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Spirits among us

FD man resurrects dead trees with face carvings

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
Tom Shelly, of Fort Dodge, stands next to a face he carved into a tree on his property. This particular tree has taken on the identity of "Wanda the Woodland Witch," according to Shelly. Wanda appears to have her eyes fixed on Shelly here. Shelly said legend has it that every tree has a spirit. When that tree dies, a face is carved into it and the spirit comes out. Tree carving has become a hobby of Shelly's since he retired six years ago.

Legend has it that every tree has a spirit, and carving a face into a tree after it dies makes the spirit come out.

That’s where Tom Shelly, of Fort Dodge, comes in.

For the past few years, Shelly has been carving faces into dead trees within the woods on his property along 15th Avenue North.

The carvings are called woodspirits, he said.

“It’s something nice to do,” said Shelly, a retired orthodontist. “It gave me an excuse to be outside in the fall.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
One of the first tree carvings Tom Shelly, of Fort Dodge, completed is shown here. Shelly carves faces into trees after they have died. The carvings are called woodspirits.

Some of the faces appear friendly, while others give off a spooky vibe.

“Wanda the Woodland Witch” would probably fall under the spooky category. She faces the south on the edge of Shelly’s property.

Wanda has bushy eyebrows, beady eyes and a crooked nose and teeth.

But who knows? Looks can be deceiving. Wanda, may in fact, be a good spirit.

Not too far from her is a carving of a ghost.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
This woodspirit can be seen along 15th Avenue North on the edge of Tom Shelly's property.

“I did that one for Halloween last year,” said Shelly, who moved to Fort Dodge in 1976. “The mouth of the ghost was already here, so I cut some holes and blacked it in.”

Another face carving appears a little more jolly.

“I put a Santa Claus hat on that one during the winter,” said Shelly, pointing to one with a beard carved on it.

The happiest face carving of all may be one that resembles a famous journalist and talk show host.

“That’s my Geraldo Rivera one,” Shelly said. “I started carving that one and I thought it looked like him.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson Tom Shelly, of Fort Dodge, poses next to one of eight trees he's carved faces into. Shelly thinks that this particular face resembles Geraldo Rivera, the famous journalist and talk show host.

Shelly does most of his carvings in the fall.

“I did a couple in the spring,” he said. “Summer is too hot and muggy. Plus I play golf and go fishing instead.”

Most of the work is done using chisels. Shelly also uses a circular saw, especially for the hair, he said.

He spends a significant amount of time on each one.

“On the average I spend about four half-days,” he said. “I work four hours at a time and quit.”

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
A lone woodspirit stands out among the trees on the property of Tom Shelly, of Fort Dodge.

After Shelly retired he picked up the hobby of woodworking. It started out with pistol grips.

“Then I got on a list and they started sending me catalogs on how to carve woodspirits,” he said.

Many of the trees on his property are elm trees.

“I did one on a full size tree and later it fell over, but I stuck it back in the ground,” Shelly said. “Anymore I cut these trees off before I get started.”

He also removes the bark.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
"Wanda the Woodland Witch" is one of eight carvings Tom Shelly has on his property.

The hardest part, Shelly said, is the planning stage.

“Planning it out initially and getting started,” he said.

After that he gets on a roll.

Once the carvings are finished, he sprays them with a polyurethane varnish to protect them.

Shelly doesn’t mind people passing by to see the finished product.

“I’ve seen a few people stop and take pictures with them,” Shelly said. “It’s nice to see people enjoying them.”

To date, Shelly has completed eight face carvings.

He anticipates finishing another one in the fall.

“I’ve got enough trees to probably keep me busy the rest of my life,” Shelly said.

-Messenger photo by Chad Thompson
This particular tree was transformed into a ghost for Halloween in 2020. Shelly said the mouth was already there, so he just carved the eyes and hands.

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