- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

NELSON, Wis. (AP) - Jim Smit’s cold, callused hand, covered by wool gloves made by his wife with wool from the couple’s 16 Icelandic sheep, reached out on a blistering 1-degree weekday evening to scrape the snow covering the name of his handmade boat, Nelson Wisconsin Mandela.

Soon it became too cold to stand outside any longer, and to warm up Jim walked into his house, which he designed and built himself by hand nearly 20 years ago on a farm up in the bluffs.

Jim is something of a modern-day Renaissance man - he enjoys working with his hands, and has built much of what surrounds him. His house is filled with carved wooden sculptures and handmade string instruments he’s made over the years. His family shares the same ideals: The house also holds paintings he and his kids have created, and rugs made by his wife.

Jim grew up on the south side of Chicago, where he taught himself to play guitar in high school. He graduated from Northwestern University with a psychology degree, but after spending time putting that degree to use, he found his true passion in carpentry and contracting. Four decades later, Jim’s love for hands-on work still remains.

Before moving to Wisconsin, Jim and his family lived in Missoula, Montana, in a cabin just outside town that Jim designed and built himself. In 1980, they bought a 150-acre farm outside Nelson that one of Jim’s college friends was selling, and they haven’t left since.

Some of Jim’s hand-carved sculptures are displayed in Wabasha, others in Nelson. He’s designed a soldier mourning comrades displayed in the VFW Park in Wabasha - “When I showed the drawing to the vets, I could tell they got a little choked up, so I knew I had a winner,” he recalled - and a soldier holding a hose dousing a fire that sits outside the Nelson Fire Department.

But for Jim, sculptures haven’t been enough: He’s also put his hands on much larger projects.

Twenty years ago, Jim and his friend Paul Busch purchased the old middle school in Wabasha, and ever since Jim has been renovating and remodeling, turning it into rentable office and business space. The first and second floor are fixed up and rented out, while the third floor of the building is a studio where many more of Jim’s paintings, sculptures and handmade instruments are displayed. Jim calls it his playground.

Most of his time now is spent at the school, which he’s dubbed Mittel Schule Inc., where he has the freedom to put his hands to good use in whatever fashion he likes. There’s the banjo made with seven strings instead of five, the double string ukulele and his take on a harp. And Jim can not only build them all, he can play them, too.

He said it’s simply a hobby he enjoys. Some people play golf. Some collect rocks. Jim savors guitar-making.

“It’s just a passion of mine,” Jim told the Winona Daily News (https://bit.ly/1SkfeLK ). “Building them is even more fun than playing them.”

He’s made 41 to be exact, and most in the last couple years as he’s had more time to devote to the craft. The ones he made when he was younger have a more primitive look to them; the ones he’s made more recently exemplify the development of his craft, polished and consistent.

Not all of his creations are successful. Sometimes they don’t have the sound Jim was expecting, and sometimes he has to do some extra work on unexpected modifications.

“I’m almost always pleasantly surprised,” Jim said, “but sometimes they aren’t loud enough or don’t sound like I hoped they would.”

Jim also pursues a different craft: building boats. It’s another hobby that has caught on within the family.

His son Noah at age 10 helped Jim build the first boat. When Noah was 19, he made his own boat - and used it to sail down the Mississippi.

That adventure inspired Jim, so in fall 2001, Jim embarked on his own trip down the Mississippi. Five weeks into the estimated 10-week trip, he tired and went back home. The following spring he tried again and succeeded, sailing from the upper Mississippi to the Ohio River, to the Tennessee River, and finishing his trip on the Mobile River in Alabama.

As usual, Jim had created the original plan - sail down the Mississippi - and then improvised.

“It’s pretty much the same distance,” Jim said, “but I didn’t want to sail down the lower Mississippi, so I took a different route that’s a little bit prettier.”

He also considered sailing around the Florida peninsula, but decided against it because he had been away from home for several weeks and wanted to get back to his family, and to his crafts.

Jim said he’s trying to enjoy a retired life, though his day-to-day certainly doesn’t contain any of the usual trappings. Aside from Mittel Schule Inc., he also owns an apartment complex in Nelson that he fixed up and now manages. He’s sold most of the land on his farm, but kept 15 acres and created a hobby farm.

These days he spends most of his time crafting his own instruments, painting, and relaxing at home with his wife - and Icelandic sheep - where after more than four decades of working with his hands, he has an endless supply of stories to pair with the creations he’s crafted.

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