All the years that I lived on the farm, now called “Foliage Farm,” on Christman Road near Monterey, Mom had a three inch sculpted wooden cat, with the date 1886 on the bottom, perched on the fireplace mantel of our living room.
We children were told that Mom was given this wooden cat by her father, William Kohler (1857-1919), the whittler. He owned a farm in Greenwich Township, Berks County, near Kohler’s hill. William (the grandfather I never met) was the third generation of Kohlers to farm the land.
Whenever someone stopped by our farm and commented on the cat, Mom told them this story: “My father loved nature, the stars and even woke me up in the middle of the night to see the aurora borealis (northern lights). I was the baby in a family of seven and my father and I were close. I often watched my father whittle, especially winter months, sitting next to the warmth of the kitchen stove. He gave his carvings and wood puzzles away as gifts to friends.”
William Kohler’s son, John (my mother, Mary Christman’s brother) succeeded in farming the Kohler farm some 39 years before he retired. John, having learned the woodcarving art from his father, was noted in the area for his many wooden puzzles that came apart only “if you knew the trick!”
My mother had numerous carved puzzles from Uncle John at our farmhouse. I always felt, on visits to Uncle John’s farm as a youngster, he enjoyed watching us struggle to figure out how to take apart these wooden puzzles, as we did trying.
I think all of my sisters and myself had a wooden jewelry box made by Uncle John. I also recall the fun we had with a “jumping man.” The man hung by strings attached to a wooden slat on either side. When you squeezed the wooden sides together at the bottom, the man jumped up in the air.
The next whittler in our family is my sister Anita’s youngest son, Jonathan Bastian.
For the centennial of the 1886 Kohler cat, Jonathan carved a replica of William Kohler’s (his grandfather’s) cat in 1986. Through my sister, Anita, all the sisters received one of the limited edition 1986 cats.
Like my mother’s, my 1986 Kohler cat has a prominent place perched on the coffee table in my living room.
My sister Anita told me, “When Jonathan still lived at home, we took many walks in the woods. He often saw things in wood that I could not see. Often he could be found in his father’s woodcarving shed, whittling.”
Jonathan told me, “I began carving wood some 30 years ago. At a young age, I was surrounded by the Pennsylvania Dutch Arts. All I wanted to do was sculpt my world.”
Jonathan’s catalog (www.J1806B.com) includes carved interpretations of well-known folk carvers such as Schimmel and Simmons, as well as some unnamed carvers from in and around his native Berks County. His body of work also encompasses a wide variety of original carvings, including Santas, farm animals, wild creatures, fish, birds and nautical and patriotic pieces.
His works can be seen at select shows, the Robesonia Pottery and shops at Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. This past July, he presented his woodcarvings at the Art and Artisan Show for the first time. Today, Jonathan resides in rural King and Queen City, Virginia.
Jonathan’s belief is, “Folk art has survived generation to generation, not because it is dictated by a designer’s whim, but rather embodies the spirit of the folk and the artist.”
Carole Christman Koch grew up in Berks County and has been published in numerous publications. She has a passion for writing and has many stories from growing up on a farm to everyday stories.