Next month my family will celebrate the 85th birthday of my Dad, Robert Harris Wilson of Albion, Indiana. A couple of years ago, I collected Dad’s stories of growing up in a small town and published them as “One Man’s Work”. In honor of Dad’s birthday, I am sharing chapters and photos from his book every Thursday for the next several weeks. The series began two weeks ago, and you can step into the book here. I hope you enjoy hearing Dad’s recollections and my observations in “One Man’s Work”.
With many of the nation’s adult men engaged in World War II, a willing young fellow (they weren’t called “teenagers” in those days) with a work permit could find plenty of work, and Dad was game for anything. Today, 29 jobs and 70 years later, Dad can recall being employed in at least half the storefronts wrapping around Albion’s courthouse square during his high school years, sometimes alongside his older brother, Bill, but most often on his own. Working his way around from the northeast corner, at the intersection of Orange and Jefferson streets, Dad checks off his mental list of the storefronts as they appeared in the early 1940s.
At the corner of North Orange and West Jefferson streets sat Fred Butler’s Standard Oil Station. Dad would leave his regular after-school job and show up at the station most evenings to relieve Butler so that he could go home to dinner. The building that replaced Butler’s earlier brick structure had two bays where cars could be serviced. In addition to dispensing gas, Dad learned to change oil and fill tires with air.
Dad remembers stopping in after school at the duck-pin bowling alley on North Orange Street, where he worked behind the scenes returning balls to the bowler and racking the pins. Next door, at Young and Glass Hardware, Dad once spent a couple of days delivering and picking up gas tanks filled with “dry gas” for cooking.
A couple of doors south was the five-and-ten-cent store – a poor boy’s wonderland where Dad was charged with filling candy bins, running the cash register, and selling toys. It was a trial to ladle scoops full of candy into the bins without snatching a piece, but Dad remembers that his boss, Fess Rhoten, warned often him that he was not to sample the wares.
The Kroger grocery store in that same block of North Orange was Dad’s first really good job that paid a decent wage. He earned around 75 cents an hour for servicing customers and filling orders, setting up and cleaning up the produce section and occasionally cutting meat. Minimum wage at that time (the early 1940s) was a mere 35 cents an hour, and bread sold for around 9 cents a loaf while milk went for 50 cents a gallon. Dad considers himself fortunate to have worked for Ralph Reese, his boss at Kroger. He was “real good to work for,” says Dad. “You really couldn’t do wrong. If you messed up, he felt sorry for you.”
Around the corner on East Main Street, Dad remembers a short stint helping a local contractor, Hiatt Brothers Construction, build a dentist’s office. Across the street was a filling station owned by Art Stringfellow (on the site of the current Central Noble Schools’ central office), where he also worked. Dad recalls selling a tank of gas, which cost about 20 cents a gallon at the time, to young local soldier Ernie Leatherman and his new wife, Virginia, as they headed off for their honeymoon.
Ted Frymier’s DX Station around the corner on South Orange Street was another business where Dad sold gas and did oil changes and grease jobs. A short time later, Dad worked at Frymier’s diner, just north of the current Albion Post Office on South Orange Street, taking orders and sometimes cooking when they were short on help.
The small county seat boasted two grocery stores, and Dad also found work at the local IGA Market, run by Harold Sorgenfrei. During the summer, on weekends and after school, Dad made deliveries from the morning’s called-in orders, driving Sorgenfrei’s panel truck around town. Other days, he was kept busy stocking shelves.
Back around the corner, on West Main Street sat Bill Stoops’ dry-goods store. Dad spent his time there waiting on customers in the men’s section, where a men’s rain coat could be had for around $8 and men’s gabardine slacks for less than $5. When the store wasn’t busy, Dad did janitorial work or washed windows. Several times, he drew on his creative side, setting up window displays.
Dad held other odd jobs off-and-on during high school. One summer he bailed hay for Carlos Palmer for 1.5 cents/bale. Another time, he did some work for Leland Miller’s plumbing and heating business. He also painted signs for various businesses, a skill he would continue to market through his retirement years.
