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Skilled Hands: These Centre County artisans’ occupations are old school, but still in demand

by on April 30, 2018 4:17 PM

In a digital world filled with disposable goods, skilled artisans who work with their hands are becoming increasingly rare. The desire to develop tangible, tactile skills seems to have been replaced by the ease withwhich we can purchase whatever we need with the push of a button.

Trades that used to be passed down within families from generation to generation are vanishing.

We tracked down a few local artisans who are still practicing some of these “lost art” trades. Some found their way to their trade through family, some through formal education, some through a combination of both. Some have made a life and career out of their trade, while for others it is more of a second job or a hobby.

As different as many of their skills and lifestyles may be, they have several things in common. For one, while they may seem to be a dying breed, the demand for their skills is still high. For another, these are talented people who have great passion for what they do, and who can’t imagine living life without practicing their craft.

 

The Cobbler

Angelo Card

Walking into Custom Shoe Repair on South Allen Street in State College is a little like taking a step back in time. The walls are covered with old brown paneling, the floors with fading linoleum tile. Stacks upon stacks of shoes line the shelving on the walls. The front counter, where customers pay in advance for shoe repairs, is clearly devoid of any computerized cash registers.

All visitors are greeted by the same aproned, bespectacled man busily at work in his workshop a few steps beyond the counter – Angelo Card, the owner and only employee of the shop that used to belong to his grandfather.

Card grew up in this very shop, learning the trade while still quite young.

“My whole family used to work in this room, so I can stand here and reminisce. Sometimes I’ll hear a song on the radio that will take me back. I can come in here and do that on any given day, and that’s fun,” he says.

Card deftly continues fixing and polishing shoes while carrying on conversation over the hum of the large finishing machine that lines the left wall of his workshop. It’s clearly an older piece of equipment, but Card is not looking to upgrade.

“I grew up on this machine, more or less,” he says. “I tore it all down and rebuilt it. The new ones are half the size; it would be like moving from a Cadillac to a Prius.”

Card purchased the shop in 1995, shortly before his grandfather passed away. As the only shoe repairman in State College, business is brisk.

“We’re blessed here in State College in that folks spend a lot of money on shoes. Not every area is like that. In some places they’re buying lower-quality shoes and just throwing them away when they wear out, so the demand for this trade is not there in some places. It’s economics, simple supply and demand,” he explains.

A father of four girls ranging in age from 7 to 27, Card says he does not have anyone training to eventually take over the trade and the shop.

“I’ll be doing this for a long time,” he says. “I tell my wife I’ll be working on the morning of my funeral. … It’s one of those things; at some point it just becomes a part of you, and you can’t turn something like that off.”

 

The Watchmaker

George Jones

For 36 years, George Jones was a watchmaker and jeweler at Moyer Jewelers in downtown State College. He retired in the mid-1990s, but has been repairing clocks from the basement of his College Heights home ever since.

Now 86 years old, Jones received formal training at watchmaking school in Lancaster, graduating in 1956. He says his interest in the trade began much earlier than that.

“I tell people I think it was born in me,” he says. “My granddad was a watch repair person. I think it’s the way the Lord wanted it.”

Jones no longer works on watches because of his eyesight, he says, “but I’m good at clocks, I will say that.”

His basement shop is alive with the sound of ticking clocks that line the shelves and hang on the paneled walls, and it is here, sharing his life’s work, that he seems most at ease and animated.

“This is the Schlow Library clock. I’ve been taking care of it for many years,” he says, pointing to an array of brass parts carefully laid out on his workbench. “And this is my granddad’s bench and his soldering machine. All of this stuff was his. I was lucky enough to get it, and I’m still using it.”

Jones says there is a high demand for his trade, but not enough people interested in learning it.

“You can’t get people to repair clocks anymore,” he says. “Every clockmaker you talk to will tell you they’re months behind; you have a backlog all the time. It’s very much needed, and people are willing to pay anything to get some of the old clocks repaired. I don’t charge like some places do, because I don’t have the overhead.”

Jones currently serves as president and treasurer of the Pennsylvania affiliate chapter of the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, and he says that anyone interested in learning the trade can take a program offered by the AWCI. He also recommends attending watchmaking school in Columbia, Pennsylvania.

“You have to love doing it. It takes patience,” he says. “I do love it. I love the satisfaction of getting a clock running, and seeing the happiness on the customer’s face. Their happiness means more to me than anything.

“I feel bad I don’t have anyone to turn this over to,” Jones continues. “I hope I can keep doing it for a few more years.”

 

The Calligrapher

Joy Rodgers-Mernin

Joy Rodgers-Mernin, owner of The Nittany Quill, says the digital age has actually been good for the calligraphy industry.

“I’ve seen in the past 10 years or so, as our society gets more technological, the curiosity and the appreciation for the art of handwriting is stronger,” she says. “When people sit in front of their computers and their smartphones all day, to put pen to paper and to actually do something with your hands has got to connect on some level. It’s important.”

Rodgers-Mernin has owned The Nittany Quill for 34 years. The cozy shop on Fraser Street in State College is filled to the brim with greeting cards, note cards, wedding invitation samples, maps, pens, seals, quills, Rodgers-Mernin’s own line of framed calligraphy art, and almost any other stationery product that one can imagine. She said she has recently seen an uptick in the number of young people visiting her store and buying things like fountain pens and sealing wax.

