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By Rachel SladePhotographed by Ryan David Brown
Custom cribbage boards are among McCrillis’s specialties. Last year, the Bethel Art Fair designated him its Artist of Honor.
In his first incarnation, Phil McCrillis was a gem cutter of some renown, the fourth generation of his family to pursue the trade. Around 1990, he was en route from Maine to a mineral symposium in New York with a fellow gem cutter when their car broke down. By the time they got to the hotel, every room but the honeymoon suite was full, so the pair was forced to share a king bed.
“This guy was literally half the man I am,” McCrillis says of his bedmate. “I’m a 300-pounder.” All night, his friend “kept rolling into my divot,” McCrillis recalls, and the next morning, he awoke to find his buddy in “full spoon.” When the friend called home to relay the story, his young daughter, who’d long called McCrillis “Uncle,” asked, “When you were sleeping on Uncle, was he lumpy?”
“Uncle Lumpy” stuck.
McCrillis has since recited his origin tale plenty, but the 63-year-old woodworker, who much resembles the jolly old elf he plays at parades in Bethel and Rumford each Christmas, still laughs to retell it. And his joy is so genuine, it’s hard not to chuckle along.
“I’m just a big kid,” he says. A big kid who can hand-carve a block of bird’s-eye maple into an 18-inch-long, multi-hinged Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with teeth and super-lifelike hands. Or a majestic and lifelike moose that poops out Raisinets when you tap its tail. That moose is a hit with the kids who visit McCrillis in his toy shop at Bethel’s Philbrook Place, where he sells classic games and vintage toys alongside his wooden creations.
McCrillis’s shop is a former blacksmithery off the 1820s house in Roxbury that his family has owned for 60 years. There, in addition to his hyper-detailed toys, he carves elaborate wooden cribbage boards, flutes, and pipes, along with knife handles made from shed moose antlers. He discovered his toy-making calling — and transitioned from gemstones to hardwoods — when his friends started having kids.
“I give away more toys than I actually sell,” McCrillis says, stroking the bushy white beard he grew during quarantine, in part because he was tired of wearing a fake one at Christmas. “Maybe it’s the Santa Claus thing?”
It takes him dozens of hours to craft an heirloom-quality toy. To date, his most intricate construction is a lobster with a fully articulated tail made of a dozen individual vertebra-like segments. Each sculpture requires more than 70 hours of cutting, carving, and polishing. When his first grandchild came along 10 years ago, he made him a toy gorilla with arms that knuckle-drag when you pull it.
McCrillis can’t walk down a street in nearby Rumford or Mexico without someone recognizing him. Although his art is sought after, he’s probably best known in town for the weekly spaghetti dinners he’s served the Rumford high-school football team for the last 16 years, featuring his famous baseball-size meatballs. His toy-making fame is spreading, though. Not long ago, while kayaking in Phippsburg, he caught a kid staring at him for quite a while. When he finally asked what was up, the child responded, “Aren’t you the pooping-moose guy?”
Find Uncle Lumpy’s toys and other wooden wares at the Philbrook Place, in Bethel. 162 Main St. 207-824-0577.
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