Melvin talks of his dreams of staying at home, being his own boss, and earning enough to adequately support family, with an organ refurbishing business.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
For years I dreamed of a way to stay at home, be my own
boss . . . and earn enough to adequately support my family.
The several most unsatisfactory and unrewarding jobs I held
during that period of time did much to inspire my desire
for independence: I tried many forms of employment
and—having never been satisfied with any of them and
having never satisfied anyone else with them—I knew
there must be a better way. Work, for me, was becoming more
a "life sentence" than a job. However, in attempting to set
myself free, I only became more enslaved by systems and
In my desperation, I considered all kinds of
self-employment from raising rabbits to raising cain! . . .
but the many "how to do" books didn't do for me. All the
advertised home businesses required too much money and many
of them—I later learned—were pure "con"
To cut the moorings and launch out into the deep, I knew,
could only come through some original effort on my part.
Going against the tide and being an up-the-streamer would
cost . . . but the loss of my freedom was costing even
more. My life would have been different, I'm sure, if only
I had had the "herd instinct" . . . but when you can't join
the ranks of the rat race—or beat it
either—then you just have to be a lone rancher.
In 1961 I gave up teaching school (it was giving my ulcers
ulcers) and started working door to door as a Rawleigh
Products salesman. Although my parents thought this was a
disgrace for a man with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, I
enjoyed selling fairly well. At that time, it was the
living in the same house with my parents that was beginning
to really bug me. Since we were right in the center of town
my two little boys didn't have much yard to play in. I
wanted my own house as dearly as I wanted to be my own
boss. I was only one step from Clay County over these two
Then a nice lot just outside the city limits was offered
for sale. The price was $1250 and I didn't have the full
amount but I was determined to buy that lot and pay cash
for it. The property especially appealed to me because it
had no building code to worry about. Taking the money I had
on hand—and getting my mother to go on a bank note
for the balance—I purchased the lot and took
possession. I wasn't letting any grass grow under my feet.
Then came the major problem of building a house. A mortgage
was definitely out: We would build our own home somehow.
There would be a way if I had to make one out of no way.
Money, naturally, was still the number one mountain to
scale: I was paying off the note at the bank, making car
payments and doing my best to survive the money changers.
It was six months before we could start on the house.
Finally I had a man with proper tools lay off the
foundation and I dug ditches for the concrete footing.
Next, Solite blocks were ordered (along with some
reasonable brick masons) and we lifted the walls up to
floor level. Then . . . nothing happened on the little
house for many months. It's no sin to be poor: Just
At last my father-in-law presented us with a check for
$500.00 and the walls went up to the roof. I was
wonderfully blessed in locating some used, heart pine
lumber from an old house being torn down nearby and my
father-in-law, a friend and I used the wood for an A-roof.
A neighbor (who volunteered his services and wouldn't
accept any pay) and I wired the house for about $65.00 and
two men dug a well with a hand auger (see You can Drive Your Own Well, MOTHER EARTH NEWS No. 4 ) for $60.00. The
plumbing was the final hurdle and we solved that problem by
letting Montgomery Ward do the job for $715.00 payable over
the next two years.
On June 14, 1962 we borrowed my father-in-law's red Ford
truck and, with much excitement, moved into our new home.
The total cost was just a little over $3,000 and we paid
that off during the next three years by using notes at the
bank. There was never a mortgage on the property and there
never will be!
In passing, I'd like to point out that some
items—usually regarded as luxuries—can not only
be enjoyed on a limited budget . . . but can also go a long
way in helping to stretch that budget. We built a nice
fireplace into our house and the whole family loves the
open fire and finds it very relaxing. An added bonus, since
wood has always been freely available in our area, is the
good deal of money the fireplace has saved on our fuel
We soon found that—even with a house to our
good—we still hadn't quite mastered our own lives.
There always seemed to be urgent bills to pay and we were
constantly in need of some additional income. One day my
wife— Lou—feeling the money strain said, "I
wish there were something I could stay at home and do to
bring in a little extra money."
I seriously began to think about Lou's comment. I knew she
was very good at sewing and handwork and I had often heard
her say she wanted to learn to weave. Somehow, thinking
about Lou's artistic and creative yearnings, brought back
memories of my own desires as a child: I had always wanted
to learn to play the piano. At the time I wondered what
childhood longings could possibly have to do with the
problem at hand. A few months later I would see the
Once I had again started thinking about a piano, I couldn't
get it out of my mind and I asked the little wife what she
thought of my getting an old upright for $100.00. "NO!" she
said, "there's no room for a big, old piano in our small
living room." I knew she was right . . . but her refusal
still made me mad! And, lucky for us, my getting mad at
this point ignited a series of events that completely
revolutionized our lives.
