Creating connections through the arts and across cultures

Daddy’s Carved & Whittled Menagerie: How he started

For decades my father carved a menagerie of animals from walnut and pine. Some of this wood came from our own place. He whittles these with two blades of a pocket knife. He's given away 100s of these to folks who proudly display them on their desks and mantle pieces.

He started to write up funny pedigrees to go with each animal. Each one is signed "I. M. A...." dog, mule, deer, horse, cat...and so forth.

Pop says: Through the years our family has become pretty well acquainted with various animals. We considered them as part of our family, although we did not entertain them in our house. Certainly they were a good part of our our lives.

Somewhere along the line I started writing down how I imagined the little animal would feel and think. I wrote it as if the animal was speaking. We've received many happy responses from people that we gave the carvings to feel we had done a good job of capturing the thoughts of the animal.

His carving like so much that he's done in his life is purely a labor of love. Once we investigated selling them in a gift shop in Grafton. But, it quickly became clear that the price would in no way reflect the amount of work he put into each one. He's given away his work ever since. --Janet

How I got started whittling and carving
by Erwin A. Thompson

How did I start carving out little animals? I might say that it was an accident. Certainly I didn't plan it.

Something over fifty years ago, our son, Gary was in Scouts. We did all of the various things that were in the handbook, and the boys mastered the skills that were explained. It was winter time, and inside meetings got to be boring. I was in the Scout office one day, and saw this little book on carving little figures. I bought the booklet.

At that time I owned a real cap and ball pistol, thirty six caliber. This is a collector's item. I never saw another one.

The boys all chose to do the pistol, and they did a good job of it! I drew out the basic pattern, and cut it out on the jig saw.

There was a picture of a little mule in the book. I decided that I would try to do it. The boys did not need me, they were totally involved in their own projects!

I finished my mule about the same time that the boys got done with their guns. By that time it was spring!

So I put the little mule on the mantle and we all admired it.

Our daughter, Janet, had a friend in third grade who was very fond of horses. In later years, as an adult, he became a veterinarian.

Janet asked me if she could give Steve the little mule for his birthday. They were good friends, and I liked him also; so after due deliberation I agreed.

After that when I looked up at the mantle, and didn't see the mule, I missed it. The place where it'd been looked empty.

My wife Ruth went to visit our oldest daughter in Nevada. I was lonesome. I decided to make another mule. The old pattern was long gone by that time. I made another pattern, and cut out the basic shape of the mule. By the time Ruth got home, there was once again a mule on the mantle.

When Janet saw it, she said: "Oh Daddy! The little mule is back! You've got to make me another little mule!" So, of course I made her another little mule.

That lasted all of two days. "Oh Daddy! A friend came to visit me, yesterday. She loves that little mule. You've got to make a little mule for her!"

So the procession went. I finally saturated the market for little mules. I was ready to quit. My wife, always on the side of progress, said: "Are you just going to carve mules all the time?"

I made a pattern for a deer, and cut that out. Up to here, I was doing all of the knife work at home.

I had a job that included a lot of waiting time. I also had a young helper who liked to drive the truck. I found I could whittle during the driving time and the waiting time. I began to whittle at work.

Some of my fellow workers noticed what I was doing, and tried their skills. It was interesting for all of us. I got the idea of making little holes with the point of my knife to represent the eyes from one of them.

I went to scout meetings. Joe Wannamakerne--oneof the other scout leaders saw what I was doing, and asked about it. I explained the process, and he said he would like to try. He never stopped. He has achieved national fame as a wood carver. He started out with a little mule that could be carried in his shirt pocket!

My carvings are scattered all over the world. I know for sure that there are some in Africa (Ghana, and Botswana), and England. People mention the carvings in their letters.

Ruth and I used to visit bird refuges. She was a truly diligent birder, identifying each bird and logging the location in which it was found. We often gave carvings to fellow birders who became interested in my carving as we talked.

We gave them to the park rangers, who were very generous in allowing us to get into the real refuge sometimes, back behind gates that were normally kept locked. They knew that we would not disturb anything, and they were really interested in what we would see. We always stopped on our way out and gave them a list of our findings.

