Thursday, July 2, 2015

Master Wood Carver

"Lone Star Historian 2" is a blog about the travels and activities of the State Historian of Texas during his second year. Bill O'Neal was appointed to a two-year term by Gov. Rick Perry on August 22, 2012, at an impressive ceremony in the State Capitol. Bill is headquartered at Panola College (www.panola.edu) in Carthage, where he has taught since 1970. For more than 20 years Bill conducted the state's first Traveling Texas History class, a three-hour credit course which featured a 2,100-mile itinerary. In 2000 he was awarded a Piper Professorship, and in 2012 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West Historical Association. Bill has published over 40 books, almost half about Texas history subjects, and in 2007 he was named Best Living Non-Fiction Writer by True West Magazine. In 2013 he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree by his alma mater, Texas A&M University - Commerce. 

With Tommy Williams
Men in early Texas were addicted to whittling. Every one carried knives, from Bowie knives to hunting knives to clasp knives to pen knives. With some sort of personal knife always available, men whittled on sticks or carved their initials on trees or branches or tables. Indeed, after Texas became a state, legislators often carved up their own capitol desks. To preserve the furniture, provision was made to place a stick of soft pine on each desk every day that the legislature was in session. At the end of each day, mounds of pine whittlings were swept up from beneath and around the desks.

Sam Houston was an inveterate whittler. Houston was fond of children, and after meeting a little girl or boy, he would take out his knife and expertly fashion a small doll or toy to present to the delighted child. A great many other Texas men did the same, and some created elaborate carvings. 

This nineteenth-century Texas craft is carried on in the twenty-first century by Panola County native Tommy Gene Williams, 88. Williams was raised on a farm near Beckville, and after he graduated from BHS he enlisted in the army and participated in the Korean War. Returning to Panola County, he served on the Beckville School Board for 13 years, and he has been a deacon at Mount Zion Baptist Church for 59 years. Tommy and his wife Jo have been married for 64 years. And all the while he has whittled, raising the craft of wood carving to the level of art.

As a boy he began sketching. Eventually he began painting in oils, before turning to sculpting and wood carving. “I go to my workshop every day to carve, improve my skills, and enjoy my craft,” related Williams. “Carving keeps my mind off me and keeps me focused on my craft.” Asked about a secret to his skill, Williams said, “Wood carving requires patience and time – lots of time.”

I did not meet Tommy Williams until last week. Recently I encountered one of his sons, Keith Williams, who was a student of mine during my first year at Panola College (1970-71). Keith told me a little about his father, emphasizing that an exhibit of his work soon would go on display in the art gallery at the Panola College Library. Last week Mr. and Mrs. Williams came to the library, where they were interviewed for a newspaper article and for my blog. His work is most impressive, and the display includes some of the knives he employs. I took a lot of photos, and I had a good time talking with Mr. and Mrs. Williams, with Keith, and with another son, Gene. And I couldn’t help but reflect that Sam Houston would have enjoyed the display and the conversation as much as I did.
Keith Williams and Librarian Cristie Ferguson

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