Life Lessons From An Old Maine Woodsman

 Roger T. Hall
of Fort Fairfield, Maine

Childhood memories and experiences help shape the kind of person we become as adults. Though my mother and father divorced when I was young, and I grew up in a scrappy suburban housing development (until 9th grade when my family moved to the countryside), I feel I had a decent childhood.

That's because I have some special memories and experiences, most of which revolve around my grandparents. I have written of my mother's parents in my book, Writings of a Deliberate Agrarian. And I have blogged here about What My Grandmother Kimball Did For Me. Today, in this blog entry, I'd like to tell you about another person from my childhood.

I wrote the following story several years ago. I was, at that time, just starting to write articles for "Fine Homebuilding" magazine. I was coming to realize that I had something of a talent for writing. At least that is what people were telling me.

I was buying books about how to write and looking for ways to express some of the writing ideas I had. So I wrote a few small articles for the "Citizen" newspaper, which is the city paper in Auburn NY (about 20 minutes from my home). I mailed them to the Features editor and suggested that I could write a weekly column. I didn't want any money. I just wanted to write.

The editor liked my idea and named my column "Kimball's Corner." I wrote about things related to home building, remodeling, and carpentry. But I injected a lot of personal experiences and opinions into the writing. The article that follows was originally titled "The Lesson of The Carving Chisels."

I hope you will enjoy the story and I hope you will come away from it with a renewed realization that, if you have children or grandchildren, you have a special opportunity and reponsibility to provide them with memories that they will one day cherish. And there will surely be other children who you will have an opportunity to influence in powerfully positive ways with your time and example, as this story illustrates.

Life Lessons From An Old Maine Woodsman

The fondest memories of my childhood are of the summers I spent in northern Maine, living with my grandmother, Mary Kimball. Much of that time was spent at her camp on Cross Lake.

When the weather was good, there was the lake and its stony shore to keep me occupied. On bad weather days, we’d stay inside with a snap-crackling fire in the big stone fireplace. My grandmother would knit or sew and I would tease her Siamese cat, Sammy, or read comic books. Aqua Man, Sad Sac, and Scrooge McDuck were among my favorites.

I can clearly recall the picture of golden sunsets over the pine trees, reflecting on the still lake. Many evenings, I remember lying in bed on the screened front porch, safe and warm under a Hudson Bay blanket, listening to the night sounds.

I remember the food too: corn-on-the-cob, grilled hot dogs in toasted buns, fresh peas with cream, lobster and melted butter, potato salad, and my Grammy’s homemade pecan rolls. My grandmother, undoubtedly the best cook in Maine, was always concerned that I have plenty to eat.

Despite its remote location, there were often lots of people at the camp. Friends and relatives would come for birthday picnics, garden club meetings, or to stay the weekend. But when I think of Cross Lake, I always remember one person in particular. His name was Roger T. Hall.

Roger and his wife, Max, lived for the summer months next door to my grandmother’s camp. Roger had been an insurance broker but was mostly retired. When my grandfather was alive, he and Roger had been good friends.

Roger lived to hunt and fish and garden and work in the woodshop behind his camp. I remember him as a tall, ruggedly handsome, weathered old woodsman, and I have to admit that he scared me a bit. I think it was because I was naturally shy and Roger talked so loud. My grandmother told me he was hard of hearing.

It was a beginning of summer ritual for me to stop over and visit Roger and Max. They were always delighted to see me and I was fascinated with their camp. Going inside was like visiting a natural history museum. Besides their yapping and snorting little Boston Terrier, there were things like a stuffed horned owl, and a gigantic paper wasp nest (less the wasps) on the porch. Inside the camp were deer hoof coat racks, mounted deer heads, a bear rug, and the most intriguing thing to me—-a full-size snarling bobcat (stuffed, of course).

Out behind the camp, Roger’s workshop held a special allure for me. The first time I was in it, I was eye-high to the bed of his table saw. On the floor, piles of wood shavings and sawdust beckoned to me. The place had a sweet, mysterious smell. Every so often, I’ll saw through a pine-board knot in my workshop and catch a whiff of that long ago aroma.

Roger did all kinds of woodworking. He had built his golden-colored log camp and much of the furniture in it. But what I remember most were his carvings of birds and fish. My grandmother had a small wood-stave maple sugar bucket that Roger had made. Each of the bucket’s side handles was a salmon, arched as if jumping through the air on its journey upstream to spawn. As a young boy, I carefully examined and
marveled at Roger’s handiwork.

