Carving a slice of life Conestoga men preserve rural ways in wooden models
BY JON RUTTER, Staff Writer
"Big Daddy" Tom Grassel of Conestoga admires mules.
Likes their loyalty. Appreciates their carefulness.
So about a dozen years ago -- when, by his own reckoning, he officially became "older" and more relaxed -- he started carving 1-i-scale wooden mules.
He'd purchased a decorative 1-i-scale Conestoga wagon and he needed animals to pull the thing.
"I was never real handy," Grassel claims.
But good mule models were hard to find, so he decided to make them himself.
With the help of noted local carver Don Dearolf, Grassel studied and photographed mule anatomy for about six months.
"Then I started in," Grassel says.
Friends Paul Souders and Jim Heistand had also bought Conestogas, which in real life were hauled by teams of six.
So Grassel carved 18 mules.
He hasn't stopped since.
"I made a couple hundred already," estimates Grassel, who is now 73. "Horses and mules, but mostly mules."
He's sold them to buyers in Tennessee, North Carolina, Ohio and Illinois. And, of course, Pennsylvania.
About five years ago he started in on wagon making, with good reason.
"When you have a couple of dozen mules" hanging around, observes his friend John Stehman, the president of the Conestoga Area Historical Society, "you need something for them to do."
The beasts have been getting plenty of workouts of late.
A small army of them got hitched to all sorts of wagons and plows for the 2012 Down on the Farm exhibit at the historical society museum, 51 Kendig Road, Conestoga.
Sixteen meticulous set pieces have emerged so far, showing slices of bygone farm life in the hills of Millersville, Washington Boro and Martic, Manor, Pequea and Conestoga townships.
Grassel -- retired from paving, excavating and Conestoga Wagon restaurateuring -- is known as the informal "Mayor of Conestoga." He got the wheel rolling with the mules.
But, he emphasizes, building the 1-i-scale world has long since become collaborative.
He assembles wagons and does mules, people, teeny harnesses, hardware and wheels.
He'll whip up hay bales for the wagon beds by gluing straw onto small rectangles of wood.
Souders fabricates wagon parts, among other jobs.
Brent Snyder makes hubs, and Paul Spangler fashions iron tires for the rims.
In a long rectangular room at the front of the museum auditorium, Stehman and Dennis Herr are building a permanent display area for the Down on the Farm dioramas.
The project might wrap in late February, more than a month before the museum reopens for the season in April.
But the finish line is carved in wood, not stone.
"This wasn't planned" as a formal endeavor, Grassel says.
"We just sort of do it as the spirit moves us," Souders says.
The spirit is cracking the whip, judging by the men's output –– if not their demeanor.
On a recent cold sunny day, Grassel and his wife, Gerry, invite fellow local history buffs for a leisurely lunch in the farmhouse they've owned for 50 years.
Then Grassel, Souders and Stehman head over to Grassel's shop in an adjoining barn marked by a sign that reads "Grasselville, pop. 39."
Grassel sits down to demonstrate his craft at a Dupli-Carver machine, which allows him to shape a mule by following the contours of a blank, much the way you'd copy a key.
He made his early mules from scratch.
These days, Souders saws out chunky wood silhouettes and Grassel whittles away anything that doesn't look like a cross between a male donkey and a mare.
"I'll make a set of six" mules at a shot, Grassel reports.
But a single animal still takes half a day, not counting smoothing and painting.
Grassel figures the time-consuming work yields $5 to $8 an hour.
"We told him to get his mules from China," Stehman jokes, but "we haven't outsourced yet."
Marrying a new team of mules to a new wagon eats up a month.
"We've built 18 wagons" for Down on the Farm, Souders says.
They have enough jigsawed pieces of oak and poplar for 10 more.
Warming to the story of the project, the trio adjourns to the nearby museum.
Among other stuff, the post-and-beam building is jammed with full-size historical artifacts:
Two majestic swaybacked Conestoga wagons repose side by side.
There's a loft full of hand tools mysterious to the modern eye, a potato plow, a tobacco planter and an old-fashioned wooden coffin propped up waist high.
"This is my coffin," Grassel remarks in passing. "They're going to bury me in it. It's on display until I die."
Is he kidding?
Not a bit, Souders says.
The men are steeped in the old rural ways.
Stehman says his family has been here since 1718 and once operated a blacksmith shop.
"We grew up using some of this stuff," adds Stehman, looking around at the collection the men were able to cull from local barns because "no one around here ever throws anything away."
"I worked on farms from the time I was 12," Grassel says.
Three years ago, after Souders retired from PPL, the men hitched Souders' real-life mules to a plow.
"We farmed tobacco, corn and hay," Grassel recalls. "It was a circus."
Souders, a historical society trustee, has rebuilt full-size wagons from ash, poplar and oak, including the blue farm vehicle on the north side of the barn.
"He flips wagons and hopes he makes pocket money," Stehman wisecracks.
Souders points out the differences among buggies, spring wagons and Conestoga wagons. Despite popular belief, he says, no two of the latter were ever built the same.
The hemp canvas-shrouded prairie schooners, for example, were lighter and had more shear than the Eastern freight behemoths.
The old wagons and farm implements were templates for the miniatures.
Activities shown in the museum dioramas include blacksmithing and tobacco drying, hoeing, planting and stripping.
No tractors intrude on the scenes, which would have unfolded on many farms nationwide around World War II.
But the display is geared strictly local.
Far from generic, the carved human figures that Grassel produces are based on individuals that he, Souders and Stehman know or remember.
They have names such as Shenk and Warfel –– and Souders.
A couple of them might look real familiar.
"That's my dad and that's me," Souders says, pointing to two diorama figures working with long rumpled leaves. "Stripping tobacco."