The Fitzgerald’s – Woodworking, Gardens and Views of the Marshes

[slideshow]When I dropped by the Fitzgerald’s, Mike was busy in the workshop making Adirondack chairs. He had all the wood pre-cut and ready to go for a customer’s order of six. He is using Western Cedar from British Columbia; it’s expensive to buy and there is a lot of waste when cutting out the curved pieces. However, the chairs will last you 20 to 30 years if you don’t leave them out in the winter. That’s a good part of your life, but the classic design is low, so maybe best for your middle years while your knees are still working well. He told me they made one for Nancy’s father Oliver. He loved the chair, but he said there was no way he could sit that close to the ground anymore.

Mike and Nancy are both retired teachers. When Mike retired, he began his next career and business Dog River Woodworking. An old gentleman taught him the basics of woodworking as a child growing up in West Prince, and later he took courses at the School of Visual Arts at Holland College. While he was a teacher, he taught the Sciences, Math and Outdoor Education, so he was easily able to chat and explain what he was doing while building the chair. There is nothing quite like watching someone work on a creative project that you can see coming together before your eyes. It turns out he has a bit of a following of fans who like to stop by. He told me that when my uncle Arnold Beer was alive, he would check in on occasion to see “what he was working on today” and even gave him some unused wood that he had on his farm.

Mike uses bird’s eye maple, walnut, cherry and yellow birch. His favourite to work with is cherry, but it can be challenging to find.  One of his classic pieces is a jewellry box. He cuts the shape of the box out with a band saw and removes a half inch off the back of the block. This allows him to cut the shapes out for the drawers. He uses a similar technique to create the drawers, and the pieces are all reassembled into a creation inspired by sea waves. The inside of the drawers are flocked in deep blue. Different woods and shapes offer variations on the theme that has become his signature design but not the only products he has built. Aside from his wholesale business, there are special orders, and I asked what had been the most unusual request. It was a custom wooden box for a beloved dog that passed away, and the detailed design instructions were provided by the owner.

The Fitzgerald’s living room features furniture that Mike built with its mission-style chairs and coffee table. You know when you are in a room where there is all natural wood; it smells comfortable.

In their home is where I discovered another one of his interests and that is birds. His favourite is the Hooded Merganser duck which is mounted in the front entry along with a ring-neck pheasant, king eider and a ptarmagin. Beside the front door was a snowy owl whose body was recovered in an abandoned barn and immortalized here. In the parlour, was a blue heron, and he explained that he required special permission from Fish & Wildlife to preserve the body of this protected species. As a former teacher of Biology who has a great reverence for nature, he offers an extensive knowledge of the species in and around Clyde River.

Just below the Fitzgerald’s home is an active marshland on the Clyde River, and he has noticed a considerable increase in the population of birdlife in the area now that DDT has been banned. He sees more osprey, hawks and bald eagles.

Looking down at the marshes from their gardens is a special delight. This property was once the home of Nancy’s grandparents, Gordon and Lula MacKinnon, and when she toured me through the mature gardens, she told me about the plants, trees and bushes that she has preserved and others she had to prune back. Nancy has contributed some of her grandmother’s perennials to the gardens at Murchison Place Park, honouring the memory of Lula’s love for the community.

At the back of the home, the steps that lead up to their deck are a series of sandstones carefully removed from a building foundation on the original property. Standing at the top of the stairs offers a good view of the field behind the gardens now worked by the Livingston’s with hay and grain. As we walked around to the front of the house, Nancy pointed out a chestnut tree where she had once counted the rings in the wood and derived it must now be in excess of 100 years old. She could see the trunk was deeply fractured and somberly mentioned that this might be the last summer for the old tree.

Nancy asked me if I was one of her Grandmother’s piano students. I was but told her that at the time, I was more interested in spending time outdoors. She agreed that she was attracted to other pursuits as well. Nancy taught Home Economics and Biology, and now enjoys curling, skiing, handcrafts and stained glass design. Her grandmother Lula, who was drawn to music, gave many Clyde River children piano lessons in her parlour, and on Sunday’s, she played the organ in Burnside Presbyterian Church.

The Fitzgerald’s head down south like the migrating birds in Winter. They spend time in the Carolina’s and in Virginia. Nancy says they want to travel as many winters as they can. They are both avid golfers. This summer, they will host friends they met in Virginia. The Southerners called to say they were considering coming to Prince Edward Island, and when Nancy sent them the link to Clyde River’s website, they called back to say that it looked like such a beautiful place, they were coming for sure.

Mike is considering winding down his woodworking business at some point, but considering the avid interests that he and Nancy share, there are likely other pursuits on the horizon…retired teachers maybe, but always learning.

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