NEDROW, N.Y. — A cinder-brick barn lies at the bottom of a hill, off a dirt road in the heart of the Onondaga Nation Reservation just south of Syracuse. Down the road from the local smoke shop, inside the barn, the air smells of wood. A bundle of several dozen wooden lacrosse sticks leans against the back wall, each ready to be carved, straightened, balanced, cut, drilled, sanded, shellacked, netted, inscribed — then, finally, sent across the reservation and beyond.
The craftsman, Alfie Jacques, sifts through a few completed sticks. They are among more than 80,000 he has made across 60 years, spanning the time lacrosse has spread far from its eastern base. He has remained here in the shop, carving out a market for old-fashioned, wooden sticks, even as production for newer versions — some made of carbon fiber, fiberglass or titanium — have boomed.
Jacques, 70, is one of the few remaining stick-makers of his kind. He has plied his trade in Central New York his entire life, traveling to conventions and relying on word of mouth to attract customers. His business has no website, no online ordering form, no social media presence. He is a craftsman who keeps the fastest-growing team sport in the country grounded in roots that go back hundreds of years.
“I’m going to do this as long as I’m able to do this,” he said between carves one morning last week.
You will not see one of Jacques’s sticks in use in the men’s or women’s NCAA lacrosse tournaments, which will both conclude this weekend. Modern materials are preferred because they yield on impact, so the head doesn’t break, and they reduce shock. Given that wooden sticks are rarely used during competitive games anymore, Jacques’s market is those seeking gifts and mementos.
His is a no-frills operation that begins with selecting the best shagbark hickory trees — each stick is made from a single piece of wood — and ends by fusing a message onto the stick, along with a trademark stamp. A stick takes 10 months to complete, thanks to an extensive drying process, and sells for about $350, compared to $100 to $300 for modern lacrosse sticks. Jacques works six days per week and crafts roughly 200 sticks per year, down from a peak of nearly 12,000 per year in the early 1970s, when he worked with his father.
“It’s getting harder to do but it’s not debilitating,” said Jacques, explaining the toll the work takes on his right hand and shoulder. “I can still do everything, I can still make a perfect stick, but it’s getting harder to do.”
Coaches and players appreciate the relic that is made in a shed by one man. Denver Coach Bill Tierney, who has won seven national titles, said Jacques crafted his first wooden lacrosse stick. Lyle Thompson, who grew up on the Onondaga reservation and is considered one of the greatest players in the sport’s history, owns a collection of Jacques’s sticks. The Notre Dame men’s lacrosse team and the U.S. men’s national team both recently made group visits to the workshop.
Two years ago, Virginia Coach Lars Tiffany packed his team into the small barn to watch Jacques’s techniques. At the 2017 men’s Final Four, Jacques repaired a stick belonging to New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, who grew up in Annapolis and played lacrosse at Wesleyan University. Jacques thinks Belichick’s wooden stick was about 50 years old.
Jacques started as an apprentice to his father, Louis. His family couldn’t afford to buy a stick at the store — they cost about $5 or $6 — so he and his father cut down a hickory tree in the yard and made one. The two built the barn where Jacques still works alongside his cats, Obama and Michelle. In 1969, Jacques and his father built the wooden bench he sits on. He still uses his father’s knife, made in 1832, to carve each stick. There is no instruction manual, no measuring tools.
“I can’t even imagine right now how the hell we even did it,” Jacques said. “But if we weren’t playing lacrosse or coaching lacrosse, we were making sticks, 24/7. We worked all day and got up the next day. We’d do the whole thing again. It was our entire life.”
He’s not here just to make sticks. He emphasizes the sport’s position in Native American culture. It began as a tribal game, used to help lift the spirits of community members. Jacques said lacrosse is considered a “medicine” game because it promotes health and strength. At lacrosse conventions and tournaments, including some in Baltimore and Washington, he brings sticks and shares his role in carrying the sport’s early roots to younger generations.
Months before stick shipment, Jacques needs to find a good tree. He surveys nearby forests, and he looks for trees at least 100 years old with no knots or limbs in the first 10 feet. He cuts them down himself. He splits the tree into eighths using a wooden mallet, axes and wedges. Outside his barn, he heats the logs in a 1,000-liter drum filled with water. He removes bark to carve the stick to its final form, so that he can perform the final touches.
As he carved a stick last week, wood shavings piled up on the ground. A large green belt-sander hummed near his bench. Jacques said he wants to reclaim some of the competitive lacrosse stick market and sell more wooden pieces to professionals. He links modern sticks with the game’s growth, but he believes his product is superior.
“With the quality of a lacrosse stick that I’m making,” he said, “the plastic can’t even get close to what I’m doing.”
Jacques’s devotion to his craft is a way of life. In 2015, two weeks after his mother died, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. After surgery, he missed a few weeks of work but then, as usual, drove his red van to the shop and opened up again. In May 2017, he felt pressure in the middle of his chest while he was carving a stick. His elbows hurt. He packed up early for the day. When the pain didn’t go away, his wife drove him to the hospital for what he discovered was a heart attack.
Jacques didn’t linger, though. Within a week, he was driving to a youth tournament in Pennsylvania. He had promised to give a wooden lacrosse stick demonstration.