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


| January/February 1999



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.