All Frank Feather wanted as he restlessly roamed the Maryland-Pennsylvania border in the early 1900s was a meal and a barn in which to sleep -- and carve. Forty-seven years after his death, his fanciful woodwork fetches big bucks -- up to $5,000 for the distinctive canes, spoons and other household items he sold for a few dollars or offered his hosts as payment.
His pieces, rarely signed, feature precise, raised symbols -- flowers, horse heads, acorns and letters -- that are strikingly large, some two inches high. The letters, spiraling down the shafts of his walking sticks, form recurring words and phrases: victory, love, peace, hope.
"His carving was kind of big and it was bold and it was exact," said Baltimore auctioneer Richard Opfer, who has sold Feather canes to buyers from as far as Texas.
Doug Bast, owner of the Boonsborough Museum of History in Boonsboro, Md., said Feather is a regional artist poised for national fame.
"He's unknown, but eventually he's probably going to be a really big collectible," said Bast, who has about a dozen Feather pieces.
In contrast with his work, Feather was shy, even reclusive. He wandered in and out of the lives of farm families in north-central Maryland and south-central Pennsylvania, dropping so few clues about his past that he has become a folkloric figure.
According to Shawn Meyers, a Mercersburg, Pa., lawyer who has studied Feather, he told one farmer that he had killed a man in Italy and another that he had been stabbed in a fight and couldn't do physical work. He claimed to have hiked to the West Coast and back. He was reputedly a drinker, but no one recalls seeing him drink. He was volatile enough to destroy his work for spite, yet thoughtful enough to voluntarily hand his matches to his host to prevent a barn fire.
"He told lies about himself," Meyers said. "He was probably someone who had a talent, who chose this nomadic lifestyle and who battled alcohol."
Mary Bready, of Baltimore, a distant Feather relative, put it more gently: "I think he decorated his life the way he decorated his carvings."
In a kinder world, Feather's grave would be marked with a sturdy chunk of walnut boldly carved with his name, his dates and a four-petaled flower.
Instead, he rests anonymously with others whose unclaimed bodies were dissected, cremated and buried in a grave for research cadavers on the grounds of the Springfield State Hospital near Sykesville.
According to Bready's research, Feather was born in 1877 in England, the eighth of nine children of Joseph and Mary Feather, who immigrated to Jamestown, N.Y., about 1885. His brothers worked in textile mills, but Frank became a wood and stone carver, according to an 1896 Jamestown city directory.
Then he disappeared from the public record until his death from a stroke in a Frederick, Md., poorhouse in 1951. He showed up in a family history only as a drifting presence without a regular job.
"I think he didn't want his family to find him, because every time one of his brothers found him, they tried to put him straight and he didn't want to go straight," Bready said.
Feather stayed frequently at the Silas Petre farm near Maugansville in the northwest corner of the state, according to Gail Petre, 62, who has a cane Feather carved for her father. The family's Church of the Brethren faith stressed charity to strangers.
"It would not have been acceptable to say, No, we won't feed you. No, we won't give you a place,' even though he was not invited to come in the house," she said.
She remembers Feather's heavy coat, its pockets bulging with carving tools and newspaper-wrapped carvings.
He made the family several canes and spoons, a wooden sword and an acorn-shaped pin dish, sometimes adding details on successive visits, Petre said. The items are worth thousands to collectors, but she said she won't sell them.
"It seems like it's a piece of Americana that ought to be preserved for people to see. If it's hidden away in a closet or owned by a collector, that can't happen," she said. The carvings are considered folk art, which also includes samplers, quilts, weather vanes and hand-painted furniture. Some pieces of folk art are sold for tens of thousands of dollars.
Bready, who has a Feather cane, said that when she learned 10 years ago of the demand for his work, she was shocked.
"I'm dumbfounded to discover this man whose family just wrote him off as the lost sheep of the family should be doing something that is now so popular and so valuable," she said. CAPTION: Shawn Meyers holds a spoon bearing the names of U.S. presidents. The spoon was carved in Pennsylvania in the first half of the century by Frank Feather, an itinerant carver whose work is now gaining fame -- and fetching big bucks. ec CAPTION: Frank Feather sold his distinctive carved wooden canes for a few dollars earlier in this century. Today, they're sold for up to $5,000. ec