From Chicken Farm to Aerospace Engineer

Some Life Experiences of James H. Williams,

Ferguson, Mo.

A moment of self-reflection via a camera and mirror.

 

Growing Up

 

Before I was born, my father, James O. Williams moved from the city of St. Louis to a farming area on Hudson Road (in St. Ferdinand Township, north St. Louis County--later to be incorporated into the City of Ferguson).  This was the country where my father could escape the bad air in the city in which he had developed respiratory problems. His doctor had ordered it but it was a hard decision to make since he had a well paying job working at Laclede Light and Power.  He chose to make a subsistence living by raising chickens. (see also James O. Williams' Farm)

 

Elementary School:

 

A first grade school play at Central School n Wesley Avenue, Ferguson, Mo. 1935. I am on the extreme left.

 

Yep, that's me. First grade actor. With my sister Martha Jane.

 

The House:

My father, Dad, as I will call him, had to make the house bigger with every child born. Luckily he had only three: Martha Jane, Wesley Vance, and me, James Hoover.  The original house was very small, perhaps just three rooms at most. Dad added the present kitchen, family room, a dinning room, and a family room. He added a second story where we had three bedrooms, plus lots of storage space.  The basement had dirt floors because my Dad dug it by hand using a shovel. He never did get to make the basement as large as he liked and one side room was never finished.

Showing off some artwork, sitting on top of my Dad's 1925 automobile

Water:

For drinking water my father dug two wells and had one cistern.  In the dry summer, the well near the creek would sometimes go dry or not produce enough water.  I was about ten years old when Dad dug another well closer to the house but down the hillside.  He dug by hand all the way down to flinty rock.  Using a chisel and a sledge hammer, he made two holes and places a stick of dynamite in each.  He strung electrical wires out to a detonator box.  Next to help keep rocks from flying out of the hole, he laid three railroad ties over the top.  When he detonated the dynamite, we were all amazed to see the railroad ties flying up about thirty feet in the air.  No one was hurt but it could have been very dangerous.  Dad and I finished the digging.  At the very bottom, it was easier for me to collect the last remaining stones.  So I was  lowered down on a rope and I placed the stones in buckets, before being pulled up.   Dad lined the well interior with bricks. Overall the well is about 25 feet deep with a steady stream of cold water flowing among dark shale rock.  I used to drawl water from the well using two buckets, later Dad added a pump which took the water to the house.  (Note: There is still water in this well today (2005), measured by the present owner to be about 2 1/2 feet deep)

Next to the house we had a cistern. The cistern was used as an emergency backup in case the wells went dry. The water would be caught as it drained from the roof of the house and funneled down through a bed of charcoal.  The charcoal would  filter out the impurities, then it ran through a covered trough into the concrete cistern that stored water in case we the wells ran dry.

The well as it appears in 2005. Photo by Gary Fink, current owner.

Electricity before Electrical Service

Dad was a veteran of the First World War, where he had served with the 37th Engineers in the trenches of France.  He learned many things in the Army but he was also very inventive. In the early years of my life (possibly even before I was born) my Dad built a wind mill, with the blades fashioned from old license plates.  When the wind would blow the blades turned and created electricity by way of a model "T" generator.  It only put out 6 volts, but that was enough energy to light the bulbs in the chicken houses which saved money by not burning coal-oil lamps.  The system was on a timer, so the lights would turn on one hour before dawn. During the day and night, the wind mill would generate the necessary energy for the next morning, stored in a battery.  My Dad built this before electric power lines were extended this way from the city, that was around 1931.

Phone Service:

Before electric power (from the city), we had telephone service.  It was one of those model's that had to be hand cranked that hung from the wall.  I was told that my parents used the device to phone the doctor who was in downtown Ferguson. This was when my mother was in labor, and I was born right in the house. It was 1929 and President-Elect Hoover was being inaugurated as President of the United States.  My parents thought for this reason my middle name should be Hoover.  I always joked that I was named for the vacuum cleaner, but I was really named for the President.

City Electricity:

When it came to installing electricity in the house, my father did it all.  In those days the copper wires were strung around porcelain  insulators.  Once we had electricity to the house, my father electrified the barbed wire fence so the cows and steers would not stray.  My father created an ingenious device using an old tractor hub with a magnet and a spring to provide a pulse charge to the fence.  The relay would make periodic contact by bouncing off a spring then rotating toward the repulsive force of a magnet. So after making contact with the magnet it would rotate in the opposite direction toward the spring.  So it was a never-ending off-on pulse of electricity. He also used a coil to lower the voltage so it would not kill the cow.  I always had to follow the fence clipping weeds away so the fence would not get shorted out. (Note: My Dad's regiment during World War I was an electrical unit. Besides making power plants to support combat operations, they also electrified the barbed wire in the front lines. After the war he worked for Laclede Light and Power and eventually retired from Union Electric)

Circa 1946, tuning the family radio, long before we had television.

 

The main entrance, on the side of the house. A dog day afternoon.

 

My First Invention:

When I was three years old my father obtained a tricycle for me.  But it was not long before I told my Dad I wanted a bicycle, and I insisted I would not ride the tricycle anymore.  I was big enough for two wheels. Of course my Dad could not afford to buy me a bike, so I thought of a way to convert my tricycle into a two wheeler, which was my first inventive idea.  I told my Dad my plans and what he needed to do.  This entailed bending the back wheel supports, taking off the two back wheels, and reattaching only one of the back wheels.  My Dad did this for me and although my first bike had a big wheel in front, and a small wheel in back, it rode great.

