SUCCESS DOES NOT seem likely to spoil the annual Page County Woodchoppers Ball & Virginia Championship Rail Splitting Competition.
For one thing, they don't award cash prizes to the winners of the day-long competition, which had its second go-round Saturday at the Luray Fair-ground, admission 50 cents. Some of the champions get axes or wedges. Some get red or blue bandannas. The kids who win the pie-eating contest get certificates and the pies they ate. The reason they call the contest in February is that everybody needs an excuse to get outdoors and work off the winter's cabin fever.
Another reason the affair probably never will succumb to country chic is that promoter Don Liscomb keeps it real. The logs the contestants split and chop and saw are not the butter-soft green poplars used in most such contests; they are crossgrained, knot-ridden, damn-your-eyes chestnut oak butts and sieze axes, shatter wedges and start tears of pain and frustration from the eyes of iron men, sturdy women and chore-hardened children.
Consider poor Bernie Weisegerber of Penn Laird, Va. He came to the contest equipped with an assortment of fine-honed axes, osage orange beetles (mauls), dogwood gluts (wedges), great skill and experience, and a muscular body in excellent condition.
He set his starting wedge in the log he had drawn, which under the rules had to be split into quarters as nearly equal as psooible, and the log proceeded to make a fool of him. It spat out his wedge, ruined his edge, cracked his sledge and, when it finally yielded, the crack ran corkscrew fashion.
The crowd of several hundred, most of whom could (and did) call nearly everyone present by name, was noisily sympathetic as Weisegerber's pride kept him pounding away at the devil log long after he knew he was out of the running.
And Weisegerber's was not hte worst wood of the day. That log defeated a two-man team who used up the 10-minute time limit without finishing even the first split. For the rest of the afternoon the log resisted the best efforts of the strongest men of Luray, few of whom could pass it without taking a hand.
"I can't abide a half-split log," one explained after he had expended an hour of energy he should have been saving for later events. "Man starts something, he ought to finish it." He doused the log with a spray of Red Man. "This log, though, I believe she's finished me."
The log finally yielded to a man named Panther - who had a withered arm and a badly cut hand - and his young son, who seemed to take the oak butt's cussedness personally. or perhaps they persisted because the wood split by the contestants was to be delivered to local poor families.
"I guess the competition might be more fair if we picked better wood," promoted Liscomb said. "But when you go out in the woodlot you take the trees at hand, and the whole point of this get-together, besides just getting together, is to keep alive the kinds of skills the pioneers used."
Oh, yes.The reason they call it the Woodchoppers Ball is that everyone has one. The reason they call it the Virginia rail-splitting championship is that, "Well, we were taking a break in the woodlot one afternoon and somebody said, 'Hey, we could call this the state championship and sell tickets.'"