Nancy Lou Webster of Elgin never cottoned to dresses nor convention. At age 86, the renowned craftsman still doesn’t.
Webster is a master of treen, the ancient art of creating utensils from wood. Her treenware, which is a utilitarian version of free-form sculpture, has been showcased at both the Institute of Texan Cultures and the Smithsonian Institution. The artisan, who received her formal art education at the University of Mississippi, the Mississippi University for Women and the Goddard Institute of Sculpture, is a regular demonstrator for Christmas at Winedale and the Texas Folklife Festival in San Antonio—and has been for decades.
Her secret? Letting the wood express itself.
“Treening takes time and patience, kind of like a cat eating on a rock,” she said. “But if you let the wood do its thing, without trying to force it, then it all works out.”
Meeting Nancy Lou Touching the merchandise in an art gallery is generally frowned upon. When I first encountered Webster’s work in the Copper Shade Tree in Round Top, all the rules, along with all my self-control, flew right out the window.
Debbie Tobola, the co-owner, caught me fondling—and, unfortunately, there is no other word to describe it—one of Webster’s highly collectible Welsh Love Spoons. It’s not nearly as risqué as it sounds, but I was indeed smitten. While I’m not a woodworker, I have refinished enough furniture to know just how many hours of sanding it takes to give Webster’s treenware the smooth, cool feel of silk, satin or whatever textile is softer and finer than either of those.
Tobola shared the highlights of Webster’s craft. Once a piece is formed, it is sanded repeatedly. The piece is dampened between each successive sanding session to raise the wood grain. Sanding often involves six grits of sand paper progressing from coarse to super fine. When Tobola told me that the octogenarian finished a piece of treenware each day to maintain her sellable inventory, I knew I had to meet her.
And what a meeting it was. Some people are a breath of fresh air. Webster is a gust of wind; her enthusiasm and energy blew my hair straight back. Her handshake is as firm as you might expect from a woman who has worked with a pocket knife, a mallet, chisels, scoop gouges and a coping saw almost daily since she was a teenager. Her hands, while work-worn, are surprisingly smooth. I attribute it to the peanut oil she rubs into each piece of treenware. She doesn’t strike me as the type to slather on Rose Milk®.
Webster is a big talker and a very active listener. These days, she is coping with hearing loss that is common to the Gillon family, her mother’s people, but she makes a conscientious effort not to miss a word. Her gaze doesn’t waver. Relationships are her most treasured possessions, and she learned early of the value of good communication. According to her, she is also a good “rememberer.”
While her talents as an artisan are well-known, she is an equally skillful raconteur. We met at the Copper Shade Tree at 9:30 a.m. and visited non-stop until 12:30 p.m. We only quit then because Webster and her traveling companions had lunch plans at Royers. They needed sustenance, and I needed caffeine. Frankly, I was worn out from trying to keep up.
In treening, the craftsman has to recognize how much wood to take and how much wood to leave so that the utensil is strong and true. The same holds true for writers. Webster tells her story better than I ever could, so read on for her words as I heard them sans the unmistakable cadence of Mississippi and her laugh that is bigger than the room. (So you keep the characters straight, you need to know Webster, even as a child, called her parents by their first names, Clyde and Weegee.)
Nancy Lou Webster on her formative years: “I grew up all over northern and central Mississippi. My father, Clyde, was employed by Southern Bell. Every promotion meant a move to another small town. Eventually, he was in charge of all of northern Mississippi. My Uncle Hoyt oversaw all of southern Mississippi.
I was an only child, and Clyde would take me with him. I’d ride in the car and look for trouble in the lines. We’d always stop in the local cafes where the old men gathered. I learned to saucer and blow coffee before I was five. When coffee’s too hot to drink, you spoon the coffee into the saucer, blow on it and drink it straight off the plate.
To keep me occupied, Clyde would hand me an old Yankee drill with this handle that would drop to expose the drill bits. He had a bunch of drill bits. I’d sit and drill holes by the hour while Clyde would be doing something to the lines.
Before long Clyde had the crews cut down a pair of cleats and a safety belt for me. I could shinny up a creosote phone pole by the time I was eight. Clyde would say, ‘Nancy Lou, show these boys how to climb a pole.’
In those days, you installed phones by matching one set of colored wires to another set of correspondingly colored wires. I was installing phones when I was 10 or 11. I was a tomboy’s tomboy.”
