WOOD RIVER — As director of the Wood River Public Library, Kate Kite sees the facility as a community space and public resource.
As such, she feels one of the library’s essential functions is to share the works of talented individuals in the community. Now on display at the library are replicas of notable historical chess sets from periods throughout history. The chess sets are the work of Les Wylie, a Wood River resident who’s had an avid interest in chess since he was 8 years old.
“Chess is an art form,” says Wylie, who majored in art in college. His mother gave him a chess set when he was 10 and of the many sets he has made and collected over the years, that one is still his most prized.
Although he earned a living working for St. Joseph’s Hospital in Alton and other area businesses before his retirement, he has always pursued creative activities in his spare time. He is a photographer, painter and silversmith. He makes jewelry and has an extensive collection of antique radios he has restored.
He is also accomplished at woodworking and says he has made chess sets for more than 20 years. He is fascinated by the styles of the sets and the stories behind them.
“Each set has its own history,” he says.
Wylie says it takes up to a month or more to create each of the sets. After examining photographs and actual historical sets, he enters information such as cut points into a computer program to design the pieces. He then works with a lathe, using exacting techniques to precisely replicate the pieces.
The pieces are stained and varnished. Many must also be finished with customized hand cuts. Wylie also recreates the playing boards for the sets, making the inlay and other pieces that result in exquisitely replicated sets.
Many of the replicas he creates are those of chess sets used by U.S. presidents. He says almost every president, and many other leading figures in American history, played chess. One of the replica sets on display at the library is of an English Barleycorn set used by George Washington in the 1770s. Another is of a French Regency set used by Ben Franklin from that same period.
Six chess sets are on display at the library. In addition to the Washington and Franklin period replicas, a Bauhaus set from the 1920s, an Indian Shatranj set from 600 A.D. and a Max Ernst set from the 1940s are all displayed.
Wylie researches the history behind the sets and is displaying a William Claxton set replica from 1471 at the library as well. He explains that Claxton had the first printing press in England and the second book he printed was “The Rules Of Chess.”
The sets present a fascinating window into the history of the game and the craftsmanship and artwork in the sets themselves. A set Wylie created also will be displayed as the set of the month at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis during November.
Kite encourages the public to come see the chess sets as well as explore the many facilities and resources available at the library, 326 E. Ferguson Ave. For information, call (618) 254-4832.