Friday, October 3, 2008

Ken Laundry: Jacks

Tucked away in one corner of Ken’s workshop/hen house behind a bag of cement are my favorite tools: Ken’s jacks. Every year when I go to the Adirondacks I borrow several of those funky little powerhouses because my idea of a sweet summer vacation is to lift up old buildings and repair their foundations. Okay, I warned you I had strange passions.

In my novel Clear Heart I have characters repeat the question, “Can you lift a house?” It’s both a metaphor and a gag, and the proper answer is, “Nail by forkin’ nail.” But with Ken’s jacks, I regularly lift entire buildings, corner by forkin’ corner.

Their beauty is in their humble power. This pair of bottle jacks, the least powerful in Ken’s collection, can each lift 1 1/4 tons for a rise of 8 inches.

A bottle jack operates by inserting a steel bar into one of the upper holes and screwing the top part upward while the base remains in place. Here’s one with the threads showing:

It can lift 2 1/2 tons 14 inches. The writing on this jack says “Dumsey Co Seneca Falls NY.” A google search for “Dumsey Seneca Falls” turns up not one single hit - well, maybe now it will hit this page. From the name Dumsey Company, can anybody suggest an age for this jack?

The masterpiece in Ken’s jack collection, the one he speaks of with fondness and pride, is what he calls a “railroad jack.” He says it comes from an old iron mine nearby, the one where Ken’s grandfather worked as a powderman. (A powderman was the guy who drilled holes in rocks, stuffed the holes with black powder, and lit the fuse. As a result of his occupation, Ken’s grandfather developed a healthy respect for mortality - and accidents - and was one of the few people of that time to buy insurance, including house insurance. When he left a pipe laying on the armrest of a chair, and his house burned down, Ken’s grandfather saw an opportunity. He used the insurance settlement, $450, to pay half the purchase price of 108 acres on Silver Lake, where Ken lives today.)

The railroad jack can lift a freight car. It can, in fact, lift 35 tons. It’s a piece of history and a piece of Ken’s family. The writing on it says “AO NORTON INC BOSTON MASS PATENTED AUG 27 1918.” Since Ken’s grandfather bought the farm before 1900, I’m not sure how the jack came into their possession, but I do know that both Ken and his grandfather were constant scavengers. It was a survival skill.

I never weighed that railroad jack, but I can tell you that I always used two hands and good back mechanics when I carried it. To Ken, it’s a piece of family history. To me, it’s a thing of beauty. And it’s nice to know that tucked away in a corner of your workshop, should you ever need it, you have the ability to lift a railroad car. Or a house.

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