Carren's Pitch

Life by Design

12/14/2010

Carved in Tradition

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

This continues to be one of my most memorable stories in 2010. It is rare that you meet a person who holds a whole nation's legacy. I was grateful for Inside Lacrosse, who agreed to publish my words and my photos of Alfred Jacques. I hope he finds someone he can pass his knowledge onto.
~*C

Alf Jacques is a master craftsman and one of the world’s best at making traditional wooden sticks. Explore the passion and process that goes into each stick.

Text and Photos by: Carren Jao
Edited by: John Jiloty
Published: Inside Lacrosse, October 2010

In Alfred Jacques’ workshop, wood and machinery dominate. Belt sanders, saw machines and a carving bench loom by the walls. Hickory sticks and wood dust surround them. Sticks stripped of their bark show off their carved skin as they dry along the walls and sit above the doorframe. These are the raw materials that will soon be coaxed and shaped into lacrosse sticks with Jacques’ expertise.

Jacques, 61, of the Onondaga Turtle Clan, has been making lacrosse sticks by hand for more than 45 years in this small, nondescript workshop behind his mother’s house on the Onondaga reservation outside Syracuse, N.Y. Only a handful of such craftsmen exist today. Jacques himself is wearing down, with no immediate apprentice to take over when eventually can’t do it anymore. The popularity of lighter and more durable plastic lacrosse sticks has made the wooden model pretty much obsolete, a novelty more than a necessity.

Yet Jacques’ craftsmanship and the one-of-a-kind sticks he makes stand true as one of the best examples of lacrosse’s Native American heritage and uniqueness next to mass-produced mainstream sports like football and basketball. And whether Jacques is demonstrating his rare craft at conventions, just entertaining visitors or making custom sticks for high-level players like the Iroquois Nationals, people remain fascinated by the skill, dedication and history.

“Alfie’s craft speaks volumes about the tradition of lacrosse, and how it’s more than just a game,” says U.S. team and NLL/MLL star Max Seibald, who stopped by Jacques’ workshop last year. “The attention to detail, the passion and hard work he puts into every stick is inspiring, and it symbolizes to me the importance of preparing and playing your hardest every time you pick up a stick, playing with passion for the game and representing the game the best you can.”

Jacques got into stick-making as a 13-year-old with his father Louis. He wanted to play lacrosse and didn’t have a stick, or the $5 to buy one. So his dad suggested they make their own. After some trial and error, they figure it out and demand started to grow. By the early 1970s, father and son were producing more than 10,000 sticks a year. “If he wasn’t coaching and I wasn’t playing, we were making sticks seven days a week,” Jacques says. “We did it all year, all the time.”

But by 1974, plastic sticks replaced the old-time hickory version, and the market for heavier wooden ones plummeted. He and his father continued to make lacrosse sticks, supplementing their craft with other side jobs. Jacques got work in construction and machinery, while his father strung lacrosse sticks for Brine until his health gave away in 1981.

Louis Jacques passed away in 1985. “He was making sticks until he couldn’t make it anymore,” says Jacques, “which is probably what I’m going to do.”

Despite the economic impracticality, Jacques’ dedication to lacrosse stickmaking hasn’t waned. Sitting in his workshop, he patiently explains the rigorous process with practiced ease. While Jacques makes different kinds of lacrosse sticks from other Native American traditions, he is best known for the Iroquoian stick, the ancestor of all sticks used in today’s game—box and field. Crafting this classic form—unchanged for more than 200 years—is an on-going process of steaming and carving requiring patience and skill.

It all begins with a hickory tree. “You take the whole tree down, but you only use the bottom eight feet,” Jacques says, “It has to be the cleanest, straightest part of the tree. Anything above eight feet is full of knots and crooked grain.”

In his prime, Jacques used to go into the woods and cut tress himself but these days he relies on the help of a friend whose business is supplying wood. The log is then split in 8, 10 or 12 pieces, which Jacques carves and shapes with a draw shaver before letting them dry for at least a month.

Jacques then steams the upper third of the hickory shaft to loosen the wood’s fibers. Without that, the shaft would crack or break. Jacques uses his strength to bend the stick (bark and all) using a steel plate as a fulcrum. In previous generations, craftsmen would often wrap the softened hickory around a young tree to make the bend.

“When you bend it, you put a wire [around it] to hold it,” he says. “One it’s done, you trim off the bark where this bend is going to be and then you cut them to a certain length to remove the unwanted splits that appear at the end.”

