If you’re out and about in Salmon Arm running errands with your little ones in tow, or simply enjoying a sunny afternoon while your children play, you may run into Don Felt. This soft-spoken man of 81 years has an interesting way of keeping himself busy in his retirement, while also putting a smile on many childrens’ faces.
Chances are, if you take the time to hear his story, he’ll offer a gift to you and your children: a handmade rocking horse built from scrap wood destined to be little more than mulch.
Felt ended up in Blind Bay in 1992 after retiring from his position at BC Rail, moving into Salmon Arm 11 years ago. Since then he has taken up woodworking as a way to keep his hands busy and prevent idleness from taking over. Over the years he has constructed a fair number of these horses for lucky toddlers throughout the community and farther afield.
“I had a friend in North Vancouver and he gave me the pattern for them, and he said just go ahead and make them so I did. I’m up to over 300, I’ve put the numbers on the bottom of them,” he says, pointing to a half-assembled horse on his workbench. “That one’s going to be number 319 over there, when I put it together.”
The majority of these rocking horses have found loving homes in the community. And these horses are made with near zero impact to Felt’s pocket-book, even serving as a sort of recycling process, repurposing bits of wood that would otherwise end up in the scrap heap.
“It’s all scrap wood, I named them all ‘Old Scrap,’” he says with a bit of a chuckle. “I go around to construction sites when the boys are throwing stuff away and I just say ‘do you mind? You’re going to throw it away anyways.’ Might as well turn it into something, save it from becoming mulch.”
He doesn’t advertise, though you wouldn’t know it judging by the sheer number of horses he has made. Felt says he prefers to just ask someone out of the blue if they would like one. In fact, he’s usually prepared for an impromptu gift-giving session as he carries around one of his completed rocking horses in the back of his car. His one request: send him a photo of the little one enjoying their new horse for his scrapbook.
“Well if we’re out shopping, and I see some lady get out of the car with a little one or something, I just say hello, hi, I’m Don,” he says. “And then I’ll just ask ‘does your little one got a horse? No? Have you got a computer and a camera? Well, I’ll make a trade!’ And that works out okay, I haven’t had any complaints yet.”
This is how Kevin and Melissa Robinson met the one-man rocking horse factory that is Don Felt, a chance encounter in the Co-Op parking lot that resulted in a special gift for their son, Konner.
“It was a total fluke,” Kevin Robinson says. “My wife just went for a walk, she had to stop in at the Co-Op to grab something, and Don was pumping his gas. He just looks over at my wife and he says ‘hey, do you mind if I see the little one in the stroller?’ She pops him up, puts him up on her hip, he just gave him a smile, she was about to walk away, and he was like ‘hey, hold on a second, I think I got something for your son. He had the horse and everything in his car.”
Robinson, who works in the meat department at Askew’s Foods, says the unexpected gift means a lot to the family. And, perhaps most importantly, their son Konner loves his new toy.
“Oh, he’s loving it!” he says enthusiastically. “Every other day he’s trying to pull it out from underneath the coffee table and we’re just like, ‘okay Konner, you only just turned one, buddy. You can’t even walk yet but you sure love that horse!’”
Felt has documented every horse he has given away in a collection of scrapbooks featuring photos of kids happily riding their newest toy, alongside notes of thanks from the families. Flipping through the pages of these scrapbooks will eventually showcase a more tropical climate than one might typically see in Salmon Arm.
“I’ve even got some horses down in Puerto Vallarta. Years ago I took them down there in parts, in boxes, three feet long, and then put them all together when we were down there. I just gave them to some kids and some people that I’ve known over the years going down there,” he says. “My wife and I, we started going in 1968, I guess it was. We’ve been going every year since.”
Felt is quite humble about his hobby. He doesn’t see it as some grand gesture; he’s not looking for recognition for his hand-made philanthropy. To him, it’s just something that keeps his hands busy. Aside from the horses, he also makes a few other odds and ends, such as birdhouses, small water wheels and lamps out of old bits of scrap metal. Always the handyman, Felt sticks by the idea that what’s broken is often easily fixed.
“If you look at my stuff around here, it’s just hanging all over the place,” he says, gesturing to the tools lining his workbench and bits of scrap wood waiting in piles to be transformed. “Just parts and pieces for stuff. Pretty much it just gives me something to do. Well that’s basically it. It keeps me busy. I turned 81 in January, you don’t want to quit being busy right away. I just keep putzing away at things.”