Prairie Woodcarvers of Alexandria recreate 250-year-old artifacts

The carving group has helped repair statues, catch fish and helps members "forget about all the other troubles going on."

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David Refsal of Sauk Centre was the instructor for the Prairie Woodcarvers' latest project, creating ale bowls, which were once a common item in Norwegian homes and farmhouses, dating back to the 1750s. When asked how many ale bows he's carved, Refsal answered, "Too many to count." (Al Edenloff / Echo Press)

For a hobby with staying power, woodcarving has carved its niche.

The Prairie Woodcarvers group has been going for about 25 years. Started in Parkers Prairie, it migrated to Alexandria because most of its members lived there.

Still, their group is in its infancy compared to a project it recently tackled: Re-creating Norwegian ale bowls that go back more than 250 years.

Common in Norwegian farmhouses from about 1750 into the 20th century, these bowls held beer brewed for important holidays and celebrations, according to a history provided by the club.

It took the Alexandria carvers two, two-day sessions to finish the bowls, first to carve them and then to painstakingly paint them, said Roger Thalman, who joined the group after retiring from his job nine years ago and who is now secretary/treasurer.


“I bought a couple tools and then I bought a book and watched YouTube and that’s where I started from,” Thalman said.

Ale bowls tended to remain in the farmhouse where they were created, and many bear regional styles. Along Norway’s west coast, ale bowls often had two heads patterned after dragons or horses. In Gudbrandsdalen, an ale bowl form included a hole to pour beer into another drinking vessel.

Thalman made two ale bowls during the session, a dragon and a chicken. He said he's not completely sure what he'll do with them. One member plans to use his for plants. Thalman figures he'll keep his on a shelf. They'll probably not see much ale.

Prairie Woodcarvers tries to meet monthly, often with an instructor supplied with plans and materials for specific projects.

“Carving is such a good stress reliever,” said Sonya Anderson, who joined the club back when it still met in Parkers Prairie and serves as its activities director. “You don’t think of anything else but what you’re carving.”

She got so skilled that St. Mary’s Catholic Church enlisted her to repair the fingers of Jesus on a wooden crucifix in their small chapel. Now she provides space for the monthly woodcarving sessions at Ollie’s, which she and her husband own. In the old downtown location, they would have to move four-wheelers out of the way for the carvers to work. In their new spot near the interstate, they have a whole room and table she calls her studio.

Carvers mostly work on basswood because its grain is much less pronounced. Often, they order roughouts, blocks of wood with a rough shape of a subject, in order to save time. Their woodworking knives are so sharp that they'll slice a sliver of paper off a page with little effort.

“You need to concentrate," Thalman said. "We all carry Band-Aids with us.”


About 85 people receive a newsletter from the club, and dues-paying members number from 25-30. When big-name teachers come, such as Marty Dolphens from Nebraska, or decoy artist Troy Helget from Kensington, people are willing to cough up $100 to $150, plus drive to Alexandria from Fargo and Wisconsin to attend. The club tries to meet every month although they take the summer off. Sometimes they have an open-carve session instead of a specific project. Dolphens is scheduled to teach again in September, and that project will be a 2-foot-high angel.

Thalman and Anderson said woodworking attracts people from many walks of life. There's a real estate agent, a mechanic, a nurse, and a lab technician, among others. A lot of visiting goes on while carving.

“It’s just a variety of people and you sit by them and visit and they become your friends," Anderson said. "We’ve become a family of carvers.”

One of her best experiences was when her grandson, Keegen, carved a decoy at a class and it helped him spear a 38-inch northern. Then Helget, who was teaching the class, mounted the northern for Keegen.

Two years ago, the club applied for nonprofit status and got a $2,500 grant through the Lake Region Arts Council in Fergus Falls, which they used to buy tools that newcomers can use. They would like to open the craft up to more people, especially young people. In January, they taught 4-H'ers how to carve and paint miniature fish, Thalman said.

It's a hobby practitioners can take anywhere, he said, and you can leave off or pick back up wherever you want. Plus, it's wonderfully absorbing.

“You forget about all the other troubles going on,” he said. “I know I’m having fun because I’ll find myself humming.”

To get in touch with the club, visit or email


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