Melrose woman makes bowls from charred pews; gives back to church

Gail Schlicht shapes a piece of wood in her shop in Melrose. Schlicht took some charred pews from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Melrose and made bowls from the wood. Money raised from the bowls will benefit the church. Photo by Jean Paschke

Melrose native Gail Schlicht has pursued many hobbies and crafts over the years. An avid fisherwoman, both in summer and winter, she is probably best known for her hand-carved fishing decoys, which can be both practical items and works of art.  (The late Joe Leach, of Melrose, one of her mentors, has one of his displayed in the Smithsonian.) To be of use, a decoy must be perfectly balanced, as lead weights and a gentle tug keep it moving in a way to attract real fish, and Gail knows just the right formula.

“I bought one that wasn’t weighted right, and it didn’t work,” Gail said, inspiring her to make her own.  Today some members of the Minnesota Darkhouse and Angling Association, of which she is a member, won’t use anything but her special decoys. She also has one on display in the Minnesota Fishing Museum in Little Falls. Currently, a school of 14 of them rest on her kitchen counter until she can finish them.

Gail once ran an engraving business, at first alongside her nursing career in Minneapolis and later in her home, and she is the go-to person for anyone who wants signs done in calligraphy. A class in Park Rapids inspired her to create a wooden shelf and a small chest of delicately scrolled wood. When the darkhouse association held a demonstration of wood turning, Gail decided to try something new. She watched as Ray Tuholsky, of Avon, used a primitive lathe powered by an exercise bike to turn out fishing plugs.

“He told me, go to Menards and buy a cheap set of tools and see if you like it before you put a lot of money into it,” she said. Three successive lathes and a huge array of tools later, she was turning out wooden bowls as gifts for friends. Her current lathe has variable speed, which the others did not, and allows her to make a bowl 12 inches in diameter.

As she works, chips fly and a rough but beautifully grained burl begins its transformation into a bowl. Material, which might include aromatic cedar, pine, oak, butternut, walnut, and maple, comes from a variety of sources. A piece of cherry wood came from a dumpster. Friends and neighbors who have a downed tree are quick to offer her some appropriately sized pieces. One day she observed a workman at her Catholic Church of St. Mary’s replacing a ladder to the choir loft and tossing the old one into the snow.

“I asked him what he was going to do with it, and he said he was going to burn it, so I asked him to cut a couple of pieces for me.”  She turned it into six small bowls, all different, labeled on the back as 100-year-old pine from the bell tower ladder. They sold at auction for $185 each. It wasn’t the first time she had recycled something from the church. Much of the lead that gives her decoys that special underwater swish came from an early releading restoration of the church windows.

On March 15, 2016, fire devastated landmark St. Mary’s, leaving its imposing facade and a few relics and other items.

Gail Schlicht with one of the bowls she made from pews from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Melrose. Fire heavily damaged the church in 2016. Photo by Jean Paschke

“Wasn’t that sad?” Gail said. Among items that were retrieved were the solid oak pews, original to the church, which was built in 1899. They were sent to a reclamation facility with the hope they could be restored, but when this was found to be impractical, she thought of turning some of the wood into bowls. She was able to purchase some scraps from some of the smaller ones.

A friend, David Berscheit, lent his experience to the project. Their first step was to plane down each piece of wood, remove the finish, then glue them together in a stack and clamp them tightly until they became a usable block. The result was about 40 bowls, a sad but hopeful reminder of tragedy.

Gail hopes to obtain more of the wood and make bowls to benefit the church, whatever future path it will take. She said, “A church is the spiritual home of the congregation, and to take anybody’s home, whether a house or spiritual home, is traumatic.”  She hopes that her bowls will ease that trauma in some small way.