SULPHUR SPRINGS, Texas – For 77 years, James Day has built many beautiful things. As an architectural engineer, he’s responsible for office buildings, hospitals and colleges from coast to coast. He can look up at some immense constructions of glass and steel and say that he was part of it all, way back when.
Mr. Day, as it turns out, also can whittle a pretty mean stick.
“James L. Day, Western Woodcarver” reads the nameplate proudly displayed on bookshelves in his home in Sulphur Springs. On every side of the nameplate lie his proudest possessions. “This one here,” he says, pointing to an expertly carved wood replica of Frederic Remington’s bronze Outlaw. “It’s just like Remington’s last sculpture. All his stuff is copyrighted, so I couldn’t make it identical, you see. I just turned the horse’s head a little bit.”
On the next shelf over, there is a carving of a man roping a calf. The rider and the hors!e, connected only by the man’s foot in the stirrup and his hand on the saddle horn as he dismounts to tie the calf’s legs, were crafted out of the same block of wood. The calf appears to be running ahead, connected by a long, thin, leather lasso. “That’s all one piece,” Mr. Day said, smiling. “People will look at that and tell me I’m lying, but I’m not. The only thing connecting them is the hand and the foot of the cowboy.”
The wooden display case, occupying an entire wall of his modest living room, is a veritable Western panorama. Bull rider Donny Gay, being tossed off a bucking bull, looks as if he’s in midair. “That’s also one piece of wood,” Mr. Day says quietly. On the shelf above, a wooden rodeo clown dodges the horns of a furious, albeit wooden, charging bull. A mounted Indian, riding bareback, stands sentinel on a top shelf. Lions, bears, Longhorns and bird dogs stand silently on another shelf, while a barrel racer, hair flowing out fro! m under her hat, rounds a barrel in an unseen rodeo.
“These are the only sculptures ever to be shown at the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City,” he said. “I had them up there a couple years ago. These are all my personal collection, though. None of these are for sale.” Over on the piano, on the other side of the room, sits another sculpture. This one, somehow, is a bit different.
“A man here in town offered me six figures for that,” Mr. Day said, as calmly as if he were discussing the weather. The sculpture – a good 3 or 4 feet long – is a stagecoach. Four running horses, a driver, a man riding shotgun and two bandits with drawn pistols inside rob two frightened passengers. Everything on it, in it and around it was carved by hand. The trunks and bags on top of the stagecoach, the passengers, the guns, and even the harness and chains connecting the horses were all carved over the course of five years, he said.
“The chains alone took me 10 hours apiece, just for a couple of inches.” The doors on the coach even have tiny wooden hinges that actually work. The stagecoach is part of an entire Western scene. The Indians over on the bookshelf were even designed to be overlooking the whole scene from high atop a hill, he said. “As I went, I just kept adding more stuff to the scene,” Mr. Day said. “I would carve some, and then someone would say, ‘Why don’t you add some passengers?’ So I did.
“Then someone would ask, ‘Why don’t you add some Indians?’ So I added them, too,” he said. “The whole project started when I saw a little stagecoach carving at a mall in Houston. It was pretty crude, so I told the salesman that if I couldn’t carve one any better than that by myself, then I’d quit. So he said, ‘Why don’t you?’ Well, I didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth, so I did.”
Someday soon, the piece will sit permanently in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. “I could sell it for a lot of money I guess, but who would see it? A rich man and a bunch of his friends. I’d rather get half of the money and have about a million people a year see it in the museum,” he said.
Enjoyment. That, says Mr. Day, is the reason he does it. That’s what first drew him to his other hobby, as well – music. He played the guitar, but a shop accident left one finger stiff, and he shifted to the dulcimer. “I can use just one finger on these,” he said, laughing. A flat, stringed instrument that is strummed like a guitar, dulcimers have been popular folk instruments for many years. He makes those by hand, too.
“It takes me about two weeks to make these. I work on them when I can,” he said, strumming a note or two on the professional-quality instruments. “In fact, I have the only three Irish folk dulcimers in Texas. There are only four in the U.S., and I have three of them. I make them out in the garage,” Mr. Day said, humming a tune as he played along.
“This is a lost art. I enjoy it. I just get started, and I don’t want to quit,’ he said. “If I do this all the time, then I don’t think about what’s wrong with me.”
Distributed by Associated Press
Copyright 1992 The Dallas Morning News Company