Independent Spirits

Small tradespeople remain vital in a disposable world

Story & Photographs Birney Imes

Most of them work alone. They are their own bosses. Some have learned their trade working as unpaid apprentices. They have job security. Their workdays are varied, satisfying, yet challenging.

What’s not to like about any of that?

Why, then, is it so difficult to find a seamstress, a shoe repair shop or a furniture refinisher?

The reasons are many. Chief among them is that we live in a disposable economy. We buy cheap goods made overseas, tire of them and then throw them away. When was the last time you had a pair of shoes resoled?

Schools that teach these trades exist but are rare. There are 30 farrier schools in the country, says T.J. Carr, one of those profiled here. Carr, who learned horseshoeing as an apprentice, says the experience was invaluable, if not essential.

“School will teach you enough to be dangerous,” Carr says. “If I had to choose between school and an apprenticeship, I’d choose apprenticeship.”

Not everyone wants to do the time. “I have college graduates coming in here wanting $15 an hour, said gunsmith Ed Sanders. “They’re not worth that.”

“Gunsmithing is a trade,” says Sanders. “There has to be an apprenticeship.”

Used to be the apprentice paid his employer for the experience, Sanders says.

Though their trades may be widely disparate, the subjects of this report share certain commonalities: fiercely loyal customers, a spirit of independence, financial security, a devotion to craft and a sense of pride about their work.

Oh, and another thing they have in common, a sad reality: With the exception of Sanders, whose 32-year-old grandson Brooks White works with him, none of these tradesmen knows what will happen to their business when they pass on.

T.J. CARR, FARRIER

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

On a cold morning in early December, T.J. Carr drives his battered pickup truck down a long gravel driveway to the stable of Glenda and Albert Clark. Inside the stable waiting on him are Eb, Stroker, C.W. and Magic, four horses whose hooves he will clean and trim.

Carr calls each of the horses by name; he knows their temperaments.

“A horse can read you,” Carr says. “They know everything they need to know about you in 15 seconds or less.”

A farrier since 2001, Carr sees to the needs of about 300 four-legged clients. He trims their hooves about every six weeks.

It’s steady work. “I’ve got customers I’ve been doing their horses for 15-16 years,” he says. “I’ve watched their children grow up.”

Carr, 38, grew up around horses in Booneville. Early on he was exposed to a trait he says farriers are famous for: a propensity for unreliability.

“We got to where we couldn’t get anybody out there; they wouldn’t call.”

In the summer of ’98, Carr signed on for a summer apprenticeship with a farrier in Hickory Flat. “He was old school, kind of peculiar,” says Carr. But the pay was good: “a bologna sandwich and all the water I could drink.”

Carr had no intention making a career of tending horses. He enrolled at Mississippi State University, an animal science major with plans to attend vet school. He would pay his tuition shoeing horses.

In the fall of 2000 the other two farriers serving the Starkville area went out of business. By then, Carr had cooled on the idea of vet school. Starting pay for a veterinarian was about $34,000; he figures he would have finished school $150,000 in debt.

He’s been at it full-time since. He sees 50-60 horses a week and is at the point where he only takes referrals.

Finding a competent farrier can be difficult, says Carr.

“All you have to do to be a farrier is get the tools and say you are one,” he says.

“A good farrier is not one who can fix every problem; a good farrier can prevent them from happening.”

About the course his life has taken, Carr takes none of the credit. “It worked out too well to be of my making. God orchestrated this. I think I was given a gift to be able to communicate with these animals.”

RAYMOND GRIGGS, FURNITURE RESTORER

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

For almost 40 years, Raymond Griggs has spent his workdays in a dusty Quonset hut stacked high with battered chairs, tables and sideboards. There he restores family heirlooms — some grand, others more modest — to their former glory.

Griggs, 68, is a tall, uncommonly elegant man, who moves with grace through barely passable passageways created by stacks of what appear to be hopelessly damaged furniture. He is not talkative, and when he speaks, his voice so soft, one strains to hear.

“There are two things you need to be good at this,” he says. “One, you need to love doing it and two, you’ve got to have patience.

“If you enjoy it, you can do it. You learn by doing it.”

So simple he makes it sound.

