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Leslie VanHook paints and carves mules, trains

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Craftsman’s shop proves a delight to the eyes    

By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

Tucked neatly in a grove of cedar trees just a few miles south of town, a tiny red building with a tin roof, small porch and turning waterwheel conceals one of Lebanon’s best-kept secrets.

Inside the 13-by-30-foot shop, hundreds of creations crafted by the churning mind of painter and woodcarver Leslie VanHook document the fact that he cannot conceive of the concept of idle hands.

 

Lebanon’s Leslie VanHook stands in his Old Mill Arts and Crafts shop, surrounded by hundreds of creations that he either painted or carved. Mules and trains hold a special place in his nostalgic heart.

KEN BECK / The Wilson Post

“It just seems like I have to do be doing something all the time,” he said with nonchalance in his voice as he wears his working man’s uniform: overalls, striped shirt, work boots and ball cap.

From the pine wood floor to the cedar ceiling, there appears to be something unique on every shelf and in every corner, each nook and cranny. Mule paintings and three-dimensional carvings prove plenteous, as do carvings of trains, wagons, birds, cowboys and fish.

Welcome to VanHook’s Old Mill Arts and Crafts, where the piece de resistance is his remarkable Folk Carvings of the Bible Museum, 22 separate displays in carved wood that recreate famous scenes from the Holy Bible.

“It took me three months to do all 22 scenes,” VanHook said. “I can’t explain what made me do it. All of a sudden I just felt the urge to do it.”

The displays begin in the beginning with the dawn of time at creation with God’s hands around the world. The scenes proceed, for the most part in chronological order, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Noah building the ark, Moses parting the Red Sea, David challenging Goliath, Jonah being spewed from the whale, the birth of Jesus, the baptism of Christ and, finally, the crucifixion of Jesus on the Cross.

Working with his hands comes naturally to VanHook, 83, born the son of a carpenter in Leeville. During a span of 40 years, he built about 100 houses across Wilson County. From 1963 to 1972, he shared his construction know-how with about 300 students as he taught trades and industry at Lebanon High School. Every year, his class built a house from the ground up, which was then sold at auction.

Today, he and Mildred, his wife of 63 years, live in a house that is a merger of two log cabins. The fruits of their life together include a son, Rusty, an accomplished artist, and three grandchildren.

VanHook built a gristmill on this place 28 years ago and he opened his arts and crafts shop three years ago.

“I had so much stuff, I had to get rid of some of it,” joked the man who studied art at the University of Tennessee in Nashville in 1968. “I been a painting ever since.”

In 1982, VanHook painted his first mule. Nine more mules followed in its path. His inspiration? “I used to plow corn with ’em.” Since then he has sold approximately 20,000 prints of his mules. They hung from the walls of Cracker Barrel Old Country Store gift shops for 15 years.

“People would buy ’em for their grandparents. They knew their grandparents used to farm with mules and loved mules. And they were good sellers. That’s why I kept painting them,” said pastoral Wilson County’s version of the Old West’s Remington and Russell.

 The Old Mill Arts and Crafts and Folk Carvings of the Bible Museum

What: Original paintings and woodcarvings, free admission

Where: 1640 Highway 231 South (two miles south of Interstate 40)

When: Noon-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, or open by appointment, call 444-5745

About three or four years back, VanHook turned his attention to woodcarving, and he hasn’t stopped. Utilizing band saw, turning lathe, Dremel and carving knives, he has turned out cowboys, wagons, buggies, birds and fish.

“I try to do a little of everything,” he said, stating the obvious.

And then there are his trains. They seem to be everywhere. He has carved 65 choo-choos out of such woods as walnut, cherry, maple, Catawba, pear, bowdock and cedar. Twenty of them are parked here now in their temporary depot.

“I enjoy just seeing the chips fly. It’s something I just love to do,” VanHook said. “I always try to make the next better than the last one. Really, they’re collectors’ items.”

Most of these stationary trains are about 5 feet long with engine followed by four or five cars, and each took him about 40 hours to carve. Prices run about $500, depending on the length. He has a 12½-foot-long coal train on display at Lebanon’s Sunset Restaurant.

Last summer, he won the blue ribbon at the Wilson County Fair in the professional carving category for a man with a rearing horse made from walnut and mahogany. VanHook, who has been featured on public television’s “Tennessee Crossroads,” has captured 15 to 20 blue ribbons during the years.

He enjoys sharing his hobby with the Fiddler’s Grove Woodcarvers, a group of 15 that meets 9 a.m.-noon the fourth Saturday of the month at Victory Baptist Church in Mt. Juliet.

The hands-on man has other pursuits. He loves to perform gospel music with guitar and voice and for 36 years served as deejay on a local radio station spinning gospel and country music records. His quarter-acre plot of garden is showing green now as he plans on reaping peas, beans, corn, onions, okra and tomatoes come summer. One day in the fall he will operate his gristmill and grind corn.  Today, outside of his curiosity shop, VanHook’s young Border Collie, Maxine, nips lightly at a stranger’s heels. Green vines stretch up along a gray rock chimney. The builder's 10-feet-2-inch diameter metal waterwheel, 2 feet wide, turns over and over, powered by water flowing from a pipe on the roof of his shop.

Before he and his wife moved into the cabin, VanHook covered this acreage with his homemade Mini-America Miniature Golf Course from 1972 to 1977. Holes on the miniature putting course featured small but impressive renditions of Stone Mountain and Mt. Rushmore, among other creative sights, but time and the elements have erased those mock national treasures.

Time has not prevented mules from tugging on the reins in VanHook's mind. He reveals one more of his crafted treasures near the back of his shop, five small hand-carved wooden mules beneath the canopy of a 14-inch-diameter carousel that spins sweetly via electric power.

“That’s the only mule carousel ever made,” said the Lebanon woodcarver. And that’s no bragging. Just fact.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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