Local entrepreneur Milo Troyer was one of Dad’s and Brother Bill’s favorite early employers, as well as a popular teacher. Troyer taught civics and chemistry at Albion High School, but he also owned Troyer Snath Factory, where he made snaths. Snaths are handles for scythes, a farm implement used to cut grass and weeds. Dad and several other Albion High School students worked for Troyer after school during the mid-1940s while many of the community’s older men served their country on the battlefront in Europe. Dad’s job was screwing the “nibs” onto the snaths. Nibs are the two stubby handles attached to the snath which could be adjusted according to the user’s needs. Snaths were originally made of iron, but Troyer later made them from aluminum.
“Troyer ordered the bolts for nibs in bulk – they came in a keg — which was good business,” remembers Dad. “It was early ‘piecework’. Troyer knew how many bolts were in the keg and he would pay the workers when they finished a keg. Troyer created an adjustable handle, two on a snath, one for each hand.”
The snath factory was north of the courthouse on Jefferson Street, below the Opera House, but was later moved to South Street. Years later, when Dad was working in the Albion Post Office, he asked Milo Troyer for and received one of his scythes, which he later handed down to his oldest daughter.
Another innovation that caught Dad’s eye as a young employee was developed by a business co-owned by Troyer, H&T Manufacturing. Partners Huntsman and Troyer invented and installed “Add-a-Bath”.
“The design they developed would build a complete bathroom — tub, sink, stool, the whole nine yards. They had a way of hauling them, mostly to people in the country. People in town usually already had a bath. They would go ahead of time to the house in the country, lay out the foundation, dig the foundation, form it up, get it all set. Once that was all done, the sewer lines, water lines, electricity would all come to it. Then they came to install the Add-a-Bath. They set the building on the foundation and hooked everything up. They would come in the morning and by that evening, the people would have a bathroom. Now you tell me if he wasn’t a smarty, huh?”
One of the tougher jobs Dad remembers was working for Ray Bickel on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. The boys Ray hired, including Dad and Bill, were given the “grunt jobs” like leveling rails, pulling weeds and, the worst task, coating nuts on rail joints with creosote.
“There were two tracks and all of the ground that was on the north side and the south side of the two tracks was fine, gritty stuff. I suppose it came from the fire-powered steam engines. In those days, you fed coal into boilers that made the power that made them go. One of the biggest jobs was they had a long-handled tool that looked like a hoe – called it a scuffer. You had to go along and scuff like that and come back, all the way across. Take the weeds out so the weeds wouldn’t grow. Now they use flame and burn it off so it don’t live
“Nowadays the rails are continuous, but back then you could hear it ‘click-click-click.’ The clicks were joints. Tending them was one of the jobs I didn’t particularly care for. It was in the summer and it was so damn hot. You get a big brush, about six inches, that and a bucket of hot creosote. Every place you had a joint in the track, there was a plate that was anchored to the wood. The job I got quite frequently was you take that creosote and you go from joint to joint and coat the nuts and bolts on each side. Saturdays in the winter, you worked someplace else if you could, because that was the coldest damn job you could want. But if they called you, you went because you wanted the job.
“They had these outfits that hauled you to the work site and they had an engine on them. You just start the engine and it would transport you to where you were to start working. One of the first days that I was at work, I was assigned to that long-handled scuffer. You were responsible for it and you carried it with you because you’d be using it all day. I was the last one to get on board and I was carrying my scuffer. Since I wasn’t on board yet and he was starting to move, I leaped on board because I didn’t want to walk. Bickel stopped it right there and yelled at me.
“ ‘A-B-C’ – ‘Always Be Careful!’ “
Dad treasures a photograph of the old train depot where he warmed himself next to a coal-fired pot-belly stove. He recalls there was a bridge next to the depot, called Hickory Street Extended, that ran over the tracks. The depot and bridge are long gone.