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Paul Markham: the story behind a woodworker

By Lynn Burton

Sopris Sun Staff Writer

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At 89 years old, Paul Markham might be the oldest arts/crafts vendor at this weekend’s Carbondale Mountain Fair. In the summer time when the overhead door is open, passersby near Eighth and Colorado can see him inside his tidy shop creating wooden cutting boards and other wooden items, such as “T” puzzles that he warns “nine out of 10 people can’t solve,” “ring” puzzles whose solving apparently requires a less lofty IQ, novelty items, cleats for hanging clay pots on deck posts, and decorative creations like thimble-sized birdhouses affixed to long dowles that add interest to any flower bed or pot.

“The ladies love them,” he said with a smile during a tour of his shop.

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Recently, Markham’s table saw, benches and other flat surfaces were covered with cardboard boxes, each neatly labeled and filled with cutting boards (two sizes) and other inventory. Markham, trim and fit, moves easily through his shop, although maybe not quite as fluidly as when he was bringing the ball up during his basketball days at McPherson College in Kansas (more on that in a minute).

Priced at $25 each, the 10X16-inch cutting boards are Markham’s bread and butter. One of the first steps in making a board is gluing together alternating strips of cherry, walnut and maple. When asked why not just make the cutting board out of one piece of wood, he answered “This is very attractive to people.”

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A Markham cutting board is more complex than gluing together strips of light and dark colored wood. A pair of three-eighths-inch dowels, running laterally through the board at each end, keeps it all together. “The dowles keep it from warping or coming unglued.”

He also draws a comparison to his strips of wood and people: “No two pieces are exactly alike.”

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Markham takes delight in explaining how he drills a hole for the dowels through the side of the cutting boards. He puts down a strip of cherry wood, turns around and weaves his way to the other side of the shop, where he takes a triangle-shaped, aluminum looking thing from a wall of tools.

“This is a dowel jig,” he explains, then shows how he uses it to make marks on each side of the cutting board, so when he uses his drill press to make two holes in the opposite side of the board, they meet in the middle “every time.”

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Markham and his wife, Annie, have lived near their son, Joe, and his wife Cindy Nett, for two or three years, after living in Redstone in the 1990s then moving back to Kansas for a few years. Maybe it’s the exterior sign above his shop that says “Cutting boards for sale” but word seems to be getting around. Recently, at the height of his Mountain Fair production cycle, a woman “came in on a Wednesday” and said she needed a 14-inch, round cutting board right away for a wedding. Markham replied that he didn’t have time for such a short turn around. “I’ll tell you what I’ll do,” she countered. “If it’s ready by Saturday I’ll give you $100.”

I asked, “Are you sure?”

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The woman said she was.

Markham said OK, went “right to work” and two days later the cutting board was ready.

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On that note, Markham went on to explain that other steps in his cutting board process include running the boards through a planner then using a belt sander to create a rough finish and then an orbital sander and finish sander.

Back in Kansas

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Although there might be some question whether Markham is the oldest arts/crafts vendor at Mountain Fair, there can be no dispute about the following: he is the only vendor who has been inducted into the McPherson College Hall of Fame, and also the Kansas Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.

Markham spent his early years in Chanute, Kansas, located in the southeast part of the state, where his dad was a farmer, but the family later moved to McPherson, in the central part of the state, where his dad worked in the oil business.

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When he was 15 years old, Markham broke his left arm playing basketball. He was taken to a doctor, who put his arm in a plaster cast. The cast ended up being too tight. The upshot? His arm atrophied, and he has had only partial use of it and his left hand for the past 74 years.

Despite the handicap, Markham lettered in basketball three times at McPherson College and also played semi-profession baseball. After graduation from college he taught shop (wood working) in high school, and coached basketball, for 35 years. A highlight came in 1968 when his team at Wamego High School (near Manhattan) went 25-0 and won the state 3A title. He also built houses when not coaching or teaching.

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Back in his Carbondale shop, Markham keeps a saying on the wall titled “Words of wisdom” that says “Tough times don’t last but tough people do.” He jokes about being “big time” when he says he earned a MA in physical education from Kansas State University.

A few minutes later, when remembering his years teaching and coaching in Dodge City, Kansas, he says he joined the Optimist Club there and was once named Optimist of the Year.

“So I’m an optimist,” he says. “I’m an optimist.”