Nancy Lou Webster on fashion: “I’d leave the house wearing whatever my mother, Weegee, dressed me in. It was usually some girlish silliness. Clyde had sense enough to keep a pair of ticking overalls under the front seat of his car. I’d change as we were driving down road.
About the time I was five, I was out playing and got flat eat up by ants. Clyde took me into the local switchboard office, and all the operators stopped putting calls through. They stripped off my overalls and brushed all the ants off of me. By my recollection, they saved my life.
I never had a pair of boots because Weegee wouldn’t allow it. I told her the first thing I was going to do when I left home was buy me a pair of lace up work boots. I got my first pair when I went off to college—and still favor that type of shoe today.
I learned to be a lady, but it was kicking and screaming all the way. I ran away from being ladylike as soon as I could and forgot it as fast as I could.”
Nancy Lou on “the whippin’ of a lifetime”: “Knives always fascinated me. The first time I got in trouble over a knife I was about five. I about near cut my finger off with a butcher knife trying to scrape a stick.
I was eight when I earned myself the whippin’ of a lifetime. We had gone to visit Uncle Hoyt who was married to Weegee’s sister. Their son, Hoyt Jr., had a treasure trove of pocket knives. I went rifling through his drawers and found one, which somehow made its way into my own pocket.
When my crime was discovered, my backside got a lightin’ up to beat all others. After that though, Clyde started slipping pocket knives to me because he recognized that I wanted to carve and such.”
Nancy Lou on being an arms dealer: “We were living in Indianola, Miss., and my friends in the neighborhood were all boys. About the time we turned nine, they discovered I was a girl and left me in the cold. Clyde, an astute observer of human emotions, knew I was lost because I didn’t have any friends.
Clyde said, ‘I’m going to teach you how to look for the right-size branches with appropriate crotches to make slingshots.’
I’d already had the beginnings of an education on tree crotches. When I was six, I found Clyde’s German Ruger on the screen porch. I shot a hole right through the screen porch and knocked myself silly. It occurred to Clyde that he might better teach me to properly use a firearm.
He took me squirrel hunting. In Mississippi, you went still-hunting, so you sat under a tree and waited for a squirrel to come along. When the squirrel would make its way to where the branches came together and made a ‘crotch,’ you’d shoot him.
Besides needing the right kind of branches for a slingshot, you had to have an inner tube to make the shooting part. In those days, inner tubes were pink. I had to learn to cut them on the bias, so they’d stretch. Then, I had to make little leather pouches to hold the Chinaberry ammunition.
Once I got my slingshot made, Clyde told me to practice in the front yard. It made no sense to me because our front yard was little and our backyard was big. But Clyde just insisted it was the front yard or nothing.
After a week or so, one of my former friends wandered over.
He said, ‘I’ve been watching you. Did you make that slingshot?’
I answered in the affirmative and started making slingshots for all the boys in the neighborhood. They forgot about me being a girl because I was the most important arms dealer in Indianola. Later on, when the new wore off the slingshots, I learned to make rubber guns, securing my position in society as the arms dealer extraordinaire.”
Nancy Lou on “book learning”: “When I was in high school, Weegee was the curator of the Faulkner Collection at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Every day after school, I was required to go to the library and wait in the doctoral carrels until Weegee got through in the library and we could go home. I found three volumes in a book series on wooden latches and gate locks.
I would gather up apple and orange crates and take them apart, so I’d have some soft wood to work with. Then, I’d study a picture of a particular latch, and I’d make it. I made every lock and latch in those books.”
Nancy Lou on early inspiration:
“Magazines were big back then. You know Life and all the rest. In the Saturday Evening Post, there was an ad for whiskey, and it had a gorgeous scoop used to dip the grain. Weegee dragged me to every museum there ever was, and I’d never seen anything like it. I thought, ‘I’ve got to figure out how to make that.’
And Good Housekeeping had an ad for soup. There was this wooden spoon coming out of the steam. I got obsessed with making that spoon. I was interested in shapes.
I didn’t have gouges or rasps or anything, but Clyde had all manner of flat screw drivers. I just used an old hand-grinder and ground off the tips to make my tools.”
Nancy Lou on finding a husband: “Treen preceded Bill Webster, my husband. I met Bill Webster when I was living in Cleveland, Miss., at a Wednesday night prayer meeting. Clyde and Weegee were big ‘go to churchers.’
That night the youth minister came in with a nice looking young man. I told Clyde, ‘I’m going to find out who that is and marry him.’
We eventually got married. In my opinion, there’s no need to waste time socializing. Pick a good one, and go with it.
