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Cotton Calls

Posted: June 25, 2014 10:50 a.m.
Updated: June 25, 2014 10:41 a.m.
 

For as long as he can remember, Bryan Neal has always worked with his hands and with crafting wood. His dad, Richard Neal, a career Navy man, moved with wife June and the family to Virginia shortly after Bryan was born in Pennsylvania. His dad was a wood working hobbyist when he was home. Often away on tour for six or more months at a time, Bryan remembers, "Dad had lots of wood working tools at home and we had to fix our own stuff while he was away."
     From 1989 to 1991 the family was stationed in Germany and Bryan attended a defense school there. "It was not like public school. I took Shop and they taught me more than high school. They taught me to weld, work with a wood lathe, and build furniture and different things," he said. Bryan graduated from high school in 1995 and enlisted in the U.S. Army. He joined as a Combat Engineer because "engineering sounded like building things, like a carpenter. I liked to build things, so I signed up."
The recruiter had a different kind of engineering in mind. Bryan was sent to Germany for a few months, then on to Bosnia where his job assignment was mine field clearing and looking for bombs. He was attached to the United Nations detail clearing the mind fields and looking for human remains for 18 months.
     He returned to the States and was stationed at Ft. Stewart for Pre-Mobilization Assistance Element training, an intense survival skills course, required for any unit going overseas. He was assigned to the 11th Engineering Battalion, 3rd Infantry where he served with Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Paul Ray Smith. "I got out of the Army and he stayed in," Bryan said. Sgt. Smith was sent to Iraq where he "distinguished himself by acts of gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with an armed enemy near Baghdad International Airport, Baghdad, Iraq on 4 April 2003," the official record states. Bryan got out of the Army, but remained in the Army Reserves.
     He attended Georgia Southern under the G.I. Bill majoring in Building Construction and pledging ƩN fraternity. That's where he first met his wife, Stephanie, in 1999 at Wild Wings. They dated for a while and then went their separate ways until reuniting in 2003. They were engaged in 2004, just before Bryan was called to active duty in Iraq. He served a tour in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, Afghanistan from 2009 to 2010, and Afghanistan again from 2012 to 2013. Of the six years the Neals have been married, Bryan has been deployed for three-and-a-half. He has a five-year-old son, Jack, who has only spent two-and-a-half years with his dad. Son Luke, two, is just getting to know him. When Bryan left the service after his last tour in Afghanistan, he and Stephanie were finally able to have a real honeymoon. They visited the Fiji Islands for one-and-a-half months. They have also vacationed in Argentina, Barbados, and St. Lucia. At every exotic location, the Neals collected handmade wooden artifacts at artisan markets.
     At the beginning of last year Bryan reconnected with Major Adam Smith, his officer in charge at Ft. Stewart. Sharing a mutual interest in wood working, the two started talking about their hobby. While stationed in England, Major Smith used a wood lathe to craft items. That's how Bryan got inspired to start wood working on a lathe. He bought one in Savannah and taught himself to make several different household items - pens, bottle openers, pepper grinders. Then Josh Waters, a friend of Bryan's, and a duck hunter, made the suggestion that started a whole new line, "Why don't you make duck calls?" he asked.
     Bryan decided he would try his hand at constructing custom duck calls in a workshop he constructed in the backyard. "My duck calls are made in the U.S.A., not imported and plastic like some other popular ones. Each one is carefully made by hand; even the reed," he said. Bryan makes duck calls for Pintails, Mallards, and Wood ducks, each one with its own distinctive sound. He also makes calls for geese, deer, squirrels, and crows. (Crows? See post note). And he takes great pride in adding custom touches to his calls like decorating with the brass ends of shotgun shells.
     An old Army buddy, Chris Harris, helps Bryan with acquiring hard and exotic woods for his creations. He prefers working with oak, maple, and Osage orange, but any hardwood will do. He has even created items using all three woods through a process of gluing the wood in a vise and turning, then laminating it. The high gloss finish has a linseed oil base and is water resistant.
     Bryan's custom woodworking company is known as Cotton Calls. "We've lived here a while now and when I think of Bulloch County, I think of the miles of cotton fields surrounding Statesboro, he stated, "I think Statesboro is a big cotton town, that's how I came up with the name." His Cotton Call creations can be found locally at Anderson's General Store, and each Saturday following First Friday at the Main Street Farmers Market in Charlie Olliff Square, downtown.
     Bryan takes custom orders as well. He created the beer taps for Eagle Creek Brewery and can design and build custom bowls, shaving razors, bottle openers, or anything else he sets his mind to. "I have built everything from buildings to fine furniture," he said, "but, I really like the lathe. It's quiet, you work by yourself, and you can do a project from start to finish in one sitting."
     It's therapy for the G.I. who served three combat tours clearing mind fields. "I'm glad to be back in Statesboro with my family. It's such a welcoming community; a good place to raise a family. We have good friends here, and Stephanie's parents (from Minnesota) bought a house for part-timing here," he said. Bryan is a first class artisan who travelled the world to master his craft, "but when people ask me where I'm from," he said, "I tell them, Statesboro."

 

 


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