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A legacy in a box

David Kramer, 85, sits beside his custom built machine designed to bend wood. Kramer makes Shaker boxes and sells them in Shakertown, a defunct religious community in central Kentucky. David has been making boxes for almost 30 years. "I enjoy it," David says. "It keeps an old man off the streets."

David Kramer's towering intellect and keen attention to detail are matched only by his brevity and wit. David, 85, makes Shaker boxes in a cluttered wood shop that he built behind his home.

He was first introduced to Shaker-box making during a trip to the former Shaker settlement of Hancock Village in Massachusetts. "It looked fairly simple," David says, "time-consuming, but simple."

Shaker boxes reappeared in David's life years later on a trip to Kentucky's Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. A woman asked if he knew how to make Shaker boxes. He confidently stated, "Yeah, I build Shaker boxes." 

The woman retorted, "How many and how fast?"

Thirty years and 60,000 boxes later, David still handcrafts the utilitarian boxes and sells them in Shakertown, a defunct religious community in central Kentucky famed for its architecture and craftsmanship. 

But let's rewind 50-some odd years. 

David is a self-proclaimed "big city boy" who grew up in Manhattan.  He remembers cycling across the Hudson River into New Jersey to a dairy farm to get fresh ice cream as a kid. David pined after Babe Ruth's Lincoln Continental parked on the street. He and his friends would wait outside in hopes of meeting The Sultan of Swing. Sure enough, his persistence got him a handshake from Babe. 

A bustling childhood in the Big Apple was followed by studies at Harvard and MIT and  an international career with the oil company, Kerr-McGee Corporation.

"I was in charge of 23 countries," David says. He's lived all over the United States and in Scotland and Turkey. Corporate life took him to the ends of the earth. David pressed the flesh and cashed the checks that oil brings. 

So, how does he find himself 30 years retired in Cynthiana? Much less bending wood into ovals.

"I was tired of traveling," he says. "I'd tell my wife goodbye and come back a month later." 

David and his wife Yvonne took a weekend trip to Carter Caves State Park. As he was glancing through the local newspaper, there was an ad:

For sale. 150 acres outside Cynthiana. 

Yvonne said the property was falling apart, but that it had potential. So for $300 an acre, the two purchased their new farm. 

"We bought it as a weekend place. We never expected to stay 30 years," David says.  

While his corporate life was often illustrious and always lucrative, David thought critically about his path.

"I wanted to do something more meaningful. What's my legacy? That I made some big business deal in some cockeyed country in Africa? No."

David's legacy will be his boxes. Each of the 60,000 – a fine piece of craftsmanship that will outlast any contract signed or pipeline dug. 

David's boxes are just a piece of his creativity. His paintings hang on the walls of friends. His sculptures stand outside Harrison Memorial Hospital. Model ships lie in progress on his workbench. 

His legacy will be his artistry. And what better place for an artist than the shop he built himself. Behind his house on the hill. In the heart of Kentucky. 

David stands on a hillside that overlooks his property. "Cynthiana found us." Settling down in Cynthiana was an arbitrary choice, David says. "It could have been Timbuktu if I could have found it."
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday David has lunch with Dave Mellet and Gerry Harpel who work at Harrison Memorial Hospital. Chicken salad sandwich, with a side of pickles.
Sports, politics and the town happenings dominate lunch time conversation. As ESPN plays on the cafeteria television, David criticizes the idea of paying college athletes.
David exercises at the hospital three times a week. When he first started coming, a trainer asked what his goals were. "I told her I wanted to look like Arnold (Schwarzenegger)," David says. "The woman said I don't think we can do that Mr. Kramer.’"
David's license plate reads "Kramer" backwards. On a whim, he asked the DMV what vanity plates were available and customized his and his wife's.
Shaker boxes were originally used as shipping containers, David says. These utilitarian vessels are a piece of history of Shakerism. It is now a defunct religion because it dictated no procreation, David says with a snicker.
Workshop attire consists of gray coveralls and David's embroidered Kerr McGee jacket.