It wasn’t long before I left the big company job I made a mailbox for a neighbor whose mailbox got ruined one night by two teenagers trying to out run a policeman. The mailbox was on the outside of a slight curve in the road. It was a regular mailbox with a steel liner. The liner was welded to a 300 pound I-beam that had six-inch webs and flanges 3/8ths of an thick. The night it got destroyed the post was twisted and torn from the ground. The car that hit it went out of control. The tires screeched as it went side ways. The loud noise woke me up. I rushed to the window to see what was the matter. The car had come to a stop across both lanes right in front of our house. I heard the sound of a police siren. The policeman was going fast to catch up. He didn’t see the other car until it was too late. The siren stopped abruptly two or three seconds before the two cars impacted. I could hear one of the boys screaming when he realized the speeding police car didn’t see them. The sound of the crash was loud. The baby started to cry. Soon there were many other police cars with flashing lights in front of our house. I got dressed and went out. No one was seriously hurt.
The next day my neighbor went to get his mail and saw his mailbox and post in the weeds across the road. It was very heavy and had not been moved. His house was far from the road. Several days later when we talked about it he said he didn’t hear the commotion. He asked me if I would make him a new one. That was the first mailbox I made. The second one was for my mother’s stepsister who was building a new house further down the same road. The architect of that house lived in another township. He ordered one and right after that four people who lived near him did also. The lady who was building the new house told another lady who mentioned the mailbox in the last paragraph of a column she wrote for a Cincinnati daily newspaper. The column was about hard to find things. Many people called to get one. By then I had lost my regular job. I started making mailboxes full time in the Apple Barn.
There was a 70-year-old industrial size wood working band saw that had been in the Apple Barn for several years. It had 32-inch wheels and weighed over 1000 pounds. When my uncle who liked guns lived nearby he bought it to make duck decoys. When he moved to Charlottesville, Virginia he left it there. He said the decoys he made were too big. He said a drake would have to be crazy to land near one of his hens. The band saw didn’t have a motor.
The red tractor had a spine shaft coming out the back and it became the power source. The band saw was used to cut the rounded shape of the mailbox door and back.
All the square pieces of steel were sheared at the steel service center that sold me the steel. The first time I went to that place an inside salesman came to see me in the lobby. He heard my ideas and recommended the kind of steel to use. He made arrangements for me to get a few pieces to learn if they were the right size.
There was also a 70 amp. 220-volt electrical outlet in the Apple Barn that the Peterloon farmers had installed years earlier for a welding machine they had. The least expensive welder at the welding store was a little red unit that was informally called a “buzz box”. It used stick electrodes. The instruction book said, properly done welding should sound like eggs frying. It also said a “6013” stick was an all position electrode that could weld through paint and grease. The mailboxes were made from new steel, but if a 6013 stick could weld through those kinds of things I thought it had to be good. I called it the “farm electrode”. At the local home and garden show an accomplished welder was amused by the weld drips on the back of the mailbox. I told him it sounded just like eggs to me. Another person looked at the mailbox, and then at me. He said, “I could make one of them,” and I said to him, that is only half the battle. The other half is selling it.
With a welding machine, the band saw, a hand held disc grinder, several locking pliers, and other hand tools I had all I needed except a way to bend steel. To make a mailbox that didn’t look like a battle ship the metal had to be bent, and that required 20-tons. I remembered someone real or imaginary said, “If you build me something to stand on I can lift the world”. That made a lot of sense. 20-tons of pressure was easy to get. A hydraulic jack would do it, but if that much pressure was exerted in one direction there would be an equal amount going the other way. That week near where I lived a thick wood utility pole got hit and broken by a car. The utility company replaced it and left the old one on the side of the road. When I asked the utility company man in charge if I could have it he said if I wanted it I could have it for nothing as long as I removed it entirely. Four 4-foot pieces of that pole, 12 six-foot pieces of 3/4-inch threaded rod and a 20-ton hydraulic road service jack were put together to make a contraption that would bend steel.
