Elgin man ‘bowled over’
CUTLINE: Louie Christen, a retired dairyman, and his wife, Cheryl (Shipton), graduated together from Valley in 1965 before marrying in 1987. The couple hold two of the hundreds of bowls Louie has handcrafted out of his Wadena timber.
Elgin man ‘bowled over’
Many farmers collect toy tractors, others collect real ones; Louis Christen of Elgin collects wood. The 66-year-old retired dairyman takes a piece of lumber from his land and handcrafts Mother Nature’s gift to man into a one-of-a-kind bowl.
Louie’s unique bowls can be found coast to coast. He has handcrafted more than 200, most of which have been given away. A few have been sold.
The woodcrafter married the former Cheryl Shipton. They both graduated from Valley in 1965. She worked at Elgin State Bank for 46 years before retiring two years ago. She watches her husband transform a hunk of wood into a work of art, saying, “Louis doesn’t want his hobby to turn into a job, because that would take the fun out of everything he does.”
Louis has been having fun his entire life. He was one year old when he and his three older brothers came to the present farm five miles south of Elgin. The farmhouse sits a half-mile back off Hwy. 56 and sat on an original 90 acres.
In 2008 the Christens sold their Holstein cows and Louie found more time to collect more and more wood. His calf building was converted into his wood shop, and the aroma of freshly carved wood can be smelled throughout the day.
Louie’s love of wood came from his parents, Will and Inez (Chase) Christen. In 1963 Will purchased 140 acres of timber north of Wadena, and the woods became his son’s home away from home.
Louis Christen discovered the differences among the many trees such as oak, maple, walnut, butternut, hickory, and cherry, white pine, Norway spruce, red cedar and others. His land was showcased to the entire state in 1999, when he was named Iowa Tree Farmer of the Year. A field day was held among the Christen trees.
“I was very humbled to receive the award,” said Louie. “This area has a rich history of conservation. Dick Jensen, Bill Bennett, Eric Boehm, and others have also been honored. There is nothing wrong with harvesting trees if it’s done correctly.
“When it comes to replanting, I plant from seed, taking the original nut and planting it. I encourage anyone who is managing timber for the first time to get professional advice and seek out a district forester to get himself started.”
Louie cuts dead trees into firewood to heat his home, but his first love is to cut into a piece of wood and shape it into a bowl for someone to enjoy. Twenty years ago he was looking for something to do. He picked up a tree farmer magazine, learned how to carve a bowl, and hasn’t stopped since.
Christen has handcrafted many wooden items, including tables, benches, chairs, and coffee tables, but his bowls draw the most attention. His work is donated to area churches to be used in fundraisers. Wherever a bowl goes, Louie’s initials “LAC,” the year, and type of wood used go with the bowl in small print on the bowl’s bottom.
Louie’s bowls begin as a simple hunk of green wood. He will have nothing to do with a turning lathe; instead, he takes an angle grinder with a carving disc and begins to give the wood a shape.
But the end product has to wait three to four months to be sanded and finished. The rough-cut bowl is put into a plastic bag, which is turned inside out daily to remove any condensation. The bowl is air-dried before being put into a paper bag in its final month. Its beauty will then be fully seen with the help of a random orbital sander and a beeswax finish.
Louie said he has had many as 30 bowls drying at one time, adding that it takes up to five hours to carve and finish a single bowl. Some types of woods take longer.
A neighbor of Louie and Cheryl saw a hand-carved bowl with a handle in Alaska and asked if Louie could make one like it. Christen ended up making two of the unique one-piece bowls.
Neighbors Hal Wilson and his wife, Marty Berda, asked Louie to carve them a bowl from a piece of wood from their land. It would become a very unique piece with a shiny spot in the bottom of the bowl.
Louie explained, “I was carving the bowl and saw something shiny when I got near the bottom. It turned out to be a bullet left in the wood, which was used as target practice by the couple’s son.”
Louie Christen is as unique as that bowl. If one of his works sells for $40, a friend will tell him that if he takes his bowl to the big city, he could add another zero to that figure. But he wants no part of that, because he is love of wood will always remain a hobby.
The Elgin man would rather head for the timber with his beagle, Sadie, as they search out in the many trees something they may have overlooked on their previous trip.
He and Cheryl waited 22 years before they finally tied the knot in 1987. She recalls, “We knew each other in school, and for so many years I took care of his milk check at the bank. I am so proud to see him such a fine steward of the land and to see his works of art from that land make so many people happy.”
Cheryl likes to knit and crochet, but she knows her work doesn’t compare with that of her husband’s. Louie Christen’s bowls come in all shapes and sizes, and those folks who have his wooden bowls in their homes know they have a one-of-a-kind work of art.
Many retired farmers can be found in a tractorcade somewhere, but not Louis Christen. If you hear a beagle barking in the woods north of Wadena, you can find this particular retired farmer trekking the forest, looking for his next piece of art to be carved into a bowl for some lucky person to enjoy.