“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you can get there in a car.” — E.B. White
For years my wife, Maggie, and I have heard of Dude Baker, and we knew his work was similar to Kentucky carver Carl McKenzie’s, but it took some old, non-collecting friends from Cincinnati to set us on a course of exploration. Now, while all of our friends are old, not all are collectors. Anne and Fred Straus are fellow art lovers but not the accumulators we are. They were on a camping trip to Natural Bridge, Ky., and stopped at a small general store in Slade, where they spotted some unique art. Remembering our Kentucky carvings, they gave us a call.
When we heard they were calling from Slade — a town so small (as they saying goes) that they had to widen Main Street in order to put a stripe down the middle — we had a pretty good idea they were calling about Dude Baker. We asked them to bring us back a piece, and when they did and told us about their experience visiting Baker’s home, we decided it was time we made that trip.
It’s a lovely ride from Cincinnati to Slade. The Interstate is quicker, but we prefer the “everyday kindness of the back roads” of Charles Kuralt, so we took Route 27, which goes all the way south to Florida and passes through Summerville, Ga., near Finster’s Paradise Garden. We like traveling through small Kentucky towns that still have some character and don’t have satellite shopping centers at their fringes.
A stop in Cynthiana for a plate of fried green tomatoes at that high, tin-ceilinged restaurant is usually a good idea, and we always look forward to the Paris-Winchester road with its miles of stone fences, horse farms and cut, green fields.
I mentally collect road signs, but there was only one worth writing about on this trip — one offering the combination “Boat Show and Furniture Sale.” Better by far is the one we saw while passing through Tennessee — “Life is short. Eat more pie.”
Speaking of pie, you can’t do better than My Place, a restaurant in Winchester, where the cream pies are world class and the baked country ham sandwiches worth a detour. If you’re lucky you might even catch Winchester folk art dealer and fellow pie aficionado Larry Hackley at a neighboring table, thus having the double pleasure of immersing yourself in the pie while bandying folk art.
From Winchester, we followed Mountain Parkway all the way to Slade, looked for the Natural Bridge Rest Stop, then followed Railroad Avenue to Dude Baker’s home.
Ernest “Dude” Baker (born September 18, 1920) is a member of the generation of Kentucky carvers who lived within the boundaries of the Daniel Boone National Forest, which stretches from the Tennessee border of Eastern Kentucky north to Rowan County near Morehead. The carvers who lived within these borders and who were born between 1900 and 1930 could be called the Daniel Boone School. Edgar Tolson (1904), Carl McKenzie (1905), Baker Riddle (1906), Denzil Goodpaster (1908), Evan Decker (1912), Chester Cornett (1913), Henry York (1913), Ben Miller (1917), Thomas May (1922), Elisha Baker (1922), Garland Adkins (1928), Linvel Barker (1929), and John Gilley (1929). Dude Baker (1920) fits right into this group.
None of these artists were market-driven or media-influenced. Most took up carving for painting to pass the time, express their opinions or make friends. Collecting can be a way of freezing time; artists do the same with their creations.
Dude Baker began carving in January 1989 upon the death of his wife. He never intended to sell his work and didn’t, most of his life, simply setting aside pieces for giving to family and friends. He dated the early ones, but due to his poor eyesight and age, he always said he “worked slow,” using a pocket knife with a well-worn, one-inch blade.
He has spent his life in Powell County, Ky. He had eight brothers and four sisters; only three sisters survive. Since the mountainous terrain where he lives ruled out farming, the occupational choices were trucking, railroading and lumbering. Baker chose lumbering. Most of his life was spent working a two-man, crosscut saw. When asked about this strenuous activity, Baker replied, “I liked working out-of-doors and enjoyed the day as long as my partner wasn’t riding the saw.”
On Sundays for 20 years, Baker sang with the Slade Hill Singers. People still recall listening to that talented group on radio station WMST in Mount Sterling, Ky.
“Dude” was the nickname given to Baker early in life by his father who ran a general store. With his handsome, well-groomed appearance, the name still fits him today — much like the nicknames of other folk artists, “Frog” Smith, “Creative” DePrie and “Popeye” Reed, and of the old baseball players, “Ducky” Medwick, “Dizzy” Dean and “Bad News” Hale.
Since Baker was born partially sighted, his wife, Jean, did all the driving, mostly local trips, but the couple took an occasional trip to Florida or Louisiana to visit relatives. Baker still lives in the house he bought at auction the week before their wedding as a gift for his bride. They had two children, a son who died of a heart attack while playing pick-up basketball at age 33 and a daughter who lives in Menifee County.
After his wife died, Baker says he spent many an afternoon at his neighbor Carl McKenzie’s watching him carve. McKenzie showed Baker how to form the flat figures he made from 2 by 4s. Money was never a consideration for McKenzie, although he told Baker he sometimes would make up to $500 from his front porch on a weekend. “And that was when moonshine was selling for 50 cents a quart,” Baker said.
There is a certain repetitiveness in both artists’ work, but the two can be distinguished by noting that Baker’s figures are usually articulated and the legs and feet more carefully formed. He never uses sandpaper to finish the figures, preferring to leave the rough edges.
Repetition in itself is not that bad. Lovers of polka music don’t seem to mind that they are always playing the same tune. Folk artists’ often-repeated themes can provide the artist with income while keeping customers happy. Personally, we prefer the natural, repetitive, good humored work of the Kentucky carvers to much of today’s market-driven art.
You’ll find a trip to Dude Baker’s worthwhile. His work, though quite measured and unpolished today, is still charming. The warm greeting at his door is always a bonus. But better hurry — the Daniel Boone School’s numbers are decreasing — down from 14 to three. Only Baker, Tom May and John Gilley are still working today, and their like is disappearing as fast as a New York City cab in a rain. Better hurry before they pave paradise and put in a parking lot.