Please welcome guest author Jeff Forrester. When not busy crafting his custom walking sticks, Forrester has worked in retail management for most of the past 30+ years. He’s lived in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, Mississippi, and Tennessee, and truly believes he’s at “home” in NE Tennessee. He loves the mountains that surround him and his family there and has really enjoyed learning the history of the area by hiking its beautiful trails.
I grew up outdoors. Native Oklahoman, the son of a hard working Kansas family man who loved spending weekends out on a riverbank fishing, picnicking in the park, or hiking in the woods with his family. No video games, no ESPN, no cell phones. I’ve always loved the warmth of the sun, the refreshing cooling effects of the wind, and the smell of a spring thunderstorm that brings out the wildflowers lining the trails.
My Grandfather had a joy for wood, and used the woodshop in his garage to make heirloom quality cradles, hall trees and other fine things for family members and friends. The smell of wood being sanded and the look of the grains in the wood after a nice stain and finish bring joyous memories of two very influential men in my life.
In the summer of 2011, my good friend, Larry Gullette, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, came to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Early in the planning and training stages for our trip, I felt the need for a little assistance while hiking trails, especially ones with consistent strenuous elevation gains, descending steep grades and while fording small creeks and streams. I cut a small sapling in the woods behind my house (raw materials are easily found in the forests of the central and southern Appalachians), sanded it nicely, attached a lanyard cut from an old leather belt, and gave it a good coat of lacquer. The enjoyment of both hiking and woodworking had come together for the first time for me. I’ve made many different sticks with a variety of different uses, each allowing me to use what nature has given us and make it special for each recipient.
I made the first stick for someone other than myself for a work acquaintance and hiking buddy who absolutely lives to hike. Every chance he gets, he’s in the woods, and always welcomes me to tag along if I can. Jason enjoys writing about his trail experiences and shares each hike on his hiking blog. Thanks to Jason, I receive a tremendous amount of enjoyment and satisfaction getting to spend time in the woods hiking and making sticks for friends and family.
The latest of my sticks, requested as a birthday gift, has a similar look to a shillelagh. With St. Patrick’s Day nearing, and the anticipation of a cold Guinness just around the corner, it seemed like a good time to brush up on the history of a unique and interesting style of “walking stick”.
The Shillelagh, pronounced shi-LAY-lee, was given the name by King Richard II for the people of the village of Shillelagh, and the Shillelagh Forest of County Wicklow, in Ireland around 1395. The shillelagh, also known by the Gaelic term for staff, “bata”, which means fighting stick, was used to settle disputes, similar to the way colonial America used pistols for dueling. These sticks were really more of a club, or cudgel, typically made from a sturdy stick with a large knob at the top, which was actually a part of the root ball of the tree. When they became illegal to carry, the club was elongated to appear as a walking stick, but could still be used as weapon if need be. The Scots also had their own “shillelagh” and called theirs a “kebbie” or “kebbie stick”.
Traditionally made from blackthorn wood or oak, because of the density and hardness, the wood was often times covered in butter or lard, and placed up a chimney to cure, which gave the shillelagh its typical black shiny appearance. They were also buried in a manure pile to cure. Shillelaghs were often hollowed out on the business end and filled with molten lead to increase their weight, and this type of shillelagh became known as a “loaded stick”. The length of this type stick is generally the distance from the floor to the wrist with the elbow slightly bent, and many have a strap attached, to secure to the wrist during a fight.
The shillelagh in today’s world is a symbolic souvenir of the Irish spirit.