Jimmy told us that Harper must have gone on to the other side while trying to decide if he needed to strop his gouge, as his finger was on the tools edge and he had a sort of thoughtful look to his face. Harper was a fussy sort about edges, as is about right for a man who'd made some of the finest furniture in Chester County for seven decades and who always was a man to keep a cutting edge just right.
He was a neat and orderly man too and it didn't surprise Jimmy a bit that he had died without dropping his gouge and without falling off his stool. Jimmy figured that the first thing Harper would have said to Saint Peter would be, "I wish you'd given me enough warning so I could have shut down the lathe."
Harper Strode was for certain sure the best known and best loved cabinetmaker in Chester County and more people turned out for his funeral than had shown up for Deeter Collins', who was a pretty famous baseball player in our parts and who was also a Marine Colonel. We're pretty big on baseball players and Marine's in our town, but Harper's funeral drew half again as many folks as Deeter's had.
Harper's work was all over our town and was pretty well distributed throughout most of the other towns in the county, as well as in the farmhouses that were between the towns. He'd never had more than three guys working for him but he'd turned out a powerful amount of cabinets, furniture, clocks and such from his bank barn shop.
The clocks were sort of his specialty. In early 1929 he'd agreed to make a tall case clock to sit in the entry way of the First National Bank. Hand shake deals were done even by bankers in those days and Harper had agreed to make a Philadelphia Style Tall Case Clock (which could have been damned near anything, since neither the banker nor Harper could have told you in words what the clock was supposed to look like) for the consideration of two hundred dollars. Ben Timmons, the bank president, and Harper shook hands on the deal and the clock was to be ready before the Christmas Holidays, which was always a big deal at the bank, as the children from the town were toured through to see the vaults and the teller's stations and all that, and they each got a big candy cane and a dime bank card, that was to help them in their learning about saving money.
It was Harper's first tall case clock and he was a might worried about how it was going to come out but he contracted with Buddy Charles up in Boyertown to build him the works and they were to be delivered by the end of Summer, so Harper could build the case during the Fall.
Well, I guess you know what happened in October of 1929. Old Harper wasn't much on phones and wasn't one to own a radio, but he heard, sure enough, that things had taken a bad turn. Harper saw Ben Timmons at church and told him that he could back out of the deal if things weren't right at the bank. Ben Timmons was the third Timmons to be president of the bank and he was a proud man. He told Harper, "Things aren't too good at the bank right now, Harper but I'll make good on our deal personally." That's the way things were done in our parts back then.
Harper Strode was a proud man, too and he told Ben that he wouldn't take his personal money and that he would finish the clock and that, "The bank can pay me whenever times get better." So far as I know (and Ben Timmons said the same to his dying day), no other man on earth had ever said that to a banker before.
Now, Harper knew from the pictures that he'd been studying on that his clock would need to have three finials up at the top in order to be a proper Philadelphia Style Tall Case Clock. Most believe that he got this idea from the John Wanamaker Department Store Catalogue, which was, after all, the biggest store in Philadelphia and they should know their business when it came to such things.
Problem was, Harper had never turned anything before and he didn't even have a lathe.
Turns out that Fess Willard up in Honeybrook had a long bed Oliver lathe that he'd got because he thought he could make a few bucks turning porch posts during the Winter when there wasn't much happening on his farm. Fess had a daughter that was getting married, quick like, before Thanksgiving and he bartered with Harper to trade a cedar hope chest for the lathe. Fess was a rough sort of fella and hadn't made much progress with the porch post business and said that he'd spent most of his time dodging lathe tools as they were ripped out of his hands and flung around the cow barn. So, the lathe was pretty much new.
Harper studied on this for a while, as he didn't think that he really needed such a big lathe but, when Fess offered to throw in the lathe tools and a half ton of hay, the deal was struck.
Well now, old Harper took to that lathe like a duck takes to water. He just knew in his bones which way to come at the spinning wood with the tool, which is no great mystery since the man already knew damn near everything else about working with wood. He was a flat out natural.
