The Art Of Getting By

Marge Stenftenagel of Maltersville, 77, has been a widow for six years after her husband, Si, died of pancreatic cancer. Though some widows and widowers no longer have their photo taken for their church directories, Marge’s attitude is different. “You still exist, you know,” she said. “You can’t stay at home. You’ve gotta stay involved.” Marge posed for her Holy Family Catholic Church photo on June 21 in Jasper.

Story by Allen Laman   
Photos by Marlena Sloss

Chances are, you’ve seen her work.

The larger-than-life Uncle Sam that stands tall in early July, complete with red, white and blue attire, a top hat and an American flag. A pair of pilgrims that stands happily with a turkey each autumn. And the complete Bethlehem nativity scene — one of her most popular sets — that she has sold more than a hundred of and displayed every holiday season for the past three years.

Community members tell Marge how much they enjoy driving past her home and seeing the displays. “I’m proud of what I do, and I hope I can do it for a long time,” she said. Marge put up her Uncle Sam display with the help of her daughter, Beth Chesnut of Santa Claus, on June 20.

For those whizzing by Marge Stenftenagel’s Maltersville home on State Road 162, the intricate wooden cutouts appear for only a few seconds. But to their creator, they represent a decadeslong hobby that helped her through the darkest time of her life and continues to offer her a creative outlet.

Her front yard, which rests just south of the baby blue bridge in the tiny, unincorporated town between Jasper and Ferdinand, is regularly adorned with intricate, handmade woodwork — rotating periodically throughout each season and during all holidays. Through her business, Designs by Marge, she also specializes in creating unique wooden yard art for local athletes and marching band members, as well as other individualized orders.

“Everybody should have something in their life that they’re really proud of,” Marge, 77, said of her woodwork. “That somebody compliments you on. I need that (now) because you get lonely too.”

After her husband, Si, died in May 2012, happiness was hard to come by. But the yard art always helped. Marge and Si spent more than 50 years together. They raised six children — Steve, Pamela, Carla Schmitt, Dr. Brenda Stenftenagel-Jardenil, Lynn Price and Beth Chesnut. They traveled the country together. And on Mother’s Day in 2012, Si died of pancreatic cancer.

With some help from her friends and family, Marge emerged from the ensuing grief a different person than who she was before.

“You can’t think you can survive alone,” Marge said. “You’ve got to have help sometimes. You just do.”

Marge was born on a Ferdinand dairy farm in 1940. After school, she would get off the bus and lead the cows back to the barn before cooking supper for the entire family.

Marge’s husband, Si, died in May 2012 from pancreatic cancer. Her home remains decorated with their photos. “They’ve been there forever, and that’s my life,” she said. “I’m not going to take anything down.”
A note on Marge’s mirror has reminded her to “Visit Si often” since his death six years ago. Marge did her makeup the morning of May 31.

She was a freshman at St. Ferdinand High School the first time she saw Si. She remembers collecting money for her band uniform — she played the clarinet — at one of the boys basketball games and seeing him in attendance with a group of friends. But the two did not speak at the basketball game.

More than half a century later, at Holy Family Catholic Church on their 50th wedding anniversary, Marge remembers the pastor asking Si how the two met in front of the church’s congregation during Mass. Si recalled the basketball game, and the priest then asked him if remembered who won the game. Si said he couldn’t remember because he wasn’t interested in that after seeing Marge.

The summer after that basketball game, the two saw each other again at the Wagon Wheel dance hall in Schnellville. This time, they danced together, and at the end of the night, Si took Marge home to Ferdinand in his 1956 turquoise and white Ford Victoria Hardtop. Marge could see the cars on the highway from her bedroom window, and after their dates, Si would flash his lights as he sped away in his sports car.

“He always said I fell for the car,” Marge said with a smile. “Which, it most probably helped.”

But that wasn’t the only reason she fell for him. He was a go-getter. He was responsible. He had a kind personality, and he could strike up a conversation with anyone.

After dating for more than four years, the two married in February 1959. Back then, Si was a coal truck driver for Reese Coal Company. In 1965, he and Marge moved from their first house on Si’s parents’ property on Old Huntingburg Road to Marge’s current residence in Maltersville.

Their marriage was a busy one. The two ran Si’s locally-famous barbecue catering business, sponsored craft shows, loved to go antiquing on the weekends, and filled their free time with many more endeavors.

When Marge Stenftenagel of Maltersville visits her late husband, Si, at Fairview Cemetery in Jasper, she often thinks about what they used to do together. “I tell him he’s in a better place,” she said. Marge visited Si on June 13.

Si worked as the St. Anthony water superintendent and also had a custom welding shop on their property, and Marge worked various jobs at Kimball Upholstery in Jasper (now National Office Furniture) for 32 years. The two had their ups and downs — like all married couples — but their deep love for each other kept them together.

Marge’s woodworking started soon after they moved to Maltersville. She always liked creating art, and she remembered how when she was in school, she used to draw daffodils in the corners of the blackboards. She wanted to put something out in their new yard at Christmastime, and her collection of designs and cutouts only grew from there. She remembers one of her first cutout sets being Big Bird and Cookie Monster standing near a Christmas tree.

