The Lost Art of the Whittler

Southport’s landmark and iconic Whittler’s Bench, a vintage hub of the past.
STORY BY: KASS FINCHER PHOTOS COURTESY OF SOUTHPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY

Undoubtedly anyone who has walked along Southport’s waterfront has passed by the Whittler’s Bench. Local legend has it that originally this spot held simply a lone cedar tree, named after George Washington, the general who would later become president of the United States.
The ancient cedar was later joined by two poplar trees – most believe planted in 1898 – during the presidential campaigns of incumbent president William McKinley and William Jennings Bryan, for whom the trees were named. Other sources claimed there were originally four trees planted, the others named for Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding. Tongue-in-cheek legend has it that the Republican Harding tree would not grow among the Democratic trees, and eventually died. Regardless of the number of trees, local men would gather daily under their shade, talk politics and share gossip while waiting for the fishing boats to come in.
Southport barber Paxton Tharp, known as “Mr. Pack,” had a bench erected under the trees so the men could sit and whittle while they chatted. It was called the “Cedar Bench.” The bench was popular but somewhat embattled over time because the whittlers would often carve their cares away into the bench and surrounding trees. One story held that the nearby store sold two or three hundred knives every week. Another held that enough corn liquor had been drunk under the tree to float a battleship! Over the years, the inevitable storms and hurricanes came through and often destroyed the bench and the trees around it. But townspeople always replanted the trees and rebuilt the bench. Going back to colonial times, whittling is one of the oldest folk art forms in this country. A simple sharp knife and piece of wood were all you needed to make something with your hands. Whittling was especially popular during the Civil War, when soldiers would gather around the campfire to talk, play cards, write letters and whittle. Using folding pocket knives, they would carve walking sticks, animals, pipes and toys. After the war, many of the soldiers came home to work as migrant laborers, carrying a hoe with them from farm to farm. Called “hoe boys,” they traveled from job to job and whittled in the evenings when the work was done. The name was shortened to “hobos,” meaning men who traveled to find work. As they moved from town to town, they would often pass on their whittling knowledge to new friends, and the activity grew. In the 20th century, the Boy Scouts organization supported the art, and the popularity of whittling grew among our youth. The Remington Knife Company and several science magazines held national whittling contests. With the advent of World War II, many of the generation who had grown up in the Great Depression were sent to fight in unfamiliar places overseas. Many brought with them a resourceful attitude from their depression era upbringing – making do with what you have. Everyone had a pocket knife, and whittling was a creative and relaxing way to find some peace. By the 1960’s however, whittling was becoming a lost art. The rise of electronic entertainment, combined with city and suburban lifestyles, led to fewer hands-on activities by the young. Boys didn’t carry pocket knives as often. However among the older generation, the art of wood carving – a more formal artistic effort – grew in popularity during those years. The lowly pocket knife was replaced by more sophisticated carving tools. Today two groups in our area promote the art of wood carving: the Cape Fear Woodcarvers and the Wilmington Area Woodturners Association. The Cape Fear Woodcarvers club has about 50 members and meets weekly at the Poplar Grove Plantation activity room. The Wilmington Area Woodturners Association meets monthly at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Wilmington. At their meetings, members of both groups as well as outside experts share their methods and experiences to help each other improve their wood carving skills and create unique pieces. Neither group claims to be whittlers, but if pressed, some of their members might admit they started out that way. In Sweet Tea, Fried Chicken and Lazy Dogs, Reflections on North Carolina Life, Bill Thompson describes his conversation with a whittler he encountered in Craven County. The old man did not claim to be a wood carver.

“You see, carving means when I start out I got some idea of what this object is supposed to look like when I get through. Whereas with whittling I just start cutting away pieces of wood ‘til I see something taking shape and then I work toward that.” The whittler may not call himself an artist, but most would disagree. It would be wonderful to go back in time and watch the whittlers pass the hours on the bench by the water. We most likely won’t see whittlers there today, but we can enjoy relaxing on the bench where they did, watching the boats go by.

Local Southport poet Dorothy Bell Kaufman captured the whittler’s spirit. “Get me a stick and a bright, brisk blade, And let me sit in the spread of the shade, Where the tales are told and the jokes are made. “Let me listen: I hear the beat Of a small town’s heart in the shady street. Beneath the boughs where the whittlers meet- While Clip, clop, the chips drop By the Whittlin’ Tree where the fishermen stop!”

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