University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Delaware Folk Art Book Connects Generations

     As a young man growing up in rural Kent County during the
early years of the 20th century, Jehu Camper saw changes taking
place in what were then familiar scenes of everyday farming and
community life.
     To preserve this cultural heritage before it disappeared,
Mr. Camper sought to create, in wood, scaled-down scenes that he,
and others of previous generations, had witnessed.
     The legacy created by Mr. Camper, who died at the age of 91
in 1989, is examined in a new book by Robert D. Bethke, associate
professor of English.
     Americana Crafter: Jehu Camper, Delaware Whittler, recently
published by the University Press of Mississippi, is the ninth
book in its Folk Art and Artists series. Books in the series
focus on the work of informally trained or self-taught artists
rooted in regional, occupational, ethnic, racial or gender-
specific traditions.
     "Folk art, in form and substance, has a community basis,"
Bethke said. "It's art with an individual vision in keeping with
a collective identity and shared experience.
     "Jehu Camper hoped that these assemblages would connect
generations of Delawareans," Bethke explained. "He hoped that the
individual pieces would serve as a link between the young and the
     The book is a result of research since 1977, when Bethke
first met Jehu and Lillian Camper.
     During Mr. Camper's long and prolific career as a whittler,
the Delawarean created more than 600 objects, about 50 of which
are assembled scenes. Bethke's book includes black-and-white
photographs of the artist and of the backyard Camper's Museum,
built in 1975 to display his handicraft. Color plates depict
representative assemblages, which are described in Mr. Camper's
     The book notes that the earliest assemblage, and Mr.
Camper's favorite, was completed in 1933. It shows a farmer,
wearing a slouched hat and smoking a corncob pipe, sitting
astride two oxen hauling a log to a saw mill. Although this
assemblage marked the beginning of Mr. Camper's lifelong project,
Bethke said, he did not begin dedicated work on the "memory art"
until 1945, when he retired from operating a service station in
his native Harrington.
     Despite losing an eye in a 1930s accident while replacing a
tire, Mr. Camper whittled until severe arthritis put an end to
his efforts in 1984.
     Bethke's book captures the whittler's keen sense of humor.
On one occasion, while exhibiting his work at the Delaware State
Fair, Mr. Camper told a woman who had expressed an interest in
becoming a whittler that, to get started, all she needed was to
get herself a piece of wood, a sharp knife, some Band-Aids and a
few cuss words.
     Bethke said that Mr. Camper remarked later that the woman
never did become a whittler. "I guess she just couldn't find the
cuss works," Mr. Camper said.
     Mr. Camper's assemblages, which Bethke likens to three-
dimensional photographs of the past, offer glimpses into the
daily life of the Delaware farming community. Scenes include
hauling and scalding hogs, sorghum molasses making, a water-
driven grist mill and a blacksmith shop.
     In 1984, the Delaware whittler was honored by then-Gov.
Pierre S. du Pont IV and, that same year, Mr. Camper was invited
by the Smithsonian Institution to display samples of his work at
the 17th annual Festival of American Folklife on the National
Mall in Washington, D.C. Although the Smithsonian expressed
interest in acquiring the collection, Bethke said, Mr. Camper
declined the offer when he learned that the majority of the work
would probably remain stored somewhere in the museum's vast
     Mr. Camper's dream of keeping his collection together in one
place, for public viewing, was fulfilled in 1992, three years
after his death, when his wife, Lillian, donated its entirety to
the Delaware Agricultural Museum and Village in Dover. The museum
currently features most of the assemblages in a prominent
     Bethke, who began teaching at the University in 1971, traces
his interest in Americana to having been raised in a home filled
with country antiques and folk art.
     As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, where he majored
in American literature, Bethke learned about folklore studies
from Horace P. Beck, a nationally known folklorist. With Beck's
encouragement, Bethke went on to pursue M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in
folklore and folklife at the University of Pennsylvania.
                                                -Jerry Rhodes