Carving Memories and Identities
By Mark G. Mitchel
Texas Scouts learn the ancient Native American skill of totem pole construction in order to make a special contribution to a park honoring local Eagle Scouts.
Native American tribes of the Pacific Northwest carved animal symbols of their family and clan on totem poles, which held religious significance for them.
On a crisp Saturday morning last November the ancient practice was being continued in South Texas, where, not far from the Gulf of Mexico, a group of Texas Scouts found a special way to continue the tradition.
The klop! klop! of wooden mallets hitting metal chisels rang out across the parking lot of the Knights of Columbus Council No. 5236 in La Marque, a city of 15,300 residents located about 10 miles north of Galveston, Tex.
The drumming mallets carried a visitor back in time. It was easy to imagine these hardworking Scouts as Tlingit tribesman, crafting their clan poles on the shore of the Pacific Ocean.
'The Legend of Red Eye' and more
The harsh growl of a chain saw operated by an adult leader abruptly brought back the present moment. The 50-foot timbers of southern pine laid out like fallen trees on the pavement were actually utility poles, provided by the Houston Lighting and Power Company. The 30 Scouts were from eight troops along the Texas Gulf and Galveston Bay.
The Scouts were busy knocking out chunks of wood from the nine poles. The result would be a series of images, with each pole representing a different Scout troop.
An eagle with outstretched wings, representing the troop's Eagle Scouts, crowned each pole. Next came a religious or professional symbol, representing the troop's chartered organization, followed by unique emblems chosen by the Scouts.
On Troop 244's pole, Scouter Jim Forsythe pointed to a hieroglyph of a watching eye. "That's the Legend of the Red Eye," he noted. "It's a scary story we tell a lot when we go camping--a troop favorite."
"Here's a sea gull holding an arrow," he continued down the pole. "The gull represents our location at the edge of Galveston Bay. The arrow represents the fact that a lot of our boys are in the Order of the Arrow [the BSA organization for honor campers]."
Travis Flowers, 12, of La Marque, took a break from pummeling with a wooden mallet.
"I thought carving a totem pole would be difficult and time-consuming, but I've found out it's actually a lot of fun," admitted Travis, still breathing hard. "I've learned not to be afraid of work," he added, showing a callus on his thumb. "I got seven of them yesterday."
Eight of the nine totems were scheduled to stand in Bay Street Park, a 100-acre oceanside park and nature center in neighboring Texas City, a refinery town that is also Texas' third largest port. In addition to the totem poles, signs in the park would carry the names of all area Eagle Scouts (with new ones added every year).
The ninth pole would be a special gift to Camp Karankawa, the Bay Area Council Scout camp in nearby West Columbia.
Lessons from two masters
The Scouts worked under the supervision of two woodcarving masters and longtime Scouters--Bob Huffman, of Waynesboro, Va., and "Whittlin' Jim" Hill, of Tyler, Tex.
"Don't pry with that chisel, brother," Huffman cautioned a Scout working on an image of a pronghorn antelope. "You don't have to hit hard, either. Just keep your chisel flat."
To demonstrate, Huffman gently whacked the mallet (handmade of a wood called bois d'arc) and the steel chisel bit into the pinewood's buttery-like texture. A second whack from the opposite direction lifted the slice off the log.
With another careful knock, Huffman shaved away some surface from the antelope's right horn, adding to the 3-D effect of the animal's profile.
"They all want to go in there and dig deep," Whittlin' Jim Hill observed. "We explain to them that you don't have to dig deep. You go with the grain and use a cut and a countercut to take the wood off. If they've not done this before, someone needs to take the time to explain what a 'chip' means."
(Hill no doubt owes his nickname at least in part to the late Ben Hunt, the legendary woodcarver and American Indian lore expert whose "Slide of the Month" and other woodcarving features were published in Boys' Life under the byline "Whittlin' Jim.")
Every pole showed evidence that the lessons from the masters had been effective. Scout emblems, beavers, turtles, and hawk heads emerged from the wood.
The boys had learned to chisel in a comfortable working position, take breaks for stretching, and wear gloves. They grasped safety principles quickly: spacing themselves apart from each other, carving away from themselves and their friends. (Only adults operated the power tools.)
The night before, Texas City portrait artist Priscilla Cox, borrowing some images from a Boy Scout handbook, had helped the Scouts sketch animals on the poles. Huffman then chalked rectangles around the pictures.
"See this chalk line?" said Casey Schlageter, 15, of Troop 274, pointing to a blue perimeter framing a fish image and reaching halfway around the pole. "It marks the border where you stop cutting."
Jurrell Harris of Troop 244 chipped away at the space around the fish. "We're carving out the area to make him stand out," he explained.
