By Anita Zellar
When you're ten years old a twig whistle makes a warm spring day a perfect spring day. Where I grew up poplar was the wood of choice but willow can work equally as well . Whistle making is strictly a springtime task because you need a good deal of sap under the bark to make the project possible. Other than the sap, all you will need is a jack knife, some simple instructions, and the eager face of a child looking on. Suddenly you have become part musician, part magician, and all child once again.
Working with wood can be as simple as whittling toys for children or as intricate and artistic as carving the altar screens for a cathedral. Hobbyists, craftsmen, and artist all find satisfaction in shaping the warmth and beauty of wood into the forms of their imaginations. Although the terms whittling and carving are often used interchangeably, there is a technical difference. "Whittling" describes the shaping of wood using only a knife. "Carving" implies the use of additional tools such as gouges or chisels. From back porch whittlers to high art carvers, America has always produced things of function and beauty from the skilled hands of its woodworkers.
Vast stands of forest provided the early settlers of this country with a convenient and seemingly inexhaustible source of raw material for nearly every need. Gradually, the forests were transformed into homes, fences, ships and wagons. With the big jobs completed, whittlers turned to making the many useful items that filled their homes and the toys that brought joy to their
children. Craftsmen of the times styled furniture, weathervanes, mastheads for ships, and the trade signs that lined the streets of early New England towns. Many people of the time were illiterate. Mastheads helped sailors identify ships and trade signs made it possible to find the best bake shop in town or the particular inn recommended by friends.
One of the most interesting types of folk art carving was done by soldiers held as prisoners during the American Civil War. Long hours filled with little to do and much to be endured left the men bored and depressed. The creative process of carving brought interest into otherwise bleak lives.
Louis Charelton, a Prescott area native left many fine examples of a particular whittling genre called "whimsies". These items were whittled for fun rather than function. They required a tremendous amount of skill and patience. Whimsies are often very complicated objects such as chains or cages with balls inside. To make things even tougher, these items are frequently carved from a single piece of wood.
Sharlot Hall Museum has recently completed a new exhibit case dedicated to whittling and woodcarving. The works of Louis Charelton as well as Prescott carvers Bill Neely, Ed Shryock and
Ron and Hazel Brown are featured. The title of the exhibit is "Whittlers, Woodcarvers, and Four Pounds Per Week." You'll need to see the case to figure out where the four pounds per week come in.
Stop in and see this new exhibit and while you are here catch a breath of late summer. The grounds are beautiful at this time of year and if you choose your day correctly you may find yourself sharing them with costumed interpreters from the living history department. Sharlot Hall Museum is a great place to learn, to experience, and to enjoy.
Anita Zellar is a Curatorial Assistant and Curator of the Museum's New Wood Workers Exhibits.
These interlocking rings were made by Louis Charelton. The rings and many other interesting wood forms are in a new exhibit at the Museum.
Sharlot Hall Museum Photograph Call Number: (po2356p). Reuse only by permission. Louis Charelton was born in 1884, and grew up on the Cross Triangle ranch west of Prescott. He started whittling when he was 12 years old.