Tommy Rhomberg, 12, shows off the baseball bats he made from fallen tree limbs from the derecho. CREDIT AMANDA RHOMBERG

By Angela Holmes
angela@corridorbusiness.com

A handmade birthday gift for a friend has evolved into a budding business for a Mount Vernon sixth-grader, teaching him valuable lessons about hard work and giving back to the community.

Tommy Rhomberg was looking for a gift idea for his best friend’s birthday, which just happened to be on the day the derecho hit – Aug. 10, 2020.

Surrounded by fallen tree branches from the hurricane-like storm, the 12-year-old decided to hand-carve a bat for his baseball-loving buddy.

“I knew the best thing to do would be to get him a baseball bat,” Tommy said. “And then I just started making it out of the perfect piece of wood.”

Like many families in Eastern Iowa, the Rhombergs were in clean-up mode for days after the storm.

“I remember when he found this perfectly straight piece of wood, he said, ‘I think this would make a great baseball bat,’” Tommy’s mom, Amanda Rhomberg, said. “And you know, I looked at my husband and said, ‘You just watch, that will be a bat.’ Sure enough, it was.”

Using his grandpa’s whittling tool and sandpaper, Tommy spent more than 10 hours crafting the perfect gift for his friend.

It was a hit, and soon became a hot item on wish lists everywhere after Ms. Rhomberg posted pictures of Tommy’s creation on Facebook.

“My original post said, ‘When life hands you a derecho, you hand-whittle a bat,’ or something like that. And I had one friend that asked me to make it public,” she said. “The next morning, I had messages from reporters in my Messenger and it had really gone viral. And then all of a sudden, I became his media manager, scheduling all his interviews.”

To keep up with demand, the Rhombergs bought a used lathe and tools on Craigslist from Willie Lough at Creative Woodworking LLC in Elkader, who taught Tommy how to use the equipment.

Not only did Tommy’s foray into the business world begin, his philanthropic spirit was sparked.

Of the $100 he charges for each bat, which he calls “The Great Derecho,” $20 is donated to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation’s Disaster Relief Fund.

“I thought it would be really cool if I could use the wood from the derecho to help people rebuild from the derecho,” he said.

While Mount Vernon had its share of damage, it was nothing compared to the devastation in Cedar Rapids, Ms. Rhomberg said.

“Apartment complexes were destroyed there; people were actually displaced. We didn’t really know of anybody in our town that was displaced,” she said. “But we had just kept hearing from people that Cedar Rapids residents really did suffer the consequences of the damage.”

So far, Tommy has donated $4,000 to the relief fund – a number that is growing with increased interest and matching funds from businesses and organizations.

He initially sold more than 200 bats, hand-chiseling the first 213 on his own before enlisting the help of family and friends to help with engraving, staining and packing. He used free time during the hybrid school format due to the pandemic to work on his business before taking a break at Christmas.

Six months later, there is no shortage of derecho wood to make more bats.

“When we first started, we went on wood hunts and we gathered it from the golf course or from friends of us who had damage in their yards,” Ms. Rhomberg said. “More recently, we have been getting it from Kroul Farms just south of town. They had a whole timber of trees down, so, I don’t think we’ll run out of derecho wood.”

The Rhombergs have upgraded their lathe and are ready to tackle the waiting list, which at one point topped more than 2,000.

The website, thegreatderecho.com, is again accepting orders for the $100 bats. Along with the donation to the relief fund, proceeds go toward expenses and Tommy’s future college education.

This time around, the site says to expect three to four months for delivery instead of just four to six weeks – just in time for spring.

However, the bats, which are about 30 inches long, can’t be used to play baseball, as the fallen wood will crack as it dries over time. But people can keep them as “a little memento from the storm,” Ms. Rhomberg said. CBJ