Burkey Boggs has enjoyed a life that is, in many respects, typical for someone living in the greater Washington, DC area. He grew up in southern Maryland, learned to love the outdoors and the incredible fishing, hunting, crabbing and camping that the region afforded him. He grew up surrounded by tobacco farms, graduated from La Plata High School, and embarked on a long and successful career working for the U.S. Government Printing Office.
In 1985, however, something happened that would change his life forever. It was on a trip to Denver, Colorado with his wife of 55 years, Margaret.
“We were window shopping downtown,” he remembers, “and I saw this flight of ducks in a shop window. It just stopped me in my tracks – it was so life-like, I thought they were the work of a taxidermist, which is a longtime interest of mine. We went in to check them out and I was so surprised to find out they were actually made of wood. Another surprise was the $18,000 price tag. I told Margaret right there and then, ‘I can do that.’”
The timing was perfect. With retirement on the horizon, Burkey was determined to channel his energy and passion into something new – an artistic expression of his sportsman’s soul. Burkey was thrilled to find a beautiful set of carving tools under the Christmas tree later that year, a gift from Margaret that set him on his way to the dedicated woodcarving shop he maintains at home today. “I guess it keeps him out of trouble,” she likes to say, playfully.
Burkey’s first pieces were made from “found” wood, including scrap cedar, old walnut, and even large sections of pressure treated posts, none of which is typical or easy to use for beginning carvers. He learned by doing and experimenting, but as he became more serious, he read books, subscribed to woodcarving magazines, and began attending the waterfowl shows in Easton and Ocean City. He also met experienced carvers and continued to listen, learn and experiment. “Finally,” he remembers, “I began carving some pieces that really looked like a duck, a bird or whatever it was that I was working on at the time.” He is most proud of the positive comments he has received from his fellow carvers, including his longtime friend and 2014 Potomac River Waterfowl Festival Featured Carver and Honorary Chairperson, Ray Whetzel.
While duck decoys remain a favorite, it is another wooden animal, the carousel horse, which has become perhaps his magnum opus. After a devastating tornado ripped through La Plata in 2002, a group of local woodcarvers got together and came up with a novel way they could help with the rebuilding effort. They wanted to create an authentic working carousel, featuring hand-carved wooden animals based on the now long-since-vanished merry go round at Marshall Hall, a Charles County amusement park that operated from 1868 until 1980. Memories of Marshall Hall are particularly sweet for Burkey, for it was there that he and Margaret would often go when they were dating as teenagers back in the 1950s.
After 10 years of hard work by dozens of people, this labor of love continues. Burkey, who serves as president of the Southern Maryland Carousel Group, has been its visionary and greatest champion and his enthusiasm is contagious. He visits the group’s workshop several days a week, sometimes working up to eight hours or more on the animals. But his passion for seeing the project through isn’t limited to woodcarving; Burkey probably spends an equal amount of time talking with supporters, enlisting new donors, seeking grants and bonds, and tracking down new sources of funding.
When it is completed, the new carousel will feature 50 animals and two accessible chariots, all housed in a pavilion that will include a museum and visitor center, a gift shop and, of course, space for woodcarving. Burkey is convinced that the carousel will be another milestone in the southern Maryland community’s development and also for the region’s healing after the tornado. More than anything, he loves that fact that something he is helping to create with his own hands will be enjoyed by many generations of southern Maryland children.
Busier today than he was before he retired, Burkey is in constant motion. In addition to his carving and work on the carousel, Burkey has served in a wide variety of roles in service to his community including as a director of the Community Foundation, on the La Plata Board of Appeals, as a member of the town’s Vision Implementation Team, and as a member of the Board of License Commissioners for Charles County. He wants to make sure southern Maryland remains a wonderful place to live, work and thrive. With five children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, all living within 10 miles of La Plata, Burkey has a lot of incentive to keep giving back.
For more than 30 years, Burkey’s carving has brought wood to life. But he wants to ensure that the traditions of woodworking, decoy-making and carousel animal carving live on, so he now teaches and mentors younger carvers formally through the Southern Maryland Woodcarvers as well as informally, every week. “I’m trying to impart what little knowledge I have,” he says modestly, “I’m just trying to keep it all going.” He certainly is.