“I think the less there is of something, the more desirable it is, and the more mystical,” she says. “Even things like Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and Downton Abbey have sort of sparked people’s interest in the history of how things are done.”

Rodgers-Mernin received a formal education in calligraphy as an art major at Smith College. She takes on a lot of custom calligraphy work, including certificates and awards, genealogy art, wedding scrolls, place cards, and almost any other personal project.

As the shop’s only calligrapher and full-time employee, Rodgers-Merrin says she has no “exit plan” and does not see herself retiring from the business anytime soon. And while her industry is a rarity these days, she is reluctant to refer to calligraphy as a “lost art.”

“Formal calligraphy absolutely still exists,” she says. “The queen still has a scribe, the White House has calligraphers, and there are still some very prestigious organizations out there, like The Society of Scribes,” she says. “But as far as making a living doing calligraphy – it’s kind of like football. How many people get to play in the NFL? It’s a niche. But as far as something pleasurable, and a hobby, I think it’s alive and well.”

Rodgers-Mernin has several books that she recommends to people who are interested in learning the art. She also recommends YouTube instructional videos, joining a calligraphy guild, or taking a hand lettering class from a place like The Makery.

 

The Blacksmith

Tim Bradford

In an outbuilding behind his Pleasant Gap home, Tim Bradford practices an age-old trade using many of the same tools and equipment that blacksmiths have utilized for hundreds of years.

The shelves on the walls of Bradford’s blacksmith shop are overflowing with hammers, tongs, and clamps of all shapes and sizes. Steel rods of varying widths and lengths are lined up in rows and in buckets on the floor. At the heart of the shop are several anvils and a coal forge, where Bradford does most of his work.

“This is the old-fashioned way of doing blacksmithing,” Bradford says, as he turns a hand-cranked blower on his coal forge. “I like the history of it.”

Bradford says his interest in blacksmithing was first sparked by his father-in-law, who did metalworking. He eventually met some traditional blacksmiths in the area, including one who introduced him to the Pennsylvania Artist Blacksmith’s Association (PABA).

“That’s how I started,” he says. “PABA has meetings every couple of months and someone’s always demonstrating, so you learn from that. I’ve read a lot, and I’ve gone to a few classes in New Jersey. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. I’ve just slowly figured it out.”

Although this is not Bradford’s day job, blacksmithing work occupies whatever free time he has. He creates everything from ornamental shepherd’s crooks to a variety of utensils to key chains and more, sometimes with a dragon theme. While many people immediately think of horseshoes when they think of blacksmithing, Bradford says he does not make them, although he has recycled items like horseshoes and railroad ties to create some of his art.

Bradford says he performs blacksmithing demonstrations at the Nittany Antique Machinery Shows at Penn’s Cave twice a year, and sets up booths at Country Memory Days in McVeytown on Memorial Day weekend and at the People’s Choice Festival in Boalsburg in July.

“I go and I set up my blacksmith shop, so I’m actually working in the outdoors for people to see,” he says.

Based on the amount of interest he’s seen through his involvement in PABA, Bradford believes the art of blacksmithing is not dying.

“People are doing this for a living, and there are young guys going to blacksmiths to learn how to do it,” he says. “The young people are out there. It’s alive and well.”

 

The Woodworker

Bill Pantle

Like many boys from his era, Bill Pantle was first exposed to the art of woodworking in his junior high woodshop class. In an upstairs bedroom of his Bellefonte home, he still keeps the round end table he made at the age of 16.

Now, after a 30-year career with the U.S. Air Force, Pantle, a disabled veteran, has turned that woodworking interest from his youth into a business: Willie’s Wood Shed.

Pantle honed many of his woodworking skills while building boats, a fascination he first developed while stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

“One of the crew guys I knew had a little sailboat. He took me sailing one day and I caught the bug. But why buy a boat when you can build one?” he says. “So we did a little bit of research and built an 18-foot sailboat and enjoyed it.”

Over the years he continued to build boats, including a 40-foot schooner he constructed in his backyard while stationed at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

After his retirement from the Air Force, Pantle was doing consulting work, which eventually led him to settle in Bellefonte with his wife, Judy, in 2007. Working from his garage, Pantle makes and sells a wide variety of products, including wooden spatulas, coasters, muddlers, clocks, crucifixes and candleholders, many from repurposed wine barrels. Willie’s Wood Shed products are carried by The Barn at Lemont and at The Great Mish Mosh in Bellefonte.

Pantle’s business keeps him busy, especially during the spring and summer.

“As soon as I get my taxes done, I’ll be cranking out as much product as I can because we’re getting into arts and crafts fair season,” he says. “But I enjoy it. It’s kind of like a sculptor – he’s got a great big block of marble but he sees a statue inside of it. I look at this wood and I think, ‘This stuff is beautiful, what can I do with it?’”

While schools are not offering as much in the way of woodshop classes these days, Pantle says, Scouting and YouTube are good resources for young people who are interested in learning about woodworking.

“You just have to do it to learn it. You struggle through it until you figure it out,” he says. “Eventually you reach a point when you’re not quite sure what you’re doing, and it’s kind of an awakening: ‘Either I’m going to finish this, or I’m going to have a very expensive bonfire!’”

 

Karen Walker is a freelance writer from State College.

 

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