Laura Dean Bennett
Once upon a time, old men sat on porches and in front of barbershops and gas stations, practicing the art of whittling with their ubiquitous pocket knives.
And little boys dreamed of the day they would be old enough to be trusted with a whittling knife of their own.
You don’t see much whittling being done anymore, in fact, some might say it’s a dying art.
But there are still some who revere their memories of it – and have tried their hand at it, as well.
“Yeah, Dad whittled all his life,” Gene Walker said as he spread out a collection of his wooden treasures.
Ezra “Gene” Walker, of Hillsboro, known for his world-renowned Plott Hounds, is a chip off the old block.
His dad, Ed – also Ezra – Walker, was a whittler, and Gene’s got the woodworking bug, too.
“Dad whittled a lot,” Gene said. “Back in the 30s, he worked as a teamster up on Cheat Mountain. He had a team of horses, and he brought logs down the mountain.
“Those guys had to be rugged. They’d live in those logging camps and they’d stay up there for weeks or months.
“I guess from boredom, or just something to do, they’d sometimes be sitting around whittling.
“One winter, he lost a finger on his right hand from frostbite.
“But losing that finger didn’t hold him back. He could still whittle – no problem.
“He made us kids some toys – and see these snakes?” Walker said, as he showed a realistic looking snake fashioned from of a crooked piece of laurel.
“Dad liked teasing my wife, Ann. She’s scared of snakes, and Dad made these snakes as a joke for her.
“He also made some trout, and once he made a cane with a carved horse’s hoof on the bottom.
‘My brother, Vernon, lives in Craigsville, and he has some other pieces that Dad whittled.
“I remember in later years, at the homeplace at Bruffey’s Creek, Dad would be sitting on the front porch of an evening whittling. He used a four-bladed pocket knife.
“Dad died at 89, and he whittled right up until the end.
“I used to call him Dad or Daddy, depending if I wanted something,” he laughed. “If I wanted a quarter to go to town (Hillsboro), I’d call him Daddy.
“Sometimes I’d get it but, not very often – times were really tough. There were eleven of us and Dad didn’t have much time to do anything except work.
“He farmed and logged. We raised beef cattle, sheep, made maple syrup, did anything to make a dollar,” he recalled.
“But I remember him sometimes on the porch, whittling – with a big chew of tobacco.”
His dad’s whittling might have inspired Walker’s love of woodworking.
“Dad did his whittling out of poplar, pine or laurel twigs,” Walker said. “I like to use sumac when I’m woodworking. I like the grain in it.”
Walker started carving when he retired from the Department of Agriculture several years back.
Walker’s woodworking leans toward the utilitarian – wooden spoons, bread knives, forks, rolling pins and meat tenderizers.
It’s not hard to tell which of his Dad’s whittled masterpieces is his favorite.
Walker extends a long wooden chain with large, precisely hewn links.
“See this wooden chain?” he asked. “Dad made this from either poplar or pine.
“Now that takes some skill,” Walker said proudly.
Linda Adams, who works at the Pocahontas County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said her dad, Bill Adams, was a cowboy, a cement finisher and a whittler.
“I was born in Arkansas, but we moved to Idaho when I was in the second grade and then to Huntersville when I was in eleventh grade.
“My dad always had a pocket knife in his pocket.
“He whittled a lot. He once made a beautiful walking stick and carved the name “Dworshak” in it – for the Dworshak Dam in Ahsahka, Idaho, where he worked.”
Del Cohrs, who, with his wife, Laronia, lives on Route 92, grew up whittling in southwestern Minnesota.
“In the late 40s, when I was a kid, we whittled all the time,” he recalled. “We used plain, old fashioned jack knives.
“I was probably ten years old when my older brother, Darwin, taught me to whittle whistles out of dried up corn stalks. They’re hollow, like bamboo.
“We also whittled corn cob pipes.
“We’d cut the corn cob in half and whittle out the soft material inside, then poke a hole through one end and use a small corn stalk as a stem.
“We’d use them to smoke corn silk or dried up leaves,” he chuckled, as he remembered those days.
“I was probably younger than that when we were whittling plugs. We’d take a branch about an inch wide and shape it into a plug.
“I don’t remember what we were making them for, but I remember making them.
“And we’d take a pine stick and whittle it down just a little bit in the middle until it spread out.
