A Summer of Woodcarving:
Hettie Smith King’s Collection
Over eighty years ago, a woman in Denver, eastern Lincoln County, approached a summer with a small carving tool and some wood and produced a collection of artistic pieces that made their way to the Lincoln County Museum of History during the 1990s. Known by her family, specifically her nephew Jim Smith, as a woman with an unforgettable character, free spirit, and eccentricity, Hettie Smith King made a contribution to the decorative and artistic environment of Lincoln County that she did not seek or anticipate. Her intricate woodcarvings exemplify an attention to detail and connection to the familiar, and with the exception of one snake dated 1920, she did not feel the need to identify herself as the maker of the pieces or scribe the date on which she carved them.
North Carolina maintains a reputable and well-respected tradition of woodcarvers that is documented in exhibition catalogs and books accompanied by photographs of the woodcarvers and their pieces. Men such as Wade Hampton Martin and E.A. McKillop carved extraordinary figures of men with farming implements, fiddles, and firearms; women with children, and their husbands; and knives, clocks, and animals of varying sizes such as bears, eagles, snakes, kangaroos, and gorillas out of black walnut and white pine. Their lives include stories of how they were born with the innate ability to take a simple Barlow knife and see beyond a simple piece of wood into an intricate and detailed carving that gained attention after an interested proponent of southern handicrafts marketed the pieces to a larger audience that desired the attachment to a treasured and revered traditional artifact.
What Hettie Smith King had in common with men such as Martin and McKillop was a lack of formal training in woodcarving or sculptor. Though King did not carve figures as large as McKillop’s twenty-nine feet and one-half inch by fifty-eight feet and one-quarter inch by sixteen inch Hippoceros with glass eyes, leather tongue, ivory teeth, plastic nostrils, bone tusks, and Victrola works, she did carve a detailed figure of Robert Nixon that measures fifteen inches in height with painted facial features and hand-stitched clothing of linen. Mr. Nixon was a man that lived on Campground Road in Denver that Mrs. King remembered as a crotchety older man who was sedentary in an old straight chair. She did not carve figures with the same level of astuteness and detail as Wade Martin, but she was prolific at her avocation during the summer of 1920.
Hattie Smith was born on August 22, 1895, the daughter of Theodore Franklin Smith and Luzetta Mundy Smith. Her siblings included Ernest Smith (born 1882), Ruby Smith who married Will Asbury, James Earl Smith who married Lillian Peterson, George Franklin Smith who married Nettie King, Robert Wesley Smith who did not marry, and Sinclair Davidson Smith (born in 1898) who died before 1955. She was the wife of Frank King, who worked for the railroad. Upon the death of her husband, she lived with her brother Robert “Bob” Smith, a World War I soldier who was disabled during service, in a house on Campground Road in Denver. According to her nephew Jim Smith, “Aunt Het was always a joy to be with, and she had forty years perfect attendance at Denver United Methodist Church, where she is buried at the Denver Community Cemetery.” Smith explained that Hettie King was very active, had an outhouse and well when everyone else in the community had indoor plumbing. She mowed an acre of property with a push lawn mower until she died in 1976. In addition, Jim Smith remembers his aunt having a big garden with grapes, melons and other fruits. He also remembers sending his aunt money during the Christmas holiday, and her explaining that “the money would help her buy a new chainsaw.”
The Hettie Smith King Collection at the Lincoln County Museum of History includes carvings of snakes, frogs, lizards, an alligator, knives, locks, spoons, shovels, forks, baby dolls, pairs of shoes, axes, guitar, bowls, rolling pins, and other utilitarian household items. This collection exemplifies Mrs. King’s connection to the rural environment of eastern Lincoln County during the early twentieth century, and her interest one summer in taking up woodcarving. Upon completing the collection, she stored it away in an old sideboard with no little knowledge that it would someday be preserved, documented, and valued for its artistic and decorative qualities.
1. Charles G. Zug, III, “E.A. McKillop: ‘A Born Carving Man,’” and Maggie Palmer Lauterer, “The Carvings of Wade Hampton Martin,” in May We All Remember Well: A Journal of the History and Cultures of Western North Carolina, Volume I (Asheville, NC: Robert S. Brunk Auction Services, Inc., 1997), 36, 98.
2. Jim Smith, telephone conversation with author, 30 May 2007.
Artwork photography courtesy of Tindall's Professional Photography of Lincolnton