Solving the Mystery of Big Oley

Chainsaw carver Marie Serafin with her creation, Big Oley, at the U.P. State Fairgrounds in Escanaba, Mich.

Chainsaw team turns a forgotten carving into a lasting attraction  

The Steam Engine Village at the U.P. State Fairgrounds in Escanaba, Mich., reproduces the look and feel of a turn-of-the-century settlement. It has a blacksmith, cook shack, ice cream shop, general store, barbershop, etc., in a park-like setting, with grass and trees.

A number of years ago, one of the trees, a large white pine, died. Because one of the main attractions of the village is its steam-powered lumber mill, the tree was felled and cut into logs to be made into lumber. However, mill workers rescued the butt of the tree and decided to have it carved.

A chainsaw carver from Pennsylvania happened to be in the area, and he blocked out a rough version of “Big Oley.” Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to return to finish the carving, which was placed onto a pallet and stored in a warehouse. Years passed.

In 2010, the U.P. State Fair hired a carving team, Jon Mykkanen and Marie Serafin (known as Woodworks Chainsaw Carving), to work the fair as entertainers. After several successful seasons, they made it to the Midway and decided to carve something special: Big Oley was going to be finished at last!

Typically chainsaw carvers do “quick-carves” at fairs. A piece needs to come together before the crowd moves on to the next attraction. But Big Oley needed many hours of work. Jon and Marie solved the problem by dividing the work: Jon would do the quick-carves while Marie devoted herself to Big Oley.

Big Oley was hauled to the edge of the Midway, a mesh screen was set up for spectators’ safety, and bleachers were set up for viewing. Right away, a major hurdle presented itself: no one seemed to know who Big Oley was supposed to be or why he had strange, awkward arms. Marie was told that Oley was Paul Bunyan’s blacksmith, which would require carving a big hammer and maybe an anvil, but the placement of the arms wasn’t right. She couldn’t reposition them, as they were the actual branches of the tree. Marie worked on Oley’s clothes and face, waiting for inspiration.

The breakthrough came when a local photographer visited and set the story straight: Oley wasn’t a blacksmith, he was the camp cook! Suddenly, the design (and those arms) made sense. Marie could move forward.

For the entire week of the fair, working first with her chainsaw and then with grinders, sanders, and other power tools, Marie brought Big Oley to life. It challenging to work on a carving that had been started by someone else, and Marie discovered that carving such a large piece presented its own difficulties, as well. Not only was she working on step ladders and planks, but the project developed more slowly than the crowds were used to. As the week wore on, however, interest in the project grew and people stopped to check on Oley’s progress.

The show didn’t stop when the saw work was complete. Marie used an acetylene torch to burn the surface, and then she used power tools, sanders, and hand tools to carve the details. Because no “Camp Cookie” would be complete without a frying pan and spatula, Jon produced those items while Marie painted Big Oley. She said, “Sometimes the color and the finishing is nearly as important as the carving itself. You see the character of Big Oley come to life!”

Big Oley has been the Steam Engine Village’s mascot for several seasons. He’s displayed during summer months and stored back in his warehouse for the winter, dreaming, perhaps, of an enormous cookstove or a very statuesque lady friend.

Visit Big Oley at Steam Engine Village at the U.P. State Fairgrounds in Escanaba, Michigan.

For more of Marie’s work, visit www.woodworkschainsawcarving.com.

Comments are closed.