DANVILLE — Fourteen years ago, John Wilbourn nearly died in a car accident that broke his back in two places and took him away from his job as a finish contractor.
As he healed, the Tennessee man developed his carving skills and eventually created for the Park Grill Restaurant in Gatlinburg, Tenn., a set of hand-carved double doors that look like two trees side by side without any leaves. Wilbourn carved two sets of trees, one for the exterior side of the doors, and a mirror-image set for the interior side, and glass filled the space between the tree design and the door frames.
Ken Konsis, director of the Vermilion County Conservation District, said he fell in love with the doors when he and his wife, Lorna Konsis, ate at the restaurant on a trip to Gatlinburg. With help from restaurant staff, Konsis tracked down Wilbourn. Since carving that first set of doors, he has turned his carving talents into a business and has made, as he calls them, "winter tree" doors for clients all over the country.
Konsis asked Wilbourn to create doors for the main entrance to the conservation district's new Kennekuk Environmental Education Center, which will be dedicated at 1 p.m. Sunday at Kennekuk County Park.
Last fall, the conservation district broke ground for the 7,000-square-foot center that will house offices, restrooms and classrooms for the district's 41-year-old outdoor school program that introduces fourth- and fifth-grade students from Vermilion County and surrounding counties to the forest, wildlife, streams, ponds, prairies and habitats of the area. It has graduated more than 65,000 students. Students will be present for the ribbon cutting ceremony on Sunday.
For several years, the conservation district and its foundation have been raising funds for this project, which ultimately will be a three-phase $6 million project of which this building is the first phase. The final plan is a 32,000-square-foot structure that will include the 7,000 square feet of the first phase in addition to a roof prairie, museum room and timber-framed conference center with a capacity to seat 500 people.
Although the education center is not completely finished, tours of the facility will be offered on Sunday, and visitors will get to see Wilbourn's work up close.
With help from his two daughters, Lydia Wilbourn and Elizabeth McClanahan, Wilbourn, 69, finished the Kennekuk doors in three months, working six days a week and about 10 hours a day.
"It's very labor intensive," said Wilbourn, who explained that no two sets of doors are alike. The doors are made of white oak and each panel weighs 150-160 pounds. Wilbourn said on this set of doors, they have really tried to do some extra things for aesthetic appeal, like using copper and brass to fashion hinge plates that look like leaves and acorns.
"So it's going to be an interesting combination of things," he said.
Wilbourn said he originally carved doors from wood but had issues with them cracking due to temperature differences, so he switched to carving treated wood fibre, to which he applies hardeners that give them an extreme rigidness and durability.
Wilbourn said it was the original set of doors in the Gatlinburg restaurant that generated more requests for doors and led to his business that now includes mantels.
"What seemed to have been a tragic thing turned out to be a blessing," said Wilbourn, who has faced some more minor challenges in completing the Kennekuk doors. He went to pick up the glass, because they were ready to install it in the doors, and his supplier told him the delivery truck had an accident and all four of his tempered glass panes were destroyed. It would be another week to get replacements. That pushed Wilbourn's timeline right down to the wire. Normally, he said, he ships the doors and someone else is on hand to install them.
No time to ship these doors.
Wilbourn finished the glass installation at his shop in Tennessee on Friday morning, and he and his daughters immediately loaded them on a truck and headed north to Vermilion County. Wilbourn will be at Kennekuk park when crews are scheduled to install the doors Saturday morning.
"It's been a very interesting time with this (project)," said Wilbourn, who's decided to stay for the dedication on Sunday.
His work can be seen at doorsandmantles.com.
Kennekuk Environmental Education Center
A dedication and open house for the Kennekuk Environmental Education Center will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at the building site at Kennekuk County Park, 22296-A Henning Road, northwest of Danville.
In the park, follow signs to the facility. Tours will be offered, and conservation district staff will be available.
The center will house the Vermilion County Conservation District's Outdoor School Program at Kennekuk, now in its 41st year. Bring a lawn chair if you wish. The Wheeler Foundation Nature Trail is nearby the facility and open for visitors.