I fancy myself an outdoorsy type. I hike and do archery, own several flannel shirts and wear them without irony. I put one on, grab some friends and head to Stumpy’s Hatchet House in Eatontown, an unusual recreation and party spot that opened in April, where we’ll tackle a few six-packs and chuck hatchets at a wall. I learn it’s harder than it sounds, flannel or no flannel.
With its rustic furnishings and pinecone décor, Stumpy’s feels like a cozy hunting lodge. In fact, it’s a former warehouse outfitted with six throwing pits—similar to batting cages—where would-be lumberjacks can test their skills. We’re greeted by one of the four owners, Trish Oliphant of Lakehurst, a bubbly blonde with a red-and-black flannel tied around her waist. (At least my wardrobe selection is on point.) She has us sign an electronic waiver and goes over the rules while a goldendoodle named Woody curls up in the front office for a nap.
We’re led into the cavernous den—a shooting range-meets-log cabin—and to our home base for the two-hour session: Pitbull, one of the playfully named throwing pits (along with Brad Pit, Arm Pit, Pitsburgh, Pitiful and Peach Pit). Each pit gets two hatchets and two throwing lanes. We get a bucket of ice and crack open our beers (it’s BYO). Yankee Candles waft their balsam and cedar scent. There’s a massive American flag on the wall, and strings of lights crisscross above the waiting groups lounging on leather couches or slouching at handcrafted picnic tables sipping Budweiser. There’s even a giant Jenga set.
Before getting started, we need some tips from our throwing coach, a 6-foot-6-inch quintessential lumberjack with calloused hands, a white handlebar mustache and sawdust on his jeans. This real-life Paul Bunyan is Trish’s husband, Mark, a retired carpenter. He demonstrates the perfect throw: With a motion like a karate chop, you release the hatchet from your grip (using one hand or two—thrower’s choice) and, ideally, it spins 1½ rotations before cleaving the target. Mark is constantly cutting lumber, replacing the old planks that get butchered to pieces before the next party. Stumpy’s goes through roughly 60 boards a week.
Trish relays their Shark Tank-worthy origin story. It started at a dinner party in Toms River. The women were cooking dinner; the men chopped wood for the outdoor fire until they started chucking the hatchet at a tree felled by Hurricane Sandy. The next day, Mark built a huge wooden target, and they all played again, planting the seed of the start-up. The original hatchet is now set in stone, literally, as part of the snack-bar countertop.
I pick up one of the Estwing hatchets, an iconic camping tool weighing 1 1/4 pounds, and try to mimic Mark’s moves: chop and release. The hatchet ricochets off the wall and lands lamely on the floor.
The eight women in the neighboring pit are having better luck. The rowdy ladies chose Stumpy’s for an Axe Your Ex divorce party. They nurse 40-ounce bottles of Miller Lite and launch pink hatchets (a nice touch, courtesy of the owners) right into the target, whooping when they ring the bull’s-eye bell. I sip more beer and try again, summoning my inner woodsman—and channeling the fearsome divorcée to my right. The hatchet soars from my grip and slaps the wall like a misguided flying fish, landing with another sad flop.
I don’t care that I suck at throwing hatchets. Accuracy and keeping score isn’t really the point of Stumpy’s. Rather, it’s to “Let It Go,” like it says on the banner above the divorce party. We’re all having too much fun to be bothered by silly things like skill.
“People just get really comfortable and hang out,” says Trish. “Our biggest problem at the Hatchet House is getting people to leave.”