"Ok," I thought, "if I can't have a piano, how about one of
those old-fashioned, parlor organs that you have to pedal
with your feet. It won't take up nearly as much space as a
Once my wife had agreed to the organ idea I began a
three-month search for one. Finally, an old gentleman gave
me a tip that led me to an oak organ out in the country.
The owner sold it to me for just $5.00.
Again borrowing the red Ford truck, I brought the organ
home and placed it in the middle of the living room floor.
I was so excited I couldn't think about going to bed and,
late that night, I began to take it apart. I just had to
see what made it work!
At 4 o'clock the next morning everything was an oblong
blur, I was exhausted and I went to bed. Lou, rising early,
saw nothing but organ parts scattered all over the living
room. "He's ruined it," she said, "he'll never get it back
Well, it did take me quite a few months to restore that
organ, but only because I was learning the art of organ
I first refinished the case before tackling the bellows and
inside work. We had heard somebody say that household
ammonia would take the old varnish finish off antiques so I
got a half-gallon at the A & P for 35¢ . . . and
found it to be a cheap source of paint remover. I also
found that boiled linseed oil will darken wood and bleach
will lighten it; chewing tobacco makes a pretty good stain
and a beautiful stain can be made by putting green walnuts
in a gallon plastic container and pouring ammonia over
As I was learning these tricks of the trade, friends and
neighbors—who saw how well the refinished organ
looked—kept asking us to do little refinishing jobs
for them. I began to see we could earn extra money with
antiques and refinishing and, besides, I really enjoyed
this work that could be done with very little equipment out
in the fresh air and sunshine.
To increase business, I decided to invest $3.85 for a ten
word ad in the classified section of the local newspaper.
We didn't have a telephone at that time so I gave my
mother's number and asked her to handle the calls for me.
She did and, much to my delight, the business began coming
My wife had made me mad and started a career for me . . .
now it was my turn to start one for her.
One day an elderly man drove up with an oak chair to be
refinished. The chair's old cane bottom needed redoing and
he asked if we did that kind of work. "Oh yes," I said, "my
wife can do anything."
The man left the chair. I carried it in to Lou, set it down
and announced that she had to cane it. She announced right
back that she couldn't . . . and, furthermore, she wouldn't
cane it. So I reminded Lou of her earlier wish about making
money at home and realizing the opportunity—she
agreed to learn the ancient art of caning.
An antique dealer had given us a Home Demonstration Club
instruction sheet which Lou studied carefully. The seven
steps in caning were Greek to me but she seemed to
understand what it was all about. We ordered a hank of cane
and the first chair was begun and completed. We were in the
Later, Lou took a rush chair, turned it upside down, looked
at it and started doing rush bottoms. An old craftsman
helped her master split bottoming.
When the message got around as to what we could do, we were
well on our way to doing it. My refinishing business picked
up and the boys, Jonathan and Joel, helped me with it.
Their mother taught them how to do caning and split bottoms
and they helped her too.
Our caning, rushing, refinishing and organ rebuilding had
now become well established so I decided to give up the
Rawleigh products and settle down to the new business at
home. I continued to run the newspaper ad from time to time
and it always seemed to work. Besides that, our patrons
were advertising for us and this word of mouth publicity
was really the most effective. Our business was generally
good but, sometimes in the year, we would have a slump. We
needed more exposure.
Realizing the power of television, I had a brain storm. I
wrote to the hostess of a local television show and offered
my services free in exchange for a chance to display my
organ work. She immediately phoned and extended an
invitation to appear.
A year or so later, I did the same thing with another TV
personality on a station in Durham, North Carolina. This
time the whole family was invited and we demonstrated our
various abilities. When we arrived back home we were
greeted by several long distance calls for information
about our work. Many of our friends considered us very
important to be invited on television. Little did they know
that I had engineered the whole thing!
Then another wonderful opportunity came to us. A distant
relative connected with a local Arts and Crafts Fair
invited us to participate in a show at the mall of a large
shopping center. This was just the exposure that could put
us on the map.
We were advised to have business cards to give to
passers-by so I went to a print shop and ordered a rubber
Words can't express what this little stamp did for our
business that first year in the fair. A card, stamped in
red ink (to make the information really stand out) proved
to be an eyecatcher and, after four years of giving away
cards at the show in the mall, we're getting business from
Washington, D.C., the eastern shore of Maryland and many
other Atlantic coast states.
Our primitive crafts have certainly come alive. To date, my
wife has done over a thousand chairs, I have rebuilt the
bellows of 158 organs . . . and they still keep coming.