“I don’t know how it got to be [so] involved to where I had to put stuff up that was at least 8 feet tall,” she said of her yard art. She had no experience with wood prior to cutting out the Sesame Street crew all those years ago.

A shed on her property is filled with countless cutouts she’s displayed at one time or another. Some are still in her rotation, while others, like an intricate castle set, have been retired because of their size and difficult assembly. Marge estimated she’s drawn, cut and painted hundreds of them over the years.

She starts every creation by sketching it on a piece of plywood with pencil and then using a jigsaw to cut it out. Sometimes she traces patterns, while other times she draws the designs freehand.

Next, she applies six coats of paint and a sealant to the cutouts. She lets them dry and then they’re ready to go. Marge said some people are surprised when they learn she does her own cutting.

Marge feels she is still married to Si, and would never imagine taking off her wedding ring. Once, when doing laundry, her hand bumped the rim of the washing machine and the ring’s diamond fell inside. “That was scary,” she said. “It would have killed me. I would have died if it would have fallen down one of them holes. I’d probably cry like I cried when Si died.” Marge worked on her wooden yard art in her garage on April 25.

“People don’t think women can do those things,” she said. “Hey, if you enjoy it, you can do it. Just keep your fingers out of the way.”

All of the work she does now is for her business and not her own display. She started selling her creations about three decades ago, and you’ve probably seen those scattered around the area, too. Photo books show pieces she’s sold over the years, such as wooden musical instruments she made for Jasper High School marching band members, perfectly-shaped circles with sports balls and last names on them, and seasonal displays that mirror the ones she sets up in her yard.

Earlier this week, her garage was filled with completed volleyball cutouts waiting to be picked up, as well as popular pieces she knows will sell this holiday season.

Over the years, she’s also made mascot cutouts for high schools and signs for businesses. These days, she spends five days a week in the garage, working for up to six hours a day.

Today, Marge’s constant companions are her dog, Charlie, and cats, Mama and Snowball. “It’s important to have a pet,” Marge said. “I want to have one until I die.” Marge petted Charlie, a stray dog she took in, at her home on May 25.

It became a refuge for her after Si died.

“That’s what kept me going,” she said of the work. “I did it before, and it was something I felt responsible to keep doing. I had people that wanted things that no one else [made].”

The first indication Si was sick came in 2010. He would eat, and five minutes later he’d be in the bathroom. Doctors discovered the Stage II cancerous tumor on his pancreas six months later, but couldn’t operate because it was connected to a main artery.

The diagnosis came as a shock. Marge and Si always joked that he would live longer than Marge because he never was sick. He pushed through chemotherapy and radiation — Marge said he was never down, tired or lost his hair due to the treatment — and after living with the cancer for almost two years, Si died.

“I know it didn’t end right, but he never suffered like other people have to,” Marge said, fighting back tears. “That’s the way you want to go.”

His death crushed Marge. She and her family members had maintained faith that Si would kick the disease into remission — that’s what kept the family going. It’s what kept Si going, too. He worked hard and never gave up until he couldn’t go on anymore.

Immediately after his death, Marge, had her family’s support. Still, she cried a lot. How could she not?

Keeping up with friends is important to Marge. A year ago, she began having near-weekly dinners with Janie Gogel of Jasper, also a widow, as she did at Ohana Hawaiian Grill & Bar in Jasper on June 23. Janie and Marge both grew up on farms in Ferdinand, and enjoy reminiscing about their upbringings.

She didn’t let herself get caught in a rut of staying at home, though, and maintained her social life as best she could, even adding a few more activities. She has always loved to sing, so she joined the Celebration Singers, a local singing group, and more recently joined the Holy Family church choir.

She’s continued hanging out with friends — some of whom are also widows. Marge wasn’t as much of a talker when Si was alive, but has since blossomed into a conversationalist who isn’t afraid to open up.

She still wears the wedding ring Si gave her, and if she lost it, she said she’d cry like she did when he died.

She knew right from the beginning that life would be tough without him. She also knew she didn’t want to move. The biggest reason she chose to stay was her pride and joy, her yard art. With Si gone, her kids help with work around the house, bring in plywood and set up her signature yard art.

When she comes into town, she often hears comments from people about her cutouts or fields inquiries about what pieces she is displaying next. She even received a letter from one couple commenting on the cutouts’ beauty and how the couple always drives on State Road 162 to see what she has on display. And visitors — some who live outside the area and are just traveling through — still knock on her door to inquire about custom orders.

With Labor Day approaching, Marge is thinking about her yard’s next display — a pair of beetles sitting and drinking lemonade.

It’s easy to zip by her cozy Maltersville home, but if you do catch a glimpse of her unique work, she hopes you like it.

“I hope they smile,” she said. “It’s just a little attraction along the way.”

Marge sat outside after feeding her goldfish on June 21. She often remembers sitting in the swing behind the pond, where she and Si spent the most time together at their home.

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