Historic wood for a historic occasion

Fashioning a gavel from wood should take an experienced turner no more than an hour.

But this was no ordinary "heart pine" on the lathe in front of Mooresville woodturner Jeff Mathews last weekend.

The wood came from a tree that probably sprouted before the Revolution. It came from an 1830 house in the community of Speed, near Rocky Mount in eastern North Carolina.

Area residents expected Gen. William Sherman's Union soldiers to burn the home during their march northward through the state, but for some unknown reason, instead they poured molasses down its interior steps.

New N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis of Cornelius chose the historic wood to mark another piece of history: The first time in nearly 140 years that Republicans have assumed control of the General Assembly.

Tillis wanted one-of-a-kind gavels for himself and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger made of "heart pine" from a specimen of North Carolina's official tree, the longleaf pine. He found the old heart pine with the help of the N.C. Forestry Association.

"It's a historic legislative session," Tillis said. "I think we need to have gavels with a little history, too."

Tillis called for a willing volunteer woodturner on his Facebook page. The stipulation: The turner should be a Republican with a voting record.

Mathews volunteered and got the job.

"I am a conservative Republican, and I wanted to be a part of this," said the owner of Mooresville-based Old World Molding Co., which produces commercial molding for custom homes.

Last weekend, Mathews spent an entire morning and part of the afternoon crafting the gavel in the home workshop of fellow woodturner John Melius of Mooresville.

Melius is an experienced turner who teaches the craft at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, in western North Carolina. He lent a second pair of eyes and an occasional chisel to the historic gavel last weekend.

"You know they sell these things downtown for $3.98," Melius joked after Mathews had spent several painstaking hours on the gavel.

At 51/2 inches, the gavel Mathews crafted is much larger than a typical one. Including its heart-pine handle, it measures about 17 inches. Mathews finished it with Danish oil to keep its natural look.

"It's large," Mathews said as he started to craft the gavel that morning, before Tillis arrived to encourage him. "He'll get his point across."

Mathews plans to fashion the Senate's gavel this week along with miniature gavels Tillis can give away as honoraria.

Tillis said it was amazing that you could still smell the fragrance of the long-ago tree in the gavel.

"A tenacious tree," he said.

With 83 rings, the tree from which the heart pine came was alive at least as early as 1729, although more research is planned, Tillis said.

He encouraged Mathews not to alter any natural imperfections in the wood. It should come with messes, just like a democracy, Tillis told him.

"It's going to have some Democratic imperfections," Mathews warned.

"With a big 'D,'" Tillis replied with a smile, referring to the opposition party.

When Mathews finished the gavel shortly after noon, he asked Tillis, "Is it what you expected?"

"It's actually more," Tillis replied. Staff Writer Jim Morrill contributed.