The other day I happened to think about a couple of craftsmen who had an influence upon me many years ago. Both of them were retired men who spent their days in their shops, doing some paying work and a certain amount of just plain tinkering. These guys just didn’t want to sit at home during their declining years — perhaps their wives preferred it that way. In a small town a shop is also a social gathering place, almost exclusively for men. A comparison could be made with the role of the barbershop as a male social venue in small-town America during the past couple of centuries.
I’ll write first about Meb, a rather surly and crotchety old guy who once had a shop in Bethel, MO. I first met him during the late 1970s when I was a young and inexperienced carpenter and woodworker. At the time I was working with Kent, a neighbor who had moved to rural Missouri, as I had, during one of the periodic revivals of primitivist “back to the land” thinking.
One day Kent said to me as we drove into Bethel, “Larry, you gotta meet Meb. His shop is really cool and he can make about anything out of wood or metal.”
We parked in front of a shabby-looking old building which had wooden garage doors. There was no sign to indicate what went on within.
Kent warned me as we approached the door: “Now, Meb doesn’t act very friendly and he can be insulting, but he don’t mean anything by it. Don’t take it personally, okay?”
The shop was dimly lit and the corners and shelves were piled with all sorts of intriguing things, such as half-built pieces of furniture, old tools, and parts of machinery. A thickly-built man in overalls glanced at us as we gingerly stepped around odd artifacts and assemblages.
So this was Meb. He snarled “So what are you two young idjits doin’ here?”
Meb never smiled; he aways seemed to have a frown on his face. Kent said “Oh, we just wanted to see what you’ve been up to. This is Larry; we work together off and on.”
Meb dismissively said “Hmph.”
In an undertone Kent said to me, “He really doesn’t want us to leave — I know he likes to have company.” I was dubious.
It was fascinating looking around that shop. The centerpiece was an ancient metal lathe which must have dated from the teens or twenties, or even earlier. It had originally been a treadle lathe, powered by the operator’s feet, but it had been outfitted with a greasy old electric motor, probably when electric power first came to Bethel back in the forties. The lathe’s legs were cast iron from an age when machine castings were given ornamental swoops and curlicues. Some nameless patternmaker had evidently indulged his fancy when designing those legs.
Meb was using that lathe when we walked in. It was the first time I had ever seen a metal lathe in action. Meb was turning down a steel rod which looked like a shaft for some machine. The curls of iron cascaded greasily from the small cutting tool, which was rigidly held in a holder which traveled back and forth along a threaded rod. Heaps of shining shavings were piled in drifts beneath the machine.
Kent and I visited Meb’s shops several times during the next couple of years, though I never really got to know the man. He wasn’t a talkative or confiding sort of man, but occasionally I would think I saw the faintest glimmer of a smile, just a slight lifting of the corners of his mouth.
Meb died a few years after I met him. Then I met a retired Navy machinist named Jay, an altogether more friendly character. He had a shop in Shelbyville, the next town south of Bethel. Somehow Jay had ended up with Meb’s old metal lathe; perhaps he bought it at Meb’s estate auction.
Jay was a rather short, wiry, and energetic man, and when a project interested him he’d go after it like a beagle at a rabbit-hole. The converse of this was that if he couldn’t get interested in, say, a mundane repair job, he’d put it off. He really didn’t need the money, so local farmers and hot-rodders would be extra-friendly and hang around the shop, hoping their project would rise to the top of the list. If Jay needed a piece of steel or a tool from Quincy there was no shortage of volunteers:
“Yeah, Jay, I’m goin’ to town the day after tomorrow — I’ll pick it up for you!”
Unlike Meb, Jay was exclusively a metal-worker. Aside from the lathe, he had an assortment of old milling machines, surface grinders, and other metal-shaping tools, most of which had lived out their early years in factories. Jay was a wizard with a stick-welder and acetylene torch. I appreciated that he didn’t mind loitering and curious visitors looking over his shoulder.
Much of his work involved farm machinery, and local farmers often stopped by his shop:
“Howdy, Jay, didja get my baler bearing pressed in?”
“Aw, gol-durnit, that one slipped my mind! Where’d I put that thing? Here, come help me look for it under this bench…”
I’d always learn something during casual visits to either Meb or Jay’s shop. Jay has also passed away, and we’ll never see their like again.