Bill Webster was about as opposite from me as a person could get. He was one of those fellows who polished his loafers before mowing the grass. He had been in the Marines and liked everything spit and polished. I don’t care much for either spit or polish.”
Nancy Lou on “English as a second language”:
Writer’s Note: Many natives of the Deep South, including Nancy Lou Webster, pronounce the name of the little frankfurters in can as “Vanna” or “Vy-anna” Sausages.
“Bill Webster and I were land developers. We would move into an area—and we lived all over the country—and build a housing development from the ground up. We’d just move our family and our assistants in and live in a place until the job was done. Most of the folks who helped us were from Mississippi, too.
One time we were doing a development in Iowa. Bill and I got there first. I went to the local grocery store and told the manager he was going to have to stock some things to make our people feel at home: black-eyed peas, grits, okra and Vienna Sausages.
That man found peas, grits and okra easy enough, but he looked for Vienna Sausages for months. He swore he couldn’t find Vienna Sausages anywhere and that none of his suppliers had ever even heard of them. Finally, I had a friend back home send me a can, which I promptly carried into his store.
He looked surprised and said, ‘You mean Vienna (pronouncing it like the town in Austria) Sausages.’
‘Yes man, that’s what I’ve been saying for months. Don’t you speak English?’”
Nancy Lou on staying in Texas: “Bill Webster and I ran our family with very diplomatic relations. We had two parents and three kids, which totaled five votes.
In 1971, Bill Webster and I finished up a development on Lake Sam Rayburn and moved to Elgin to start another one. I came home one day, and our oldest daughter Kim said, ‘We had a vote. It was 3-2 and we’re not moving anymore.’
Mind you, neither Mom nor Dad actually cast a vote in this election.
I said, ‘What do you mean, we’re not moving anymore?’
‘Just what it sounds like. You and Dad can move somewhere else and develop all the land you want to, but we kids are staying here. I’ll take care of the younger two.’
‘Well, Kim, I think we need to talk to Bill Webster about this.’
‘He’ll just have to adjust.’
Kim, who was a junior in high school continued, ‘And tomorrow I need you to go with me to the superintendent of schools and tell him that it’s okay for me to re-do my junior year. I don’t want to go to college, so I need to take all the secretarial classes that I didn’t take this year thinking I might go onto college.’
‘Kim, that makes good sense, but I really think we need to talk to Bill Webster about this.’
We did. The next morning I met with the superintendent on Kim’s behalf, and Bill went to Austin and got information on becoming a realtor, which he did. I eventually went to work for the Railroad Commission as a draftsman. We’ve been in Elgin ever since.
Today, all of our kids live within a stone’s throw of Momma’s house: one lives in Round Rock, another lives in Paige and one lives in the house with me.”
Nancy Lou on the pharaohs and treen: “The Egyptian pharaohs were surrounded by metal, including silver and gold, but in the desert trees were rare, so the Egyptians really valued wood. The pharaohs had their artisans make ceremonial wooden spoons that were buried with them. These ceremonial spoons are the earliest examples of treen.
Treen is the Old English plural of trees.
Treen, although it wasn’t called that yet, traveled along the Spice Route to Europe. It got its name in England where ‘treen’ was the plural for ‘tree’ in Old English.
I didn’t know it was called treenware until I was reading Early American magazine and found this double-truck spread of wooden kitchen tools just like the ones I made.
‘Well, I’ll be a son-of-a-gun,’ I said. ‘I’m making treenware.’
I thought I was pretty fancy when I was making just plain old wooden kitchen utensils, but finding out I was making treenware just about put me over the moon.”
Nancy Lou on her workshop: “Somebody asked once where my workshop is. I told them that I had one in my house. My daughter, Brewer, who lives with me pointed out that I have five work stations in just the family room.
Honestly, I work all over. Always have. One time Bill Webster and I were having a hard time getting our propane heater to light. We couldn’t keep the pilot light on, so Bill Webster hauled it to the fix-it shop in Weberville.
Three days later it was ready to be picked up.
The repairman said, ‘I’ve never blown so much orange gunk out of a heater in my whole life.’
Apparently, my sanding generates enough sawdust to smother the flame in a heater.”
Nancy Lou on the art of the original: “I just hate repeating myself or trying to force wood to do what it doesn’t want to. One time, though, I made a set of ‘silverware’ for eight because somebody told me I couldn’t do it. I said, ‘Sit back and watch me.’”
