Woodworker’s 96 years around Little Falls have been masterful
By Jim Wright
This is a story that needs pictures, more than words, because it is about 96-year-old woodworker, Keith Manbeck, seemingly a man of few words, who lets the quality of his work speak for him. For at least 80 of those years, he has developed skills, that
have made him a go-to guy in the Little Falls area when wood artistry is desired.
His creations have been as big as a full-size, authentic replica of an 1860’s Red River ox cart, he built from white oak in 1984. He said he was told it was to be displayed in Morrison County’s Belle Prairie Park — land that still shows the renowned trail’s ox cart wheel ruts.
Fully loaded with trappers’ furs and other goods, the carts each weighed 800 to 1000 pounds, while on their way to markets, mostly in St. Paul. Many of the trappers were from the Red River Valley region of northwest Minnesota.
They traveled in caravans, reported to sometimes have been a mile long, with the squealing of the wood on wood wheels heard as far as six miles away. “Couldn’t grease them, because dirt would stick to it, and grind away the axle’s wood,” Manbeck explained.
Manbeck’s cart, featured on TV and in several newspapers, was initially displayed in the old Morrison County Courthouse, in the 1980’s, and is currently displayed in Little Falls’ Lindbergh Elementary School. A committee finally is being formed to find a way to provide a permanent home for the cart, hopefully in a new and secure building in Belle Prairie Park.
To whet the public’s interest, Manbeck said, “A friend and I pulled it in a couple of parades in Little Falls, from one end of town to the other, and up the long hill to Lindbergh School,” That was a somewhat herculean feat for a gentleman in his late 60’s.
However, Manbeck said he wanted to see the cart actually pulled by oxen. He contacted Joe and Dianne Staricka, owners of Oxen Acres, near Swanville. They soon realized, while trying to train one of their cows or steers to pull the cart — by definition becoming oxen — the rare cart could be damaged.
So, 29 years after building the first cart, Manbeck, a spry 93 years old, decided to build another cart, and completed it in 2013. “It’s not as authentic,” he said and pointed to metal screws used on the 2nd cart, rather than just wooden joiners and glue.
Since then, as well as being shown recently outside of the Public Library in Little Falls, the cart has been pulled by Staricka-trained oxen in several parades and at other events in central Minnesota.
The next opportunities to see the Red River ox cart replica are: UFFDA Day, in Upsala, Saturday, Aug. 13; Central Minnesota Heritage Days in Burtrum, Saturday and Sunday, Aug. 27 – 28; and Pioneer Days at Albany, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 17 – 18.
Some of Manbeck’s small projects are also big deals, such as his woodenly beautiful “key to the city” presented to Reeve Lindbergh, the daughter of Charles Lindbergh, when she visited Little Falls, her father’s boyhood home.
His craftsmanship can be as handsomely functional as Manbeck’s roll-top desk, with its narrow, intricately linked slats.
“It wasn’t easy,” he succinctly said about that project.
There’s a Manbeck bed frame in his 26-year partner, Betz Tepley’s bedroom that should be in an art gallery rather than a bedroom.
Sometimes, he’s whimsical. A wooden man, created by Manbeck, stands tall, then folds down to rest on its hands and knees at card table height, or farther down, on elbows and knees, at coffee table size.
A grandfather clock housing, with alluring woodwork that attracts close inspection and praise, chimes for attention in Manbeck’s home on the west edge of Little Falls, a stone’s throw from the farm he grew up on.
He has crafted the frames for the nearly large masterpieces depicting saints by highly acclaimed artist Charles Kapsner, now in St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Little Falls. Manbeck’s finely crafted signage is a centerpiece in Little Fall’s crowning jewel, Maple Island Park.
The list goes on — his craftsmanship is all over his hometown of 96 years. Since retirement, he helped build the first 10 Habitat for Humanity Homes in Morrison County, as well as other Habitat homes in South Carolina, Tennessee and Winnipeg, Manitoba.
“I had to promise to stay off the roof,” Manbeck said with a laugh.
He likes to help however he can, and has done so much over the years, that he was presented with the community’s Golden Deeds Award in 2001 — not just for that year’s contributions, but for a life-time of giving back to the community he has always lived in.
Well, he was away long enough to get his Army Infantry helmet and coat ripped by mortar shrapnel — but not a scratch on his person. He entered the military in 1942, during World War II, and served with the 95th Infantry Division — the Ironmen of Metz — so called because of their hard-fought, four-month long battle to capture the German-fortified town of Metz on the border of France and Germany.
Born in 1920, a 1938 Little Falls High School graduate, Manbeck lived on the 32-acre family farm, in the family since 1888, until about 20 years ago, when he sold that property and bought five acres and a newer house on the adjoining land.
He grew up on that farm, with three brothers and a sister, milking half a dozen cows by hand, and working the fields with a horsedrawn plow.
After his military service, Manbeck came back to the area, and before long was, he said, “lucky enough to get the job,” (he kept for 26 years). Lucky meant being a rural mail carrier, following in the tire tracks of his dad who was a rural postman for 50 year — by horse and buggy for the first 10 years.
Manbeck didn’t marry, he said, “Because I never had a really good girlfriend, and was just too busy, working all the time,” as a carpenter and mail carrier.
That may have enabled him to have more time to become such a talented woodworker.