Carver ending long run at Zoar fest

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Joseph “Swampy” Schoenbachler of Jasper worked on carving a wooden Santa at his home in Jasper on Friday. Swampy, who carves entire collections of varying kinds of Santa sculptures, has taken them to the Zoar Mosquito Fest since the early 1990s. This coming weekend will be the last time he takes the collections to the fest, as he wants to spend more time with his grandchildren.

By CLAIRE MOORMAN
Herald Staff Writer

ZOAR — Joseph “Swampy” Schoenbachler’s hand-carved Santas from around the world have been a fixture at the Zoar Mosquito Fest since the early 1990s.

This year will be the Jasper man’s last for bringing an entire collection of St. Nicks of different sizes to the annual gathering at the Zoar United Methodist Church grounds. The annual festival will take place Friday and Saturday.

“I was killing myself, so I started cutting back and cutting back,” he said. “I’ve got grandchildren ... and it’s getting hard on the wrists. I’m going to still carve. I just don’t know how involved I’m going to get.”

Schoenbachler, 62, has been carving wood and painting it since he was a 10-year-old Cub Scout and needed another skill for a merit badge. In 1990, he began selling his work in local shops and attending artisan shows.

“By ”˜93, my wood carving accounted for 50 percent of my spendable income,” he said. “I was working 80 hours a week from about Halloween to Christmas.”

It was around that time that Schoenbachler began taking his series to Zoar, and the festival remains one of only four places in the area that still host the collection yearly. To make the series, Schoenbachler chooses one particular Santa design and shapes him into 6-inch figurines, tree ornaments, 2-foot statues and long, thin “pencil” carvings. His living room is lined with old 2-foot designs that he has gifted to his wife, Sue, and each sports fashions from a different culture.

“First, you get him to look like Santa Claus, and if you want German, you give him a long beard and a tree,” he said, pointing to a traditional Belsnickel, or southwest German gift-giver, carving in his living room. “In the United States, we have what is referred to as Coca-Cola Santa. I do some research.”

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Joseph “Swampy” Schoenbachler added details to the face of a Santa Claus he was carving out of wood at his home in Jasper on Friday.

His first year may not have been successful, but that didn’t stop Schoenbachler and his Santas from returning to the festival year after year.

“I didn’t sell a thing that first year because it started raining Friday night, and Saturday it was just coming down in sheets. There was just nobody there,” he said, adding that it was the atmosphere that made him a longtime fan of the gathering.

“It’s (like) a church social, and it’s unlike any other church socials. It’s nice. I like it. The ambiance is great.”

For the past 19 years, he has typically taken six carvings of each size to the event, totaling about 24 items per festival. After decades of experience, the smaller pieces take him only one hour to chisel and the larger statues take up to four hours.

Schoenbachler said he appreciates the interest the community shows in his work.

“This kind of art is very localized. I’m known quite extensively in Dubois County. After that, I kind of fade away a little bit,” he said, laughing.

“Some of my worst carvings in my opinion are the first ones I sold. It looks folky, it looks old, it looks like some backwoodsman carved it. And that’s what people want.”

In addition to selling his pieces at Zoar, he also brings a larger, unfinished piece to demonstrate his process to the public. The process is often changing.

“I do plan them out, but sometimes the wood and the knife tell you it would be faster doing something different,” he explained.

Even if he doesn’t bring as many pieces, the collectors who head to Zoar to check out the country store inventory may still be able to grab a Swampy original in future years.

“I’ll cross one bridge at a time. I just know that I’m getting tired of doing a series,” he said. “I thought about maybe switching gears to start carving fishing lures or something like that.”

Schoenbachler spent the past week building up carving inventory for his sales, and he will be at the Zoar fest on both Friday and Saturday.

Contact Claire Moorman at cmoorman@dcherald.com.




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