We are standing in a workspace at the back of the building. A bare bulb in an antique lamp is the primary source of light. It’s a breezy, dark afternoon in late fall, and each gust of wind is followed by the rat-a-tat of acorns on the roof of the steel building. There is no heat — too much dry dust, says Griggs. “If you stay busy, you don’t get cold in here.”

Griggs has lived in this neighborhood, called the Island (also known to area residents and local historians as Westport), virtually his entire life. After high school, he attended a business college in Detroit and then took an accounting job with the Hertz Corporation. He disliked the work so much, he enlisted in the Army, which at the time meant a tour of duty in Vietnam. Griggs served there six months as an infantryman.

In 1970, at 22, he went to work for Devotie Orr, the late, legendary furniture restorer on Columbus’ Northside. There he learned the trade from the bottom up: sanding, stripping and staining pieces Orr would refinish. In 1977 Griggs purchased the Quonset, a building he remembers as a Case tractor dealership his school bus would pass on the way to Motley School.

Griggs has no succession plan. His daughters — twins, who live in Dallas and were co-valedictorians of the class of ’95 at Columbus High — have no intention of returning.

“The only other guy around here who does this is in Starkville,” says Griggs. “Last I heard he was about to get out.”

We are standing in front of his building watching clouds move across a darkening sky.

“It’s fading away,” he says, his voice trailing off.

DANNY FRAZIER, COBBLER

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

When Fred Frazier Sr. opened his shoe repair shop on Main Street in Louisville in 1947, the competition was thick. There were two other such businesses in town; nearby Philadelphia had three shops; Kosciusko and Macon had one each. A 1964 city directory of Columbus lists six.

Now, cobblers are scarce as butter churns.

There are benefits being the last man standing.

A shoeshine man in Tupelo mails Frazier’s Shoe Store & Repair Shop five or six pair of shoes a week to be resoled. Customers, literally down-at-the-heels, travel from miles around to bring their hard-worn footwear to Danny Frazier, Fred Sr.’s grandson, who now runs the business. At the time of this interview, the shop had a 60-pair backlog, and customers could expect a wait of about two weeks.

“It’s actually a craft,” says Danny. “It’s not like construction where you show up the first day and haul shingles on the roof.”

He should know. Danny, 57, came to work here with his father, Fred Jr. in 1976, when he was fresh out of high school.

“I had friends going to college. They weren’t going to class; they were wasting their parents’ money, so I came here.”

In the years that followed, Danny would marry, raise two sons and master his craft. In 1992, he moved to Starkville and opened a shoe repair shop, also called Frazier’s. There he found a reliable second in Billy Joe Caldwell. Frazier started doing construction, and for a time, worked at a steel mill. Nights often found him in Louisville helping out his aging father.

In addition to every conceivable type of shoe and boot repair, Danny refurbishes saddles, repairs purses and makes pistol holsters and knife scabbards. Recently a large-waisted customer brought in a pair of size 48 jeans that needed more belt loops. He does that, too.

In 2004, he closed his Starkville shop and sold his equipment to Caldwell. In 2014, he shuttered his construction business and began working full time in the Louisville store. Fred Jr., also a retired pastor, had undergone heart surgery years earlier and was in increasingly delicate health.

“I didn’t want this to go away,” said Danny.

Fred Jr., 83 and retired, comes in occasionally to help his son.

“He’d love to be here every day,” said Danny.

LYNDA SWIFT, SEAMSTRESS

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Lynda Swift spends her workdays sitting in a wheelchair in front of her Japanese-made sewing machine. The picture window in front of her offers a view of gas pumps and the pockmarked parking lot she shares with the Sprint Mart next door.

Swift’s more immediate surroundings are no less prosaic. Press-on letters on the storefront’s window spell “Bulldog Cleaners” and “Alterations Shop.” The interior of the storefront is devoid of ornamentation. There is a well-worn counter for laundry drop-off and pick-up. Swift works alone amid a farrago of her own making: stacks of garments, various sewing machines, spools of thread, a iron and ironing board.

It’s an incongruous setting for someone in the business of helping people look more beautiful.