We gave the carvings to the flight agents when we flew those years when we were flying once a week to and from the refuges and our relatives.

These flight agents got to be friends. Sometimes they gave us a seat in coach, but told us not to sit down yet. Pretty soon (when they were sure that there were no real takers) they showed us to a first class seat.

Once we traded a carving to a nurseryman up in Wisconsin for a clump of ornamental grass.

During the 1973 flood I was stationed in Grafton with no specific duties. Mostly I waited--on guard to see what might happen. Half a dozen youngsters gathered around as I whittled. I showed them how and they started whittling out foxes or dogs.

It has been a lot of fun!

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10 Responses »

  1. Visiting a friend this past weekend, she showed me the place of honor bestowed on a Big Dog and Little Dog in her home. Those two dogs were carved by Erwin and gifted to her sons from a donation he made to the school that two of his great grandsons attend. They are counted among her treasured keepsakes and on the same shelf as her family albums and will leave home with her boys as keepsakes and memories when the times comes. Her interest was piqued when I mentioned he also carves a cock-eared mule, the animal that kicked off his whittled Animal Kingdom.

  2. i was so taken with the gentle whittlings of this kind and very wise man. I spoke with Janet about the story behind these little creatures. I hadn't a clue Mr. Thompson would do this. In his own fashion, Mr. Thompson has penned his story about the beginnings of his menagerie. Hayner is so very fortunate to have a sampling of his works, along with the pedigrees, and now the history to go with them. I look forward to being able to display his work in our new facility. Thank you so much.

  3. What a wonderful story. And all I can say is that what you Dad had done with his 'little mules' and other animals is art in the truest sense as it comes from the heart from artist to art lover! I'm so glad to see that these wonders are going to be displayed and their story told for everyone to enjoy!


  4. Erwin:

    The more we learn about you, the better it gets. Your spontaneous unplanned whittling career and the joy it brought to others (and yourself) is yet another example of the great unconscious at work.

    Be well,


  5. Thanks, Janean for telling just one of the many stories of how beloved Pop's critters are and the difference they've made in people's lives.

    Aunt Janet

    Dear Cathie,

    Thanks for asking Pop to tell the stories behind his carvings. We'll always looking for gaps of his bigger story to tell. Some things are too well known to think of asking him to write about. We look forward to when you move from the Illinois Room into the Illinois Building!



    Dear Susan,

    As an artist, you know how much heart and labor it takes to make something. What's particularly sweet about his little carvings is how humble they seem, and yet how finely observed. I'm attaching a photo of several in a stack.


    Dear Eden,

    It's been so good for each of us to learn more about each other's parents. Adele and Erwin have been such good teachers and models for us.


  6. I have a pony foal here, I think he's made of walnut. I'm looking at him right now. Two years ago when I visited and you asked me to pick one out, I picked him--liked the little mule, too, but chose the pony foal. Took him home on the train, wrapped up in a T shirt, and he made it intact. Lots and lots of people used to whittle. The Norwegian bachelor farmers would sit outside the train station in my home town near Madison, WI. They would spit tobacco on the railroad tracks and whittle (I did not copy this from Lake Wobegon Days, it is really true).I guess there used to be more jobs with waiting time. Men would whittle and the women would knit, crochet or embroider.

  7. Dear Fran,

    Thanks for the story of how you picked the pony foal...and how you had to choose between it and the little mule.

    Thanks, too, for the images of other codgers waiting and whittling.


  8. Erwin is a wonderful soul. He not only practices art but practically lives art - music, craft, and writing. An inspiring presence for us!

  9. Hi Erwin and Janet,
    As I type, my ET original carvings of my dog and pig are guarding my desk. I'll treasue them always and love the tale of how you came to carve, Erwin. Thinking of you often with fond memories, Arletta

  10. Dear Ernest,

    I can only agree. That's what's most inspired me about my father's brand of creativity: no fuss, no muss, he just does it.

    By the way, Recovering the Self website looks beautiful and booming.


    It's good to know that your dog and pig are safe and sound--doing their work. I'm so glad you could swing by to visit us on your trip.


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