A Hard Way To Make A Living in the 1930s and 40s

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3737 Highway 43 South St. Joseph, Tennessee 38481

I am writing this story because a lot of people I meet at local antique machinery shows tell me they knew my dad, deceased since 1967, and the subject always comes up about the most unusual trade my dad had.

Dad was a poor dirt farmer living in Lawrence County, Tennessee, trying to provide for a family of ten, three girls and five boys. To supplement his income he painted the smokestacks on top of steam boilers at various cotton gins, feed mills, laundries, etc. around the country. Now Dad didn't cull any of them, I mean because of size, or height, within reason. The only time he would not take a job was if after inspection, he determined the stack was too rusted out to climb.

The question I am always asked is how did he get his block and tackle in top of the stack. When we boys were not in school, some of us would go with him on a job to be the ground gopher. He would never let any of us go up, so we would paint under the roof on top of the boiler, and as high as we could reach on top of the roof. During WW II my older brothers went to war, and it just left my brother Gene and me at home. As I was the youngest, I probably got to go with Dad more than anybody. I am trying to put this down on paper, because of course, it's a lost art nowadays, and I remember a lot of the details.

Now to the actual rigging of the stack. He had what he called his planing mill strips. They were pieces of wood, poplar I think, about one inch thick by two inches wide, ten or twelve feet long, that he had planed at the mill. He made loops out of banding material and attached them to one end so he could put these things together and reach up thirty or so feet. He had a light hook with a small pulley attached to it with a quarter-inch rope through the pulley. He would tie the hook to the end of the planning mill strip with breakable string. He would take this contraption onto the roof and put enough of the strips together to reach the first set of guy wire eye bolts: most medium-sized stacks of forty to sixty feet had two or three sets of guy wires spaced fifteen or twenty feet apart. Next, he would reach the first eye bolt, and jiggle the hook around until it was hooked in the eye bolt. Once attached, the strips were yanked, breaking the string and bingo, he had a hook and rope in the eye bolt.

Next, he would tie the small rope onto a big hook on the end of his block and tackle. He would raise all this rig up to the eye bolt and twist and shake until he got the big hook into the eye bolt. Now taking his strips with him, he would get in his seat and pull himself up to the eye bolt and start the whole process over again to the next set of guy wire eye bolts and eventually to the top of the stack. I have seen him work all day and sometimes two getting the main hook in the top. On more than one occasion I saw him come gently down from the first eye bolt, take the rig down, load everything in the truck, and make a trip to the office before going home. I usually wouldn't find out until later the eye bolts were about rusted through. Of course, this job didn't pay anything. My brother Byron told me one time Dad contracted a job at a local gin to replace a rusted-out eye bolt where the guy wire had fallen off. They got the stack rigged and Dad went to the top and, in the process of transferring his seat from the outside to the inside, he dropped his seat down the inside of the stack. Byron was a twelve or fourteen-year-old, and on instructions yelled down, he went into the boiler and dug the seat out of the ashes, got back on the roof and rigged the seat back to the top, all while Dad was sitting on the rim. There were no helicopters and not too many rescue squads in those days.

The stacks were always brush painted. He would try to get about two-thirds around on the first trip down, then slide the hook around the rim getting the rest on the second trip. Most all the owners would specify Sherwin Williams smokestack black; this paint would blister your skin when you got it on you on a hot day. Sometimes he would paint a stack with the boiler fired, as they were running twenty-four hours a day.

To get his rig down, on his second trip up he would tie the small rope to the bottom of the big hook that was in top of the stack. The small rope would be through the pulley on the little hook being a two-way all the way down, and then some. Once down he would take the small rope and lift the big hook out of the rim, twist it around and let it down. Now all that was left in top was the small hook, he would send a curl up the rope and let it fall to the roof. I didn't realize at the time, as I was a young boy, just how dangerous this was. I know Dad would only let one certain blacksmith (Mr. Rob Lance of Loretto) make his hooks, and he would use new manila rope each year no matter how good the old rope looked. I remember one time Dad took a job either in Apple-ton or Minor Hill, Tennessee, I don't remember which, to set a stack on a cotton gin. I think brother Byron was helping and I got to go a few days. We got over there the first morning and there was a brand new stack lying on the ground, about a fifty footer, three or three and a half feet in diameter. I had no idea how he planned on doing the job with no machinery. First, he bought a heavy hand winch with cable. He got the power company to set a couple of tall gin poles deep in the ground, and set a third short pole for the winch. In about six days he had the stack sitting on the boiler with guy wires attached. Now, realize that the bottom of the stack sat on top of the roof which was twenty feet or so off the ground.

The most unforgettable trip or job I was on with him was when we were in Decatur, Alabama. We were painting a tall stack on a laundry, when all of a sudden, all the whistles, horns and sirens in town started blowing. We didn't know what was going on for a little bit, until we heard some people yelling that Germany had just surrendered. That was especially good to hear, because my oldest brother Lavon had been a German P.O.W. for about the last three years; and as we only heard from him through the Red Cross about every three months, we didn't know whether he was dead or alive. As it turned out he was repatriated and lived to age seventy-two and was an avid gas engine collector.

I suppose this seems like a crude way of doing a job to a lot of nowadays people, but I thought it was pretty unique for a farmer of yesteryear.