Almost all we know about our skills is completely
self-taught. The home business—after five
years—appears to be well established. We're
completely out of debt and we hope to save a little money
at last. It's especially satisfying to feel our present
degree of independence. At times our work load even gets so
demanding that we have to turn down business: The telephone
rings so much some days that we're forced to take it off
Little did we realize that our childhood dreams could do so
much for us. Not only did I learn to rebuild the Reed organ
but I was able to teach myself—with simple beginner
books—to play the instrument. I've now performed on
two television programs and played and spoken on the subject
to many women's clubs . . . all without ever having had a
professional lesson. In addition, the family now owns 24 of
these beautiful old antique organs which I mostly picked up
for five and ten dollars apiece.
One good thing just seems to lead to another. About a year
ago I started wood carving as a hobby. It all began because
of the organs. Many of them are hand carved with rosettes
and beautiful designs so I figured I could do simple
animals, letter openers and things like that. Then, last
Christmas, people started popping in and buying them and a
whole new business is opening up.
We've found our home business to be more than we ever
expected and it's wonderful to know that "we can't be fired
`cause we've never been hired." It took a lot of
self-discipline to make a way out of no way . . . yet and
still, we feel much more secure in our set-up than we ever
could with a job. If we get tired, we take a nap; when we
want to go fishing or camping, we go.
Of course, we can't say that our lot has been entirely a
bed of roses or a cross of sunshine. We've had some hard
days like many of our peers but I doubt we could stop our
way of life now if we wanted to. It's extremely satisfying
when visitors come long miles to see our organs and other
work. To be happy in one's work is the real test.
I've been able to give my family more of myself and my
philosophy of life during the past five years. When I was
teaching school and holding down a job I couldn't be
relaxed enough to really communicate with them. I can only
wonder what would have happened to my central nervous
system if I had stayed in the classroom chained to a system
which so many teachers—who love to teach—hate.
We've found such joy in our work and have been so honored
by it that we sincerely long to see others launch out into
the deep where the fishing is good. We're committed to
encouraging all arts and crafts around and about us.
Your library is a fine source
for books on rush work and split-bottoming and the
librarian can order books on these subjects if necessary.
Refinishing can be done with very little equipment and
know-how. Experience is the best teacher and you'll pick up
many little tricks as you go along. I've found, for
instance, that box lye—cost, 25¢ a can—will make
a gallon of paint remover when mixed with water (always
neutralize with an application of vinegar to prevent damage
to the wood). I use this mixture to take five or more coats
of paint off old chairs.
A very practical refinishing solution can be made by
thinning shellac half-and-half with denatured alcohol. If
you wipe this solution into wood with an old nylon stocking
(a trick I learned from an antique dealer), you'll have a
beautiful hand-rubbed finish. Twenty coats can be put on a
chair in just an hour.
Your library can, again, be a good source of other
If carving—the most ancient of all the
arts—interests you then just get a utility knife
(like they use in grocery stores to open cardboard boxes)
and start carving. I never buy any wood because there is
always an abundant free supply.
You can carve letter openers from the slats on the ends of
grape crates. Melon boxes furnish enough wood for small
animals. I like to carve larger cats so I go to the mills
around here, get big crates and cut between the nails of
the 2 x 4's. Taking a piece of 2 X 4 six inches long, I
drill a hole in the top and proceed to carve out the cat.
The hole makes a holder for pens and pencils.
A very good income can be realized by visiting every trash
and dump pile you can find. In such places, I constantly
find valuable chairs, brassware, glassware, old iron items
and many, many other treasures.
I can't emphasize strongly enough the extra money we make
on things found at the city dump. Many of the antiques in
our house were picked up there. I once found a very
valuable round oak table in the dump . . . not to mention
an oak dresser, the oak case of a pipe organ, two ladder
back slipper chairs, an iron kettle, a pair of andirons and
some much sought after blue clamp-top canning jars. These
are only a few of my great finds. Many people will also
give you all the stuff in the attic if you'll just haul it
away. I've been in more attics than a thief.
On Sunday afternoons, the family goes out for a walk. We
observe wildlife, dig sassafras root and have a good time.
As we meander we pick up pop bottles, put them in a big
supermarket bag and bring them home.
The bottles are stored in crates (easily obtained from the
supermarket) and—every six months or so—I take
them to the bottling companies and collect the 2¢
deposit. The take is usually about $10.00. That's $70.00 a
year for helping to clean up the landscape, keeping the
heart young and taking off extra pounds.
Two years ago we started gardening organically as real
"homesteaders". This summer we canned and froze over fifty
quarts of tomatoes and the freezer is full of corn; beans,
squash, pumpkins, okra and apples.
We're trying to learn everything there is to know about
living off the land and we're particularly interested in
free wild foods and preserving by sun drying. We're simple
people, wanting the simple life.
I've had the most fun telling "you all" about our home
business and way of life. As a matter of fact—since
starting our work here—I've thought of several other
home occupations but I'll save those for another time.