Ossipee – December 7, 2008 – When the afternoon light glances across its surface of cherry and African quilted makore, the small, exquisitely fashioned writing desk glows in liquid tones of amber and russet that seem to radiate from deep inside the polished wood.
It’s hard to resist reaching out and touching the glossy surface and wondering if this wood, with its impression of three-dimensional depth, is real. It is. And so is the complex story of the artisan who created this masterpiece at the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility in Berlin.
It’s a story of rural post-adolescent foolishness, of death and redemption in wood. The desk stands 29 inches high and measures 39 by 23 inches. Its slender, tapered legs evoke a Shaker style, but are tipped in un-Shaker-like ebony. A single drawer, with fine, hand-sawn dovetail joints and ebony pulls, is made of poplar and faced in quilted makore, a rare central African wood.
Tim Eldridge is the craftsman, and he is in his 20th year of a 25-to-life sentence for second-degree murder. He has spent most of his prison years, more than half his life, learning not only the skills of exotic wood joinery, but the arts of perfectionism, patience — and giving to others.
In this case, the beneficiary is Town of Ossipee and its historic Whittier Covered Bridge. On Oct. 26, the desk sold for $2,900 at an annual auction at Wentworth-by-the-Sea, near Portsmouth, organized by the New Hampshire Furniture Masters Association, where high-end dealers and private shoppers acquire some of New England’s finest future heirlooms.
Eldridge asked that the proceeds go to help restore the 1870 Whittier Bridge on the Bearcamp River, next to Tamworth, where he grew up. The bridge means a lot to him.
“I don’t have a lot of pleasant childhood memories,” Eldridge mused in conversation in October in the Berlin prison visitor’s room.
Fall colors were just reaching their peak on the hills beyond the steel-barred windows.
“Most of the good memories I have are from that bridge,” he said. “We’d swim there in the summer and squeeze through its windows to jump off. I loved that place.”
Eldridge’s long journey from the covered bridge to the Berlin prison began in July 1988, with a drunken argument over a girl on the shore of Lake Chocorua in Tamworth. He had a gun and the intent, he said, to scare Travis, his rival. When he’d accomplished that, and
went to release the hammer, the gun went off, leaving a powder burn on his chest and a bullet in Travis.
Travis ran, but died later in the hospital. Tim ran, then turned himself in to the police. A short trial later and Eldridge — a 20-year old, skill-free ninth-grade dropout — found himself facing an open-ended stay behind bars.
“I deserved to go to prison,” he says. “I had to pay for it. I tore up two families and the town of Tamworth. I have never been able to adequately express the regret I feel for Travis’ family.”
Once behind bars, someone had the good instinct to direct him toward the wood shop.
“The only tool I knew how to use was a tape measure,” he recalls. “Mostly I taught myself, from books and magazines, and I found I could do it. It took practice and patience.”
Eldridge found he had both a gift and a passion for working in wood, but there is just so much that self-schooling in prison can accomplish. Enter the Furniture Masters Association, a small, highly selective organization dedicated to perpetuating the legendary standards of 18th-century New England craftsmanship.
At the urging of New Hampshire Superior Court Judge Kathleen A. McGuire in the late 1990s, two of the association’s 20 or so members began a prison outreach program, at first by teaching basic woodworking classes for 25 to 30 inmates at Concord prison.
“We found they had a large and well-equipped shop, but the quality of work was what you might expect from a high-school shop, juvenile, understated,” says Terry Moore, of Wilmot, who, with fellow furniture master Tom McLaughlin of Canterbury, has run the outreach program for the past eight years.
Before long, they asked prison administrators to nominate two inmates who might have the potential to become authentic artisans, able not only to build but to visualize and design superb furniture. Tim Eldridge and Eric Grant, also imprisoned on a murder conviction, were selected to learn the craft one-on-one with Moore and McLaughlin for however many years it might take. It took fewer than they expected.
“We wanted to help a few people who had the talent, to bring up their skills to master standards,” Moore said. “That is, supreme. Really the best of the best. And Tim and Eric are there now.”
“They were amazing,” recalls Moore, a dropout at age 15 himself, who arrived in the U.S. from Wales in the 1970s with a rock-music production and stayed on to become one of New England’s premier craftsmen of furniture and musical instruments.
“At one point, we set about showing them how to cut dovetails by hand. European artisans take years to acquire the necessary skills. All these guys did for the next three weeks was cut dovetails — not building anything, just cutting dovetails, throwing them away and cutting more. When I went back a month later to see how they were doing, they were making perfect dovetails.”
For Eldridge, a friendly, athletic man of 40 now who slightly resembles the actor Tom Hanks, the dovetail experience seems to have been a watershed. The inkling of his gift was affirmed. All it took to develop was unrelenting work and self-discipline.
“I must have cut hundreds of those dovetails,” he recalls. “One thing about me, I’m not afraid to throw something out and start over.”
His first masterpiece was a Shaker hall table, “a beautiful piece,” says Moore, that former Gov. John Sununu bought at the association’s annual auction. Eldridge then made duplicate, commissioned by private patrons of the prison outreach program and donated to the state that now resides in the New Hampshire governor’s office. A series of elegant
Grandfather clocks followed, including one for his own grandfather that “moved him to tears. Finally I had done something they could be proud of.”
Prison life for Eldridge has not only been about woodworking.
“Furniture is one of two things I’ve done here that I’m proud of,” he says. The other was Larry, an inmate with advanced Alzheimer’s disease for whom Eldridge served day and night for two years as a prison hospice caregiver until Larry could finally be placed in a nursing home, where he died in 2007.
“The hardest part,” Eldridge says, “was having to tell Larry every morning when he woke up why he was in prison. Alzheimer’s is such a horrible disease. For me, this was a life-changing experience. It made me a better person. Among other things, it really taught me patience.”
Learning to craft fine furniture can also be a life-altering experience, Terry Moore notes.
“It requires patience and attention to detail at a very high level, to focus on something larger than yourself. It teaches you to deal with your anger and frustrations and your failures. These are skills applicable in all of life.”
Both Eldridge and Eric Grant are now mentoring other inmates who might also have the gift of craftsmanship. Inevitably, there is the question of when. When, if ever, Tim Eldridge might be fully free to pursue the talent he found and the skill he developed.
Prison rules denote woodworking as a “hobby” activity, with limited hours each week.
“If I had my own shop, my own tools, I have such a passion for the craft I could do this 10, 12 hours a day, no problem.”
He hopes eventually to win a small reduction in sentence that would set him on course for a year-long transition to parole. Terry Moore and Tom McLaughlin and the other masters will be out there to lend a hand.
“Most of the inmates, like Tim and Eric, are in because of one stupid night, usually involving alcohol,” Moore says. “They have to pay for their mistakes, I understand that. But a young man like Tim, more than half his life in prison? He’s not the same person he was.”
“We do have hope that Tim will be getting out before too long. I wouldn’t say this about some of the inmates, but I would say Tim and Eric deserve a second chance. They have something to offer the world.”
As Eldridge says about working with wood, he’s not afraid to start over.