Some serious outdoor carpentry this fall quickly proved, again, the enormous amount of woodworking skills I did not acquire on the southern Illinois dairy farm of my youth.
It’s easy to peg the origins of this deficiency: Working with wood on our farm usually meant picking up the remains of a gate or fence that failed to withstand the tractor-driving habits of a hired man or older brother.
Truth be told, two events dominated our farm woodcraft. The first was a firewood-making session in some distant pasture after a summer storm toppled a century-old pecan tree. The massive job required my father operating a balky chainsaw, the hired men hand-splitting the pieces with axes, and my brothers and me toting the straight-grained wedges to a wagon for hauling.
The pecan, when seasoned, warmed the home of two hired men, brothers Howard and Jackie, who lived with their mother, Clara, and younger brother, Orlie, in a two-story house supplied by the farm. Howard, the oldest brother, was a maestro of the wood stove; he could make the family’s Warm Morning stove radiate heat like the summer sun.
A good sense of smell revealed his trick — a shovelful of southern Illinois coal on top of a bed of pecan embers turned the home’s parlor into a Florida beach. Well, a Florida beach where someone was always frying pork.
The remaining trunk of the fallen tree was hauled to a neighboring sawyer who cut it into piles of heavy, five-quarter two-by-sixes. The nearly indestructible boards went into fences around the dairy barn.
The year’s other wood-centered event was gathering the remnants of once-working fences, gates and other implements to heat three butchering kettles each February. That we had enough splintered kindling to keep three kettles bubbling with either water, lard or head cheese for two days was grim testament to our farm crew’s destructive ability.
Yet our collective wood skills weren’t all destructive; sometimes they were constructive. For example, in the late-1950s or early 60s, I recall my mother’s father, a talented woodworker by trade, helping my father build a 40-by-60 foot or so loafing shed for the farm’s dry cows. It stands still, strong and square.
We built other farm items from wood, too, like all our hay wagon beds and the boxes of our first silage wagons. Each was constructed by my father under the big maple tree next to our house from various stacks of knotty yellow pine.
Dad’s carpentry tools were few — a set sawbucks, folding ruler, hammer, square, good handsaw, nail apron and an electric circular saw — but, miraculously, a couple of days of measuring, sawing and hammering always yielded a wagon of some sort. Wow.
Good as my father was as a wagon builder, my mother’s father was a true craftsman. So talented was he that a farming life gave way to a career in carpentry, then to furniture building, then to pure art.
Self-taught, Grandpa spent long, quiet days in his basement shop shaping, sanding and gluing together tables, chairs and, on occasion, church lecterns and pulpits. This small man of big ability, however, died young and most of what I remember of him and that basement is the earthy mixture of red oak and his sweat as he made another dining room chair or rocking chair that my grandmother later upholstered or caned.
My mother prizes one his rockers and still treasures a small box of his favorite hand tools. I, however, have none of his tools or talent. I do have a piece of furniture he and Grandma collaborated on and its tight tenons and walnut glow hold secrets I long to know and likely never will.