Andy Sparks was a bright young man, who even as a boy in his mid-teens had a clear plan for his life. However, he would soon learned that life's plan for him was a little different than his own.
Andy loved school-- it provided a real challenge for him, a challenge that he enjoyed very much and he was one to catch on fast. Andy's plan was to be an engineer someday. How neat it would be to design great structures, like bridges and tall buildings!
Construction fascinated Andy. He loved to watch the many builders in his hometown frame up house after house. It seemed like every lot in Plainwell would have a home on it before the 1880's decade was over. And just weeks before, Andy would have never dreamed that he would be part of it all -- and so soon.
Andy's father had worked at the Plainwell Paper Mill for as long as he could remember, and Andy had no desire to follow in his father's footsteps.
Andy could remember his father complaining of the terrible heat during the summer as he fed the steam boilers. It was back-breaking work and the long hours went on day in and day out, down in the darkness of the old mill basement.
Father had always said that old mill would be the death of him. Sure enough, a freak accident, a simple slip and a fall, and now Andy was left to support his mother and two younger sisters. Leaving school was hard for Andy, but there was really no choice.
The Mill boss knew what the family faced and he even offered Andy a job on his crew. Andy thanked him, but in his heart he knew that the mill would be his last resort.
Andy had been hanging around a construction site on North Main not far from his home. Andy got to know the crew and they seemed to like him. One of the crew bosses had heard of his father's accident and tried to say some comforting words to the boy, but the words seemed so inadequate and he wished he could do more.
Andy really admired the framers. With every blow of their hammers, the sound of the square nails, like musical notes, seemed to sing out their depth. The first blow gave a low solid pitch, the second blow reached a higher shriller ring and the last blow was a high pitch, capped by the slap of the hammer face on the hardwood.
To watch the framers walking from one side of the house to the other on the narrow rafters just as if they were on the solid ground amazed Andy!
The job boss could see in Andy's eyes the fascination he had with the work and it gave him a great idea.
"Andy, how would you like to work with us? We have enough work to do to keep us busy for quite some time and you could start today. You could learn a trade and at the same time earn money for your family."
Andy didn't have to think twice! This would not only fill the immediate need, but also be a first step in his plan to become an engineer one day.
"Where do I get my hammer and what do you want me to do first?" Andy said excitedly.
"Hold on a minute, Andy. That will all come in due time. We will start you out as just as I did, as a feeder and a runner. A feeder makes sure the framers have whatever they need to do the job like nails and lumber. You can fetch dropped tools. The runner part is also important.You will be taking the buckboard to the lumber mill to pick up ordered supplies and your first job will be to high tail it down to the general store to fetch some grub for lunch."
With that said, and with pad and pencil in hand, the foreman shouted up to the framers, requesting their lunch order. Both men ordered crackers, soda and canned salmon. The boss scribbled down his order as well, then gave Andy three quarters and sent him on his way. When this house was finished in the early 1890's, it was sold to a craftsman who made cemetery monuments and he called his business the Plainwell Marble Company. Years later, it became a private residence and slowly it went into disrepair. My father, Curtis Holden, bought the home for a very small amount during the early 1960's. At the time he was working as a part time realtor. I remember helping Mom and Dad paint and fix the old house up into a two-unit apartment house.
My mother still rents this house. Recently, the upstairs apartment was left a real mess by a renter, so my mom and my stepfather decided to really fix it up right. The theory was if it looked nice, they would attract a higher-class renter, one who would stay longer and pay!
When they remodeled the upstairs bathroom, they decided to put in a ceiling vent fan. After the hole was cut and the fan fastened into place, my stepfather (Howard) climbed up into the attic to wire things up. One of the first things that he noticed in the pitch-black attic, was that daylight was streaming in from around the chimney! He knew that this, too, would have to be fixed-- and soon!
Hod turned his work light on and directed its beam in the direction of the new vent fan. In his search for the exact location, he spotted something colorful on one of the eaves. It was an old salmon can. After his work was finished, he crawled over and grabbed the old, empty, lead-soldered can which someone had crudely opened with a pocket knife, perhaps over 100 years ago.
My mother was so excited about the old can! Knowing how much I love old bottles she said, "Allan would love to have this!"
Well, frankly, I had no experience with old canned goods, so the excitement that mom saw in my face when she gave it to me was all acting! I thanked her with a smile, not wanting to hurt her feelings, then placed it on display in my store. . . and that was that.
Well, someone saw that can and then made a bee-line straight to one of his friends and told him about it.
Within a day or two, this store goods collector was at my shop, but his timing was very bad! It was Saturday, the busiest day of my week! People were waiting their turn to see me. Finally, this man politely interrupted a conversation, which I was having with a customer, and handed me a folded note and said "Read it when you have some time." Then he left.
I didn't think again of the note until I was emptying my pockets at home, just before bed. I unfolded the note and there was the man's name and phone number, along with an offer of $150.00 cash for my can! Of course my interest in the old can increased 150 fold!
I called the gentleman and explained that I could not, in good faith, sell him the can because it was a gift.
Needless to say, Mom and Howard could not believe it! They are from the Great Generation and big bucks for old trash does not register with them. They can see the value in beautiful antiques, like furniture. . . but old cans and bottles?
The following weekend, Howard was climbing the ladder to go back into the attic to put some packing around the old brick chimney when my mother said, "See if there are any more salmon cans." When Howard tells the story, at this point he rolls his eyes and thinks to himself, "Yeah, right."
Howard headed straight for the task at hand and firmly packed the opening around the chimney. Usually, then he would go up on the roof of the old house and spread a coat of roofer's tar around the chimney's edge, just to give it a double seal.
Chuckling to himself, Howard remembered Mom's request and slowly he shone his light around the attic. He was noticing the old-style construction, which always fascinated him. He was amazed to see that some of the old roof boards were two and three times as wide as you can buy anywhere today.
By the time it registered in his brain, his light beam was several feet beyond something which looked completely out of place. Backtracking with the flashlight, he soon found the out-of-place item, looking bigger than life, as if it were staring back at him! Yes, it was another salmon can!
second can was also donated
to my display! It is a different brand
and more colorful than the first. Both
cans were from the Pacific Northwest.
I can see the construction crew's "runner boy, Andy" being told to start his job with the midday task of fetching lunch. With seventy five cents in hand, he was off to the general store with that list, which included those two cans of salmon!
The Plainwell Paper Company had already been in business for several years by that time, and in those days, a giant steam whistle was blown to signal the midday lunch break. Even though the paper mill now sits like an empty ghost building, the little paper town still looks onto the massive old brick structure with a sense of Thanksgiving. After all, that old mill furnished thousands, yea generations, of families with the income to feed, clothe and educate their families . . . now that is all over. All over but the noon whistle!
Well, it isn't the lonely sound of a steam whistle, but to this day, the city fire siren is sounded to remind the workers throughout the community to stop what they are doing and take nourishment. It means a break from work for most shops, but not all! You see, Plainwell does have its Burger King, McDonald's, Pizza Hut and the rest, just like most America. But down in the heart of town, where there have been lunch counters for nearly two centuries, you can still order good, old fashioned goulash, homemade meat loaf with real mashed potatoes, or locally- raised baked chicken with fresh cut french fries. . . the good stuff!