Nancy Lou on productivity: “I’ve treened forever. I’d take a basket of treen and sand while the kids played in the lake. We’d go skiing, and at some point in the day, I’d take off my gloves and sand while we were on the ski slopes. When I worked at the Railroad Commission, I helped the commissioners plan big parties. To say thank you, they let me sand treenware in the librarian’s office during my lunch breaks.
When Bill’s health failed and I closed my store in Elgin, I vowed to finish a piece for sale every day. You know that’s only 365 pieces a year. Every day on my calendar I write ‘spoon for $40’ or ‘sea salt spoon for $8’ and so on. It’s important for my psyche to measure the progress and to keep going.”
Nancy Lou on “wooden plastic or plastic wood”: “One year I was demonstrating at Bastrop’s YesterFest. My son Fielder, a fellow treen maker David Lanford who I’d trained and I had three work benches set up on grassy knoll.
People were coming and going. There was this Boy Scout, who was about 13 or 14, who watched and watched. He’d leave and then he’d come back and watch some more.
Finally, he said, ‘Ma’am, I need to ask you a question. I see the concept, but how do you get it to be plastic?’
He rendered me temporarily speechless.
Finally, I managed, ‘Son, they didn’t have a Wal-Mart back then. These are wood. They won’t ever be plastic.’
That fact just let all of the air out of his balloon. He wandered off with a disappointed look on his face and didn’t come back.”
Nancy Lou on special orders: “I take special orders—and I like it.
A lady from Louisiana sent me an email through The Owl in Elgin; it said: ‘My mother suffers from severe arthritis. One of the joys in her life is making a big pot of gumbo for her family, but it’s gotten hard for her to hold onto to her regular spoon. Can you help?’
I designed a spoon that was 17” with a 4 ½” bowl and a grip fashioned so Momma could hold on to it. I made it out of Hill Country cedar. If I had my way Momma was going to be back in the gumbo business.
“We can’t in the man-made world duplicate the beauty of a tree. It’s God’s gift to us.”
Another time I was demonstrating at the Folklife Festival, and a 22-year-old fellow rolled up in one of those electric wheel chairs. He had a debilitating degenerative muscle disease.
He asked me if I could make him a spoon so he could feed himself again. I told him to come back at 4 o’clock so we could measure what I came up with.
In the meantime, I carved him a spoon. It turned out to be about 26” long, so it could be tied to his arm. While I was at it, I reworked a bowl so he could drink from it.
Making Momma a gift of love and giving that young fellow the gift of independence, that’s exciting. That’s the kind of stuff that keeps me jazzed up.”
Nancy Lou on lefties and righties: “My son Fielder started carving in his high chair. Clyde had a broken pocket knife. I’d give it to Fielder along with some used matchsticks and say, ‘Make something pretty for Momma.’
About the time he was 13, he walked into my kitchen and just blessed me out.
‘Son Fielder what is your pain?’ I asked.
‘Dammit Momma, all these years I’ve been doing it [treening] left handed, and I’m right handed.’
I’m left handed, so I never thought about teaching him another way.
Time passed. Then we ran across a piece of Texas persimmon. I’ve been known to have a slight temper when I’m working on uncooperative wood. I had that dad-gum persimmon in and out of my vice—and nothing would come of it.
Fielder stopped by and said, ‘Old Goat—that’s what he’s called me since he’s was knee high to a baby duck—did you ever do anything with that persimmon?’
‘No, I can’t get a darn thing out of it,’ I said. I’m not sure whether I barked or snapped at him.
‘May I have it?’
‘Take. It. Away. From. Me.’
It wasn’t 30 minutes later he had the prettiest love spoon you ever saw. The difference? I saw it left-handed, and he saw it right-handed. I melted into a puddle right there although I saw the devilish gleam of payback in his eyes.”
Nancy Lou on passing on the tradition: “So far, I’ve taught all three of my kids, six of my grandkids and one of my great-grandkids to treen. My involvement with Winedale is to carry on the tradition. If somebody doesn’t do it, a craft that has been usefully beautiful for centuries will die.”
by Lorie Woodward Cantu photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography
WW Treenware Co. P.O. Box 148 Elgin, Texas78621 512-281-3155 www.treenbynancylou.com
Webster’s treenware can be purchased By email for special orders ([email protected]) at the Copper Shade Tree (102 Schumann Lane) on Henkel Square in Round Top or at The Owl Wine Bar & Home Goods Store (106 N. Main Street) in Elgin.