My Grandfather in Roanoke Shops, circa 1880s

nw-mailing-list at nw-mailing-list at
Sat Jan 8 18:05:50 EST 2005

Recently I had to put together a little piece on my great-grandfather, who 
worked at the Roanoke Machine Works (later "East End Shops") from the early 
1880s to the 1930s.  Some of you on the List might enjoy reading it.  And it might 
make you thankful for how well-off you are in life.

-- abram burnett

Johann Gustavus Sjogren (pronounced "Schwo-gren") was my father's mother's 
father.  He emigrated from Goteborg, Sweden, about 1880, having learned his 
machinist's trade on the Old Country.  Apparently he worked briefly for the Erie, 
as we have a photo of him taken in Susquehanna, Pa, and there wasn't anything 
in Susquehanna, Pa except the Erie !  Somehow he ended up in newly created 
Roanoke around 1882, when the N&W opened its shops there.  Worked there until he 
retired in 1932.  He lived for another four years.  (He had little respect for 
American machinists, by the way... especially "railroad machinists" ! )

He was my dad's hero.  When my dad started working extra yardmaster (early 
1950s,) he pulled some tours as yardmaster at East End Shops, and got some of 
the old timers to show him where his grandfather's work bench had been. This was 
a thrill to him and he mentioned it more than once.

"Gus" always loved farming.  When he married my great-grandmother Cora 
(1890,) he bought (rented, probably) a farm at Boones Mill, Va, 17 miles south of 
Roanoke.  He worked six days a week in the Shops at Roanoke, and after work on 
Saturday, he would walk 17 miles to Boones Mill (as the Roanoke & Southern RR 
had not yet been completed.)   Before he would eat his dinner, he would go 
around and feed all the animals so much food that they would get sick !  On 
Sundays, he walked back to Roanoke.

Gus was a real worker.  When he finally moved from Boones Mill to Roanoke 
(around 1900, as I recall,) he lived in a big wooden house up on a hill, at the 
corner of Elm Avenue and 8th Street. SE, with Cora and his six children.  It 
was "only" a one mile walk from the shops.  He hand-excavated a huge amount of 
dirt away from the hillside and hand mixed all the concrete for his own 
sidewalks and two huge concrete retaining walls to keep the hill from sliding away.  
He bent his own pipe for handrails and ... turned brass ornamental balls as 
"dressing" to go in the ends of the pipework!  He also built his own grape 
arbors and a fine out building for his shop and coal house.  Then, when automobiles 
came around, he excavated even more dirt, formed up and poured a divided 
concrete garage with a concrete roof, so that he could rent it out for extra 
money.  We have a number of pokers that he made for tending fires (all with brass 
handles,) a spiffy brass match holder for holding wooden matches, and two of 
the ornamental ball endpieces that he made for the handrailings.

His one nemesis in life was McPeake, the Irishman who lived next door.  He 
and McPeake didn't get along at all, for some reason which no one seems to 
remember.  Their houses were very close together (as builders were wont to 
construct houses back in the days before building codes.)  I never got the whole story 
on the event, but there was one episode where either McPeake or "Gust" (as 
McPeake called him) was using a ladder to paint his house, and the "other party" 
alleged that the base of said ladder was resting on   > HIS <  property and 
so kicked the ladder down, with the painter still high up on it !   Of course 
there was a huge fistfight between these two old guys, and the wives and 
children of both households were duly instructed "never to speak to" the housewife 
and children of the adjoining house.  Whew !

Gus was also a great prankster.  He played pranks on his co-workers at the 
Shops, and on the newly emingrated Swedes (all of whom hung together.)  One poor 
dumb Swede was named Herm Salander, and Gus told him an ideal treatment for a 
terrible headcold would be to go to the drugstore and ask for a "box of 
bastards."  Herm did as his buddy Gus had advised.  The girl at the counter 
shreaked.  The police were called, and as they were ready to throw poor Herm in the 
paddy wagon, he blurted out something like "Gus told me to do it !"    "Gus?  
Gus?  Gus who?" asked the gendarmes.   "Gus Sjogren," said Herm.   "Oh, we know 
Gus," said the cops, "And this is just another one of his tricks!"  And they 
let poor Herm go free.

A tradition of the shop workers was to save one biscuit from their lunch each 
day, and put it on the top shelf of their locker.  On pay day (once a month, 
back then) they would get out the hard busciuts and have biscuit battles in 
the locker room.  

One St Paddy's Day, the Irish shop workers painted Gus's boots (the ones he 
walked to work in, before changing into his work shoes) with green paint.  A 
week later, the Irishmen came back to the locker room, after 12 hours in the 
Shop, to find their shoes had all been nailed to the floor with horse shoe nails. 
 Wonder who... ?

In his retirement, Gus would walk from his home in southeast Roanoke to the 
home of his daughter (my grandmother) in Villa Heights to mix concrete and pour 
sidewalks, and do other work.  That was probably six or seven miles each way.

During Prohibition, he also made his own wine and beer.  The Lutheran 
minister, a German by the name of Sieber, paid many visits to the Sjogren household 
during this time and, as the story goes, usually had to be assisted down all 
the concrete stairwork that Gus had built !   

Gus had married a Methodist girl from Botetourt County.  But he never missed 
church at "his" church, St. Mark's Lutheran, which was on the southeast corner 
of Campbell Avenue and 3rd Street, SW.  As a child, I was taken one time to 
"Papa's Church"... the day they were holding their last service before moving 
to a new building. 

On his deathbed, his last words (spoken to my grandmother) were:  "Oh, 
daughter,  I see the Land, and it is so beautiful."

I wish I knew more about him, but I missed him by ten years.  He definitely 
sounds like my kind of guy.  No wonder my father was so fascinated by him.
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