Beauty in the Fall 

 

Local Group Turns Prayer Tree Into Everyday Items

 

By Matt Gonzales, Daily News Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

 

Donna Miller displays her favorite works turned from the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree, which fell during a storm in 2011. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)

 

Following its fall, area woodturners have created various items from the white oak of the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree. (Photo by Nikki Fox / DN-R)

 

In June 1862, the American Civil War was approaching its climax when Confederate Maj. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson led a 15,000-troop brigade through the Shenandoah Valley in a series of battles that helped shape the conflict, while cementing Jackson’s legendary status. 

During this time, Jackson often gathered his troops beneath a towering then 200-year-old white oak tree, located in an open field near Mount Meridian in northern Augusta County, and lead a prayer session before heading into battles at nearby Cross Keys and Port Republic.

“Stonewall Jackson was a very religious man,” said Nancy Sorrells, president of the Augusta County Historical Society. “The prayers included asking God to watch over [the men], protect them and lead them to victory.”

Given the sweltering heat that comes with summer weather in the Valley, Sorrells added that Jackson and his troops would likely gather under the massive oak and use its shade to their advantage.

Standing 70-feet tall, with a 123-inch diameter, the appropriately named Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree became a recognizable fixture in the Shenandoah Valley for many decades afterward, until the disease-ridden tree succumbed to a wind storm May 27, 2011, after standing approximately 350 years.

“The tree suffered from oak rot, so, over the years, the weather got the best of it,” said Donna Miller, a 58-year-old Grottoes farmer whose family owns the property on which the tree once stood. “But then, one day, this group contacted me, and asked if we would donate the wood from the prayer tree to them.”

That group was the Woodturners of the Virginias, headquartered in Mount Jackson, which is a 14-year-old woodturning club known for taking blocks of wood and transforming them into a variety of objects, including bowls, pens and necklaces.

Roger Chandler, communications director of WoVA, reached out to Miller after learning of the tree’s demise through a newspaper article that had published in the Daily News-Record.

“I started reading this article about a historic tree falling,” he explained. “Given that I am a wood turner who is also interested in the preservation of history, I thought it would be a shame to allow this tree to become firewood.

“I wanted to give the tree a second life.”

Chandler, along with the president of WoVA, Don Voas, met with Miller that same week to discuss the possibilities that could come of donating the wood to the club. Sold on the idea, Miller agreed to give the club exclusive rights to the tree and, a week later, the process of dismembering the oak began.

Approximately 20,000 pounds of wood were salvaged from the tree during the operation, followed by hours of labor put in by the club in order to use the material.

Chandler explained that the project had its share of “challenging” moments due to the timber’s age and condition, such as battling decay and rot. Ultimately, “about 97 percent” of the wood was recovered and turned.

He added that a few surprises arose during the severing process.

“We killed three or four snakes that were still in the tree,” laughs Chandler. “That was definitely a surprise.”

The club used a band saw and lathe in order to shape and spin the wood, carving out items such as vases, replica baseball bats, bark-edged bowls and even Christmas tree ornaments.

Some of these items were donated to museums, including the Richmond Historical Society, Grand Caverns Gift Shop and Oasis Fine Art & Craft located in downtown Harrisonburg, while others were sold at craft shows and similar venues, with a portion of each sale benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project; the proceeds totaled $2,100.

Miller — who knew little about wood turning — now has a curio cabinet in her home filled with a collection of the items produced with the tree’s wood.

“I was so ecstatic that [WoVA] contacted us in the first place,” admitted Miller.

“Now, the tree has been given a second life.”

 

Reprinted with the permission of the author, Matt Gonzales, of the Daily News Record, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Contact Matt Gonzales at (540) 574-6265 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


 

 

 

The Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree

By Bob Rotche

 

 

As a regular on several of the woodturning forums, I’ve followed this story with interest for the past few years. I’ve also run across a number of the items turned from this historic tree in several regional galleries. I’ve spoken to Roger Chandler a couple times about the project and knowing my interest, he was kind enough to forward the article to me and we obtained permission from the author to reprint it for our readers.

Given Roger’s intimate involvement with the project, I asked him for a little more background and perhaps some additional pictures to better complete the story. “For me personally........coordination of this project was taxing at times, frustrating at times, but overall, it was rewarding, as a piece of history has been preserved and many people have a piece of that history to hold in their hands, display in their homes, or in a museum.............there is no way this could have been done without the help, labor and involvement of many woodturners from both Woodturners of the Virginias and Central Virginia Woodturners!   All who worked so hard deserve much appreciation for their labor and time in the project..........without them, it just would not have happened!   Special thanks and appreciation to Mrs. Donna Miller and her family for allowing the preservation of this tree........she was very helpful and fully supportive from the first time we met with her and shared some goals we had for this historic tree.”

Given the size of the tree, harvesting the lumber was clearly a huge job.

 

“There is no way to accurately assess the amount of man hours which have gone into this project as a whole........hours are still being expended on what is left of the wood, but know for sure, this project for a bunch of retired and nearly retired guys was a monumental undertaking!”

 


 

 

 

 

In addition to preserving a bit of history, funds were raised for a number of worthy causes including around $3000 for the Wounded Warrior Project as well as for preservation of civil war battlefields.

“Pieces donated were auctioned off to support the preservation efforts or were made available to significant donors to those preservation efforts in appreciation for their support.  A number of items made from this wood went to museums, etc for historical preservation.”

Of course, one of the first pieces was presented to Donna Miller, the original owner of the tree.

 

The condition of the wood made the turning more challenging than was expected. “This SJPT wood is the most difficult wood I have ever worked with.   It's condition and age made it have many issues, as it was a diseased tree........punky areas [oak rot]  it would crack if you smiled at it!!!"   A former club president who has turned a good bit of this wood says "it is the most difficult wood known to woodturners!   Anything refined from this wood is almost impossible.........rustic designs are the order of the day for this wood!”

Despite these challenges, Roger and his fellow club members were able to produce quite a few pieces and preserve an important piece of American history. I’m sure it was a very rewarding experience and a great demonstration of what we can achieve with a little hard work and a lot of cooperation. Here are just a few examples of things that Roger has made from the wood of the Stonewall Jackson Prayer Tree.

 

Many thanks to Roger Chandler for his work coordinating this effort and his willingness to share the story with us here at Woodturners Unlimited.

 

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