Local Woodworker Specializes in Civil War Era Furniture
Former School Teacher Taps into Love of History
By LAURA MONDUL | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER | July 07, 2010*** This story was published in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier on Monday, July 5. ***
ABINGDON, Va. – Some projects are completed in a matter of weeks, maybe months; but for Joe Cress, one particular undertaking has turned into a way of life.
"I always wanted to make a living with my hands," said Cress, a schoolteacher turned woodworker whose project, Logan Creek Designs, is now in full swing.
From a 2,000-square-foot shop tucked behind Cress's country home on Lindell Road, Logan Creek creates custom-made furniture – specializing in Civil War era reproductions. Among the pieces in Cress's repertoire are replicas of the field desks used by Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, the bed that Jackson died in, and J.E.B. Stuart's field desk.
Cress has recreated pieces at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, and in cooperation with the National Parks Service. And in 2003, several of Cress's pieces were used in the filming of the movie "Gods and Generals."
Coal miner's son
Raised in Norton, Va., Cress always had a strong interest in history; specifically, the Civil War. Though he descended from several generations of Pennsylvania coal miners, his family moved to Norton after World War II so his father could work in the Virginia coal mines.
"So here were my mother and father, two transplanted Yankees, starting over in Virginia in the late 40s," Cress said. "I'm the only person in my family who was born in Virginia, and proud of it."
The Cresses often traveled back to Pennsylvania for family gatherings, via U.S. 11, which passes through several historic places as it traverses the state, including the Virginia Military Institute and numerous battlefields. At that time, there were few rest stops or restaurants along the way, so the Cress family packed picnic lunches and stopped on the side of the road, often at battlefields or to visit museums. Those early days sparked Cress's fascination with history, though it would remain somewhat on the back burner for years.
His woodworking interest also began at a young age. Cress recalls that he always wanted to take woodworking classes in school, but his options were limited. Still, thanks to the encouragement of his school's shop teacher, and Cress's father's basement woodshop, he was able to tool around with his interest in craftsmanship.
Becoming a teacher
Cress was the first in his family to attend college, spending several years at Clinch Valley Community College and finishing at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tenn., where he earned a degree in special education.
"My father, after 54 years of coal mining, told me that he would break both of my legs if I tried to go into the coal mine," Cress said. "He wanted me to go to college."
After graduating, Cress taught special education for four years at the William King School, now the William King Arts Center in Abingdon. While teaching, he initiated a woodworking shop at the school.
"I kind of live outside the box," Cress said. "I said, "why can't these kids do this?' It was great for them, but it was even better for me. I learned more from those kids than they ever learned from me."
Cress left education to "go chase money," as he describes it, and began selling heavy machinery. But something was missing; his heart just wasn't in the work.
Then, the recession of the "80s served indirectly to get Cress back on track. Because of the hard financial times, Cress and his wife, Margaret, lost almost everything, but that offered Cress a chance to follow his true passions.
New home, new life
While Cress and his wife were driving through the Abingdon countryside one day, a two-story farmhouse caught their eye. After talking to the owner and looking around, the Cresses fell in love with the house and bought it for $39,500 on a handshake. That was 30 years ago.
"The thing about Joe is it doesn't matter what happens," said Tom Crise, a longtime friend and minister of First Christian Church in Abingdon. "He's had things happen to him that would cause most people to quit. He never quits. Adversity just seems to make him stronger."
Holding to his love of woodworking, Cress started his first shop with his brother, Jake. Though Jake went on to start his own business a year later, Cress continued with the shop until moving operations into his current site at his home.
In the mid-1980s, he opened a woodworking and lumber store in Abingdon. For several years, Cress worked at both locations, until he and his wife adopted two girls in 1987, at which time he closed the lumber store and focused his attention on his home shop and raising the children.
The first Gulf War brought Cress some unexpected business. He worked as a subcontractor for Brunswick Defense, making furnishings for mobile shelters for the U.S. Marines. But the Civil War was still Cress's main interest, and a chance stop at Virginia Military Institute in 1994 changed the path of his personal history.
Cress wanted to see Stonewall Jackson's field desk, which was on display at the institute at the time. Cress wanted to build a replica of the desk for himself. When he approached the person working at the information desk that day seeking permission, it turned out that the usual cadet who worked the desk was out sick, and in his stead was Col. Keith Gibson, curator of the museum.
After some discussion, Gibson agreed to allow Cress to reproduce the desk, once they completed and signed a 22-page licensing agreement, that is. That chance meeting kicked off what would become a 15-year project in the running. Cress now is under license to create reproductions of several historic pieces, all Civil War era, though he notes that he only does Confederate pieces.
"We would not have been interested in pursuing the replication of the desk with just any furniture manufacturer," Gibson said. "Joe's interest in the piece and its history, and his obvious skill in the craft encouraged us to do this."
Cress has turned that opportunity into success.
He now has pieces in 33 states, and in several museums. He is so well known for his work that he was approached by the producers of "Gods and Generals" to use his pieces in the movie to lend authenticity to the film. With his daughters now grown, Cress is able to focus on his project, with the support of his wife, who holds a position on the East Tennessee State faculty as a marriage and family therapist.
Running his own business also gives Cress time to pursue his other interests. He serves with the 2nd Virginia Cavalry Co. C, and regularly participates in Civil War reenactments. With the cavalry, he has appeared in several motion pictures, including "Gods and Generals" and "The Day Lincoln Was Shot," among others. Along with his unit, he often rides in parades, has done shows at the Virginia Horse Center in Lexington, and has even ridden with the Honor Guard at military funerals.
Cress also leads Civil War battlefield tours, donating a portion of the proceeds to battlefield preservation groups. He speaks at Civil War roundtables and does presentations for schools and community groups.
"Joe is one of the most gifted people I've ever met," Crise said. "He inspires me. He is really talented, and he is as real a guy as you will ever meet."
It's not all just woodworking and Civil War for Cress – he has been very active in his community as well. Among his many activities, this year will be the seventh that Cress has volunteered as the maintenance man for the Remote Area Medical clinic run by the Health Wagon out of Cinchco, Va. Nicknamed the "Tool Guy," Cress troubleshoots electrical, mechanical and operational breakdowns for the unit.
"The opportunity to volunteer at RAM stands as the highlight of my year," Cress said. "This Wise County guy is blessed to be "Tool Guy' four days a year."