A Mississippi State University co-ed wants Swift to adapt a violet satin prom dress purchased for $15 at a thrift store. A woman wants the buttons more secure on her red wool overcoat. A middle-aged professional wants his jeans patched for the umpteenth time. (“I finally had to tell him it’s time to get some new jeans,” Swift says.) A newspaper man from Columbus wants her to replace a worn-out sleeve lining in a sports coat that belonged to his father. She does all the alterations (and takes in cleaning) for MSU’s Famous Maroon Band.

Swift, 61, who will have been at this location 11 years in April, is content to be here. “I’ve been in love with sewing since high school,” she says. “I enjoy working alone.” She takes in more challenging custom sewing at her home near Old Waverly Golf Club. She does that on weekends.

For Swift, sewing has been the one constant in what has been an eclectic career path. After design school in Kansas City, she worked for a theater troupe, a tailor and a luxe women’s store. When her father died, she moved south to West Point to take care of her mother. There she married a man who owned a juke joint in White’s Station. She took in sewing and worked in a small building on the gravel parking lot across from the club. She worked in a factory sewing jeans for Big Yank and later for Ruth’s, a women’s store in Columbus.

“People just don’t sew anymore,” says Swift. “I’ve had college students who don’t know how to sew on a button.”

How does one judge the quality of someone’s work, I ask.

“You don’t want people to ever look and be able to tell something’s been altered,” Swift says.

As for the wheelchair: “It makes a perfect sewing chair,” says Swift. “It was given to me by a customer after his father passed.”

ED SANDERS, GUNSMITH

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Somebody forgot to tell Ed Sanders the importance of location when he opened his gunsmithing shop 40 years ago. The shop, a modest cement-block building on Darracott Road in the Vinton community in a far-flung corner of Clay County, is not on the way to anywhere. The “backside of no-where” as the saying goes.

Even so, Sanders says he takes in several hundred guns a year from seven states.

“You wouldn’t think that out here in the boondocks,” he says.

All evidence suggests that Sanders, 78, was born to be a gunsmith. As a boy growing up on a farm about three miles from his shop, he would take pieces of metal, heat them in a fire and then shape them into spears, frog gigs and arrowheads. He worked on his friends’ BB guns. He made his first knife when he was 12.

Knowing what you want to be when you grow up and getting to a place where you can support yourself doing it not always a linear progression.

Sanders’ resume includes an apprenticeship at a machine shop during high school; a 10-year stint as a factory worker in Iowa after graduation from West Point High in 1957 (“you couldn’t buy a job in Mississippi back then,” he says); a job as a welder at Babcock and Wilcox and a teaching gig at West Point High’s vocational center.

If there’s anything good that came out of the decade spent in Iowa — he “hated every minute” of the factory job — it’s a book he bought while there. At $24, Bob Brownwell’s Encyclopedia of Modern Firearms was “the most expensive book I’d ever heard of.” It was the only book on gunsmithing available at the time. Sanders still refers to it. The Encyclopedia is available from Brownell’s today for $70.

“We restore old guns, repair wood, replace wood,” Sanders says. “Most of these old guns, you can’t buy parts for.” If it’s a metal part, he fabricates it.

He offers assessments of guns clients are considering buying. Recently, he gave a thumbs-up to a gun a second-generation customer was considering purchasing. The customer’s father, a doctor, treated Sanders for a accidental gunshot wound when Sanders was 6.

Sanders and his apprentice, grandson Brooks White, 32, restore, rebuild and repair “any kind of gun.” Both grandfather and grandson consider it an ideal arrangement.

Brooks, who got his first BB gun when he was 3 and killed his first deer when he was 5, has been working with his grandfather off and on since he was a kid and steadily for the past decade. From the looks of it, there’s work enough for the both of them. As for Sanders’ retirement plan? It’s a moot point.

“He’ll be here ’til he’s gone,” says Brooks.

DAN SOPER, PIANO TUNER

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

On a December afternoon just before Christmas, Dan Soper puts his napkin down, pushes his chair back and says, “Let’s go make some racket.” He then repairs to the parlor where he has a parlor grand piano waiting.

There for about an hour, using an iPad, a tuning wrench and foam wedges, he adjusts the Steinway, returning it to its proper tuning.

Before leaving, Soper thanks the cook for the lunch and chats with the lady of the house, who pays him. He’s been making house calls here once a year for more than a decade.

