It’s A sign!
“Please, give us a sign!” the people politely plead. And Bob “Shorty” Clarke is more than happy to oblige them. Not in a spiritual exchange, mind you, but through an artistic one.
The Glen Haven, Colo., craftsman had begun a quest for a pleasant pastime after completing a 34-year career with the U.S. Postal Service, from 1986-2004 as Glen Haven’s postmaster. His retirement began on April 1, 2004; April Fool’s Day, he jovially noted.
But Clarke is certainly no fool. He wisely took his time seeking an appropriate, relaxing hobby. Perhaps based on something from his medley of experiences, interests and occupations.
Born in Japan to a military family, he was subsequently raised in Rising Star, Texas, a tiny town thats main claim to fame was, and remains, a single blinking red traffic light. Current population: 853.
There, the young Clarke pursued diverse labors including hoeing peanuts, branding cattle, hauling hay, milking cows for a local dairy when the owner’s automatic equipment broke down, working on turkey farms (including what he described as the somewhat grisly task of de-beaking the poultry).
While a senior in high school, then 17-year-old Clarke married his longtime sweetheart, Susan. Although the teens were the same age, the girl was a year ahead in school and, when she graduated, the couple wed. That 51-year union, which produced three sons, happily continues. In 1981, the Clarkes moved to Colorado.
When their first grandchild was born, 5-feet, 9-inches tall Clarke was asked what he’d like his grandkids to call him. How about “Grandpa”? No. “Gramps”? Definitely not. Okay, how about “Poo-Pa”?
After a bit of pondering, he decided upon a nickname to honor his own grandfather, diminutive 4-feet, 11-inches tall Octavius O’Meara Harvey, aptly called “Shorty.” The matter was settled.
Fast-forward to 2007. “Shorty” Clarke had ultimately decided he wanted to create hand-routed wooden signs, a completely self-taught avocation. Lacking any carpentry experience or training, he enthusiastically began.
Instant ingenuity? Not according to Clarke, who admitted to having simply given away his novice attempts — which he fondly refers to as “pretty firewood” — to friends. Trial and error over the next year, however, quickly fine-tuned his burgeoning skills to the point that he began successfully selling his work.
Now, after 12 years, locals and tourists alike seek Clarke out for all manner of signage. And, with his ‘distinguished mountain man meets Santa Claus’ appearance, he’s pretty easy to find. Plus, his trusty old pickup truck bed provides ample advertising space, sort of a vehicular billboard.
During an average summer season, Clarke turns out approximately 150 custom-ordered signs. Clients can select from live-edge beetle kill, redwood, cedar, or occasionally black walnut woods. Price is determined by size, content, and intricacy of pattern.
For example, a basic 5-inch by 24-inch board with a brief text takes approximately six hours to produce, start to finish. A glue-up is usually required for a large one, say 10-feet-long, that will serve as a ranch entry arch sign or some equally sizable piece, lengthening completion time to 1½ weeks or longer.
Clarke first works up a design on his computer to produce a stencil. A Silhouette Cameo machine receives the stencil pattern from the computer’s software in a process similar to that of a printer except that the device cuts out rather than prints the order.
Using three bits, Clarke hand-routes the desired text and graphics, which he then paints, usually in black. Following application of three coats of spar urethane for weatherproofing, the finished creation dries while awaiting delivery to its new owner.
Most customers choose their family surname, address, a vacation cabin’s name, or a cute/silly design. These basics usually meet a one-time-only need, but some folks become repeat clients. These include campground owners, those with multiple cabin units, or people purchasing signs for gifting. He recalls one repeat enthusiast ordering 17 gift signs, another with 14.
Since Clarke has no website or other online means of promotion, he relies largely on word-of-mouth referrals. The majority of customers are in-state or regional, but summer tourist business results in orders being shipped all over, including to New York, Indiana, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania.
Now, just where and how does a craftsman with no online presence develop a customer base? From June 1 through Sept. 30, Clarke and local chainsaw artist Matt Ounsworth set up side-by-side tents directly across from the Glen Haven General Store (one of only four buildings that survived the area’s 2013 flood, which destroyed eight to nine downtown Glen Haven structures).
There the two artistic men craft their arts under individual canvas awnings Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., rain, snow or shine. Clarke noted that they only turn off their power tools if it’s pouring/lightning, due to potential electrocution issues.
“It’s safer to unplug!” he prudently declared.
Admittedly, tourists normally arrive in search of not wooden signs and chainsaw art but rather Glen Haven General Store’s famous cinnamon rolls, baked daily in-season by owner Becky Childs.
“People come from all over the U.S. to get them. They’re the best in the world!” Clarke eagerly commended the sweet treats.” (Adding a caveat that he receives no freebies!)
And why do the tourists cross the road? Cinnamon craving visitors, still drooling over their luscious pastries while departing the General Store, often take note of the creative craftsmen busily toiling on the other side. This fortuitous proximity often results in good sales for Clarke and/or Ounsworth.
Clarke recalled some unique signs he’s crafted over the years. One gentleman requested: “No Goats Allowed In Hot Tub!” When asked, “What?”, the fellow explained that you never know what tourists might bring along with them! Hmm.
A married couple, who do not own a ranch, ordered: “Fat Ass Ranch.” They explained that, although they have no donkeys, they do both sport rather prominent posteriors!
An American lady of Chinese descent snail-mailed her text destined to become a sign. Except that “Little Brown Cabin” was written only in Mandarin Chinese symbols. Clarke meticulously copied and routed out characters he couldn’t read yet nevertheless adeptly transferred to the wooden board.
Patiently lingering among Clarke’s workshop tools are a scattering of antiques that he cleverly transforms into Steam Punk lighting devices. Sometimes two old toss-aways are “married” into a singular new creation; by his hand, a 1950’s mortar shell became a fascinating desk lamp; vintage toasters and gas cans also await a chance for new life.
Clarke occasionally creates a piece of funky furniture by welding old oil stove feet to an antique iron bed frame, adding a large, original sign for a comfy backrest and, voila — a garden or porch bench is born!
Again, there’s no website. But Clarke can be reached by email at email@example.com. Or, give Shorty a call at (970) 586-4522.
— Metzger is a freelance writer from Fort Collins, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.