ESSAYS:

THE ART OF TREES

By Royce Williams

Idaho Representative Max C. Black, R-District 15, not in his woodcarver clothes. Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Idaho Representative Max C. Black, R-District
15, not in his woodcarver clothes.
Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

It looked and sounded like the squirrel was cussing.

The long-blade chainsaw slowly chewed through the trunk of the oak standing then near the North 8th Street boundary of the Idaho Capitol grounds.

Up in the branches not far from where heavy ropes had been tied, the squirrel scurried up and down the trunk. At the other end of the ropes men pulled in the direction of the V-cut that would fell the tree eastward and away from the street.

Seconds before the tree cracked and leaned into the ropes, the squirrel scampered low on the huge trunk, then, trusting fate, leapt the last 30 feet to the ground and scampered to the trees still standing on the other side of East Jefferson. There, it did the squirrel equivalent of angry muttering.

The human version of squirrelese had been going on since reports that several ancient trees would have to go, since the roofs of the new underground wings would be too close to the surface to allow root systems of any large plant. Several of the younger commemorative trees, complete with plaques, were moved and were scheduled to return to the grounds when the new construction was finished.

Idaho school children look at a wooden bowl made from an ash tree from the Capitol grounds. The display is in Statuary Hall. Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Idaho school children look at a wooden bowl made from an ash tree from the
Capitol grounds. The display is in Statuary Hall. Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

With background music from cell phone ring-tones and the whine of chainsaws, people began to say something ought to be done to somehow give the old trees a second life, especially the three presidential trees — a Red Oak (called Water Oak in the West) set to commemorate a visit to the state by Benjamin Harrison in May 1891, a Rock Sugar Maple from Teddy Roosevelt in 1903, and an Ohio Buckeye from Robert Taft in October 1911.

This orchestra found a conductor in Boise’s District 15 Republican Representative Max C. Black, a well-known woodcarver among Idahoans who whittle and carve. He set out to save any piece of wood greater than three inches in diameter. It wasn’t easy, had never been done before, and the usual response to the idea was a puzzled “Huh?...”

In an interview with IdahoPTV’s Capitol of Light Project, Black outlined some of the tense moments:

  • As the trees were falling, he found a contractor different from the one he had been working with, one who didn’t know what Black was talking about.
  • There was no place set up to store the logs and large limbs while they seasoned, so he called a friend who agreed the only thing to do was to haul them to the friend’s place in Eagle.
  • His friend was in Coeur d’Alene and his wife was a little befuddled when logs and large limbs were being unloaded in her back yard.
  • They found a portable sawmill, but it was in Wyoming, so they had to wait until that was delivered.
  • For the next three weeks, Black, along with Jerry Deckert of Eagle, and Robert Reebie of Sand Hollow, sawed lumber in Deckert’s yard. Amazingly, 20 volunteers showed up to help.
  • Where to store it? They found kilns in Meridian, Emmett and another one south of Boise, but most of the lumber was simply stacked in Deckert’s yard to season.
  • After drying the lumber for a year and a half, Black had to deliver it, trailer load by trailer load, to the carvers all over the state.
  • Each carver got enough lumber to make something for public display and to make something of an heirloom nature for himself or herself.

Forest of Names

There have been 11 commemorative trees planted on the Capitol grounds:
The President Benjamin Harrison Tree
The President Teddy Roosevelt Tree
The President Howard Taft Tree
The Idaho Federated Women's Clubs Tree
The Governor Arnold Williams Tree
The Sons and Daughters of Idaho Pioneers Tree
The Governor C. Ben Ross Tree
The General Federation of Women's Clubs Bicentennial Tree
The Tree of Guernica (Basque)
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tree
The Governor Dirk Kempthorne 9/11 Commemorative Tree

There are 10 major memorials:
The Oregon Trail Monument
The Sea Coast Cannon (Civil War)
The Governor Frank Steunenberg Statue
The Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic Monument
The Liberty Bell Replica
The Treasurer Ruth G. Moon Rose Garden
The State of Idaho Flowerbed
The President Abraham Lincoln Statue
The Lewis and Clark Encounter with Nez Perce Statue
The Winged Victory Statue, a gift from France to Idaho Veterans of World War II
And a variety of personal veterans' plaques and Idaho county banners

From an inventory by Carole Schroeder

“It turned out to be a much bigger job than we thought,” he said, “but the whole thing started to get legs and the woodworking groups really rallied around me and started to promote this type of thing.”

