to engrave jewelry and never thought about anyone wanting a gun engraved. But in the Air Force, I discovered that weapon engraving goes back thousands of years, he told me. Mains’ most valuable possessions were always his weapons of defense, and I understand that 3,000 years ago, the Chinese engraved their swords and shields.
As ironic as it sounds, the recent recession increased Bill’s workload. People keep shoving guns and money at me, he continued with a laugh. It’s been that way in every recession in the last half century. Gun owners with money are not going to invest in the stock market. But they will upgrade a gun.
Bill Mains had a world-wide reputation for quality in custom gun and accessory engraving solutions of all scales. One of the last of the old school American Hand Engraving Artists, he used only hammers and chisels at a workbench in his mobile workshop pulled behind his motorhome. When he moved from one skeet or sport shooting event to another, his workbench rolled to the back of the trailer, and his Toyota went inside.
Bill created artistic hand engravings. His partner, who maintains their brick and mortar shop in Indiana, did the inscriptions or names engraved on a gun. In their Indiana shop, they also manufacture sterling silver buckles and money clips, and trophies for the shotgun tournaments. At his Indiana shop, Bill pulled in occasionally for a month or so and plugged in outside the building.
In 1959, after his discharge from the Air Force, he invented the rotary foot wheel engraving bench, a device, resembling a potter’s wheel with a lathe chuck on top. His invention enabled him to be one of the fastest engravers in the world.
Prior to living full-time on the road, Bill engraved from 1967 to 1972 for Colt’s Manufacturing Company, gaining the distinction of engraving more second generation Single Action Army revolvers than anyone else. The company frowned on signing engravings; yet, because Bill worked on contract out of Buffalo, New York, most of his factory engraved colts are stamped with a small buffalo under the cylinder pin. Among other gun manufacturers, Bill contracted work for the Ithaca Gun Company, engraving all of their single barreled trap guns, and many others, during the last eleven years of their production.
He and his partner continued to engrave over 100 guns annually for the newly organized Ithaca Gun Company. Several years ago, Bill designed the prototype for their 28-guage pump gun, which is a bird gun. After he did the engraving, he digitized all the work and e-mailed it to his partner who would pre-cut the design on a computerized machine, saving Bill two-thirds of his time in labor. Working together, the partners finished the guns.
After living and working many years in New York, Bill set up shop in Las Vegas for 27 years. He engraved jewelry and other pieces for numerous celebrities including Elvis Presley, Liberace, and Liberace’s brother, George, Shirley MacLaine, Wayne Newton, George Foreman, Buddy Hackett, Frank and Barbara Sinatra, and Stephen Spielberg, to name a few.
Following a divorce, Bill moved full-time into his Airstream, converting the trailer into his workshop and home. About the same time, he discovered a money-making market for his work at competitive trap, skeet shooting, and sporting clay events. For several years, his aging mother traveled with him. He laughingly said he had to put down his foot – no, she could not pack her china and he put a dishpan in the sink and instructed that every drop of water had to go outside. His 25-gallon holding tanks would otherwise fill in a day.
For over three decades, Bill traveled approximately 6,000 miles each year, following the typical pattern of full-time RVers, north in the summer and south in the winter. For two and a half years, he searched the Internet for a 30-foot motorhome with guts. He noted that vendor spaces for most events accommodate smaller rigs. He eventually found his Beaver coach with a Caterpillar engine that did not even know a trailer-workshop with a car inside was hitched behind. Inside his motorhome, he carried two computers – one totally assigned to graphic art, the other dedicated to broadband Sprint Internet. He produced his own catalogs and brochures, and often intricate designs and plans for his engravings. One chair had to go to make room for his large laser printer and its cabinet; otherwise, his office space fit on the dinette. He said a 30-foot rig was comfortable for him with adequate closet space. He added that he did not collect things and he used throw-away dishes.
Over the past 30 years, Bill basically lived at gun clubs, booking his vendor space at trap, skeet, and sporting clay shoots six months to a year in advance. Some shoots lasted three days; others, 10 or 12 days. He generally arrived a day or two early and stayed a couple of days after the event. His schedule typically ran: San Antonio during October and November; Florida from December through March; Nashville in April; and Pennsylvania and Ohio in May and June.
Bill completed much of his work at gun clubs, handing the finished engraving back to the client right on the spot. However, he received phone calls and e-mails requesting his services from all over the English-speaking world. Some orders came from England, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia. Bill carried a month’s worth of work in his mobile shop at all times. He ordered supplies and shipments of materials to arrive at various addresses of gun clubs on his circuit. For example, he never knew if he would need sheets of gold or gold wire, so he ordered casting grain, and melted down the little gold nuggets to make what he needed.
Taking his business on the road suited Bill Mains. He earned a good living doing what he loved best. As a bonus, he met thousands of interesting people in the shotgun sports. At the shoots, they are just Pete, John, and Joe, he said. But most are professionals, federal judges, dentists, doctors, entertainers, or corporate owners, because it takes money to play the game.
He admitted that he did not miss mowing grass or patching roofs. He stayed busy with a creative profession, and when he chose to visit his daughters, one in Tennessee and one in New Mexico, he took his home and his workshop along.
The world of gun collectors and sportsmen will miss Bill Mains, a skilled craftsman in the dying art of hand engraving. The RVing community also mourns the loss of a resourceful man who lived life to its fullest traveling while working. He was a Workamper Extraordinaire who engraved his own niche along the RVing roads.
Bill Mains’ funeral was at 11 a.m. Friday, January 25, 2013 at the National Cemetery in Madison, Tennessee. The United States Air Force honored him with the flag presentation and taps.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com