Thirty-seven years in the making, Hoopie Davidson's chess set is complete


July 20, 2023

Lizzie Thompson / Petersburg Pilot

Hoopie Davidson says finishing the chess set she started creating thirty-seven years ago "is a dream come true."

Before becoming one of Petersburg's favorite school bus drivers Hoopie Davidson started making a chess set, but she put that project on hold for thirty-seven years to better focus on her new job and on raising her family. After retiring in 2020 she turned her attention back to the project that sparked her imagination so many years ago and now she's glowing with the satisfaction of finally completing her passion project.

"This is my masterpiece," Davidson says, gesturing to the thirty-four inch wide chess board and the thirty-two brightly painted chessmen positioned on its shiny black and white checkerboard surface.

"Thirty-seven years ago I got hired by Mike Schwartz to drive the school bus and I had just started this chess set. I only had about eight pieces finished. I knew what I wanted, I knew how I wanted to do it, but I didn't have time because my job was, you know, more important."

Davidson took the responsibility of safely transporting Petersburg's children to heart. Schwartz said, "Hoopie was one of the most highly trained and professional individuals in her field of expertise. She became an instructor for the National Safety Council and qualified to teach defensive driving classes. She trained school bus drivers, members of the Police Department, Forest Service employees, and countless youth in Driver Education classes."

She never called in sick; every morning she drove 18 miles to the end of her route to the Crystal Lake Hatchery, and on her way back to town, at 7 a.m., she'd pull over to call KFSK with "The Road Report."

Station Manager Tom Abbott remembers, "She'd update the community on road conditions. It was light-hearted but educational. Sometimes it was loaded with safety information. And she did it out of her own sense of public service. It was a great thing she did."

During all those years driving the bus she continued to think about the chess set she'd started creating. Back in high school she'd joined the chess club and "wanted to see how much I could inspire myself to learn chess. Well, why not build a chess board?"

She built her first chess set out of clay in a high school art class and wanted to get back to the second one she'd been envisioning for so many years. "Well, you know, they're my idea. That's what I like about it. And I have no pattern. [It] took a lot of thought to figure out how to get the face features all built out - a lot of restless nights thinking, 'Now how should I do that?'"

Lizzie Thompson / Petersburg Pilot

Davidson used balsa wood to give her pieces a three dimensional quality. She says the white queen is one of her favorite pieces "because I wanted a snarling looking lady. I did. I wanted a lady who looked like she was in a bad mood, so I went to the mirror and I made a kind of a funny, funny face and then I put that on her. And then I thought, 'now she needs a wart' – so that's what that black thing is on her nose. It's a wart."

She started the project by ordering unfinished pine table legs in a shape she liked, using the square end that attached to the table to provide uniform bases. "Then I needed different heights to decipher the power that you have in the chest set - like, the kings and queens have power so I made those eleven inches tall. And then I cut the next series, the castles, bishops and knights, seven inches tall. And then my pawns are all four inches tall."

She wanted all of her officers to have faces and settled on balsa wood to create noses, eyebrows, mustaches, hats and the armored face shields on the sixteen pawns. To get the proper curve she soaked the balsa wood shields for 24 hours then bent them around pickle jars and rubber banded them in place while they dried for 48 hours. Each piece was meticulously painted with several layers of high gloss enamel.

"There are three reasons why it looks like it does. One is the bright colors. They had to be bright colors because of my feeling about what's going on in our world. We have such sorrow in our world, so I needed bright colors. And I needed something that meant something to the older generations - a line through history to things like King Arthur's court. And just getting it done. Getting it finished. This has been a dream come true!"


Reader Comments(1)

Aaron Hankins writes:

Nice work Hoopie! Looks good!


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