Possum Holler’s best mechanic
By: Dick Hodgetts; Columnist
Possum Holler (aka: Double Bridge Road) was mostly cotton and dairy farms in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Kids raised in that era went into and out of school as crops and family income allowed. Joe Hensler, like a lot of boys of that era could shoot marbles with the best of ‘em, milked cows, picked cotton; and sometimes went up to Miss Clyde Davis’s school house in Rutledge. And, as boys are prone to do, he would occasionally get into “trouble”. Teachers would straighten out his behavior with a leather strap that left its mark. Getting into “trouble” in those days meant sneaking a smoke on school property or heaven forbid, gambling while playing marbles. Lord knows, those were devilish times.!!!
One of 10 kids, Joe was called by his draft board in mid-1945; just as draft officials learned that the USA had enough men in uniform to win the war. Lucky for Joe, as one brother was wounded in World War II before returning to Madison.
Post-war Madison was not a prosperous location for working folks. It did have three mills that provided some young men like Joe an opportunity to earn $29 per week (72 cents per hour); and they felt lucky. But, Joe had something else that caught Plant Manager Guy Thurmond’s eye. Joe could fix anything; and better yet, he could often figure out how to keep machines from breaking down. That was a valuable talent in a sewing plant.
Joe was pulled into the boss’s office and told he had an opportunity to go from the cutting room to being a sewing machine mechanic. Tests were a bit more practical in the late 1940’s: “here boy, take apart this sewing machine, put it back together with no parts left over, and be sure it sews real good.” He passed. And, his income went to $110 per week. They would say in 1949 Madison: “he was in high cotton”. So much so that he would go over to Mr. Wallace’s lot and buy his first car, a 15 year old Ford. “Best car I ever owned, said Joe, I could take the family up to the North Carolina mountains and return on $ 7 of gas”.
At the Morgan Sportswear Company, they had 185 women working on a piece rate system. Pay was based on their production. When the sewing machines went down, the girls lost money. Joe kept those machines humming. He could stand on the floor, hear one machine vibrating in an odd manner, and go find a loose screw or some small repair and that lady’s piece rate production remained high. Joe Hensler and his wife could go to the local grocery store and sewing room ladies would approach Ovaline Hensler and say: “I just gotta hug your husband’s neck. He keeps my sewing machine purring.” Hugging men was a bit unusual in 1949 Madison. Wives reactions to it haven’t changed much, Ovaline would look on perplexed and manage a weak smile.
When you can make 185 women happy, your reputation grows. A plant in Rutledge: Slant and Slant hired him to become Chief Mechanic. Soon textile plants in Commerce and Conner would call Joe to fix machines their mechanics could not fix.
Textile plants close, and work moves off-shore. So, Joe opens a lawn mower repair shop at his home out Dixie Avenue. Folks brought him all types of mowers to repair. When he took his family on vacation, upon returning they would find the fenced-in yard full of mowers needing repair. A man’s well-earned reputation just follows him.
Moving to the present, the mechanic from Possum Holler is going down to Emory Hospital. He has a valve that is plugged, and the good Doctors are going to throw him on a table, fix him, and make sure they put back all the parts; and that he feels good again. They too have been tested in their profession, the process is a bit more rigorous.
My message is simple: “Doc, do a good job. Morgan County needs any man who can keep all those women happy.”
Any you, dear reader, when you next see Joe Hensler at Perk Avenue, fixing equipment for daughter Jolene, say: “I want to shake the hand of any man who can make 185 ladies happy.” Hugging is appropriate.
PRINTED IN THE APRIL 16, 2009 EDITION