Bill Woell first visited the Elkin-Jonesville area in 2009 to visit a couple of old Marine buddies and ended up staying a while.
He was walking out of the Elkin Public Library one day when he saw a school bus sitting in the parking lot and walked over to it. Woell said he started taking a photo of it with his cell phone camera when he noticed a woman sitting inside.
“So I stuck my head in the door and said, ‘What can you tell me about this bus?’” he recalled.
“Why?” he said she responded. “Do you want to buy it?”
Woell asked why she would want to sell it. The school needs a bigger one, she told him.
Years before, Woell, who said he is “70 going on 14,” had drawn out a floor plan to strip out a bus and turn it into a mobile woodworking shop he could drive around the country for shows. His children were young then, so he put the idea on a back burner.
A lot of time had passed since then, and his children were grown and living in different areas of the country. Woell told the woman he actually would be interested in buying the bus, so she called someone at the private school to which it belonged to talk to him about it. By the time he hung up, Woell had arranged to make a downpayment on it.
That was in January of 2010. Woell returned to North Dakota and didn’t make it back down here for three years.
After someone at the school called and told him he had to come get the bus, Woell returned in August of 2013. This time he ended up staying in State Road.
“I began to get connected with some key people of like minds and similar interests,” he said, “so the pieces began to fit together in a way that just made sense.”
Woell had met Judy Wolfe of Jonesville the first time he visited the area, so he and some other individuals interested in offering heritage craft classes and demonstrations met with her about helping them get started. “She knew who to talk to and how to get the wheels turning,” he said.
Woell said Wolfe told him, “Give me a week.” It didn’t take that long.
At the Jonesville Town Council’s June meeting, Wolfe made a presentation on creating a Foothills Heritage Learning Center at the old Town Hall on West Main Street. Woell displayed some of his woodwork at the meeting so they could get an idea of what he proposed to teach and demonstrate.
Town council members agreed for Wolfe to proceed with developing a proposal for the project, so she and Woell contacted an independent contractor to go through the building to assess the amount of work needed and help with estimates.
The town hall, located beside the Jonesville Public Library, has been empty since town officials moved into their new Town Hall on N.C. 67 in April of 2008.
After receiving the assessment results, Wolfe worked with Town Manager Scott Buffkin to come up with a one-year lease agreement for the building, which is now being reviewed by an attorney before being presented to council members for final approval. Once the lease is approved, Wolfe, Woell and others working to create the heritage center will begin fund-rasing efforts for the project.
Once the center is up and going, Wolfe said Woell will be the resident craftsman, offering woodworking classes and demonstrating woodcrafting skills for all ages, including school children on field trips.
Woell is passionate about his desire to introduce woodworking skills to young people. Growing up in North Dakota, he was only 2 when he started working with wood.
“I remember exactly when I did it,” he said. “My parents would buy fruit from Texas, California and Florida to can, and it would come in wooden crates.”
Woell said he broke a slab off one of the crates and used his father’s file to shape it into a hunting knife. “I even made a little sheath out of construction paper,” he said. “My parents thought I made a mess, but I thought it was beautiful.”
That was the beginning of Woell’s lifelong love of working with wood. It came natural to him, and he loved doing it growing up. In 1962, when he was a senior in high school, Woell’s woodworking entry won the North Dakota industrial arts competition.
After graduation, he worked as a commercial artist for a couple of years before “Uncle Sam told me that I was going to soon be joining the ranks of the military in some regard. I decided I better make my own choice and joined the Marines.”
Even while stationed in Vietnam, Woell said, “I made very good friends with the trees.” The trees in Vietnam are very exotic, he said, with ultra hard wood, perfect for making gun stocks.
“I would go outside the perimeters,” he said, “and I’d cut on those trees just to maintain my sanity. That was my way of dealing with my frustration on that whole period.
“I came back with a few pieces of wood that are very beautiful.”
When it comes to trees, Woell said the Elkin-Jonesville area has one of the greatest hardwood forests on the planet. “If you like hardwood,” he said, “this is about as close to Heaven as you’re ever going to get.
“The more you come to understand trees, the more you read about them and the more you spend time getting to know what they’re all about,” Woell said, “it just enhances your appreciation for that they provide us with. Each different variety has its own attributes and characteristics, and it’s in understanding what those are that you can apply them a way that is advantageous.”
Some types of wood are appreciated for their visual beauty, he said, while “others like hickory isn’t particularly nice to look at but it’s a rugged material that gives tremendous service in certain applications.
“Our ancestors were dependent on having a working understanding of these various characteristics and attributes,” Woell said, “because they literally were dependent on them for their livelihood.” The primary purpose of the mulberry tree, for example, he said, was to make pegs used in the assembly of wooden ships.
The northern white cedar, as another example, was used to make canoes. One of the first classes Woell wants to offer is canoe building along with basic woodworking, basic wood turning, leatherworking and some basic metalworking.
“Then as we begin to get established and people start to hear what we’re doing and there’s enough interest,” he said, “we’ll pick up other kinds of courses and begin to offer them as it becomes feasible. We’re in the early stages of putting this together.”
Woell has been gathering wood for a while and as word of his plans began to get out, people started donating wood. Among them are beautiful, long pieces of cherry along with beech, white oak, black walnut and other varieties.
He already has made some handles for tools from fiddleback maple he found on North Bridge Street in Elkin. Woell said he was driving by one day and saw some people clearing an area of trees and stopped and asked if he could have some of it. “They said, ‘Take whatever you want.’”
Woell stored the wood in his bus, which he said turned out to be a perfect wood kiln. “I had no idea what I was doing at the time,” he said. “I just knew that if I put black paper on the south side, it would cause it to be warm and I had a little bit of air movement through there so by chance it worked out.”
Wood dried too quickly can crack or split, Woell said.
If approved, the woodworking component of the center will be based in the basement, which opens onto a covered concrete area so crafters can work outside.
Woell said one of the first classes he plans to offer will be on building portable workbenches. “That’s kind of a basic requirement to building anything,” he said. “You need a work surface on which to build … and the work bench has certain design features that allow you to hold the material that you’re working with.
“That’s an art and craft unto itself.”
When asked about the importance of passing woodworking skills on to younger generations, Woell responded, “I can write a book on that. Seriously.”
Woell jokes a lot, but at this point, he got very serious. “One of the things missing with young people today,” he said, “is the sense of accomplishment that you historically got when you made something with your own hands. You get a sense of accomplishment that you can’t get any other way.
“They don’t sell it at Wal-Mart. You can’t get it on ebay.”
Kathy Chaffin can be reached at 336-258-4035.