Hard work keeps local man going strong
By Julia Green
Just behind the Absolute Construction building off Route 30 in Kelly Corners is a large woodpile. Surrounded by a wall of trees, fractured sunlight filters through and throws shards of light on piles of firewood still dusted with early morning frost.
Amid it all is Kelly Corners resident Ralph Felter Jr. wielding a splitting maul, a mortal-sized, modern-day Paul Bunyan in a button-down flannel shirt and dark blue pants held up by similar-colored suspenders. Tarps cover piles of cut wood stacked around the woodlot, which is carpeted by a two-foot thick layer of wood chips and sawdust.
On any given day, Felter, 82, can be found amid the woodpiles, methodically cutting logs with his chain saw into firewood-length pieces and then splitting those pieces with his maul into firewood. Felter still goes to work every day at an age by which most men would have laid down the tools of their trade a generation earlier. Few would argue that though Felter may not share the fabled logger’s stature, he more than rivals his toughness.
“I cut wood every day,” he said Saturday morning, his breath puffing out in a visible cloud in the early morning cold. “That’s why I’m still alive. If I’d sat down, I’d be dead.”
Felter has two metal hips, has had cancer 10 times, undergone over 50 rounds of chemotherapy, had radiation treatment until doctors couldn’t give him anymore, and tried combined treatment with chemotherapy and Rituxan. Despite the treatment, Felter said he never lost his hair and never got sick from it. He would drive himself to and from treatment. In fact, doctors began referring to him as the Bionic Man.
“After chemo, I’d come home and sleep for a few hours, then come out and cut wood,” he said. “The doctor said I’d be dead if I hadn’t kept going. I had friends who came home and just laid in bed and they all died. You’ve gotta fight it.”
Recently, doctors found a lump in his neck, which Felter is currently battling with a more alternative form of treatment.
“I know it’s working, because even with the chemo, my energy was coming back,” he said. “And sometimes, if you think it works, it works.”
Born just a few miles up the road in Denver, Felter has spent his whole life in the Catskills. He graduated from Margaretville Central School in 1945, by which point he was enlisted in the Army but was allowed to return home for graduation. A World War II veteran, he spent a year in Berlin after completing basic training in Georgia.
“I would have stayed in the service, but the Russians were raising hell so I got out,” he said. “It was a scary time. Very unsettled.”
A carpenter by trade, Felter built over 150 homes in the area, approximately 95 of those in Roxbury Run. While building houses he also cut wood on the side, until about six years ago when he turned his focus to woodcutting full-time.
He cuts wood for fireplaces and wood stoves, and says he has a lot of customers for whom wood is their only heat source. He won’t take a job unless the customer comes and sees him in person, and he never signs contracts. “If you don’t trust me, I don’t trust you,” he said. “I deal with a lot of people, and if they treat me right, I treat them right. That’s why I don’t sell wood to anybody unless they come and talk to me. That way, I can cut it the way they want it – big, round, whatever.”
Felter cuts wood every day, every season, every year. In the heat of summer, the trees around his woodpile offer him shelter from the sun; in the winter, a patch of sunlight hits the outer edge of the lot, affording him some warmth. He works in the morning until about 11:30, when he goes home to make lunch for his wife, Cora, and take a nap. He returns to the woodpile by 2 p.m. and works until dark. He makes deliveries between 10 and 11 a.m. and again at 5 p.m., and says his wife is the one who keeps him straight with the deliveries.
“She’s a brain,” he says of Cora, to whom he’s been married for 51 years. “She’s worked with numbers [first for General Electric, then for H&R Block in Kingston], and has a brain like a computer.”
Felter has over 80 wood customers, and has already supplied most of his big buyers for the winter. He cuts lengths of 12, 14, and 16 inches and says he likes working with hard maple the best because it lasts longer. He measures the wood in wheelbarrow loads, six being a cord and nine equaling a truckload. Recently, his daily goal has been two truckloads, or three cords, a day. A few days ago, he did three truckloads in a day.
“I enjoy working over here,” he said. “I always say if your mind stays good, your body stays good. Stay active, and you might get to stay around awhile. We don’t know our destiny in this world, but that’s the way it is.”
Years ago, when Felter was a kid, he would cut cords of wood for five cents. One summer, he cut wood for a man who asked him if he’d rather be paid $2.50 or with 10 chickens. He took the chickens.
“Back in the day, you did stuff to help people,” he said.
That charitable personality hasn’t gone anywhere, and is evidenced by the fact that Felter has never turned anyone down who needed his help. Recently, he was approached by a man who was having trouble finding work and had no money, but who had two young children and a home with no heat. Felter didn’t bat an eye. He provided the man with wood, and whenever the man was able to scrape together a few dollars, he’d bring them to Felter.
“Every time he’d get a few dollars, he’d bring it to me. Ten dollars here, $20 there. Then one day he was moving, and he came with the last $20,” Felter remembered, “And I told him to keep it. I told him, ‘You’re a good, honest man.’
“You come on this Earth with nothing and you leave with nothing,” he said. “But if you do something good while you’re here, that’s what it’s about.”