I set up a playpen for Whit in the Apple Barn. If his diapers were dry, and he had a bottle to feed on he could cry all he wanted, because the only way I could get work done was do the work. When we had lunch he would play outside in the long grass. He would go with me to install mailboxes. He learned the meaning of work at a young age, and to this day he is a good worker. He gets it from his Dad. One day after several years had past I looked over at the playpen, and it was empty. He had climbed out, and was looking around the outer room. That was the last day we used the playpen. The Rabbit was under a car cover. He would take naps in that car on blankets bundled across two seats. Once he found a nest of newborn mice. He tried to get them going with warm milk and an eyedropper. They all died. They got a very elaborate funeral such as no mouse ever had.
When he was up and around which was most of the time he was constantly told not to touch the mailboxes. They were on the floor in the outer room. The paint was from a hardware store. It took a day to dry. I said, “don’t touch it” so much I suddenly realized he had practically never touched one in his life, and I was touching them all the time. Several hundred mailboxes had gone out of there by then. The neighbor who had the first one traded up and got one that was new and improved. With a fresh coat of paint the old one became Whit’s mailbox. He could put a saddle on it, grapple with it, hit it with a hammer, drool on it, and in general do anything with it he liked. In a short time it looked as used as any mailbox ever did.
Whit’s nickname at that time was Wiener Schnitzel, which soon became Veeders. At the very beginning I cashed an U.S. Savings Bond that was given to him at birth by a grandmother on Jenny’s side of the family. That and my unemployment checks bought enough hand tools, and other gear to start making mailboxes. Without knowing about it, Whit paid to start the business. I named the business Veeders Mailbox.
A company paid by the big company to find me employment sent me to an interview at another big company. At the interview the interviewer asked me a simple question about my former job. I rattled on and on about the people there and what a mind altering experience it was. I didn’t get the job, and they never again contacted me. They probably scribbled in the margins of a form that I was chronically unemployable.
At first making mailboxes didn’t take much of my time. I got a temporary job as a laborer at a building under construction. The building was more than half-done. Often the superintendent was away at another construction site, and he would tell me what to do until he got back which was mostly keeping things clean, dig a hole here or there, or stack things. Much of the time another person who drove an earthmover and me were the only ones there who worked directly for him. There were independent contractors all over the place who did things like install electrical wires, hang ceilings, and paint, but they didn’t work directly for the builder. One time the Superintendent drove in just as I was walking from the building with an armload of trash to put in a large container. He called me over to where he was and said I walked, “like a slew footed nigger.” That was his way of saying I should move faster.
One of the electrical contractors threw an old screwdriver covered with goo out on the floor, and I swept it up. He said he didn’t want it any more. I cleaned it up like new. It became my screwdriver. He knew I worked for the builder, but not much else. One day he said, as if he just found out, I was nothing. A few days later when I didn’t do something correctly the superintendent fired me. After that I got a lot more serious about mailboxes.
Jenny quit working at the Riverboat Company several weeks before our second child was born. Her health insurance was going to expire not long after that. If the child was born before midnight on a certain day it would be free to us. After that we had to pay for it, and if there were complications it would be even more. We didn’t have that much on hand. If the cost did come to us we would have to get in debt. Oddly enough the insurance agent who sold the health insurance policy to the Riverboat Company was a childhood friend of Jenny’s. He explained the situation to us. The doctor knew the situation. The night before the insurance expired. Jenny went to the hospital and labor was induced. A boy was born who we named Samuel Langhorne. Sam was a name we picked out of the blue and Langhorne was a family name on my mother’s side. Neither of us knew it at the time, but it was also the first and middle name of a famous American author who lived in Hannibal, Missouri.
Making mailboxes didn’t provide us with enough money. On some weekend days when it was sunny I would put a few of them on a trailer, and take them to an outdoor market where anyone could display something for sale. Many people walked past in both directions to see if there was anything they wanted to buy. The mailboxes were expensive compared to other mailboxes. Some days no one would buy one, but most days I sold at least one. I took other things to sell like old starter motors, tow chains, or carving knives.
