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Gullah Cane Maker Is Part of Pawleys Island Tradition

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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A good walking stick is like an extension of your arm. If you're lucky enough to own a walking stick carved by Thomas Williams, it's also an extension of the master craftsman's soul.

For 29 years, the McClellanville native has been performing his woodcarving wizardry, turning lengths of crude timber into utilitarian works of art. His Pawleys Island stand is a destination for tourists and locals seeking to own a prized piece of South Carolina culture made by the one-and-only "Stick Man."

Williams inherited an interest in hand-carved canes and staffs from his father, who began cutting, whittling and smoothing sticks in the 1930s.

"My first job was carrying the sticks for my father," remembered Williams, a fourth-generation Gullah carver. "From the time I was about 6 to about 8, I'd go with him into the woods to look for sticks. There was 2,000 acres of woods across from where we lived. We called it ‘Old Plantation,' and it was full of chinaberry, cherry, sweet gum. About the only wood he didn't use was oak - it was too hard."

His older brother, CeCe, apprenticed with their father, honed his skills, and later taught them to Williams.

"It was after Hurricane Hugo hit," said Williams, a minister and retired timber foreman for the US Forestry Service. "I'd lost my house and needed extra money. At that time, I was turning cypress knees into lamps and my brother was carving canes. I was watching him one day and decided I wanted to try my hand at making walking sticks, so I did. I've been making them and selling them ever since. My plan was to sell them down in Garden City, but I fell in love with Pawleys Island, so here I am."

As Williams mans his stand - located next to Waverly Place shopping center on Hwy. 17 in Pawleys Island - he draws a steady stream of customers as well as locals who stop by to say "hello" and bring him a cup of coffee or a breakfast sandwich.

"I love this area because of the people," he said. "The people here in Pawleys are so kind, and I've made a lot of friends over the years. This whole area between here and where I live in McClellanville is full of nice folks and has everything I need to make my sticks."

Williams regularly heads into Lowcountry swamp lands to harvest pieces of wood, holding each in his hands to get a feel for its essence. The cut sticks are stored in his drying shed for approximately two to three months.

"If you sit them in the sun to dry, they'll split, so I keep them in the dark, cool shed and let it happen slowly," he said.

The tools of his trade are simple and few: a small handsaw, chisel, measuring tape, box cutter and hatchet. He occasionally uses power tools, such as the side grinder to shave away stubborn pieces of bark.

Also assembled on his work table: a roll of electrical tape and a can of bug spray.

"The first step in making a walking stick comes before I go into the woods to find the sticks," he said with a grin. "You got to spray your ankles with bug killer then tape your pants legs tight so the chiggers can't get to your skin. Don't skip that step or you'll be sorry."

When the sticks are ready to become works of art, Williams shaves off the bark, sometimes completely for a sleek look and sometimes in a spiral for a dramatic, textured effect. He often cuts diamond-shaped and other patterns into the wood. Using tree roots and other pieces, he might carve the head of an animal or a handle. The decorative addition is firmly attached to the cane or staff with a metal rod. He carves his initials into each piece to distinguish his work and ensure authenticity. Then, the stick is varnished and polished before it makes the journey to Williams' stand.

Once you decide upon a particular cane or staff, he will trim it right then to fit your height, then apply a rubber tip to prevent slippage and protect the tip. If there's a specific animal or symbol you'd like for your cane, stop by and let Williams know. He is usually at his stand Wednesday through Saturday, depending on the weather.

"I can carve just about anything, so I do custom pieces all the time," he said. "I still do cypress lamps and tables, too, as well as just about anything - boats, trains, plaques, fish, birds - that can be carved from wood. But you can pick anything from what I've got out on the stand and know you have a one-of-a-kind piece made only from South Carolina trees. This is my tradition, so my heart and soul goes into everything I make."

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 38 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.