GOSHEN — The smell of wood chips, the hum of power tools and the pleasure of unlimited free time greet Mervin Swartzentruber almost daily at his woodshop on Greencroft Goshen’s campus.
Most mornings, the 85-year-old can be found working on projects alongside other members of Greencroft’s woodworking club. Swartzentruber is the chairman of the club, but his woodworking hobby started long before he and his wife, Marilyn, moved to Greencroft’s assisted living facility from their home in Pennsylvania.
The Elkhart County native estimates that he’s been doing woodworking for about 60 years. He made most of the furniture in his home by hand, and now he works on projects for friends and others who have heard of his work. Swartzentruber entered a few pieces in this year’s “Art is Ageless” contest sponsored by Greencroft, but he said his hobby isn’t about winning an award or making money.
“These aren’t the types of things that normally win art contests, but I like making them,” Swartzentruber said inside the woodshop, gesturing to his completed contest entries. He crafted a coffee table, marble roller coaster and three-dimensional wall hanging for the event this year. Swarzentruber thinks he has entered the Art is Ageless contest three or four times.
Swartzentruber and Marilyn moved to Greencroft in 1995. Marilyn, who has had several strokes, lives in the nursing home section of Greencroft, while Mervin lives in assisted living.
“With my wife in the nursing home, I need to do something so I don’t just sit around and mope,” he said, adding that he works in the woodshop in the mornings and spends time with Marilyn in the afternoons and evenings.
Swartzentruber taught himself most of the techniques he knows.
“I read books, I talked to other people, and I figured things out for myself,” he said.
Swartzentruber recalled that he and his brother once converted a Singer sewing machine into a jigsaw to use on woodworking projects.
“I can’t remember exactly how we did it now,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in figuring things out and building things.”
Swarzentruber said Greencroft’s woodworking facilities are a major reason that he and his wife chose to move back to Indiana after retirement. The couple are from the area, but spent most of their married life working for the Mennonite Publishing House in Pennsylvania. Mervin Swartzentruber’s parents, he said, were some of the first residents of Greencroft. When it came time for Mervin and Marilyn Swartzentruber to move into assisted living, Greencroft was their first choice.
“If they would not have had a woodshop, I wouldn’t have been ready to move,” Swartzentruber said.
Many of Swartzentruber’s current woodworking projects are custom furniture pieces for people looking for a specific item they can’t find in stores. He also donates completed pieces to area benefit auctions.
“A table I made sold for $675,” Swartzentruber said, smiling. “That felt pretty good.”
He said he is always on the lookout for new ideas. The inspiration for his coffee table contest entry came from looking at how quilts are made. The three-dimensional pattern on the table is similar to a pattern he’s seen on quilts.
“I do a lot of designing in bed at night,” Swartzentruber said. “I lay awake for a while, trying to solve some of the problems.”
Swartzentruber’s marble machine won Best of Show for craftsmanship and original design on Wednesday, July 17, at Greencroft’s Art is Ageless artist reception. Swartzentruber said he was pleased, but also surprised at the award.
“It was kind of a shock when I first saw (the award) because I never expected that at all,” he said Wednesday.
He added that the fun of woodworking, for him, is developing ideas.
“It would be kind of boring if you just had to make the same thing day after day,” Swartzentruber said. “Figuring it out and designing it all is a very important aspect.”
The Art is Ageless contest is open to Elkhart County residents 55 and older who are amateur artists. The contest is normally held in May, but was postponed to July this year because of construction at Greencroft Goshen.