Missouri group finds purpose in wood from old trees

Saturday, March 12, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST

SPRINGFIELD — By the time Conrad and Emma Fassnight left Michigan in 1886 to resettle in Missouri, a small elm tree perhaps no more than 6 years old had already put down roots near the banks of a little creek in Springfield.

By 1924, when the Fassnights sold the surrounding 28 acres to the Springfield Park Board, the tree had reached respectable size, tall and broad and leafy enough to offer shade to Works Progress Administration laborers as they built the first stone walls, bridges and barbecue pits of Fassnight Park.

Decades passed, and the tree kept growing, a mute witness to Springfield's historical moments large and small. The planning of Route 66 in 1926. The parade of country music's biggest names as they came to perform on the nationally televised "Ozark Jubilee."

As part of Fassnight Park, the tree sheltered picnics and reunions. It endured wind and ice storms and lightning and climbing kids. It managed to survive a devastating wave of Dutch elm disease that swept the Ozarks in the late '70s. It grew as Springfield grew.

But last year, that tree — along with a dozen others — came down.

The years had not been kind to Fassnight Park. All those pretty stone walls were crumbling. Flooding from storms kept taking its toll. A project to re-engineer waterflow through the park had to be undertaken. And a group of trees had to pay part of the price.

Folks at the city's Public Works Department insist they were judicious about it, but that was small comfort to others who were upset about losing the 13 trees, including the giant elm.

In the end, when the 130-year-old tree fell, it fell into loving hands.

Larry Randolph's woodturning shop is a kaleidoscope of wood. Dust and ribbons on the floor. Slabs, blocks and oddly shaped chunks of lumber stacked on shelves reaching the ceiling. Pieces of all kinds in all stages of completion are scattered around.

It is, clearly, his happy zone. A place where he applies himself to help old trees find new lives.

"You can completely lose a day in a piece of wood," Randolph said.

Randolph came to turning wood a little later in life. He picked up a lathe at a garage sale about eight years ago, curious to see what he could do with it. "Even when I got it, I wasn't sure what all could be done with it," he said.

Then he went to a Woodturners of Southwest Missouri meeting.

"Suddenly my knowledge and skills and awareness went way up," he said.

Talk to him for any length of time about wood, and that fact becomes abundantly clear. Randolph speaks of different woods in an almost reverent tone, extolling the patterned beauty of a curly crotch maple, the forgiving nature of some woods, the stubbornness of others.

Woodturning, he demonstrates, is a multisensory experience. The rhythm of the wood spinning on the lathe, the hypnotic quality of watching a tool slide across the grain and the surface, the aroma wood yields as it is cut, shaped, smoothed and transformed.

"A good hard maple smells like popcorn. Olive, it smells like olive oil. It smells so good," he said.

When he joined the club, Randolph — now the club's vice president — fell in with a band of like-minded souls. About 50 turners gather each month to share stories, compare pieces, engage in a little friendly competition and explore the various aspects of woodturning.

Club President Robert Duffer said the challenge of discovering what lies inside a piece of wood is what keeps him turning. He talks about color striations that are revealed in flame box elder. "The turner is the one who gets to see that when no one else does," Duffer said.

"Finding that mystery," Randolph nods in consent.

But without wood, there's nothing to turn. Randolph and Duffer said that's really not a problem. They don't take trees to turn. Nature typically gives trees to them when storms roll through.

Occasionally and indirectly, the growing pains of a city will help provide a supply, too.

When Randolph read about the flap over Fassnight's trees coming down, he put an idea in motion. He figured he'd try to "help make some lemonade out of the lemons, because nobody wanted the trees to come out.

"Trees make the park," he said.

Randolph called Public Works and asked if his group could harvest wood from the big old elm. "Dutch elm disease took out most of the elms in the United States of America and this one survived it. It's a shame to see it go," he said.

As part of the deal, Randolph offered to put the wood in the hands of his fellow skilled turners. The Woodturners of Southwest Missouri would turn it into useful items, works of art, things of beauty and function, then donate them to local nonprofit groups to sell at auctions and other fundraising events.

The city agreed.

Remains of the old elm tree are now at John Taliaferro's place in Springfield. Hauled from the park in giant chunks, slabs eight feet in length or more are stacked around the property waiting for craftsmen to claim them. So far, about eight turners are working with pieces of the elm.

Taliaferro is one of them. He took a 1,300-pound chunk of the tree and transformed it into a large vase that now weighs a slender 45 pounds.

"It took three or four hours just to get it through the door," he said of the piece he finally wrestled onto his homemade lathe with a block and tackle.

Big pieces are Taliaferro's thing. He once created a 7-foot honey dipper. Why work on such a large scale? "I don't know," he said with an easy smile. "It just beats the tar out of you."

It will be several more months before any pieces from Fassnight's grand old elm are finished, and the vast majority will be far smaller than Taliaferro's vase.

Eventually, though, salvaged pieces of that lone tree will become pepper mills, bowls, vases and other artful creations. The tree that fell in the name of progress will help funding fall into the coffers of area charities. And a group of craftsmen will have shown how one bad turn, followed by several good ones, can become a very good turn in itself.

"Turn something lost into something beautiful," Randolph said.

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John Suttles March 12, 2011 | 3:27 p.m.

Wonderful use of salvaged wood.
I would like to know if I could obtain a branch from this
old tree to make into a native style flute?
I live in Aurora, Mo, and my work can be seen at ""

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