The clock was a glorious thing. The John Wanamaker Department Store Catalogue didn't show enough detail to tell how the finials should look so Harper came up with his own idea which everyone in town agreed was right smart and is copied to this day by Chester County cabinetmakers.
He got paid by the bank, as time went by, and Ben Timmons made sure that all his banker friends ordered up tall case clocks from Harper, so he got pretty famous for them. He made clocks for most of the banks in our county and quite a few for the counties that bordered us. He made quite a few for churches and quite a few more for regular people, too.
As Harper's business grew he hired on Jimmy, who had been working as a machinist at the Sharpless Cream Separator Works, and then Lester Worthington, who was a bit addled in his mind but kept the place clean and, as he was a bull strong fella, was a great help in the heavy lifting.
Jimmy Parker was thought to be about the best lathe man at the Sharpless Works but Harper never let him touch that long bed Oliver. Harper so loved turning that he wouldn't let anyone else do it. Even when he'd gotten too old to do the other work in the shop, Harper would come in early in the morning and do the lathe work himself. He was of a habit as to wake well before sunrise and do his turning before the other men started their day. He prized his time at that lathe as he prized nothing else.
That's why Jimmy wasn't all that surprised to find him sitting there, dead and thoughtful looking, on that fine Spring morning.
Well, Jimmy wasn't a man to run his own shop, although he was plenty happy working for Harper. Harper had no children that were interested in the business, so the whole thing was put up for auction.
I went to the auction figuring on just watching while all the stuff went for more than I could afford. The saws went high and the planer went for more than what I could afford. Jimmy bought a chisel set and the old grinder. Stevie Watts bought up all the clamps.
The last item was the long bed Oliver. I knew that Jimmy had always wanted to have a go at that lathe and I figured he'd bid but he didn't. No one else did, either. You see, the word had gotten around that this was the tool that old Harper had died at and it seemed to have cooled out the bidding. Jimmy wouldn't touch it, even when it got down to two hundred dollars, which was less than half of what it was worth. He told me later that it just wouldn't have felt right to turn on Harper's lathe.
My Aunt Fay was fond of saying that, "God hates a coward."
When the price dropped to one hundred and fifty dollars, I bought Harper's lathe.
I'd always had an idea that I might like to build tall case clocks, just like Harper's. I didn't know anything about lathe work but I'm a willing learner and thought the price was just too good to pass up.
I have to admit that the lathe sat in the back of my shop for months before I got around to having a go at it. It was covered in sawdust when I first tried to turn it on. She wouldn't start.
I called Jimmy and he told me, again, that the lathe was running when he'd found Harper dead at it and that nothing had been done to it since then. I spent a good part of a Sunday afternoon cleaning up the Oliver, taking the scale off the bed and even gave her a good coat of paste wax once things were shined up. I turned her back on - she purred like a kitten.
Look here, I've never been a superstitious type but I was wondering to myself if maybe Harper didn't see fit to let that old lathe start unless she were properly cleaned up. Just a passing thought, you know.
I'd some two by two square baluster stock sitting around and chucked one of them into the lathe. I took Harper's old gouge (I'm not just sure but I believe it might have been the one...) and laid it on the rest with a mind to making a test cut.
The damn tool flung itself out of my hands and landed, point down, on my concrete shop floor. Strangest thing - I'd not put but the least bit of pressure on it.
There wasn't any sense in having another go at it without a thorough sharpening and stropping, the edge had been made plumb dull by its visit to the concrete floor. After fifteen minutes at the grinder, stone and strop - I ran my finger on an edge that would make even Harper proud.
At way past dinner time, my wife came out to the shop. By that time I'd made half a dozen finials, just like Harper used to make for them tall case clocks. Each one was an exact mate to all the others. My wife sat the dinner plate next to the lathe and said, "I didn't know that you could do turnings. They're so beautiful."
I looked up and saw she had a funny sort of expression on her face. My wife is a good , strong Christian woman and has no tolerance for superstition or any such ungodly foolery.
I smiled at her and said, "Yes, they are beautiful, aren't they?"
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)