1. Tom Watson
Jul 16 2003, 8:14 pm show options
Date: Wed, 16 Jul 2003 21:12:50 -0400
Local: Wed, Jul 16 2003 8:12 pm
Subject: Dead Man's Tools
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Harper Strode died on a fine Spring day in 1987. They found him
sitting at his lathe with a pretty fancy clock finial nearly done and
still spinning in his old Oliver long bed. His lead man, Jimmy
Parker, said that Harper died sitting upright on his stool, which he
had taken to using when doing the lathe work about the time he'd
turned eighty. On the day he passed, Harper was ninety three years
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Tom Watson - WoodDorker
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)