Muscadine vines the cross to success for Carlisle man

Published 1:59 am Friday, October 26, 2012

CARLISLE — It’s a play on words, a “Cross D’Vine,” the symbol of Christianity, the divine cross, made of muscadine vines from the Claiborne County woods.

“It’s just a natural,” its creator, Gene Quimby, said. He began making the crosses 20 years ago when Brook Jacobs of Greenbrook Florist in Jackson asked him if he could do it.

“And I said, ‘Sure,’” Quimby recalls.

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Jacobs wanted one about 4 feet tall and made free-handed. Quimby had a picture of it in his mind, and “That’s the only place my crosses existed at that point — in my mind. I had to figure out how to do this. I tried several different methods, most of which did not work, but there was a point or two that did work, so I tweeked that, scrapped the rest, scratched my head and got to thinking. I built a wooden box, kind of a form, or mold, and went from there. When I took it to Greenbrook they just went crazy over it.”

There also are others who make crosses from vines, but those usually are just two bundles of twisted vines, one slapped across the other, which is probably why most florists weren’t interested when Quimby first inquired about selling his product — but that was before they saw them. One look and they’d say, “Wait a minute. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

The key to his success, he said, is to do something that no one else has done — be unique and creative — “and that is my biggest selling point right there. These are unique. They take a while, some time and a lot of vines. I call it weave work. It looks like I spent a month and a half weaving all that stuff. I’ve got it down to a science, or art form.”

He’s had some people tell him they did not believe he did the work — “but they never tell me who they think did it” — and that might be because Quimby has only one hand with which to work. He lost his left hand in an accident more than 20 years ago.

“The loss of that hand makes me more determined,” he said. He tells of how many years ago, before he had the accident, that he wanted to learn to play guitar. He tried for a long time, from the time he got up each morning, but he became discouraged and leaned it against the wall, turned on TV, “and at that exact moment in time there was a guy with no arms playing classical guitar with his toes. I got chill bumps, just like I do now when I think about it, and I said, ‘OK, God, I really didn’t try hard enough, did I?’”

Quimby doesn’t make only crosses — he also creates wreaths and butterflies and he’s mulling over trying his hand at dragon flies.

He said he always thought that if he pulled a vine himself he could make a lot more money, but “No, sir. That’s the kind of idea that sounds good, but when you get out there playing Tarzan and swinging on those vines and they say they’re not coming down — so I’ll go and buy vines.”

Quimby said he can’t draw and sure can’t paint and doesn’t consider himself an artist. Any talent he has along that line comes from his mother, who has made silk flower arrangements for the last 35 or 40 years. His love of plants comes naturally for his father was a horticulturist.

“I was raised in a greenhouse,” he said, and has been in flower shops all his life. He “grew up across the South. We tended to move quite a bit,” and when he was a senior in high school, he quit to join the Army. He later lived in Columbia and moved to Utica after losing his hand.

“I healed on Bayou Pierre,” he said. He had always loved camping on a creek bank, so each morning in Utica he’d grab a cup of coffee and a biscuit and take his two cocker spaniels to Bayou Pierre. One day his mother told him there was a house for sale overlooking the bottomlands and the bayou on Whitaker Road near the hamlet of Carlisle between Utica and Hermanville. She thought maybe it was too far out and perhaps too small, but as soon as he turned up the drive he knew, “We’ve got to live here.”

Before he began making crosses, Quimby had a business selling Spanish moss to florists that used it to cover Styrofoam in arrangements. He had a regular route for gathering the moss — from Panama City to Hot Springs — and was on the road every six to eight weeks between those two cities. He tried settling down several times but realized he was paying a lot of rent for just a place to occasionally sleep, “So I started working homeless on purpose,” staying in his van some, sometimes camping and occasionally stopping at a motel.

Because of Hurricane Katrina, he said, the moss business “went south,” so he can’t find it like he once could. People used to ask who climbed the trees and couldn’t believe it when he said he did.

In turn, he asked them if they wouldn’t find a way to get up a tree that had money hanging from it.

Quimby relies on special orders and going to flea markets to sell his crosses and wreaths. It’s mostly a seasonal business with sales coming around Christmas and Easter. He hopes there’ll be no end to the crosses, as there was to the Spanish moss, but he’s not likely to run out of grapevines. The supply probably will always keep up with the demand.

Gordon Cotton is a historian and author who lives in Vicksburg.