As the work continued, sawdust and wood scraps piled up, and the Scouts swept them into huge piles. Late afternoon darkness set in, but flood lamps and generators provided by a local equipment rental company and a barbecue dinner courtesy of the city of Texas City enabled the Scouts to continue working until 9 o'clock.
The next morning, Chuck Doyle, Texas City's mayor, joined the boys in their labor. The father of four Eagle Scouts, Doyle is the visionary behind Bay Street Park and its totem pole project.
As the carvers concentrated on the unfinished sections and the younger boys painted the sculpted totems, Doyle talked about his effort as mayor to recognize Scouting and honor those who have participated in Scouting.
"Eagles symbolize leadership and country," he said. "Bay Street Park says that leadership, as symbolized by the Eagle Scout rank, is important to Texas City. Over the gateway and the nature trail, it says the park is dedicated to Eagle Scouts, [and] the sign is wrapped with rope just like Scouts would do.
"In my opinion, this little trail in Texas City is more of a tribute to Scouting, and Eagle Scouts in particular, than any public place I've ever heard of. It shows a commitment to leadership."
Three months later the poles were dedicated in a ceremony opening the park's nature center, which is named in honor of the late Dr. Thomas S. Mackey, an Eagle Scout who bequeathed the park land.
More than 200 Scouts and their families attended, as did BSA Advisory Council member Dr. Carlos Hamilton Jr. and officials from area governments, the Scout council, and the state parks and wildlife department. Bob Huffman and Jim Hill were there, too.
Order of the Arrow Scouts provided authentic American Indian drumming. The Texas City government presented each Scout with special bird-study tools: birdhouses and binoculars.
"You can see the Eagles on top of the totem poles above the trees," said Blake Lockwood, an Eagle Scout with Troop 244. "And when I walked up to the poles, I thought, I can't believe I actually worked on those."
"My Order of the Arrow involvement has made me familiar with American Indian lore," said Eagle Scout Jeremy Conn, 16, senior patrol leader for Troop 244. "But working on this project gave a whole new meaning to the totem pole for me."
Freelance writer Mark Mitchell lives in Austin, Tex.
A Self-Taught Craftsman
By day, Bob Huffman worked as an electrician for Virginia Electric & Power Company. By night, he labored as a woodcarver--a hobby that turned serious for him after a friend complimented the whittling he had done with his lineman's knife to pass the time on a slow fishing day.
He was soon racking up first-place ribbons and sales of his wood and metal sculptures in competitive shows.
At that same time, he and his wife became involved in the leadership of their son's Cub Scout pack. Thirty-five years of Scouting leadership later, Huffman is now a unit commissioner.
The worlds of carving and Scouting came together when he received a request to carve a totem pole for an Order of the Arrow conclave. The following year all seven lodges in the region wanted poles. By the time Huffman and his taskforce of OA Scouts were through, "We had some pretty doggone good carvers," he said. "After that, a lot of the troops started buying their own carving tools."
Moving from point A to point F
Bob Huffman is largely a self-taught craftsman.
"In moving from my small carving to the larger sculpture and totem poles, I didn't go from point A to point B," he explains. "I went from point A to point F. I started with real small stuff you could do with a pocketknife.
"At some point, when I was into competitive shows, I tried to get my work a little larger, to be a little more impressive. If you can carve a little dog with a pocketknife, you can get different tools and carve a bigger dog."
Carving his first three totem poles for neighborhood troops was just an extension of his wood-sculpting method, he says. "If you're going to carve a bear, just get your chisel and carve away everything that doesn't look like a bear."
No simple request
Bay Area Council Scout leaders saw Huffman demonstrating woodcarving and totem pole construction at the Boys' Life exhibit at last year's national Scout jamboree in Virginia.
With his old friend "Whittlin' Jim" Hill of Tyler, Tex., Huffman was using his technique of combining hammer and chisels to remove wood, using disk grinders and sanders to smooth the chiseled areas, with chain saws for adults to use in cutting wings for pole-topping eagle figures and (in some cases) cutting notches to make chiseling easier.
Huffman has perched an eagle figure atop almost every one of his totem poles. "The Eagle is the highest rank in Scouting, so it should be at the top. And the eagle is also the symbol of the United States of America, and that should be at the top," he explained. "So I put eagles on my poles; it's just my way of saying, 'that's where you ought to be-on top.'"
The Texans asked Huffman to conduct their totem carving event three months later in Texas City. It was no simple request, either. Creating nine poles in one weekend--even with an army of Scouts from many troops--would be a mammoth undertaking.
Then, two weeks before the event, Huffman's wife died. Determined to see the project through, the veteran Scouter refused to cancel and arrived with trunks of carving tools, power grinders and sanders, four Virginia hams for the leaders, a box of camping patches to distribute to the Scouts, and his friend "Whittlin' Jim."
The rest is history, and the impressive results are now on display at Bay Street Park in Texas City.
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