Pennsylvania folk carvers made things 'just for nice'


March 24, 1991|By Lita Solis-Cohen

"Schtockschnitzler" Simmons used to strap a bundle of carved canes onto his back and peddle them on foot from farm to farm and tavern to tavern in the northeastern section of Berks County, Pa., at the turn of the century.

"Der Schtockschnitzler" (the cane carver) made his canes from the root ends of native dogwood saplings, and carved a bird or occasionally a horse's head on the end of the handle. Usually he shellacked them. He painted a few choice canes, and some of the birds have whistles in their tails.

Simmons also whittled birds on pedestals out of old bedposts, but his masterpieces are "bird trees," made of dried sassafras samplings with neatly pruned and trained crescent-shaped branches on which he perched colorful birds with wire legs. As many as nine birds roost on his tallest bird trees, which stand as high as 20 inches.

Another cane carver, Alleson Roether (1837-1905), better known as Al Rader, whittled in the Wernersville area of Berks County. Rader is the only known maker of carved fly-chasers called "mick wischs," sticks with flat ends to which fringed newspapers were attached. He decorated these, like his canes, with a parade of horses, cows, goats, roosters, geese and sometimes an elephant or camel, carved in low relief.

Simmons and Rader are only two of 35 country carvers whose work is included in "Just For Nice: Carving and Whittling Magic of Southeastern Pennsylvania," an exhibition of 275 folk carvings at the Historical Society of Berks County in Reading, Pa. The exhibition, which opens on Tuesday and continues through Sept. 21, is the first serious examination of traditional Pennsylvania folk carving from the early 19th century through 1980.

The exhibition is accompanied by an informative book, with every carving illustrated in color, and with commentary and biographies of the carvers by Rosemarie B. and Richard S. Machmer, who also acted as curators of the show.

"The title 'Just for Nice,' is a Pennsylvania Dutch expression meaning simply for pleasure," explained Richard Machmer, a Hamburg, Pa., collector and a carver himself. Mr. Machmer and his wife Rosemarie, a retired school teacher, have been enthusiastic collectors for more than 40 years.

Except for one small section containing butter prints, a cookie roller, grain bag stamps, a door knocker, a spoon rack, a watch holder and a few toys, the carvings were not made for any utilitarian purpose.

For comparison, a small section called "Nice but Formal" has work by traditionally trained carvers: a Berks County tall case clock; a Rodinlike portrait bust of a woman; a cigar store chieftain from Chas. Brenieser and Sons' tobacconists' store in Reading; and a graceful swan, a tavern sign from Easton, Pa.

The vast majority of carvings were done by farmers who liked to keep their hands busy, or by itinerant drunks and the inmates of jails and almshouses.

The earliest and most famous of the itinerant drunks was Wilhelm Schimmel (1817-1890). Born in Germany, Schimmel appeared in the Cumberland Valley near Carlisle shortly after the Civil War. Traveling the Conodoguinet Creek area between frequent stays in jail, he stayed in the outbuildings on farms, helping with the chores or making carvings in return for a meal and a bed of straw.

The hundreds of roosters, parrots, lions and dogs Schimmel whittled decorated the shelves of local bars and the mantels of farmhouses. Some of his majestic eagles must have been affixed to the top of flagpoles. Schimmel's grinning lion, which roared to a record $44,000 at Sotheby's Wetzel estate sale in

Reading in October 1980, is on loan to the exhibition from the collector who bought it; a Schimmel eagle with a 41-inch wingspread has been loaned by the Winterthur Museum in Delaware. A rare Garden of Eden, one of only three known, came out of an attic in Carlisle in 1984 and was acquired by the Machmers.

Among the children who watched Schimmel carve was Aaron Mountz (1873-1949). Mountz, known for his large unpainted eagles, inspired his neighbor, Bruce A. Barrett (1905-1978), to make large stylized eagles, but Barrett's imitations of an imitator lack the spontaneity and power of Schimmel or even of Mountz.

Albert Albelt (1913-1964), the most recently discovered of the group, made striking, powerful eagles; but his sensitive portrait of a woman in her Sunday hat complete with fabric flowers, called "My Favorite Teacher," is his masterpiece, though it stands only 6 inches tall.

John Reber (1857-1938), of Lehigh County, Pa., one of the master whittlers, made more realistic birds and animals -- each finished with a thick coat of gesso emphasizing the muscle structure. He painted with great detail. A bent nail forms the beard on the breast of his turkey; his rooster has a leather comb.

"Just for Nice," published by the Historical Society of Berks County, costs $35 ($39 postpaid) from the Historical Society of Berks County, 940 Centre Ave., Reading, Pa. 19601. (Pennsylvania residents add $2.34 state tax.)

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