Monroe man creates holiday joy by whittling Santas out of pencils, rolling pins

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  • Pierre Léonard Vander Linden
    Belgian entomologist

Dec. 27—Dale Vander Linden has a different kind of Christmas tradition.

While others are decorating gingerbread houses, baking seasonal treats or spiking cups of egg nog with a shot of rum, the 81-year-old Monroe man spends his time leading up to the holidays in his shop, whittling away at pieces of wood until a familiar face appears on the surface.

If the rosy cheeks, plump nose, strong brow and long beard don't give it away, the red hat should: it's Santa Claus, of course. For the past 25 years, Vander Linden has been carving Saint Nick from balsa, basswood or any other type of wood he can get his hands on — even pencils, and, most recently, rolling pins.

Several of the rolling pins were purchased by Mike and Cindy Sell, who own the upcycled decor store Farmhouse Creation in Newton. The pieces have since been put up for sale. Vander Linden said it might be the first time or few times he has ever been paid for his creations. Oftentimes he just gives them away.

A bus driver for the PCM Community School District, Vander Linden has frequently gifted his hand-carved pencils featuring Santa and other festive characters like Frosty the Snowmanto students around the holidays. Sometimes he'll even give the kids two-dollar bills on their birthdays.

Both kids and adults get "tickled" whenever they get a hold of his creations, Vander Linden said.

Vander Linden picked up carving after visiting a vendor in Des Moines who was selling a wooden cowboy for $75. But he thought that price tag was a little too steep. So when Vander Linden returned home, he bought himself a set of carving knives and whittled his own cowboy, a statue he still keeps in his living room.

"It was the first thing I ever carved," he said. "And that got me started. Then I started doing some pencils and people seemed to like them. So I made a whole bunch of 'em. This year I think someone took about 80 pencils I had. I gave up 25 or 30 to my daughter who teaches school down here (in Monroe)."

Throughout the year he'll also carve cowboys, firefighters or whatever else he feels like. But by the time his collection grows, Vander Linden has found people to give his carvings to. His wife, he said, gets first dibs. But his children also have a knack for taking a few of their dad's creations to add to their collections.

"There's always somebody that wants them," Vander Linden said. "I've got relatives — nieces and nephews — that collect all the stuff that I've made. They'd come over and visit, and they know whenever they come over they get to take something home. If they're far away and I visit them, I take them to them."

Vander Linden had no intention of becoming a wood carver or showed any real interest in the craft earlier in life. But it wasn't as if he was unfamiliar with the world of creation. Vander Linden worked as a tool and dye maker at Maytag for more than 20 years of his 38-year run with the company.

He remembered the foreman would give him a blue print and a quota, and then turn around and walk away. Vander Linden was confident in his skills to make the foreman exactly what they wanted. When people ask him how he did that, Vander Linden just shrugs his shoulders.

"If you got a picture of something, you can make it," he said. "And if I can see a picture of something, I can carve it."

Some of his most favorite carvings he keeps for himself, like the Santa made from a cypress knee — which Vander Linden described as a root of a tree that grows out of the swamps of Louisiana. But why Santa? Well not even the artist himself knows the answer to that question.

Although he has no hard feeling about giving away his carvings, there isn't a single person that has a work of his that Vander Linden wasn't proud of. He's "very fussy" about his painting, he said. And if it's still no good he'll cut it off and start all over again.

"Until I'm happy with it, it ain't going out the door," he said.

Chances are there are more than a few people in town that have held on to those carved pencils they received when they were kids. Some might still be hanging on their Christmas tree. Until Vander Linden gets tired of making them, he'll still be making them in his shop and giving them away when he finds time.

"As long as it makes them happy — that's the important thing," he said.

Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or cbraunschweig@newtondailynews.com

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