When Mike Angel gets to heaven he’ll likely be making chairs. Chairs are his passion. Chairs are his persuasion. Chairs are his getting up and his sitting down.
A visit to Mike’s Red Dog Mule-Ear chair workshop in Laurel County is a trip back in time when people got down from their high horses and enjoyed the feeling of back and arms, legs, and rear end nestled comfortably in the embrace of mock orange. Maybe black walnut. Or hickory.
Mike’s a former U.S. Marine, marathon runner, Kentucky State Trooper, and retired Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, a survivor of a drug raid gone wrong six years ago in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s got two metal plates holding his right leg together, leaving him with the gift of a barely noticeable limp. He’s a survivor of a heart attack last fall (in, of all places, Deadwood, South Dakota), which has put him on a doctor-ordered strict diet in order to lose weight. Surely, Mike’s guardian angel lives somewhere in the wood shavings of another Kentucky Mule-Ear chair.
More likely it’s Fredi, Mike’s wife, retired executive secretary, who helps in the painstaking finishing process as each chair moves from rawest stave to smoothest outcome. Behind every good chair maker there’s an angel hard at work? Being married to a consummate chair maker may not be the easiest of callings. Or it could be, as Fredi says, relaxing. It all comes down to individuality.
Angel Acres Road climbs a curving trail graced with recently planted trees—a log house at the top and a chair maker’s shop to the side.
“Mike, are you here?”
“David?” asks Mike Angel, expecting the visit. He gingerly climbs the steps from the lower shop to the showroom, smile on his face, firm hand outstretched. Fredi is away doing errands, so Mike and I sit in hickory rocking chairs and talk about one of Kentucky’s vanishing arts.
“Hickory bark’s up in springtime and early summer. Shave off the outside bark to get to the cambium layer (secondary wood tissues most suitable for chair making).” Mike is patient with his visitor, who wouldn’t know a mock orange from mock turtle soup. Chair-making simplicity combined with exacting craftsmanship results in pleasure for the harried human condition.
I let my fingers find their comfort zones in the curved ends of Mike’s signature “arms,” feel the support of the gentle staves against my aging sacroiliac, allow my cerebellum to rest nicely and untroubled in the reassuring world of hickory.
“Fishing’s too slow, golf’s not productive,” says Mike. “I built this building from scratch—1,800 square feet below, 1,800 square feet above—built on a shoestring.” The shop today is filled with lots of “shoestrings”—another way of saying a 100-year-old wood worker’s press, a homemade “sauna bath” to make pieces of wood more bendable, and hand tools galore.
When he “retired” six years ago, he decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life surrounded by family—mother, father, sister, and brother. Mike was able to share the last two years of his father’s life and that was another gift. Mike and Fredi’s son, who’ll retire from Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in about 14 years, will also come back to continue his parents’ love affair with chairs.
How many Mule-Ears have been made here so far? In the thousands, says Mike, who has customers far beyond Laurel County. He says he’s so busy in his retirement he can’t do it all. So he sends chairs to a man in Jackson County to weave the bottoms. Another man sends mesquite wood from Texas. A local bluegrass musician drops by to check on a recently installed furnace. A friend from New York comes in to borrow a pickup truck. Says he’s coming back to Kentucky too—one day.
Note: Anyone planning to visit Mike and Fredi Angel should call ahead: (606) 878-8555 or e-mail them at email@example.com