Step in Style

Hand-carved walking sticks are useful and beautiful folk art.

“I once carved a figure of a snail crawling on mushrooms onto a walking stick,” says artist Jim Stadtlander of Shalersville Township. “Snails may not be what most people want. But the woman I carved it for liked to find snails when she walked in the woods. People want what interests them on their sticks.”

Stadtlander has carved walking sticks with images of Native Americans, bears, wizards, rabbits, snakes, dragons, wood spirits and whatever else is requested or he feels like making. 

Most of the wood that Stadtlander uses for his creations comes from trees grown on the 70-acre property his family has owned since 1937. The carver’s favorite is butternut, also called white walnut. The lightweight wood — native to Ohio ­— shows a beautiful grain when oiled. But the artist also works with other types of wood and replants his land.

Stadtlander harvests and air- or kiln-dries the wood, and then hand-carves the sticks at his Woodcarved Art Gallery and Studio
in Portage County. Occasionally people find their own sticks in a woods or from a beloved tree in their back yard to give to Stadtlander to make into a unique walking stick. The carver grew up watching his father, George Stadtlander, make beautiful, functional canes from the wood of corkscrew willow trees. Although primarily a self-taught artist, Stadtlander studied human and animal anatomy to give his work a realistic look.

“I guess you could call my walking sticks folk art,” says Stadtlander, who says there are two types of people who buy his sticks: those who actually use them and collectors who wouldn’t dream of getting them muddy.

Michael Hall, adjunct curator of folk art for the
Columbus Museum of Art, agrees with Stadtlander’s description. Hall says folk art is very much alive and well and living in Ohio. He also calls the state a historic “hot bed” for walking sticks because of its location. Throughout the years, Ohio has been a crossroads for people moving west and north, with many opting to stay in the state. The result is “a wonderful mix of history, races and cultural experiences,” says Hall.

“When people move around, there is electricity and that rubs off on creativity,” says Hall, who personally collects walking sticks and also oversees the museum’s collection. “Walking sticks are more informal, more rustic and rural than a formal cane. There is also a level of personalization with a walking stick that you don’t find with a gentleman’s cane, which is more of a fashion accessory.”

Also, because Ohio is between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River, the state provided power and transportation for manufactured goods. Jobs attracted “skilled people who worked with their hands during the day and also in their off hours.” That includes whittling and carving, according to Hall.

“The walking stick as a folk art form was very much under the radar of the debate about what folk art is or isn’t. The Columbus Chippers, for example, are a group of carvers who just continue to carve away and aren’t worried whether what they are doing is folk art,” says Hall, who has seen walking sticks with carvings of a space shuttle and even a sock monkey.    

“Wild” Bill Cox of Bradford Village in Darke and Miami counties is a welder who began carving in 1974 while in the U.S. Navy. Cox enjoys carving wood-spirit faces onto his walking sticks. He is also proud of the Canada goose head he carved from a naturally curved maple stick, complete with glass eyes.

But Cox’s “life canes,” which he has made for several people, are family heirlooms. For his father’s cane, Cox carved images of his mother, his dad’s favorite dog, first sailboat, the destroyer he served on in World War II, dates of college degrees and symbols of fraternal organizations of which he was a member.

“I like to carve things that make people laugh, make them wonder why or how I made it, or something that brings a tear to their eyes,” says Cox, a member of the Dayton Carvers.

Walking stick carver Cliff Reeder of Cincinnati is carrying on a tradition that Hall says goes back to the Civil War, when commemorative sticks were presented to veterans. The 92-year-old Reeder has made 52 walking sticks for today’s wounded war heroes.

He carved an eagle cane for a young Marine who lost both legs and both eyes in combat. The canes, which honor those who served our country, feature an eagle head and/or body. But because the wounded Marine also lost the use of one hand, Reeder modified his design to make it easier to hold. He delivered that cane in person. 

“I grew up in a small country town in Kansas. When I went fishing, I always brought home a stick to work on. My granddaddy had a cane made from diamond willow. I always wanted that wood, so I put an ad in a magazine and a fellow in Saskatchewan, Canada, sent me some,” says Reeder, whose workshop is a converted coal bin in his home’s basement.

It took Reeder, a member of the River Valley Wood Carvers, three years to make his own walking stick. He always put the work on hold to make a stick someone requested for a wounded vet.

The carving of walking sticks traditionally has been very much a masculine pursuit. Older canes often reflect what once were primarily male interests, including military, politics, men-only clubs and
societies. Some sticks even present rather risqué themes. Vintage folk art sticks and canes are now highly collectible.

But now more women, including Stadtlander’s wife, Diane Harto, are carvers. Contemporary folk art canes reflect the change. Harto, a nature artist who also teaches carving, has made several sticks, including one depicting four, frolicking chipmunks.

Although walking sticks have always been used by some hikers, they are finding more converts who appreciate them for their beauty, protection possibilities, steadying ability and even for pushing poison ivy off a path. Some sticks show carvings of wildflowers, mushrooms or birds to help with field identification.

Just don’t mention those mass-produced, aluminum telescoping walking sticks to Stadtlander — unless you want to see a grown man cringe.