“They’d be real good for fire starters in the wood stove or the fireplace,” he said.
Of course, with whittling, comes the danger of injury.
“We were always cutting ourselves,” Cohrs admitted.
“One of us would run to Mom and holler that the other one had cut himself.
“She’d say ‘Are there any arterial spurts? If not, suck it up, Buttercup!’’’
Whittling, and learning the hard way, may run in the Cohrs family.
“Laronia and I have hosted our grandsons during the summers over the years.
“One summer, our daughter, Elizabeth, brought her son, Dylan, to spend a few weeks.
“It must have been during Pioneer Days, because they’d stopped downtown at the flea market, and she’d bought him a little pocket knife.
“Well, Elizabeth left him with us at the house, and she hadn’t been gone an hour when here he came – he’d cut himself pretty badly with that knife.
“We took him to the hospital, and he got three or four stitches.
“When they asked if we wanted them to call his mother and tell her about it, we said, ‘No, no, that’s okay. We’ll tell her.’”
Del laughed at the memory of having to tell his daughter that they’d only had her son an hour and he’d already hurt himself with that knife.
“Experience is usually the best teacher,” he mused.
“I don’t know why kids don’t whittle anymore.
“It’s a shame.
“Maybe they’re too busy on their screens.”
Gary Sharp remembers whittling for a merit badge at Boy Scout camp.
“One summer we whittled neckerchief slides,” he recalled.
Kenneth Ervine has amassed an impressive collection of his own beautiful wooden creations over the years. They sit on bookshelves and decorate the walls of his home on Beard Heights.
“I don’t know if he inspired me or not, I was just a youngster when my Uncle Clifford Ervine gave me the first handmade wooden piece I ever had,” Ervine said.
“I was about six or seven when Uncle Clifford came down to visit from his home in Catskill, New York, and he whittled those pistols for us – one for me and one for my brother, Don.
“He was a soldier in World War I, and he’d been gassed and lost most of his eyesight.
“But he could still see a little – enough to still whittle pretty well,” Ervine explained.
“I wish I could show that pistol to you, but it’s been lost for many years now.
“We were playing at my grandparents’ house in Marlinton, where they lived with my maiden aunt, Anna Lee. It’s Mike Doss’ office now.
“I dropped my pistol in the boxwood in the front yard, and I don’t remember ever seeing it again.”
Ervine’s passion for woodworking is obvious.
“But there’s a big difference between carving and whittling,” Ervine stated.
As it’s been explained to me, whittling is done with a knife, carving involves many kinds of specialized knives and tools, and sometimes power tools.
“I’ve been carving wood for a long time,” Ervine continued.
When Ervine was in the army in Warrenton, Virginia, there was a little hobby shop across the road from the barracks.
“I got to be such a nuisance there that they finally gave me a key and sometimes I’d work all night carving on something in there.”
In his collection of hand-carved figures, there is what looks like a real peach pit.
“Well, here’s something I did whittle,” he admits.
“This little peach seed is the first thing I made for my wife, Joan.
“I made it with a little folding knife.”
“He made that for me the year before we were married,” Joan said fondly. “It was an engagement present,” she added, as the little peach seed was put back in its place of honor on the shelf.
I guess it must have done the trick – Kenneth and Joan have been married for 63 years.
Mike Holstine, Business Manager at the Green Bank Observatory, also likes to whittle.
“My grandfather whittled a bit, and I’ve always carried a pocket knife, like everyone I know, so the tools were always available.
“I’ve whittled for a long time, but nothing that approached a real “carving,” Holstine said.
“I certainly didn’t know if I could do a real carving but I wanted to try.
“Now I don’t want to stop,” he said with a laugh.
“I’m learning techniques when I can in my spare time, and hope to continue to try different things.
“My real interest peaked in seeing what other people have done, and finally having some time to spend at it is a help.
“I think whittling is a lost art, not because it is not being done necessarily, but because there hasn’t been much interest in it from the public or it’s just been taken a bit for granted,” Holstine theorized.
“I would love to see whittling come back more into the forefront in the county.
“I think the whittled carvings are simple, yet beautiful, and they just make me feel good,” he added.
“We always walk by the booths at our festivals and see these beautiful carvings or walking sticks and think there’s no way we can do that because we don’t know how they are done.
“But, really, we’re blessed with wood and talent all around the county and just need to take some time to play with it.”