The term whittling refers to “the making of useful things.” It is a folkway with roots deep in the heritage of the people of the Ozarks country of Arkansas and parts of southern Missouri. In the heyday of whittling, pocket knives were given to boys at a young age as a rite of passage. A son given a pocket knife by his father learned “facts of life,” such as how to sharpen a knife properly. Only as recently as the 1960s has whittling been considered a vintage activity.
The required tools for whittling are a pocket knife, a piece of wood, an idea, and the knowledge of how to sharpen a knife. The choice of wood varies; cedar, linden, catalpa, and white pine are popular, as they are softer woods and more pliable for the knife. The end products vary and can be anything the whittler desires to create.
Whittling is a pastime for some people, but to others it is an occupation, obsession, and way of life. Arkansas native Junior Cobb (1941–2011) made his living as a whittler. He famously said, “They want to call it carving, but I call it whittlin’.” A self-taught whittler, he utilized catalpa wood, and tourists passing through Arkansas would stop at his house on Highway 5 in Mountain Home (Baxter County) to buy a souvenir of their trip. He had a sign posted next to his house that read “Junior Cobb. Odd carvings.” Cobb would sit and tell a story to visitors as he whittled “whatever they ask[ed him] for.” People could not miss his house when driving up Highway 5; it was always in stages of being built and rebuilt.
Whittler V. L. Hill (1899–1983) of Rogers (Benton County) used white pine or linden, and he whittled an assortment of animals, including turkeys, mules, and “wild” razorbacks. For Hill, whittling began as a hobby to pass the time in the evenings after work, but it quickly developed into his profession.
The folk custom of whittling can also come with a stigma of laziness or backwardness. Some people dislike being called whittlers and prefer to be called wood carvers, which sounds more artistic and professional. Some, however, are proud to use the more traditional term of whittler.
The Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View (Stone County) hosts craft fairs and workshops for visitors to learn and participate in the pastime. Though whittling has diminished as a popular activity, there are still those who have a passion for the trade and keep it alive by teaching others.
For additional information:
Deane, Ernie. Ozarks Country. Branson, MO: Ozarks Mountaineer. 1988.
McNeil, W. K. Ozark Country. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Ozark Folk Center State Park. http://www.ozarkfolkcenter.com (accessed September 16, 2021).
Reithel, Dawn. Ozark People: The New Pioneers. N.p.: Pinter Publishing. 1990.
Saline County, Arkansas
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