Wednesday, April 06, 2011


Some memories from Paul Wheeler, who grew up around here (Valier & Browning) and now lives in Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho.  Or close.
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We used to have a great old machine shop here, Meeker's machine shop. Bob's dad started it way back. Bob when I first met him must have been in his 60's. The place fascinated me from the very beginning. Everything ran off one electric motor that ran a series of drive shafts hanging all over the shop. Leather drive belts and series of pulley's ran all the equipment in the whole shop. Lathes, benders, grinders, drills, hammers, and even bellows for their forge. I've always had a tough time with conventional tools breaking, so over the years Bob made most of the oversized ones I still use today. 
The first time I went in there  I was waiting around for something to be done and noticed an outhouse looking shack at the side of the building with one of those poster signs from a gas station bragging about the cleanest restrooms in town. Having to take a leak, I opened the door to see a clay pipe standing up from the floor about stool height, encrusted with petrified crap and used toilet paper wads. I bucked up and took a quick look into the recesses to see that it was just a direct route to the city sewer. 
Might have been a relatively modern town outside, but inside Meeker's it was as if you went back 75 years or more. Heated with their homemade wood stoves and any waste oil they could come up with, most of my tools and repairs were paid for in wood. Their prices were about 75 years old too. As cheap as I am, they'd always embarrass me with their low prices and I always paid way more than what they asked for their work. One job in particular I recall they'd spent several hours on a trailer hitch for me and he wanted $4.50. What? For materials? Nope, for the whole job! The only time their prices were realistic was if you were buying new metal and that was only because they had to keep up with replacement costs. They also had the best stocked nut and bolt selection in the country. Every odd piece of hardware you could ever imagine was neatly tucked away in their bolt room. If they didn't have it, they could make it.
Bob tried to retire in his mid 70's. Turned the place over to Wayne, his son in law who didn't do anything to modernize the place, but did start introducing more realistic prices. Bob never retired though, kept showing up for work every day because he just couldn't trust his old lathe to any one else. After Bob died, the place did too. I petitioned everyone in town to keep the place intact as a sort of adjunct to the museum, but the place was considered an eyesore so Wayne gave in and had an auction to sell all the contents. The building really was falling down. All made from local block. The mortar joints were missing and major cracks everywhere. Once all the hardware was emptied out the place just fell down.
The only thing left anymore are much sought after Meeker stoves and furnaces which folks love and use and are loathe to part with. I've got several of them scattered around and all in use still. I keep my eye out for them and snag 'em when I can. I kick myself for letting that place go without recording photos of it. It was an amazing place.
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I like old shoe shops too. Worked for the fella that had the last one here for a bit. Not in the shop, but he got in some of my baby moccasins for repair and tracked me down to repair them, along with other moccasins folks brought in because they required hand stitching which he hated to do. Karl just died here a year or so ago, though he's been out of the cobbler business for probably 20 years. Interesting feller. Karl was a gruff old feller at first. In the early days, pretty secretive because he was a former Hitler youth and involved with the Nazi Party. I suppose he thought folks would judge him harshly for that. 
We were neighbors briefly when I rented a cabin next to his place after I got back from Hanford in 1980 or so. He loved my chicken eggs, so we got along pretty well after that. Once he invited me into his place and started talking wistfully about Germany and family and I finally convinced him to drag out pictures. He brought out an album full of photos before and during the war, in good times. Turned out he was also a violin player at the time and garnered respect and a better living through his music. He still had his violin in the closet but I never heard him play it.
Great Falls used to have all kinds of shoe shops. I was always bad about walking down the heels of my shoes so my mom made me get taps on them. Dang I hated those things!
I need to add Hanford to my stepping stones because it keeps coming up as a major way point in my life. When I quit there and had a bit of money in my pockets I stopped in Spokane and got measured for my first pair of White's boots that I'd always lusted after but couldn't afford. It was still downtown in those days at what I think was their original location. The place reeked of old-world craftsmen. As soon as the salesman saw the current boots I was wearing with the well-worn outside edge, he said they'd fix it so that never happened again or they would adjust them when they rebuilt them. 
When I was done he gave me a little tour of the back room to watch folks busily constructing boots. Came home to anxiously await my new boots which took a few weeks to arrive. When they came I put them on, wore them to work, got home at the end of the day and maybe for the first time in my life, forgot to take my boots off. No break in period, no sore feet. The only uncomfortability was getting used to their patented high arch, but what it really did was let your foot keep it's natural bend instead of squashing it in there. What they did to keep the heels and soles from wearing down on the outside was just offset the heel to the outside. My boots always wore evenly after that. Such a simple but elegant solution!
About a year after getting those boots I blew out the side of one planting trees. They were all I had so I had to make do. I went back to the rig, took a screwdriver and "borrowed" some screws from a door panel and screwed the uppers back on the  heel and sole. It worked and got me through the job. Then I sent them back to White's for rebuilding. They wrote me back, telling me that they weren't rebuildable because of my field repairs. I was outraged and sent them back a nasty letter with their own ad and pictures of boots that looked like they'd been chewed up and shat out the hind end of a grizzly, before and after rebuilding. Must have hit a nerve because a few weeks later I got a surprise box with a brand new pair of boots in it and a nice note to in the future, leave the repairs to them. Made a lifetime customer out of me right there!

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