Church woodchopping crew found a down-to-earth way to help their neighbors

Retiree Andy Bell enjoys the comradeship of woodcutting. Photo by Hannah Miller

When winter winds whip through Hickory Nut Gorge, some 25 or so families warm themselves with firewood chopped and delivered to them by men of the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Bat Cave. Calling themselves the Firewood Ministry, the woodchoppers are amateurs fueled by a sense of mission. Some have never used a chainsaw before, says the church’s priest, the Rev. Wes Shields, 40.

“You don’t have to be skilled,” he says. “You just have to be willing.”

On a weekly basis, those willing workers, varying from one to eight, take chainsaws and a log splitter to trees that have fallen in the heavily wooded Gorge area. The former towering oaks and other hardwoods are cut to manageable size, then split into firewood, and finally hauled by pickup truck to recipients in Buncombe, Henderson, Polk, and Rutherford counties.

“In the part of the population that struggles to make ends meet, we’re certainly a piece of the puzzle,” says Shields, who grew up in Candler and looks perfectly at home in noise-reduction earmuffs and work boots. He got the idea from a similar ministry he conducted at a former parish in Boothbay Harbor, Maine.

After coming to Bat Cave three-and-a-half years ago, he approached Hope Wittmer, president of Hickory Nut Gorge Outreach, a food pantry and community-service organization. “He said, ‘Is there a need?’” she remembers. “I said, ‘Oh yeah, we have lots of folks that can use that.’

“Some of these homes aren’t insulated enough so they have extremely high electric bills,” she explains. Some families use the firewood as a supplement; for others, adds Wittmer, “it may be the primary source of heat.”

Mark Hamann, left, and Andy Bell assemble cut logs before they’re fed to the splitter. Photo by Hannah Miller

Originally, the woodcutters were put in contact with recipients through Wittmer and Outreach. But in the years the men have been working, they’ve added others through word of mouth and a community supper that the church sponsors. The church bought a log splitter and a chainsaw, a member donated a pickup, and people with downed trees now know to call the church and donate them. “I get more calls than I could possibly manage,” Shields says.

Braving the chill and uneven terrain of a Lake Lure hillside one recent morning, four workers shared dehydrated apple slices prepared by Andy Bell’s wife. They attacked two large hardwoods, a chestnut oak, and a white oak that had fallen on top of each other.

The atmosphere was convivial. The men gain a lot from each other’s company, they say.

Patrick Warncke of Chimney Rock, who, with Mark Hamann of Bill’s Creek, was operating the splitter, recalls that he lost no time joining after he moved from Texas. “I think I split wood with them before we finished moving here.”

Bell, whose previous career of establishing charitable foundations made people’s lives easier on a large scale, says that woodcutting teaches cooperation. It also gives him a chance to be of service, hands on.

Hickory Nut Gorge Outreach, 2570 Memorial Hwy., Lake Lure. For more information, call 828-625-4683 or visit hickorynutgorgeoutreach.org.

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