One time I displayed a cheap reproduction of a famous painting that hung in a museum in Paris, France. No one even stopped to look or ask what it was. I could have been the artist himself sitting there in a folding chair with bright yellow webbing. A hundred years later my painting would be in a museum. I didn’t feel so bad on days when I didn’t sell any mailboxes.
Making mailboxes was like going through a meadow after being in a tunnel. The customers were the same as a boss, except if they were awful I could tell them, and they could not fire me.
All the financial responsibilities were mine. Paying bills was difficult. I got into debt buying things I didn’t have to have like new outdoor furniture and a boat. The attraction to those things was strong. If the person selling the item said it was possible for me to have what ever it was, that was enough for me.
Time flew past. When I saw Whit in a welding booth putting one together it seemed like yesterday he was happily sitting in a playpen while I made the mailbox.
Several years after I started making them the maximum shipping weight of a package was raised from fifty to seventy pounds. That meant the mailboxes could be sent long distances as easily as small packages. A few months before that I went from brush painting to spray painting. That saved much time, and made them look more professional. I then got a letter from an executive at a large mail order company located near Cincinnati. He saw the mailboxes at a local housing show, and in so many words he wrote that his company was considering selling them. The mail order company put a picture in their catalog, and sold them to people all over the country.
During that time our third and last child was born. That one was a girl we named Gretchen. When she was older I had to be careful what I said to her. I sometimes spoke gruffly to the boys. If the same comment were directed in the same way to Gretchen she would cry, and it wasn’t a female affectation. She was different from the boys.
The farmhouse was small. When the third child arrived I began to feel like I lived in a shoe. The attic went the length of the front part of the house or about twenty-five feet. It was about ten feet wide. That space became a child’s room. The ceiling sloped down to a knee wall that was less than three feet high. Along the center it was slightly over six feet high. The entire area was already surfaced with tongue and groove pine boards. The space behind the boards and behind the knee walls got filled with cellulose insulation. I sanded all the boards, puttied the cracks, and painted clear polyurethane coating to bring out the color of the wood.
A neighbor who was replacing the carpet in their house gave me their old carpet. I put the best of it wall to wall in the attic room. The entrance was through one of the bedrooms. On both sides of the stairs the walls were painted a light aluminum gray color. I made a galvanized steel railing to go around the floor opening at the top of the stairs. There was a small window on each end of the room. It was a good child’s room.
In the spring of every year there was a “home show” in the convention center downtown. People who lived in houses would get ideas on how to improve their home situation. The mailboxes were on display in a booth. At first I would talk with everyone who came into the booth. By the end of the night I was loosing my voice. An experienced person selling central heating and air conditioning units said I should “screen” first by asking the individual if they had a roadside mailbox. When I asked that question more than half didn’t even have one. The people who did unfolded great tales of woe. It sounded like there was a war or a contest between the homeowner and the mailbox vandal. As time went by I learned most mailbox vandalism was casual vandalism done on through roads where the mailbox cannot be easily seen from the house. If someone on a short residential street with houses close to the road has mailbox problems they are being picked on. Statistics show they are a schoolteacher, or there is a teenage girl living in the house. When the police catch mailbox vandals usually it is Friday night, and they are juveniles driving their mom’s car.
One person at the home show told me a story that a man who lived on a farm happened to see a car stop at the end of his long driveway. He stood there watching and moments later his mailbox burst into flames. He jumped in his car, the other car sped away, and there was a chase. The car being chased crashed. A parent of an injured passenger sued the farmer for causing the injury.
The most damage from mailbox vandalism happens when someone takes it personally. One man new to an area thought his mailbox was getting repeatedly hit because of his interracial marriage. I told him mailbox vandalism was a fact of life, and that everyone on his road had that problem. He bought a mailbox from me, and said he would see what happened. I said I would like to hear from him, but I never did. After awhile I went to where he lived, and drove past his house. I could see the marks on the paint where the mailbox had been whacked many times. Who ever did it continued on their merry way, and the mailbox stayed in fine shape.
