PEOPLE'S CHOICE: LOCAL CRAFTSMEN TURN COURTHOUSE MAPLES INTO KEEPSAKES OLD MAPLES GET NEW LIVES WITH ARTISANS Centre Daily Times By: Rich Kerstetter July 7, 2004
BENNER TOWNSHIP -- From his law office on High Street in Bellefonte, where he practiced for more than 20 years, Robert L. Martin could gaze out his window at the Centre County Courthouse and the two majestic maple trees that stood before it -- one for nearly a century and a half.
Although his office location changed, the memories of those trees lingered, and when Martin learned they would be removed as part of last year's courthouse renovations, he knew he had to have some of the wood.
So did Steve Strouse.
"I couldn't stand the thought of them just being hauled to a landfill," said Strouse, a professional woodworker who specializes in Shaker-style boxes. Strouse also specializes in salvaging wood from historically significant trees and he includes information about those trees -- their age and where they stood -- on cards accompanying his work.
So independently of each other, the lawyer and the woodworker started making inquiries -- lots of inquiries -- to county officials about the felled sugar maple that dated to 1860 and the Norway maple planted in 1918.
"At one point, one person told me there were so many people interested in the wood that it would be first come, first served," Strouse recalled.
But as it turned out, it was just Martin and Strouse, two Benner Township residents who didn't know each other but, in the process of becoming collaborators in salvaging the wood from the courthouse maples have become good friends and admirers of each other's work.
"Steve has raised the Shaker box to the highest level," Martin said. "He is one of the best woodworkers I have ever encountered."
"We notice that the sodding of the yard in front of the Court House, which has been progressing for some time is now completed. We are glad to see this improvement but regret that through some cause which we are unable to explain, those shade and ornamental trees so often alluded to in the Watchman have not been planted. Why more interest has not been manifested on a subject that would add eventually so much beauty to the appearance of our town, is a matter we feel no particular pleasure in alluding to. If the accumulation of the almighty dollar did not occupy almost the entire time and attention of some of our citizens, perhaps a little more to matters of local improvement would be given."
- The Democratic Watchman, May 7, 1858
Finding historical information about people or buildings is one thing, but where do you go to research the history of a tree?
Strouse went to the Centre County Library and Historical Museum in Bellefonte, where Joyce Adgate is curator of the local history collection in the Pennsylvania Room.
There, and with help from local historian Justin Houser and the Internet, including the Centre County government site, Strouse pieced together the trees' stories. He tells those stories through old photographs, postcards and excerpts from newspaper articles in a display that accompanies his exhibit at shows such as The People's Choice Arts Festival in Boalsburg beginning Thursday.
"I really like his work, and taking the time and interest to research the history of the trees just adds to it," said Adgate, who eventually purchased one of Strouse's Shaker boxes.
"Steve is a master craftsman," said Jennifer Philippoff, store manager at The Gallery Shop in Lemont, where some of Strouse's artwork is on display.
"Technically, he really stands out. He has a real feel and is really able to ‘read’ the wood."
Strouse said working with wood is something he always wanted to do.
"I couldn't wait to get to 10th grade to go to the vo-tech school," he recalled.
Now 41, Strouse started his own business in 1993, first making furniture. Now he makes furniture about two months of the year. The rest of the time he makes Shaker boxes, carriers and other utilitarian artwork from salvaged wood. His raw material includes:
---Silver maple from Linn Street in Bellefonte
---White willow from Talleyrand Park dating from the town's very beginnings
---Historic elms from the Penn State campus, damaged in storms in 1995 and 1996
The pieces made from the Penn State elms are often adorned with a Nittany Lion face.
"People can connect to the pieces when they know about the history of the wood," said Strouse, whose work generally sells from $18 to $145, with one large coffee table-sized cherry chest, with a glass top and curly maple legs, listing for $750.
"I don't like to try to ‘sell’ my stuff at shows," Strouse said. "I love the wood and I love the history. This is what I like to talk about."
"We have lately been strongly impressed with the fact that the fence around the Court House grounds needs repairing badly. The loose hogs in town find it convenient to make that locality a rooting place, and the consequence is a very great disfigurement of the otherwise handsome yard. ... Not only the grounds, but the young trees in the enclosure are in danger of injury, and we hope that the holes and broken places in the fence will be attended to before they get any worse."
-- The Democratic Watchman, April 20, 1866
While Strouse uses kiln-dried boards, Martin turns bowls from green wood. Burls, imperfections, bug infestations, bark intrusions -- the funkier the wood, the better.
"I'm not looking for the perfect piece of wood" Martin said. "I'm looking for something that's gnarly."
And that, said The Gallery Shop's Philippoff, adds to the artistic value of Martin's work.
"He waxes the inside of the bowls and you can use them to hold candy or fruit or whatever," she said. "But Bob is not so concerned about making a perfectly round bowl."
The turned bowls -- which he dries inside four paper bags -- shrink to an eccentric, out-of-round shape, which is exactly the point, said Martin, who making bowls three years ago after spending three days with master craftsman David Ellsworth, of Quakertown.
"I never know what a bowl is going to look like until I start," Martin, 61, explained. "It's not a Zen thing, I just don't know what is in there."
But after putting it on his lathe and gouging out its form, the result is physically, as well as emotionally, satisfying.
And Martin, the hobbyist, shares that satisfaction, that love of wood -- and history -- with Strouse, the professional.
"Pick it up," Martin said of a partially finished bowl. "Rub it. It's sensual." Photo CDT photo/Michelle Klein | Above: Artist Steve Strouse tacks walnut strips after wrapping them on a mold while making Shaker-style boxes in his Bellefonte studio. Left: Robert L. Martin turns a green wood bowl in his lathe. Martin has made about 50 bowls out of sugar maple wood taken from the trees formerly in front of the Bellefonte courthouse.