Local man cuts a large job down to size
EAST MIDDLEBURY — The sight of a man splitting wood is common enough during Vermont autumns, and normally attracts little notice. But this fall, people passing the East Middlebury United Methodist Church, at the intersection of Routes 116 and 125, noticed Albert LaBerge.
For one thing, the trees that LaBerge was steadily dismantling were uncommonly large. They stood over 40 feet tall, and, according to Peggy Peabody of the East Middlebury Historical Society, it’s possible that the two maples “were planted behind the church as a property marker when the church was built in 1847 or thereabouts.” LaBerge estimates that the largest of the pair was 4 feet, 6 inches across.
LaBerge’s persistence attracted admiring notice as well. The 74-year-old East Middlebury resident, who goes by “Bert,” worked single-handedly beginning in early September to chop up the massive tree trunks. Almost every day he drove his Ranger four-wheeler the half-mile from his house to the church, pulling either a trailer or a splitter behind him. (He took the sidewalk along East Main Street after local police received some complaints that he drove too slowly.)
LaBerge began by “blocking” the smaller end of each trunk, cutting it off into lengths, which he’d drive back to his house to split at his leisure. In order to split the widest part of the trunk, he had to “notch it” by cutting out and breaking off small sections. For all this work, LaBerge used a chainsaw with a 20-inch bar, and a wedge axe.
“It is a great story of how doing a bit a day finally takes care of the job,” Peabody said.
The East Middlebury United Methodist Church arranged to have the two dying maples taken down in late July. The company that felled the trees took the brush, but left the enormous trunks. The expense of paying somebody to remove the trunks was too much for the church, but Pastor Bob Bushman heard that LaBerge did tree work on the side.
“Bert was brought to my attention — that he loved cutting wood and needed something to do with his time,” Bushman said.
LaBerge doesn’t attend the Methodist church, but was enthusiastic about taking on the task — for free. The congregation was so grateful for his efforts that they honored him during their Sunday service on Nov. 16.
Working on the trees has been as much a gift to Bert LaBerge as to the Methodist church. After growing up one of 12 children on his family’s farm in Charlotte, LaBerge went on to work for Howlett Farms in Bridport. After he left farming in 1992, he became an auto mechanic. In 2007, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous system disorder that gradually causes stiffness and slowed movement. When his Parkinson’s symptoms forced him to stop driving, LaBerge retired from auto mechanics and said he looked around for “something I could basically do from home.”
This led him to the wood business. In 2009 he began splitting wood for a small clientele of friends and neighbors.
“The doctors tell me that if I don’t keep moving around, I’ll stiffen up. And once I stiffen up, there’s no coming back,” LaBerge said.
Cutting wood keeps him moving, and he likes being able to set his own hours. Because the Parkinson’s limits his mobility, LaBerge says that the job at the Methodist church was a godsend.
“It has been a blessing to me,” he said. “It’s close enough where I can do everything with the Ranger.”
Although he works alone, the tree work at the church turned out to be unexpectedly social.
“Just random people would stop by,” either to chat or to offer a hand, according to LaBerge’s wife, Donna.
One Saturday in November, a couple from Berlin, Vt., who were out for a drive noticed LaBerge at work and stopped to help him with a particularly large piece of trunk.
“He’s become sort of a celebrity around town,” Pastor Bushman said.
LaBerge estimates that he got at least four cords of wood from the two trees. He said the wood from the largest tree is “great firewood,” which won’t need to be seasoned since the tree was already dead. After he finishes splitting the wood, he says he’ll keep some, and hopes to sell — or perhaps give — the rest “to the local people here that are hurting for firewood.” He’s noticed “a real shortage of firewood this year, because of the cold winter last year.”
Bert LaBerge drove his last load of wood from the Methodist church down the East Middlebury sidewalk one week before Thanksgiving. With the trees gone, the church plans to turn the open space into a community garden next spring.
And what’s next for Bert LaBerge? A winter rest, perhaps?
“I’ll keep cutting wood,” he said. “When the weather’s right, I go out there and get to it.”