Stories set in wood

Published 10:40 am Friday, December 26, 2008

There is a long-standing saying in journalism that everyone has a story to tell.

Cliff Gilley is no exception to that rule. Not only is he a story in himself, but he has quite a collection of stories about others garnered through his long-time hobby of wood carving.

Gilley, a resident of Chattahoochee, Fla., has created more than 175 wood carvings since he began in 1953 at the age of 20. He has compiled a book about his carvings, given a written background of each, and kept records on the persons for whom he carved them. It is illustrated with photos of the carvings, and in many instances includes the individuals to whom they were given.

His inspiration for wood carving came from an old Kentucky mountain man he knew as a young boy back in Gray, Ky.

Gilley was born in Kentucky in 1930, grew up in Lynch, and whenever he visited his grandparents in Gray, he came to know the old gentleman who stayed with his grandparents and observe him carving walking canes.

Gilley said he began whittling when he was stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg N.C. Being short of funds, he was looking for something to do to fill his spare time. He remembered the old man and thought maybe that was something he could try. He found a 2-by-6-inch pine board and began working on it with a pocket knife.

The first item he produced was a horse head, originally intended to be mounted to a horseshoe that would hold an ash tray. That is the first story and carving in his book.

Through the years he says he progressed from a whittler to a carver, and now calls himself a sculptor of wood.

He has produced many items ranging from wildlife figures and wooden flowers, to reproductions of family pets, and includes the Lonesome Totem Pole located in the backyard of his Chattahoochee neighbor, Billy Johnson.

Johnson, a Native American, had been accepted into the E-Chota Cherokee Tribe in DeFuniak Springs, Fla., and he commissioned Gilley to make the totem pole for him. Gilley said he worked on the 12-foot cedar log for 111 hours, carving a 3-foot American Bald Eagle that sits atop a 3-foot black bear, which in turn stands on a 4-foot Cherokee Indian.

Gilley’s wife, Margaret, alerted The Post-Searchlight to Gilley’s art work and personal history. She said the idea came to her as she began to set up the hand-carved Nativity scene for Christmas.

Most of Gilley’s work is done from red cedar. He found and transplanted a small cedar seedling to his home. Forty years later the tree had grown to a 40-inch circumference and began to deteriorate. Limbs were dying and falling off. He called the city and asked if they would cut it down since it was in the city right-of-way. His one request was that the trunk be cut in 36-inch lengths, and that he be allowed to keep it and any of the large limbs. They agreed, and now people call him and offer him cut cedars. He said he has a backyard full. His second choice for woodworking is cypress.

When Gilley retired in October 1995 as purchasing agent with the Apalachee Correctional Institution he had to find a new home for many of his carvings. He decided to donate the three American bald eagles to the Museum of Science and Natural History in Tallahassee, where they now reside.

An amazing thing about Gilley is that he was declared legally blind in 1998. He can no longer read or drive a car, but he can still do his wood sculpting. He does it all by touch. He said it is amazing how much clearer his memory is now that he has lost his eyesight.

Gilley, at age 78, has had three open-heart surgeries, the latest in September 2008. Up until then he walked two miles a day. He isn’t about to give up on his activities. He and his wife bowl twice a week. He does stand-up comedy, is a professional clown and is a lay preacher in the Baptist Church where he is a long-time member.

He has also written six books, four of which are in print.

The latest, titled “My 38 Years in the Chain Gang,” is about his years of working for the Florida Department of Corrections. It is available from Books a Million via Internet. Other book titles are “Fishing with the Colonel,” “Hunting with the Best” and his woodcarving book, done at the suggestion of his daughter, Melinda Cort.

It is full of anecdotes and photos of his work, but was done primarily for his family.

Following the death of Gilley’s first wife, Wilma, he married Margaret Neely, a retired Hutto Middle School teacher and the widow of Reuben Neely, a former principal in the Decatur County Schools.

Gilley is currently working on carvings for each of Margaret’s nine grandchildren.

Who knows, maybe one of them will be inspired to take up the hobby in years to come.