"It's a family thing, " Calhoun resident Ben Early explains of his woodworking hobby. His mother and sisters picked up the practice years ago, and Early followed suit.
He began his woodworking pursuits in 1982 with a wooden turtle stool, the initial design for which he borrowed from his wife's uncle.
"A few years later I got interested in them,” he says.
He made modifications over time and eventually came up with the “Charlie Snapper" stool that is his specialty today. Children particularly favor the Charlie stools, and many customers buy them for the little ones in their lives, but the turtle has also made appearances in offices and schools, according to Early.
The design that he perfected over the years has become his calling card. Other crafters have tried to copy it, but there are certain parts of the assembly process that he says no one has been able to duplicate. They make the little four-legged platforms more sturdy and durable in the long run.
“I've had some copycats around copying my stuff, but I don't do that,” Early says. “Everything I make, it’s come out of my head.”
Working with kids
Early grew up “across the mountain from Shannon” on Bells Ferry Road. He was one of 10 children — six boys and four girls. All of his siblings are still living, except one. He worked at Coosa Middle School where he was head custodian for five years before retiring 13 years ago. That job allowed him to interact with children on a daily basis, and it was hard to leave the experience behind.
"I used to have to go down there about once a month after I left and get my fill of the kids … I love them kids — always have,” he says. “That's the reason I've done these (Charlie Snapper stools). If people can't afford them or something like that or are sick … I'll ask them, ‘Which one do you like?’”
More often than not, people in unfortunate circumstances walk away from Early’s craft booth holding a turtle stool he gave them for free. He has a photo on his phone of a 3-year-old little boy who was undergoing chemotherapy at the time of this writing. The boy received a complementary Charlie Snapper.
"If I find out some kid is sick … I'll always try to give them one,” Early says. “That'll pep them up a little bit.”
Before his career as custodian at Coosa Middle, Early spent 34 years in the textile industry at the company originally known as Integrated Products. The company began with some 30 employees, and the workforce eventually grew to 2,000, he says. Company facilities were scattered between Aaragon and Villa Rica.
A balancing act
Early balanced work with his hobby for many years, and he kept a swift pace. There was a time when he was on the road traveling to craft shows from Alabama to Tennessee twice a month. The biggest show he participated in was the Apple Festival in Ellijay, which stretches over two weekends each fall. Now he’s slowed down significantly, and he limits himself to three or four shows each year, towing a 16-foot trailer jammed with his wares to each one.
His creations include various types of furniture – hall trees, storage trunks, coffee tables — as well as novelty items like doll beds and miniature cradles. He’s even come up with a dog bed design that has proved popular. Early works mostly with pine and hardwoods. Although he does use big box retailers, he has some local sources, too. Some of his friends help out on occasion.
“I've got three good friends that are carpenters … I tell them, ‘I'll bring my trailer and leave it. Put your junk (on it) and you're good stuff, too,’” he says.
His designs have ended up in some far-flung places.
"A lot of this stuff goes all over the country,” he says. “I've got them in Pennsylvania, Washington, South Dakota.”
Not ready to retire
His wife, Judy Early, used to make mattresses and pillows for the doll beds. The couple celebrated their 51st anniversary in July. They have two sons, Daniel Early, who lives in Washington, D.C., and Robert Early, who lives on property that backs up to their land. They see their two granddaughters, Robert Early’s daughters, frequently. The youngest is 15 now — “another driver,” Ben Early says a bit wistfully, recalling in his next breath how the two were “just babies” not long ago.
Although he has cut his craft show attendance significantly, Ben Early, who turns 78 years old at the end of this month (he was actually born on Thanksgiving), seems to have no intention of shutting down his saw and sander any time soon. The shop beside his home is filled with a host of half-finished pieces and completed ones waiting to be sold.
“My family is wanting me to retire, but I can't,” he says. “I've got to go do something. I cannot sit around.”