The results were creative. There were wooden keys to the state, wood writing pens, bowls of every size and shape, vases, clocks, writing desks, Windsor chairs, benches for the Capitol hallways, muzzleloader gunstocks, speaker’s podiums, bookcases, busts of the presidents with commemorative trees, plaques in the shape of the state, presidential railroad cars, even fiddles.

Frank Daniels of Boise, made the fiddle from the Harrison tree, and at the Capitol Rededication ceremonies, Scott Sumner of Meridian pulled “Ashokan Farewell” from the Red Oak and Engelmann spruce fiddle. No one who heard the music remembered fussing squirrels, chainsaws whining, sanders, the pings of saw blades breaking as they struck old nails in the logs.

“I wasn’t sure how it was going to sound,” Daniels said as he worked on a new fiddle in his garage. “Oak isn’t a traditional wood for fiddle makers, and I wasn’t sure how the wood would hold up, since I have to take a ¾–inch thick piece of wood and shave it down to three millimeters thick.”

But when the oak back and sides were paired with the spruce from McCall, “the tone was pure and the sound projected real well,” he said.

Harrison Tree fiddle played by Scott Sumner of Meridian, at the Capitol Rededication. Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Harrison Tree fiddle played by Scott Sumner of,
Meridian at the Capitol Rededication.
Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Daniels has been making fiddles since he retired from the Bureau of Land Management in 1987, and the Capitol fiddle was his 170th one of the 174 he has made. He started making the instruments in 1987, but growing up, he had watched his father, Sam W. Daniels, make fiddles in an upstairs room at the home farm in Jerome.

“I donated the Capitol fiddle to the State Historical Society,” he said, “but I have three more pieces of the Red Oak that I cut from the Harrison Tree stump, so I’ll make two more to sell and one to keep for myself.

“Before I donated the fiddle, I took it to the Violin Makers Association of Arizona International, and it took 7th place in the Overall Category, based on its tone, workmanship and varnish scores,” he said.

However, no woodcarver in the state topped Black’s contribution. In addition to turning out a replica of the Oregon Short Line train based on the trains that carried the presidents to Idaho, he turned out 254 Idaho-shaped plaques from the Red Oak that had wooden keys attached. One plaque went to each city and county in Idaho and to each of the four Native American tribes. He carved one large ceremonial key from the oak, plus there were 200 small keys for Capitol volunteers from an Ash tree.

“I’ve been doing this since I took a woodworking class in the 7th grade,” he said. “The first shop of my own was a closet in an apartment.

“Since then, that shop has grown to fill a garage and three smaller shops I’ve built at my home.”

Frank Daniels of Boise, traces a pattern for his 175th fiddle. Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Frank Daniels of Boise, traces a pattern for his 175th fiddle.
Photo courtesy: Royce Williams

Black used wood from five Capitol trees for his period train — Red Oak, Ohio Buckeye, Rock Sugar Maple, Ash and American Elm. Even the black smokestack on Engine No. 151 is wood stained by deteriorating nails that someone drove into the trees years ago.

All of the more than 50 Idaho woodcarvers’ work will rotate in displays in Statuary Hall at the Capitol. At the entrance to the hall is the wood sculpture of President George Washington astride a horse. This sculpture was done from a single Idaho Yellow Pine log by Charles L. Ostner in 1869. The displays are organized and presented by the Idaho State Historical Society. A sampler of the work is presented here in the Photo Gallery.