My Grandfather in Roanoke Shops, circa 1880s

nw-mailing-list at nw-mailing-list at
Mon Jan 10 19:17:20 EST 2005

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it with us.


Steve Shetter



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Subject: My Grandfather in Roanoke Shops, circa 1880s


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 aroound 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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