"Where did you find a log from Father Kelley's cabin?"
Michael Resig was shocked at his father's question. He hadn't said a word about the 7-foot, 3-inch log, just telling Richard Resig that "he had something to show him." In fact, he had just opened its black wrapping after pulling it from the top of his car.
"How do you know it's from Father Kelley's cabin?" Michael asked.
Mirror photo by Gary M.?Baranec
Dennis Oswald plays one of the four dulcimers at his Altoona home.?Above, left, is another one of the dulcimers. Above, right, is an old photo of the cabin in Riggles Gap.
"I know the size and shape," his dad told him.
Richard chuckled as he remembered the scene.
"He was dumbfounded that I recognized it after 70 years," he said.
That log of American Chestnut wood brought back many memories for Richard, who, as a young boy, had helped build a cabin in the Riggles Gap area for Father Thomas Kelley, then the priest at St. Therese of the Child Jesus Catholic Church in Altoona.
Those recollections were the reason his 61-year-old son, Michael, found the log, transported it from Central Pennsylvania to his home in Oneida, N.Y., and from it, built four mountain dulcimers - fretted, stringed instruments - as keepsakes of the since-razed cabin.
Richard Resig, now 85, grew up in Altoona and served as an altar boy for Father Kelley at St. Therese.
In 1936, Father Kelley was approached by John Oswald, a member of his parish, with an idea to build a cabin on the Oswald family's land, above the present-day Riggles Gap Sportsman's Club. The cabin would serve as a retreat for Kelley but also would host parish activities, such as picnics and youth group meetings.
As construction began, Richard and some of the other children from his neighborhood - "about 10 of us" - volunteered their help.
"It was quite an experience for us," Richard said. "Too bad some of the other guys in the neighborhood didn't take advantage of it. It was simple work, but it was good entertainment for us."
The cabin was built with logs from American Chestnut trees, which were plentiful at the time but have since become quite rare, due to a blight. Richard and his friends were tasked with shaving the logs, which were weathered gray. They also "did some pick and shovel work" to help build a creek-fed swimming pool on the grounds.
After its construction, Richard participated in many events at the cabin, including hunting trips as he got older, and his wife, the former Rosemary Nagle, attended youth outings there, as well.
After high school graduation, Richard left Altoona in August 1944 to serve with the Seabees - the U.S. Navy's construction battalions - on Okinawa during World War II.
After the war ended, he came home for a short time before leaving for good. He and his family eventually settled in upstate New York.
Up until eight years ago, Father Kelley's cabin stood on the Oswald family's land, but it had fallen into disrepair.
"The roof was bad and the floors were rotted out," said John Oswald's great-grandson, Dennis Oswald, who now owns part of the land.
The cabin was torn down, but the salvageable beams and logs were saved.
"We had a couple of pieces left," Oswald said. "A friend of mine put them in one of his garages, and they were dried out over a couple of years. We were actually going to sell it, but we gave some away, and we had a couple of logs left."
Since leaving Altoona, Richard Resig had many times told stories about the cabin, so Michael decided to give his father a tangible keepsake to treasure.
"I was thinking it would be nice to get a chunk of the log and give it to Dad to put on his bookshelf," Michael said. "I called Uncle Herman [Nagle, of Altoona] and asked him to find out who owned the land, and who bought the logs.
"We found out that Dennis had one of the logs. I said, 'Pay him whatever he wants.'"
Dennis, however, didn't want any money for the log. All he wanted, Michael said, was "a picture of what I made with it, so he knew that it didn't go to waste."
"Dennis was so generous and kind," Michael added. "He didn't even know my uncle. It's very moving to have that happen in this day and age. Things like that don't happen anymore."
It took some time for Michael to get the log from Central Pennsylvania. Oswald gave it to Nagle, who then kept it for a while, because Michael wanted to keep the secret from his father.
In the meantime, Michael's wife, Martha, suggested that he should make his father a dulcimer from the wood to hang on his wall.
"They are pretty, a nice looking instrument," Michael said.
He had long ago taken up woodworking as a hobby by watching his father, who had "done quite a lot of woodworking."
"I always wanted to do it," Michael said. "I fiddled around with it and watched him and what he did. He taught me the basics."
He had initially learned how to make dulcimers to appease a friend, who had built one from a kit.
"He badgered me to make one," he laughed. "After three years, I made one to keep him quiet."
In 2010, Michael finally was able to make the 300-plus mile journey to Altoona to pick up the log. On the drive home, Martha suggested that he tell his dad.
"She said that it would be good for him to know what was going on," Michael said, "so I called him up and told him I had something I wanted him to see."
Michael studied the technique of Robert Mize of Tennessee, who had built thousands of dulcimers.
"I learned from reading about him," he said. "I tried to do everything by hand. I used one power tool, and that's a drill press."
Michael first used a Japanese anahiki saw to cut the log down.
"When cutting it up, it's like building a jigsaw puzzle without a picture," he said. "You don't know what's inside the log, and you have to guess to get the best grain."
As he cut, the log revealed a big surprise for Michael, one that would make his dulcimers unique.
"The very last piece I'm cutting up, I ran into a knot in the log," he said.
By cutting through the knot, Michael saw a "butterfly" design in the grain of the wood, and "I had exactly enough wood to make four dulcimers with this design on it," he said.
After building the dulcimers, Michael finished them with a homemade shellac.
"The shellac gives it a better resonance," he said.
Michael, who also plays the dulcimer, gave the first dulcimer to his father as promised, and he gave the second and third ones, respectively, to Nagle and Oswald.
"My uncle went to the trouble of getting the log, and Dennis was so kind," Michael said. "The fourth one was for myself."
Altogether, it took Michael 50 to 60 hours per dulcimer, and the whole project took a year and a half to complete.
Both Oswald and Richard were impressed with Michael's skill.
"It was quite a process," Michael said. "It was cut by hand, made just like the old master craftsmen made them in the old style. His dad was thrilled, and I was thrilled."
"It's a piece of art, I think," Richard said. "It's just beautiful work. My son is quite a craftsman."
Mirror Staff Writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.