His next appointment is with the pastor of a small, historic African American church down the road where he is trying to revive the speakers of a Hammond organ. After that, he has a piano to tune in Artesia and then a consultation in Starkville.

This more or less describes the Tupelo-based piano tuner’s workday for the past 47 years.

How does one become a piano tuner, I ask.

“A lot of it is genetic,” says Soper. “We hear things other people can’t hear.”

He’s played the trumpet since he was 8 and took three years of piano in high school, which was more than enough, he says. “It was sissy back then.”

Piano tuning has nothing to do with being a musician, he says. Most tuners are not pianists.

Soper, 68, first became aware of his gift when he was 16, working in the showroom of his father’s piano business in Tupelo.

“I could hear what they were doing; I could hear how they were tuning it.”

He planned to pay his way through school tuning pianos. During his senior year at Mississippi State University, studying math education, he made a course correction. He dropped out of school.

“I couldn’t make a living and pay for that education,” he says.

Just as well, he says.

“I’ve done what I’ve enjoyed all my life. I would not have enjoyed being cooped up in a classroom.”

He services instruments — including all the pianos and electric organs on the Ole Miss campus — within a 100-mile radius of home.

Soper says the piano and organ business is waning. Piano lessons have been supplanted by video games, computers and iPads, he says.

“It’s hard work to learn to play a piano,” he says.

In the meantime, Dan Soper will continue to wander the roads of north Mississippi doing his part to keep the music beautiful, and, once in a while, enjoy a nice lunch along the way.

BENNY YARBROUGH, CHIMNEY SWEEP

Photographed by Birney Imes.

Photographed by Birney Imes.

On a Friday afternoon two days before Christmas, Benny Yarbrough leans a metal extension ladder against the chimney of a ranch-style house in Starkville. After making sure the ladder is securely situated, the 68-year-old chimney sweep — rumpled and dusted with ash from previous jobs — negotiates the climb, holding in his left hand three fiberglass rods and a large wire brush.

The chimney has not been cleaned in eight years, and Tuesday there had been a fire. Before nightfall, Yarbrough will haul out four 5-gallon buckets of ash, soot and creosote from the fireplace.

Earlier that day, he cleaned the flue of a pot-bellied stove in a 1906 farmhouse in Longview and performed a chimney inspection of a 4-year-old house with a broken cement crown on Old Highway 25 near Starkville.

Call Yarbrough hale and hearty and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration. Work seems to nourish rather than exhaust him.

“You come off a dairy farm, you know about work,” he says. Yarbrough grew up in Noxapater in rural Winston County.

He’s been an agronomist for a seed company, taught agricultural education in Chickasaw County, owned a lawn-care business, supervised landscape maintenance at Mississippi State University and, now, when he’s not substitute teaching or tending the 300 tomato plants in the greenhouse behind his house, he’s on a roof somewhere fussing with a chimney.

Yarbrough started cleaning chimneys back in the lawn-care days. “Money got lean after the first frost,” he says.

He found for sale an unused chimney cleaning system. About the same time, Yarbrough was diagnosed with cancer. He told the fellow with the brushes, “If I get a good report, I’ll buy the equipment; if not, you’ll read about me in the paper.”

That was 33 years and about 5,000 chimneys ago. He’s inspected and cleaned fireplaces from Kilmichael to Fayette, Alabama, and from Booneville to Shuqualak.

He’s passionate, too, about his substitute teaching. For two weeks in early December, he filled in for a junior high science teacher. He estimates that work cost him $2,000 of chimney sweeping business. He’s fine with that.

“I can make a difference in these kids’ lives,” says Yarbrough. “With my knowledge and experience, I have interesting stories (to share with them).”

One of those stories might involve a new variety of butterbean Yarbrough is trying to develop. If he’s successful, he’s going to name it after his late father-in-law. “He couldn’t read or write, but he provided for his family,” he says.

Yarbrough has no target date for retirement. “I would be naïve to say it’s not going to be sooner rather than later,” he says. “I’m going to keep doing what I can as long as my health will let me,” he says.

In the meantime, the chimney sweep is ever mindful of something his father once told him: “Son, it’s not the fall that hurts, it’s that sudden stop.”