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Regional Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 14, 2008

The Shermans know how to wield an ax

By Jordan J. Michael

ALTAMONT –– The Sherman family, of Knox, has its own personal homemade base at the fairgrounds.

“The farthest I get is the corndog stand in the middle of the grounds,” said Dana Sherman, 63. “I stay hidden.”

The Sherman family has a local history dating back to 1790. The family has been constructing posts and beams ever since, using handcrafted tools. “Our family line might go further back than that, but it would be news to me,” said Dana.

The Sherman’s Lumberjack Show has held its ground in the 1890’s Building for 27 years. The lineup includes Dana Sherman; his wife, Mary, 63; their son, Dan, 43; and their grandchildren, Kevin, 20; and Meghan, 16.

“Mary doesn’t actually do much ax work,” said Dana. “She’s there to keep us all sane and organized.”

There are an abundance of tools, axes, and saws lying around or hanging from the walls of the building’s back corner. “The fair lets us keep all our stuff here,” said Dana Sherman. “In return, we stay exclusive to the Altamont Fair. There is so much living history here.”

The 1890’s Building was built by the Shermans and it adds new posts and beams every year. Years ago, builders used to assemble the whole roof of a building on the ground and put the pieces together using horses to pull the weight.

 “It’s not like that anymore. Now, it’s harder because you assemble one piece at a time,” said Dana. “Building barns is a back-breaking job. Our posts and beams weigh an average of 700 pounds. Lift with your legs, never your back.”

The show is a combination of ax-throwing, post-cutting, and informational speaking. The most popular part is the ax-chucking. “I’m pretty sure most of the fans come for the ax throwing,” said Dan Sherman. “Can you blame them? Who wouldn’t want to see axes flying through the air?”

Dana said that fans are always awaiting an accident. “People think that an ax is going to fly out of control and take something out,” he said. “Fans like to see a little danger. However, we are skilled, so don’t expect any mishaps.”

His father added, “There is nothing safe when you throw an ax. You just have to take your licks and go with the flow.”

Dana Sherman took a good “lick” 16 years ago during a demonstration. He put a big iron ax into his leg.

“I was hacking at a log and I hit my leg instead,” he said. “I walked into the back and my friend knew something was wrong. My jeans were starting to turn red so I quickly got some medical attention. I took the rest of the night off.”

Out of boredom –– thrills

The Shermans started throwing axes to pass time between woodworking shows about 20 years ago. People at the fair took notice quickly. “We just randomly started throwing between shows because we were bored,” said Dana Sherman. “All of a sudden, people were watching, so we decided to include it in the show.”

It took some time to master the skill. The ax is heavy and the distance has to be the same every time. “You have to be 20 feet away from the target so that the ax can do a full rotation,” said Dan. “We did some damage at first, but practice always makes perfect.”

The family orders its axes from New Zealand, where ax-throwing has a huge market. The sport blew up there 10 or 15 years ago, they said. The “Tuatahi” axes are all the same size and weight.

“People don’t usually get involved with ax throwing because of the price,” said Dana Sherman. “The ax heads cost $300 a piece. You don’t even get a handle. We custom make our own handles.”

The Shermans use an old-school spring pole lathe to shape their ax handles. The apparatus is hooked up to a cable that runs across the barn overhead. The pulley system spins the lathe. No electricity is used.

In fact, all of the family’s tools are hand-powered. The Shermans are preserving a lost art form of post and beam making. “People long ago weren’t pre-occupied. They had work and sleep,” said Dana Sherman. “We try to keep that type of lifestyle alive because nowadays people are running all over the place.”

The Shermans see ax-throwing as both a sport and a hobby. “Lumberjacks made up a game to pass the time,” said Mary Sherman. “It’s a fun game that relieves stress. Everyone in this family is very thrilled by it.”

For fun, they setup balloons and beer cans as targets. Later on in the week, the Shermans will have sawing competitions with the audience.

“It’s always exciting to see the fans beat the pros,” said Dana Sherman. “As for breaking beers, I’d rather drink them.”

The Shermans’ spirit and craftsmanship go back for generations and it has a high ideal to live up to.

“Some people collect the unique tools. Some people concentrate on manning the craft,” said Dana Sherman. “Here, we have all the tools and love to show off the craft.”

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