History
3:03 pm
Wed December 7, 2011

A Birds-Eye History Of Walking On Stilts

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:12 am

A couple of years ago, NPR's Robert Siegel had a 5-year-old kid moment.

He was in the new wing of a hospital watching a workman put up drywall and, as drywall installers are wont to do, the workman reached the top of the wall by walking on stilts.

The 5-year-old inside the radio host was suddenly enchanted by the thought of stilts, so Siegel set out to learn more; first through Google, then from Joe Bowen, who walked more than 3,000 miles across the country on stilts in 1980.

"There's magic in stilts," Bowen says. "You get up 2 or 3 feet higher than anyone else. It becomes magic."

Bowen says stilt walking has been around for a long time — and people are still doing it. He makes stilts available on his Kentucky farm for local kids to use.

"There [are] probably 20 or 30 neighbor kids that walk on stilts to this day with me," he says.

According to Colorado stilt walker Bill Coleman, aka "Stretch" the 9-foot clown, stilt walking also has many practical applications (on top of the drywall).

"There [are] so many reasons to use stilts," Coleman says, "whether it's marshy or swampy ground, or for agricultural uses — stringing hops or picking fruit or pruning the trees."

Not too long ago, shepherds in the Gascony area of southwestern France used stilts to oversee their flocks. And fishermen in Sri Lanka still use stilts to perch above the surf.

For The Fun Of It

Naturally, stilts also have nonutilitarian uses, especially among entertainers. But there's one nonutilitarian use that many likely haven't heard of.

On Thursday, in the city of Namur, Belgium, two teams of locals dressed in red suits with white trim are set to vie for the Golden Stilt, the highest honor in the sport of stilt jousting. (So far as we know, it is also the only honor in the sport of stilt jousting.)

One team, the Melans, walk on stilts with black and yellow stripes while the other, the Avresses, use stilts with red and white stripes. The jousters use their stilts to swipe at their opponents' stilts in order to trip them up or knock them down. When only one team is left, the competition comes down to the individual, and the last man standing wins the Golden Stilt.

According to Bertrand Patris, financial director of the Stilt Walkers of Namur, this year's competition also marks the 600th anniversary of stilt jousting in the city.

"We have a document here in the archives of the city which is from December of 1411," Patris says. "It's a document where the count of Namur has decided that it was forbidden to use stilts in the city — and not only to use stilts, but to fight on stilts."

So the people of Namur figure there had to be stilt jousting before that for it to be banned. And indeed, there are tales of teams of a thousand each competing in the city's central square.

Patris won't speculate as to why the stilt walkers of Namur started jousting, but he does say that people tend to make games of everyday objects. And since the many rivers around Namur are prone to flooding, walking on stilts, he says, was common.

And that's what makes stilts so amusing.

In the evolution of transportation, their minimal survival is a tribute to their inherent unfitness. Stilts are a reminder that, in addition to inventing the wheel, taming the horse and engineering the bicycle, human beings have also come up with some truly bizarre means of transportation; and after all these centuries, those inventions are still good for a laugh — and, perhaps, some magic.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A couple of years ago, I had one of those five year old kid moments. It was in a hospital where there were some very grown-up stories to do about health care costs and unemployment. But in a new wing of the hospital, a workman was putting up drywall and, as drywall installers are wont to do, he reached the top of the wall with his screwdriver by walking on stilts.

Enter the five-year-old boy who hides inside the soul of so many adult men like me. The thought of stilts was simply wonderful and when I reminded my producer colleague of that moment, he, too, seemed to recall the industrial stilt walker as vividly as I did. Our conversation led, as most of my conversations this century lead, to Google and to people like Joe Bowen.

JOE BOWEN: There's magic in stilts. You get up two or three feet higher than anyone else. It becomes magic.

SIEGEL: Mr. Bowen walked over 3,000 miles across the country on stilts for muscular dystrophy. He says stilt walking has been going on forever and it's still going on.

BOWEN: I live on a small farm in eastern Kentucky and there's probably 20 or 30 neighbor kids that walk on stilts to this day with me. And I keep stilts and I've got a horse barn and there's 10 or 15 sets of stilts there and the kids - they know that they're welcome to use them and they come into the barn and use the stilts.

SIEGEL: Modern day stilt walking is mostly for entertainment, but not entirely. Not too long ago, French shepherds in Gascony were photographed on stilts overseeing their flocks. And Colorado stilt walker, Bill Stretch Coleman, aka Stretch the Nine Foot Clown, says there are still practical applications that don't involve drywall.

BILL COLEMAN: There are so many reasons to use stilts, whether it's marshy or swampy ground or for agricultural uses, stringing hops or picking fruit or pruning the trees.

SIEGEL: And to Bill Coleman's list, you can add the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka perched high above the surf. So far, those are the utilitarian uses of stilts that I've found, but there is something much better, historic and completely un-utilitarian that's actually scheduled to happen this week that involves stilts.

Tomorrow, in the city of Namur in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium, two teams of locals dressed in red suits with white trim are set to vie for the Golden Stilt, the highest honor in the sport of stilt jousting. So far as I know, it is the only honor in the sport of stilt jousting.

They do it in Namur every year. One team called the Melans have stilts with black and yellow stripes. The other, the Avresses, have stilts with red and white stripes. One team, according to local theory, is named for an old bar. The name of the other team makes no sense at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

SIEGEL: With their own stilts, the jousters swipe at their opponent's stilts to trip them up or knock them down. When only one team is standing, the competition turns individual and the last man of Namur standing wins the Golden Stilt.

As Bertrand Patris told me - and he is the financial director of the Stilt Walkers of Namur - tomorrow, they mark 600 years of stilt jousting in the city.

BERTRAND PATRIS: We have a document here in the archives of the city, which is from December 1411, and it's a document where the Count of Namur has decided that it was forbidden to use stilts in the city and, not only to use stilts, but to fight on stilts.

SIEGEL: So the people of this Belgian city figure there had to be stilt jousting before that for it to be banned and, indeed, there are tales of teams of 1,000 competing in the city's central square. Well, Bertrand Patris says the red costumes are modeled on what 17th century stilt fighters wore before things got less formal.

PATRIS: We have a lot of paintings from the 18th century and they're very clear that there was no special costume for the fighters.

SIEGEL: Do you think that it just happens that Namur is the rare stilt fighting city for whom documents survived or is this something unique to your town?

PATRIS: What is unique to our town is the tradition of fighting. They were using stilts because we have a lot of freighters here around the city, but why, as they began to fight, honestly, we don't know.

SIEGEL: Monsieur Patris observed to me that people tend to make games of the things they use and, since the river is often flooded around Namur, walking on stilts, he says, was common, which is what makes stilts so amusing. In the evolution of transportation, their minimal survival is a tribute to their inherent unfitness. They are a reminder that, in addition to all those bright ideas - inventing the wheel, taming the horse, engineering the bicycle, human beings have come up with some truly bizarre means of transportation, too, which after all these centuries, are still good for a laugh and perhaps some magic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.