Another person said once a week he would take his garbage cans to the end of his driveway. A large truck would come the next morning before dawn to pick up his garbage and everyone else’s on the road. He said several weeks in a row during the night a car would knock over one of his cans, and send garbage flying everywhere. This person telling the story said he finally filled the garbage can closest to the road with concrete. In the middle of the night he awoke to the sound of a crash. It was his best friend’s son in his best friend’s car.
One man was full of ideas. He said he had given it a lot of thought and as a result he wanted to put coils of sharp wire like the kind on prison fences all around his mailbox. Another person took a ballpoint pen, and a piece of paper out of his pocket. He drew a picture of a World War II tank trap. He said his idea was to make a modified version of a tank traps for a mailbox post. The picture he drew showed a vertical piece of steel coming out of the ground. Under the ground three other equally heavy pieces of steel were welded at right angles to the vertical piece. He said when a car pushes over the mailbox post one of the pieces of steel under the ground would come up through the bottom of the car.
Several other people said a person that couldn’t destroy their mailbox might come up to the house looking for something to destroy. These people were resigned to replacing their mailbox several times a year. They left it there to appease the appetite of the mailbox vandal. Others unscrewed their mailbox and took it in at night.
A lady who grew up in India bought one of my mailboxes. She said she didn’t understand the mailbox vandalism phenomena in the United States. She said it was as if there were ferocious lions that came out at night.
I did the home show four years in a row. In the first two years many people asked, “Will it rust?”
I would say, “Yes, if the paint is damaged by a tire iron or a baseball bat the metal will rust”. Practically none of those people ever bought one. The third year one of the mailboxes on display was made of totally non-ferrous stainless steel with a gleaming finish. That mailbox was expensive compared to all other mailboxes. I planned to eventually give it to my grandchildren to use as an anchor. When someone asked I was ready, “Yes, but here is one that will never rust. You could throw it in the ocean and it won’t rust.” I waited for them to ask how much it cost. When I told them there was a long silence. At first I though that would be the end of the conversation, but it didn’t slow them down. Many people ordered a stainless steel mailbox.
The last year the mailbox was on display at the home show there was one with a picture painted on both sides. A person wanted to buy the mailbox if the picture was removed. The woman never asked if the picture made it cost more. She seemed to think it didn’t cost any extra. That woman was like the other people I talked with at the home show. If they wanted a strong roadside mailbox they didn’t want a picture on it at any cost. There was an established company that sold “personalized” mailboxes through gift shops. Not only could a person specify a street address on the mailbox They could choose the picture they wanted from among more than thirty shown in a colorful brochure. Their customer was not my customer.
Before I enacted the pay as you go policy someone wanted me to install one of my mailboxes many miles away in a neighboring county. When I got there she wanted it to be another color. I went back home, brush painted it the color she wanted and then returned several days later when the paint was dry, all at no extra charge.
There had to be a certain inflexible quality to doing the business of installing a mailbox. Otherwise the householder would find some reason not to pay right away, or I’d be there all day for the price of one mailbox. Upon first arriving I would go to the door, and hand over the bill. It would be understood the bill would be paid when the job was done.
At one place when I asked the householder if there was any place in particular she wanted the mailbox located she said to put it where the old one was. When the posthole was half dug (that is the hardest part) she came running out of the house and told me to put it six feet further down the road. That kind of behavior in various degrees was not uncommon. I said to her, “Mam, I’ll bore holes in your yard all day long, but it is $28 a hole.” Then she said leave it where it is.
When all my business was local a busy week was when I made six mailboxes and installed them on Saturday. When I got in the mail-order catalogs sometime it took all night to fill the orders. Mailboxes were selling. There was no grand plan. Each day I went ahead and did what had to be done in order to keep it going. The business grew, not in leaps and bounds, but it grew.
Eventually I got someone to help me. I didn’t pass economics in school, but I remembered “the law of diminishing returns.” It said the more you make of something the less it cost to make that thing. Unfortunately, that law didn’t work for me to me. I had to come up with a paycheck every week, and often there was no money left for me. The problem persisted. I think it was because the price of the mailbox wasn’t enough. Sometimes it felt like a non-profit organization.