My grandmother sold her camp and the last time I saw Roger I was probably twelve or thirteen years old. But in 1977, when I was nineteen, I carved and painted a small duck and I thought of Roger. Maybe it actually happened the other way around. Anyway, though I hadn’t seen him in many years, I knew Roger was still alive. I got his address from my grandmother and sent him a letter along with a photo of my carving. I didn’t expect to get a reply. I just wanted him to know that I remembered and appreciated the old days.

He wrote back: “This partially shocked right hand has ached day and night since my heart operations" (five years earlier). He was deaf and his eyesight had failed him in the last year. If he made it another month, he would be 82 years old “and useless!” But he had read my letter and was “very pleased” to hear from me.

That bad hand turned out five long pages of encouragement, advice, and stories. He said he wished my grandfather could see me now. He suggested I might want to go to Middlebury College where he had graduated from in 1922. He told me about two boats he had built, and the sugar buckets with “jumping salmon” handles, and the bear and the bobcat (he’d shot both). He told me he used to enjoy tying fishing flies and would make 100 to 300 every winter.

For every year from 1939 to 1970, Roger and Max had journeyed to Anticosti Island, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence River, fishing for Atlantic Salmon. He loved the island because it was “as near a wild country as one could get.”

And Roger related that he had carved many birds. his favorite work was some “chickadees on willow branches, showing the white pussy willows.” He said my carving looked good to him and offered to send me some pieces of poplar carving wood he still had, as well as his old set of oil paints, and his carving set.

I wrote him back. Again he sent a long letter with more stories and, at my request, shakily hand-drawn instructions for making a simple box trap like he and I had once used to catch chipmunks. My old friend also sent the things he said he would, and I was astonished to see his set of carving tools.

I had envisioned this master carver would have a fine collection of special imported swiss knives with well-worn rosewood handles, or something like that. Instead it was a boxed set of ten simple hobby knives made in Japan. I had seen an identical set of such tools in a plastic package at K-Mart for $1.99. The really funny thing was that he said he hadn’t used the knives that much. Most of the time he just used a sharp jackknife.

I still have the set. While I don’t carve animals, I occasionally use the knives for various odd tasks around my workshop. Roger Hall’s carving tools are a reminder to me that lots of exotic and expensive tools are not necessary ingredients of craftsmanship. More important are the heart and hands of a craftsman.


Roger passed away shortly after our correspondences. I cherish my memories of this man and the lesson in simplicity that he taught me with the gift of his carving tools. But I have come to realize that there are more important lessons to be seen and understood in this story—lessons about the brevity of life, and the value of friendship, and that you may never really know the impression you’ve made on a young child’s life.



Goodolboy said...

Hi Herrick, What a great post. I read your post while eating my ham sandwich I had for lunch. I enjoyed both. Thanks for the story.


Anonymous said...

Hi! I've been skipping blogs lately to free up some "living life" time. Just wanted to pop in and say thanks for recommending the Wilderking Trilogy! My daughter and I have enjoyed it! My boys are itching to start it but I'm using it like a carrot on a stick to get some school work and house work done! : )


Mark Sullivan said...

blessed are all the craftsmen and artists who inspire and pass on their skills and love and wonder of fine materials and beauty. The world would be full of plastic junk and little else if not for them. Cherish the work of your hands and heart. God loves turning honest labor into lovely things. It is a kind of worship, I think.

Anonymous said...

Oh, how I wish our son had this kind of friend. we plan on moving to a more rural area of NC, hopefully then. I enjoy all of your writings, it is a good go-to for when we do move. Thank you for sharing your experiences. -Jody

Julia at said...

I think I have one of Roger T. Hall's wood carvings. Or maybe you could point me into the right direction..?

I have recently come into possession of a hand carved wooden duck that has these words burnt into the bottom "Hand Carved by The Maine Woodsman, 1995" Do you know anything about this? I've been trying to research it and this is the closest thing I have found.

I thought your tale was amazing, along with all of the planet wizbang inventions..any information would be most appreciated. I will continue my search on this little duck and also on a better way to contact you- can't seem to find any emails on your blog..

Thank you!