Next, the sticks dry above the stove for another 6-8 months. The wire is then removed and another bend is put in. The sticks go back to the holder for one or two weeks to set the shape. Then, he removes the bark with a draw knife and carves the shape on the upper portion of the stick. He thins it out create a flattened surface where holes will be drilled, to anchor the webbing. Jacques then again steams the stick to straighten the handle. Some sticks require steaming up to five time until they’re straight.

Jacques cuts the handle to size with a band saw and adds in the corners to make a familiar octagonal handle, always making sure to check the stick’s balance. Then, he adds in the holes for the webbing free hand. Like a practiced craftsman, he needs no pencil to indicate where the netting will go.

After drilling the holes for the pocket, he belt sands the stick and goes in again with sandpaper in hand. He burns in his logo, signs and dates his name, and adds shellac to protect the stick. He then does the webbing and, as a final touch, includes his trademark purple ribbon, echoing the proud colors of the Onondaga clan.

Lacrosse stickmaking means continuously working with the foibles of wood. It takes decades of practice and dedication to produce a well-balanced stick.

When Jacques finally stopped working as a machinist in 2001, he concentrated his efforts on lacrosse stickmaking. Instead of taking it easy, he keeps a busy schedule, regularly lecturing, giving workshops and appearing in fairs.

His son, Ryder Jacques, a researcher at State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, easily explained this by referring to Jacques’ childhood. Growing up on the St. Lawrence River, Jacques’ family had little money, but they were able to sustain themselves by learning to fish, hunt, tend a garden and do odd jobs.

“When you’re raised like that, you’re always doing something,” said Ryder Jacques, “At this point, he can’t stop. He can fall asleep on the chair, but he can’t stop otherwise.”

When not in his workshop, Jacques can most likely be found in the Onondaga arena (called Tsha'Hon'nonyen'dakhwa’, which means “where they play games”) looking over the Sr. B level men’s box lacrosse games as general manager and assistant coach of the Onondaga Redhawks. Younger players revere him, in large part from his playing days as goalie for the Syracuse Warriors.

He was like my hero because he was a goaltender like me,” said Kent Lyons, announcer at the Onondaga arena.

Rather than just watching his post for the Syracuse Warriors, Jacques would actively challenge the opposing shooter who dared come into his territory.

“He would come out [of his crease] and force the shooter to think. He was almost his own defenseman,” said Lyons. “The way you play this game, there’s no hiding who you are.”

Even today, Jacques displays the same energy and tenacity for his craft as he did playing lacrosse, finishing approximately 200 sticks this year. “That’s not a great amount, but for one person doing all the work that’s not bad,” said Jacques.

Though Jacques still leads an active lifestyle between coaching and lacrosse stickmaking, he knows he isn’t invincible. Bit by bit, he is feeling the age in his bones.

“My back hurts almost everyday. One ankle, one knee, my wrist, my shoulder, my ribs too,” said Jacques.

With each ache a sobering reminder, Jacques is on the lookout for someone to continue this sacred tradition. Though his son, Ryder, knows quite a bit of the process, his career path is clear as a research engineer. “I would have liked for him to continue the tradition, but he chose not to and I’m not going to make him,” said Jacques.

Many others have also tried, but none stay. “I’m always looking, but people have to come to me first,” he says. “They have to show the desire. They have to make the first step.”

Says Thomas Huff, a stone sculptor from the Seneca-Cayuga tribe: “A lot of young people now just don’t have the patience for it. They just do it one time and head out.”

“[Time] seems to be creeping up. I don’t know how long I can last. I mean I’m strong. I work,” said Jacques. “I think my hands are still good, but there’s going to be a point in time where there is going to be so much pain that I may not be able to make sticks.”

Yet he keeps at it. Like a lacrosse player that runs, runs, runs, gets hit, runs again, throws a pass, fakes and scores, Jacques works through the pain for the prize at the end.

“I can sit there and say, I can’t go to work today because my back hurts. But if I did that, I would never be working because something hurts everyday. So, I work through it. It’s not enough to stop me you know?”

Says Thomas Huff, a stone sculptor from the Seneca-Cayuga tribe: “A lot of young people now just don’t have the patience for it. They just do it one time and head out.”

“[Time] seems to be creeping up. I don’t know how long I can last. I mean I’m strong. I work,” said Jacques. “I think my hands are still good, but there’s going to be a point in time where there is going to be so much pain that I may not be able to make sticks.”

Yet he keeps at it. Like a lacrosse player that runs, runs, runs, gets hit, runs again, throws a pass, fakes and scores, Jacques works through the pain for the prize at the end.

“I can sit there and say, I can’t go to work today because my back hurts. But if I did that, I would never be working because something hurts everyday. So, I work through it. It’s not enough to stop me you know?”

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