"If Jimmy Gets His Way, He Will Rule the World!"

Draining the Washer Machine

Another one of my inventive moments really upset my older brother, Wes. My mother gave Wes a weekly chore to emptying the water from the washing machine (located in the basement).  This meant draining the water into buckets and hand carrying up the steps before emptying them outside.  It took several trips to get the job down.  Wes grew tired of this weekly chore and offered me money to do the work for him.  I said "sure thing", and proceeded to getting a water hose, opening the basement window, stuck the hose in the washer, primed it, and siphoned the water outside without any trouble.  Wes was fuming mad and said " I'm not going to give you any money for only doing that!".  Mom intervened and told Wes to follow through with his contract and pay me. [Note: Very recently (2004), Gary Fink, the current owner of the home, found some words written down in chalk on one of the rafters in the basement. It reads, "If  Jimmy gets his way, he will rule the world.".  I don't remember seeing anyone write it but I am certain it was written by my brother Wes.  If so, it probably dates back to the washing machine incident.]

Ferguson Junior High

My class of 1943-1944 at Vogt School Junior High (Church Street in Ferguson). I'm in the back, centered in the middle of the map.  I never bothered to write the boys names down on the back but the girls are identified as: left to right, back row: Mildred Rise, Patsy Stevenson, Lois Vocelsang, Billy Louis Argent, Peggy Shultz, and Janet Bone. Front: row, left to right: Margarie Boyer, Mary Alice Morrison, Nancy Miller, Shern Allen, Rachel Howells, Marsella Hathling. (Please excuse any mispellings). [Enlarged Photo]

Ferguson High School

Ferguson High School on January Avenue, next to January Wabash park, as it appeared in 1948, the year I graduated. Now 2005, this is Ferguson Middle School)  See also 1946 Ferguson High School Field Day Photos.

 

Three Ferguson High School girls held a party in Lora Williamson's basement. As you can see we all had a delightful time.

The Daily High School Routine:

During my high school years I woke up daily at 3 am  in the morning.  I first went up to Bierlers Dairy up the street to milk the cows. (Note: In the 1960's Beirler's Diary burned down, it was located on Hudson Rd. nearly opposite from the community college entrance.) I next went home and milked our two cows, then watered and fed the chickens before taking a bath and heading off to school.

Two later inventions I made were very practical.  One was a lawnmower with an engine. This was at a time when lawnmowers were all manual.  I rigged it up with a pulley and attached an engine from an old washing machine (washing machines back in the 1940's were not electric but ran with gasoline engines.).  My lawnmower idea attracted quite a lot of attention in Ferguson. One man offered me $400 which was a lot of money back then. I did not sell it but used the same engine to motorized my bicycle.  I made them so the engine could be easily interchanged, so I had a motor bike and a power lawn-mower at the same time.

Above, is the power lawnmower I designed.  While I can't claim this was the first designed in history, it was probably the very first power mower being used for domestic use in the Ferguson area, if not north St. Louis County.

In summer time,  I worked at Normandy Machine Shop located on St. Louis Ave., in Wellston.  The work was very hard and it did not pay that well as  ViJon Laboratories, also in Wellston. So my friends Don Wooster (lived on Elizabeth Ave.) and Bill Coors (lived by the water tower at Frost, off Florissant Road) and I took the streetcar from the Ferguson loop to the ViJon labs.  (At the time Vijon made 10-cent store cheap perfume, and it is still in business today.). The work at the laboratory was not as hard but was boring. I operated the bottle washing machine.  If I missed a bottle, a jet of water would shoot 20 feet in the air. I also worked using the bottle labeling machine. 

After graduating from High School, I attended a vocational school that was located at the Wellston High School.

 1948 my machine shop classmates at Wellston H.S. (after graduating from Ferguson H.S.) In the picture are Donald Sarrells (Wellston), Conrad Droony(Wellston), Bill Kohrs (Ferguson), Jim Williams (Ferguson), Walter Kricker (Kirkwood), Lester Hass (Kirkwood), Dea Frehs (Kirkwood), Norman Heidberger (Kirkwood). [Enlarged]

Photos:

With my pal Don Wooster (left).

 

1944: With my brother Wes (fighter pilot). For photos of Wes with his planes, see "Wesley Vance Williams, WWII Fighter Pilot".

 

In 1951, I enlisted in the 131st Fighter Wing of the Missouri Air National Guard. They would send me to Austin, Texas for radio school where I would learn how to understand radio code and to repair radios. 

Our unit was activated during the Korean War.  Some components of the Air Wing went to Korea, but I was never ordered overseas.  While in Texas I participated in "Operation Longhorn", simulated combat maneuvers with 115,000 troops involved, including the 131st with its F-51 Mustang fighters. Some St. Louis participants were CPL John M. Todd (Ferguson), Sgt. Philip J. Catsoulis (St. Louis Co.), T-Sgt. August H. Ebbesmeyer of Florissant, and many others. 

 

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James O. Williams' Farm

Early Descendants of John Williams of Hanover Co., Virginia

 

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Scott K. Williams, copyright 2005, Florissant, Mo. USA