John Garton left veterinary medicine behind to bring wood to life.
John Garton just wanted to get away from sick cats and dogs that had been hit by cars.
He was working as a veterinarian in Greenbrier County when his father had a stroke, so he returned home to Jane Lew to help his mother. It was then he met a young 4-H agent named Martha. They got married and bought a fully furnished house from a retired couple who’d left West Virginia in a camper bound for Texas.
Soon, their first child was on the way. Garton considered returning to his chosen profession, but just couldn’t bear the thought. So he went to the basement.
Along with all the other furnishings, the house’s previous owners had left a woodshop behind. Garton decided to use those tools to make a hobby horse for his soon-to-be-born son. He’d always had an artistic bent but had no formal artistic training. Still, he figured it wouldn’t be too difficult. “The first horsehead ended up in the fireplace.”
He kept at it, though. Before long, he had a beautifully crafted horse’s head. But it was much too large for a hobby horse. He made another. It was still too large. He made four more. None were the appropriate size for a child’s toy. So Garton did the logical thing—he made bodies for his nearly life-size steeds.
One of Martha’s bosses stopped by the house for a visit. She also happened to run the Mountain State Art & Craft Fair in Ripley and, impressed with Garton’s work, invited him to participate in the show. He sold a few carvings that year and noticed something. Unlike his clients at the vet clinic, everyone left his craft booth with a grin on their faces. “It was just so much more relaxing,” he says.
So instead of spending his time making animals better, Garton decided to devote his time to making them out of wood.
A Sawdust Menagerie
Garton kept making horses until 2000, when interest dried up and he shifted his focus to other farm animals. He made cows and pigs as well as rooster weathervanes and quirky carvings of chickens peeking between their legs.
Orders began piling up and Garton worried about his ability to keep up with demand. So, on the way back from a hunting trip, he floated an idea to his friend Joe Adkins. “I said, ‘Can you use a bandsaw?’ He said, ‘Probably.’ That was 14 years ago this month and he’s still here,” Garton says.
Adkins’ interest in hunting shifted Garton’s carving work in a whole new direction. The shop is now filled with deer, turkeys, bear, and dogs, most of which conceal hidden treasures. Take the realistic-looking Tom turkey, carved from birdseye maple and captured in full strut. Pull on his beard and out slides a turkey call. Open his top, and you’ll find a bottle of Wild Turkey Reserve, signed by master distiller Jimmy Russell.
Garton has carved small black bears that hold bottles of honey bourbon and full-sized whitetail deer—with real antlers—that open to reveal liquor cabinets. Other animals serve as gun cabinets. His nine-foot-tall grizzly looks intimidating already, but pop a hidden latch and the beast opens to reveal a rifle rack.
He says the functional aspect of his work helps draw customers. “If it’s a piece of art, they’re hesitant to buy it. But if it has a function, they can justify it in their head.” It’s also clear Garton enjoys imbuing his work with hidden surprises. He says ideas mostly come from brainstorming sessions with Adkins and their friend Bud. “He’s an essential part of it,” Garton says of Bud. “His last name is Wiser.”
He also draws inspiration from his raw material. When he and Adkins go hunting, Garton always carries marking tape. Sometimes he brings along a small electric chainsaw in his backpack. “I want something with character. And when I see it, I know it.”
Occasionally, he’s hit the woodcarver’s jackpot—a chunk of rare American chestnut. He found one such chunk near Spruce Knob and is now turning it into a door for a gun cabinet.
Still Chipping Away
September 15 of this year marked the 30th anniversary of Garton’s fateful trip to the basement. Although he recognized the significance of the occasion, he didn’t tell many people about it. “I was going to retire May 1,” he says. “But the orders just kept coming in and coming in and coming in.”
Garton has now decided that retirement doesn’t fit him. “If I don’t keep active I’ll just die.”
So while he’s scaling back his operation—he’s stopped selling at Tamarack and is no longer doing craft shows—the shop is still regularly turning out carvings, and he’s still taking orders.
Just be warned: There’s one kind of project Garton will not take on. Bereaved owners used to commission him to make carvings of their dearly departed pets—only to get upset when the finished work didn’t bear a close enough resemblance to their precious Fifi.
So Garton doesn’t do portrait projects anymore. After all, he got into this business to get away from dead pets. gartonoriginals.com
photographed by NIKKI BOWMAN