By Carson Gerber
---- — CONVERSE — Thinking about getting into woodcarving? If you are, Ben Cash said you’re going to need three things: a sharp knife, the right kind of wood and a big box of Band-Aids.
That’s the advice Cash has given to novice woodcarvers for the last 25 years at the Eastern Woodland Carvers Club, located in downtown Converse. He was one of the three founding members of the group, which formed in 1988.
But what started out as just a small club of about 13 members meeting in the old firehouse at Sweetser has morphed into one of the largest woodcarving clubs in the Midwest.
The group now boasts around 275 members hailing from places all over the country, and more than 40 of them turned up at the club’s headquarters Saturday to learn the art of caricature woodcarving from three carving masters.
The seminar was held on the first floor of the group’s three-story building at 101 S. Jefferson St., affectionately called the “Sears Tower of Converse” by club members, since it’s the only three-story building in town.
Starting with just a small block of wood at 9 a.m., carvers began to slowly and meticulously whittle out all kinds of cartoonish characters. By 5 p.m., the room was full of small, wooden pirates, trolls, Indians, cats, French fur traders, dogs, witches and 19th century gentlemen wearing top hats.
Gary Freeman, a club officer who’s been with the group since 1990, said the caricature carving seminar is the most popular class hosted by the club. This year, it drew members from places as far away as Texas, West Virginia, Arkansas and Missouri.
It may be the most popular event, but Freeman said it’s just one of many the club puts on every year.
The real bread and butter of the group is the weekly open carving session, where he said anywhere from 20 to 50 members and non-members meet every Tuesday to carve, talk, shoot the breeze and generally have a good time.
“We sit, we carve, we drink coffee and we tell lies,” he said with a laugh. “It works. Coffee costs 50 cents a cup or a dollar all night, and just about everybody puts a dollar in and drinks coffee till their eyes float. The good thing is we have a lot of restrooms.”
Cash said it’s usually a ruckus when members get together for the weekly carving sessions, special seminars or annual carving competitions and auctions the group puts on throughout the year.
Although members like to have fun, he said the aim of the club never changes: promote and pass on the art of wood sculpting.
Cash said that was the initial goal 25 years ago when he started the group with two other Boy Scout leaders. He said he also wanted to get around other woodcarvers so he could hone his craft.
“I loved the art of it,” he said. “I loved that you can take something that God already created — the wood — and turn around and change it into another creation.”
But it ended up being more than that for Cash. He said woodcarving has worked as a kind of therapy over the years, helping him deal with the post-traumatic stress he developed after serving in the Army from 1966 to 1969 in Vietnam.
Cash said he remembers dreaming once of a solider sitting on a rock holding his bowed head in one hand and a rifle in the other.
“I didn’t know whether he was praying or crying,” he said. “It bothered me. I took that image and started carving it in wood. It was like a subconscious thing. I took it from my mind and put the carving on the shelf, and it was like taking that dream and getting rid of it. It worked for me.”
Freeman said, for him, woodcarving helps settle his mind and relax, but he never would have discovered that if it weren’t for Tom Brown, one of the founding members instrumental in the growth of the group.
Freeman said Brown passed away just this past Friday.
“He was like a magnet. Everybody flocked to him,” he said. “He was just a super nice guy. But Tom was relentless. He said to me, ‘You’ve got to try this. It’s just the greatest thing that’s ever been.’ He wore me down and got me to try it and, gee whiz, it was fun.
“Besides being fun, if I ever have a stressful, stressful day, I can sit down at a table with my tools and start carving, and the stress just kind of drifts away,” Freeman said. “It’s the most relaxing thing I’ve ever found. It takes your mind off of your other problems, and if you stop paying attention, you bleed.”
Bob Courtney, 75, who joined the club over two years ago after he moved to Peru, said that’s all true, but for him, woodcarving gives him a chance to create something that he can pass on to his children and grandchildren.
And he said the Eastern Woodland Carvers Club has been the perfect place to start learning how to start those creations.
“They’ll take you from the beginning and work with you every week,” he said. “That’s what I like about it. You’re not on your own. It’s just a bunch of down-to-earth people, and if you need something, all you have to do is ask. And I hope someday when I’m a good carver, my kids might say, ‘Grandpa made that.’”
There’s plenty of inspiration for up-and-coming woodcarvers at the club’s headquarters. Wood sculptors of birds, houses, people, animals and all kinds of other pieces donated by members and instructors line the walls and fill up display cases.
Freeman said the donated carvings are just one example of how the club has become a labor of love for members. He said it costs a lot of money to maintain the building and keep the club up and running, and the $10 annual dues members pay doesn’t cover it.
But whenever there’s an especially high heat bill or big expense, Freeman said someone always pitches in and slips an officer $100 or some other cash donation.
“It never fails,” he said. “People always come through to keep this going.”
It’s that dedication from members that’s made the club so popular and helped it grow over the last 25 years, Freeman said, and it’s the kind of dedication you don’t find in many other carving clubs.
For example, he said the group in Indianapolis only has about 75 members, and it meets in the basement of a church. Even though Converse is vastly smaller than Indy, with only around 1,200 residents, it’s become the go-to place for woodcarvers all over the country.
“There aren’t any places like this anywhere,” Freeman said. “It’s special.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.