|Opportunities my father glimpsed from atop a light pole|
Last in a 3-part series
Having failed at operating the Richland Center general store and then escaping the drudgery of a South Bend factory, my late father Charles S. Overmyer decided in 1916 that Rochester best could supply the means to support his new wife and oncoming children.
The memoirs he left behind, under discussion here today for a third and final week, reveal that his search for a means satisfactory to his pysche as well as to his pocketbook was not to be an easy one.
He first concluded that painting girders at the Rochester Bridge Company factory, on the city's north edge, was unsatisfactory; "not much future in this." Nor was keeping books for Florian Dovichi's wholesale fruit business at 721 Main Street, site of today's Main Street tavern. Working indoors at Dovichi's affected his heart because "I got all the stale air from the store along with the odors from the fruit stored below." Dr. Howard Shafer ordered him into fresh-air work.
Writes my dad Charley, rather ruefully: "I think (in-laws) Minnie and Percy began to think that Edyth hadn't got such a steady husband but they never let on to me. Edyth used to say that Minnie would give her the devil about things I would do but she was always nice to me."
That should have a familiar ring to many husbands; it does to me.
The Overmyers, now a threesome with daughter June's birth in 1916, got into fresh air by moving to the Richland Township homestead. He rented the place from his father, who was having a hard time farming it with his four sons gone. To start out, Charley had only his last week's pay from Dovichi, "the great sum of $12," he recalls. The first year was a hard scrabble and he writes that "we would have had pretty slim eating if it hadn't been for Percy and Minnie who would come out over the weekend and always bring some meat and groceries." Dad persevered for a few years, built up the wornout soil and finally was farming all 160 acres with two three-horse teams, two riding plows and a hired man. But then, "just when I felt like I was accomplishing something," an abdominal injury forced him to leave the fields.
The family came back to Rochester, where in 1924 son Jack arrived. Dad first drove a pickup route for cousin Cliff Overmyer's poultry business. But then he discovered electricity, an occupation that would possess him for 16 years. He was hired by the Northern Indiana Power Company (now Cinergy) that had bought out the Rochester electrical utility, was expanding service to outlying towns and needed workers. He began as a truck driver for construction gangs, learned to climb poles, do line work and after four years became line foreman.
Dad always was proud of his accomplishments as foreman, as well he should have been. He was line boss for 12 years, sometimes directing 20 workers, and never had one of his men injured, or "burnt," as he terms it. He built the lines into Tiosa, Talma, Lucerne, Tippecanoe and Bourbon. Many were the nights that I was awakened by a telephone call summoning him to direct storm damage repair.
My father was an ambitious man like his father and decided that he should have "something working for me on the side." So about 1933 he started a chicken hatchery in a former cigar factory next to our house at 212 East Sixth Street. "I worked in the hatchery in the evening and Edyth took care of it during the day." Soon afterward he put in a feed mill in the barn at the end of East Sixth Street, on land now occupied by Gaerte Engines.
In 1935 his mother died and his father no longer was able to manage the family homestead, so Dad bought it, assuming the mortgage as well as making additional monthly payments to his father. Obviously, Dad had been managing his foreman's wages of $180 per month quite well; he now owned a chicken hatchery, feed mill and 160-acre farm.
However, Northern Indiana Power officials were not happy with his outside interests. "They claimed that with my hatchery and feed mill I was competition to their customers." Dad always believed that the company wanted to sever him before his 20-year pension kicked in. His memoirs detail various job harassments that continued for so long that "they finally made me mad enough and I quit, and they were satisfied."
For practical purposes, that ended my father's employment by others and he became a much happier man for it. Our family made one more stab at living on the homestead, but there he developed a debilitating case of undulant fever and we came back to town. The disease is transmitted by infected farm animals and was little understood at the time. Dr. Dan Urschel of Mentone pioneered in its treatment and in time Dad became one of the first to be cured by Urschel's procedure.
Illness or injury never kept Dad idle for long, only in 1945 when his car and a milk truck collided on a county road and he was bedfast eight weeks recovering. During World War II, he put his electrician's talents to work at the Kingsbury Ordnance Plant near LaPorte. He also sold the East Sixth Street house, hatchery and feed mill to a Royal Center buyer. "I went to his home," writes Dad, "and he went upstairs and brought me down $7,000 in currency in a paper sack. He had been taking it out of his hatchery receipts the past years to avoid paying tax on it."
Dad never missed a chance to exercise his inborn trading instincts. In 1940 he traded the farm for cash and a general store in Wheatfield, Indiana. That he later exchanged for a three-apartment building in Indianapolis, which in another trade brought him the house at 1017 Main Street. The family lived there until 1951 when they moved to their new farm on Road 500E, where my Mother died in 1957.
Dad's entrepreneurial spirit was not subdued by his undulant fever treatments. He began a Minneapolis-Moline farm implement dealership, later combining it with Packard auto. The building he erecte for it on State Road 14 across from the airport is now occupied by Fulton County Tire.
Dad's memoirs do not discuss his 20 years as a realtor beginning in 1958, years of pleasure for him. There was pleasure in his new marriage, in his grandchildren and step-grandchildren, in his Grace Methodist church work, in renewing old friendships and making new ones while dealing in real estate.
My father always was a bit of a maverick; independence was his game and he practiced it determinedly. As a realtor, for example, if he felt a young couple to whom he had sold a house were short on money, he charged no commission.
That was a typical act of my Dad, who also never criticized me or gloated over my frequent foolish mistakes. His daughter-in-law, my wife Howdy, says that Pop, as she called him, "was the kindest, gentlest and most likable man I ever met." ( I assume that she meant, except for me.)
The memoirs he has left are a magnificent heirloom that my family should cherish unto its latest generation. Perhaps his recollections have enabled you to appreciate him, as we did, and have enlightened your understanding of life in a past generation.
Published Aug. 31, 1999
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