John Hemmings’ introduction to the properties of wood and the tools used in its exploitation came in his early teens as an out-carpenter on Jefferson’s Albemarle County estate, Monticello. Carrying axes, hatchets, froes, and mauls, teams of young, able-bodied men would trek into the old-growth forest at the edge of the Virginia wilderness to harvest trees for sustaining the body of Jefferson’s nearly 5,600-acre plantation estate.
Near the age of 14, Hemmings was considered big enough to handle the heavy and unforgiving tools necessary to render raw trees into a usable commodity. For the last several years during his childhood, he had helped the older field hands with the lighter work of collecting the harvest and planting, but this year would demand an exchange of the fork for the axe, the rake for the froe.
Being surrounded by those majestic virgin trees, armed only with an axe, served to highlight his adolescence among the larger boys and men in his detail. Undoubtedly, his tools must have fit awkwardly in his young hands, his mightiest blows with the axe only producing small splinters from the oak tree, the froe bouncing from the stump of elm, the energy of the maul ricocheting painfully through his arms. Day after day among the mighty oaks, black walnuts, honey locusts, towering pines, and tulip poplars, the gang of out-carpenters would fell trees and clear land to make rails for fences, logs for firewood, charcoal for cooking, and posts for outbuildings – to include the humble cabins they would inhabit on Mulberry Row along with the army of enslaved workers required to serve the mansion.
–Canlin J. Frost, excerpt from "The Master is Free: The Legendary Skill of John Hemmings" in Issue Nine