David DeCamp was just a boy visiting Silver Dollar City 60 years ago when he bought a souvenir that would seal his fate and carve out his future.
It was at The City’s second-ever Harvest Festival in 1964. After watching with childhood wonder as the park’s master woodcarver whittled and worked bass wood into a piece of perfection, David asked his mother to buy him a carving kit.
“She got me a little knife and chisel to take home,” he smiles. “I wanted to carve just like Peter Engler so I started fiddling around with it and never put it down.”
David was always sort of “artsy.” He won a school art contest in second grade, so his family wasn’t surprised when his skills -- and figures -- began to take shape.”
“This little guy right here was my very first carving when I was 13,” David beams as he sets a carving of a mountain man on the desk. “My mom kept it all these years. Isn’t that something? I couldn’t sell it for a quarter but she wouldn’t sell it for anything.”
As that creative kid grew up, he never stopped chiseling and whittling. He was self-taught but would ask the park’s master carvers for tips and tricks.
“I wanted their honest feedback,” he laughs. “They asked if I wanted to be critiqued like a hobby carver or if I wanted them to shoot me straight like an expert.”
They shot him straight. David got better and better because of their constructive criticism. By the time he got married in 1972, his carvings were good enough to sell – right back at the Silver Dollar City Woodcarving shop where he first fell in love with the craft and bought that first little knife.
Peter Engler became David’s mentor over the years and the pair formed a friendship that lasted all the way up to Peter’s passing in 2013. And, while the two often purchased each other’s carvings, David never made a living out of the woodwork as Peter did.
“It was always a fun hobby that I made just enough money at to buy supplies to make more,” he smiles. “But, the desire to create was always inside of me and I would soon learn it’s never too late to just go for it!”
David “went for it” one day last year when he and his wife were enjoying a day at Silver Dollar City.
“We peeked in the window of the woodcarving shop and she told me to go in there to see if they could use my work,” he recalls. “They explained that there was a jury system to select traveling craftsmen but asked to see my work. I showed them pictures and they asked if I could start right away!”
David agreed to “try it” for two weeks but ended up staying seven months with a promise to return the following year. His work had made its mark. After being part of The City for only sixth months, he received the Guest Woodcarver Award at the annual Craftsmen Breakfast. It was shortly after that breakfast that a handwritten note from Jack Herschend would guide his next special project.
“The note simply said ‘I admire you,’” David says as he chokes back a tear. “I will never forget the way that made my heart feel as long as I live.”
David wanted the City’s Citizens to get that same feeling so he carved up a plan to give back to them. One at a time, he began carving figures of them and presenting them as surprise gifts. Whether it’s a depiction of Danny Eakin of the Homestead Pickers waving to fans at his retirement show or Whoops E. Daisy and her famous parasol, David is so touched to watch their reactions when they receive their gift.
“They put their hearts and souls out there every day,” he says. “I wanted them to have a little token of our appreciation for the joy they bring. I hope they feel the same love I felt when Jack gave me that note.”
David plans to keep carving more Citizens in his spare time to show The City’s love for them.
“The Herschend family talks a lot about the importance of love,” he says. “We’re not trained here on how to love our guests – it’s just who we are and how we treat people. That kindness is embedded in our souls. My hope is that a little kid watching me carve feels that same encouragement and love and begs his mother to buy a little knife and chisel.”