Junior Cobb, well-known wood carver in Arkansas
By CHUCK BARTELS Associated Press December 14, 2011 12:22AM
The Wolf House in Norfork , Ark., features a sign carved by nationally recognized woodcarver Junior Cobb. Cobb died Monday, Dec. 12. 2011. (AP Photo/The Baxter Bulletin, Kevin Pieper)
Updated: December 14, 2011 12:22AM
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Junior Cobb, an Ozarks wood carver whose depictions of wildlife and “hillfolks” drew from his rugged surroundings in far north Arkansas, died Monday. He was 70.
Roller Funeral Home of Mountain Home said Cobb died at Gassville Nursing Center.
Cobb didn’t have a phone and would emerge from his home in the Three Brothers community just south of the Missouri border when he needed money and had to sell some of his work.
Peter Engler, a wood carver with a gallery in Branson, Mo., had been associated with Cobb since the 1960s and regularly sold his carvings.
“Junior was a free spirit and he lived in his own world, you know, on his own terms,” Engler said. “He was interested in anything that had to do with nature, anything out in the woods.”
Cobb could sign his works but never learned to read or write.
“He just didn’t find it necessary,” Engler said.
Engler and Cobb worked together at Silver Dollar City in Branson and would travel to promote the theme park, with Cobb offering his homespun observations.
“He was so genuine and so real, but the disc jockeys in St. Louis and Kansas City didn’t know if he was putting them on,” Engler said.
Cobb could carve anything, from signs to figurines, and his carvings of ducks and other birds evoke his passion for the natural world.
“Junior was a natural at wood carving. He did a range of work from things that were pretty primitive to some things that were pretty sophisticated,” Engler said. “He did some pretty realistic hillfolk.”
The hillfolk figures are almost caricatures of hillbilly life, depicting men in overalls with floppy hats, some carrying rifles. But they also show a high level of craftsmanship.
Cobb began carving as a child and would sell his early works to travelers crossing the White River on a small ferry his father ran, before the river was dammed at Bull Shoals.
Cobb told The Ozarks Mountaineer magazine in 1969 that when he was 6 years old he’d seen someone with a puppet and used a pocketknife to carve one of his own. He built his talent from there.
In an interview in the Baxter Bulletin in the 1990s, Cobb’s sister Virginia May said the two would collaborate in making puppets.
“Junior and I would sit on the roof of the chicken house to get away from the other kids and make those puppets,” she said. “Junior would carve them and I would make their clothes and use corn silk for their hair.”
Cobb’s tools were modest, and he often used an inexpensive paring knife bought from a general store.
Cobb was known for being hard to find, favoring his time in the wilderness digging for Indian artifacts or bowhunting. But Engler said Cobb’s elusiveness never posed a problem for him.
“He would come and find us, generally when he wanted to sell a few carvings,” Engler said, noting that the need for cash would draw Cobb out of the woods. “That was a big motivator.”
Cobb leaves behind a wife and five children. The family is to receive visitors at Roller Funeral Home from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday. A graveside ceremony is set for 11 a.m. Thursday at Three Brothers Cemetery.
A website posted by Cobb’s family members explains that Cobb never could recognize individual letters of the alphabet but could recognize his name. The site also says Cobb had suffered a stroke and had undergone a heart bypass operation.
The stroke left him blind, partially paralyzed and unable to carve, according to the site.
Cobb’s brother, W.A. Cobb, told the Baxter Bulletin for a Tuesday story that his sibling lived a great life but died “penniless,” having chosen to play more than work and save money.
“He wouldn’t even carve until his wife got after him,” W.A. Cobb said.
The Ozarks Mountaineer noted that Cobb had an affection for recreation early in his career, relating the anecdote that a collector found Cobb at his home and arranged for Cobb to carve a specific piece that would be ready the next day.
Asked later if he delivered, Cobb replied, “Naw, I decided I wanted to go swimmin’.”
“He’d have probably been rich if he’d have hung on to his money, but money didn’t mean nothin’ to him,” W.A. Cobb told the Bulletin.
The brother said poverty and ill health took a toll on Cobb late in life.
“It was probably a blessing he passed, he was hurting towards the end there,” W.A. Cobb told the paper.
Engler said he’ll remember his friend for other things.
“I can close my eyes and see him. Completely a free spirit,” Engler said.