BRUNSWICK, GA. | If you live in coastal Georgia and Florida, you’ve probably seen big trucks roll through your neighborhood and pick up the piles of once stately trees that Hurricane Matthew and Tropical Storm Irma turned into debris.
Those trees that once provided nesting places for songbirds, hangers for Spanish moss, shade and food for squirrels have mostly been ground to mountains of mulch. But some of Matthew’s wrack and ruin is still beautiful, or at least something useful, thanks to the work of a volunteer.
Blair and Suzette Brumbaugh tow their fifth-wheel camper down from York, Pa., each year to join two other couples as campground hosts at the Hofwyl-Broadfield Plantation State Historic Site north of Brunswick. Hosts are volunteers who work the counter and do other chores around the visitor center, do some painting, landscaping and, in the case of Hofwyl, some restoration work.
“We’re here four months out of the year. Maybe,” Blair Brumbaugh said.
In past years, they split time between Hofwyl and Magnolia Springs State Park near Millen. This is the first year they’ll spend the winter at Hofwyl, he said.
They came down in 2016 and when they went home earlier this year, Brumbaugh loaded up some of pieces of the red cedar, pine and live oak that Matthew had pushed down that would have otherwise gone onto a burn pile.
When the Brumbaughs came back for their winter stint, they brought cutting boards, footstools, trivets and other “Hofwyl wood” pieces he had worked on back home. There are also some long shaved sticks. Whether they’re walking sticks or hiking sticks probably depends on how much the user paid for shoes.
Most of it, especially the walking/hiking sticks, is on sale in the visitor center but the Brumbaughs have an oak and pine table in their camper and their neighbor volunteers have a red cedar table that seems to glow like a subdued version of ET’s heart.
Asked why he does it, Brumbaugh, who sold his auto garage and retired when he was in his late 50s, shrugged and said simply, “Something to keep me occupied.”
He had some experience having made a lot of furniture, bedroom and living room suites, wall closets, hutches, tables and the like. That all required cutting wood into precise rectangles, usually along the grain, with laser-straight surfaces.
That changed, he said, when a neighbor down the street in Troy “got me into freestyle.”
So what does freestyle mean?
It means letting the wood keep its character. The junction of a tree branch stays as an short appendage on a table with the swirling grain of the junction exposed. The legs on tables and stools are only as straight as the limbs or saplings grew. If a tree has a hollow spot that leaves a hole, it’s not disqualified from use. Brumbaugh will plug the gap with another piece of wood, sometimes from a different species that adds character and another hue.
While most furniture wood is cut with fine-toothed precision, Brumbaugh doesn’t travel with those sorts of saws.
Asked how he cuts the tree trunks into boards, Brumbaugh said, “Chainsaw.” Pointing out some barely visible chainsaw tooth marks on a finished piece of wood, he said. “That’s pretty much my signature.”
After he saws out the wide planks, Brumbaughs uses hand planes to shave them slick.
He travels with numbered baskets with glue, nails, hole saws, drills, his collection of hand planers and other tools. He does have access to a good workshop at the home of another Hofwyl-Broadfield volunteer couple who liked the area so much they became permanent residents.
Hofwyl doesn’t get all of the Brumbaughs’ free labor.
Suzette Brumbaugh pulled out one of the books of photographs from their travels in the West. They take pictures at every stop including their other regular volunteer stint at Golden Hill State Park on Lake Ontario about halfway between Niagara Falls and Rochester, N.Y., and provide them to the parks.
They do tours at Golden Hill at the Thirty Mile Lighthouse the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned in 1958.
The Brumbaughs and other volunteers were busy last week decorating Hofwyl-Broadfield’s antebellum plantation house for the annual candlelight Christmas tour the past Friday and Saturday. Once he has some free time, Brumbaugh has a couple of boards waiting beneath his camper, both cut wide and freestyle.
Not everything sells, park Superintendent Bill Giles said.
“When you’re on the way from New York to Florida, you don’t have room to carry the big pieces like a table,” Giles said.
Meanwhile, visitors buy smaller pieces of Hofwyl wood that they put to work or on display as a piece of art rescued from the chipper.
Hofwyl mulch? It probably wouldn’t sell.
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