To this day, whenever I pass a group of working roofers and smell the “hot tar,” or asphalt, being used in a tar-and-gravel roof, my mind flashes back to those many days years ago I spent on the tops of hundreds of roofs while working for my dad’s company, Downing Roofing Company. In 1939, after transplanting in 1938 to Baytown, Texas, from Mangum, Oklahoma and working as a carpenter, my dad, Robert Downing, Sr, along with a brother, formed a roofing company to serve the Baytown area. For better than fifty years, I was under the impression that dad started the company with his older brother, Orville. However, the last time I visited with my Uncle Thurl, Dad’s last surviving brother, he revealed that it was actually Dad and he who started the company. My uncle worked with my dad for a year of so, but then landed a job with General Tire and Rubber Company. In those post-depression, pre-war days, a guaranteed income probably looked a lot more attractive that a speculative income from a new business, so Uncle Thurl left the fledgling company, and Dad’s older brother, Orville, joined the partnership. That partnership would last over forty years, until dad’s health forced him into retirement.
The newspaper ad that you see on this page comes from the Baytown Sun, and was published sometime around 1940. Due to the poor quality of the print, I will list the names of the caricatures (top left to bottom right): R.L. Downing, O.E. Downing, Blanche Downing, Boyd Downing, Lawrence Downing, Jack Downing, Heril Linderman, Thomas Echols, and Anderson Willis. R.L. and O.E. were the owners and managers, Blanche was the secretary and Lawrence’s wife, brothers Boyd, Lawrence, and Jack were shinglers who installed composition shingle roofs, Heril and Thomas were sons-in-law of the brothers’ daughters and worked as helpers to the shinglers. Anderson Willis was an African-American who was the foreman of the first “hot” crew that the company had. A “hot” roof was a roof installed on a flat or nearly flat roof and consisted of two layers of asphalt felt nailed to the deck, then two layers of felt applied with hot tar via a mop, and then everything covered with a layer of hot tar and rock gravel. Anderson Willis wasn’t Anderson Willis to any of us…he was “Slim.” I don’t think I ever heard his real name until I was a pretty big kid. “Slim” was a tireless roofing machine and worked for the company for more than 35 years.
Dad and Orville worked out a system of responsibilities where on a monthly basis one brother would be “on the road” and the other with the roofing crews. “On the road” meant to take care of the front office business…dealing with customers, giving estimates, making leaky roof calls, working with building contractors, etc. Dad called it the “headache” part of the business. While on “crew” duty, he would say it was a lot less stressful because once the crews were on the jobs and working, there’s wasn’t much to worry about. Personally, I liked my dad to be “on the road” because once I reached the age of eight or nine, he would allow me to tag along with him during the summer school break, whereas I wasn’t yet allowed to get around the hot stuff and boiling tar. Many a summer day went by while I rode with Dad in his truck from customer to customer, house to house, and office to office as he conducted the business of a roofing contractor. Dad and Uncle Orville were highly principled, and many building contractors, architects, and commercial businesses would call no one but Downing Roofing Company when it came to roofing needs.
I remember one time that Dad, to his horror, realized that he had forgotten to calculate the cost of applying insulation underneath a roof on a large school. Because of that, his bid for the total job was thousands of dollars under what it would cost their company to install. I was in the room when Dad and Orville agreed that, lose money or not, they had given their word with their bid, and they had no choice but to honor it. There was no agonizing or trying to figure out a way to get out of it…they just kept their word.
By the time I reached twelve or thirteen, Dad began letting me earn a little money by working with the “hot” crews when he had crew duty. I never did much shingling, I guess because Dad didn’t either. He left that chore to his brothers as he spent his time with the tar and gravel gangs. When we were on site installing a roof, my job would be to keep things cleaned up since there was always remnants of asphalt felt blowing about, or rock gravel splashing here and there. I had to keep a healthy distance from the tar, since hot asphalt generally is around 450 degrees when applied, and you haven’t lived until you’ve had a spray of that stuff come your way. In 1957, while working on a bank building in Cleveland, Texas, my dad was standing on a parapet (wall) hollering something down to the crew member on the ground, when the “carrier,” the guy who carried the hot tar in buckets to the “mopper,” who applied the tar to the roof, inadvertently placed a five gallon bucket of hot tar right behind my dad. Dad stepped back off the parapet and his right foot went into the bucket of boiling tar. His shoe was bigger than the bucket and hung up at the bottom of the bucket. Dad fell, tried to kick off the bucket, splashing boiling tar all over himself, and finally pulled his foot out of his shoe, but the tar had already fried his foot and ankle to the bone. In agony, he then had to climb down two levels of ladders to get to the ground, where he was taken to the hospital. About 2:00 p.m. that day, Mom pulled me out of school and we headed to Cleveland. By the time we got there the torture was mostly over and dad was resting, albeit painfully, in a hospital room, but the way he described it sounded painful enough. Dad came home in a couple of days…the next Sunday, he hobbled into church with a heavily bandaged foot and crutches. He was determined not to miss church. We had to prop his foot up above his waist when he sat because of the pain…but he made it to church.
My favorite part of these early years was actually not the work, but after work each day. Around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. the crews would return to the home location at 1314 North Main. The hired hands would make their ways to their homes and the Downings would sit around the office and drink coffee and talk. These were the fifties, and Oklahoma was not too distant a memory for most of the clan. I wish I had been smart enough to record some of the conversations for posterity, but most of what I know about Downing history prior to 1940 I learned while sitting in the background in the main office of Downing Roofing Company. In the forties and early fifties, Downing Roofing Company provided jobs and incomes for a whole bevy of relatives who struggled to keep body and soul together after their parents lost their Oklahoma farm in the late thirties. My dad had seven brothers and seven sisters, and at one time or another over the years most of them had a connection with Downing Roofing Company…and that’s not counting wives, husbands, and children. Maybe that’s why the company prospered…the managing brothers were generous, God-fearing, and took care of their own.
As I grew older, I began to assume more responsibilities and actually take a position in the work crew. Of course, it was still primarily a summer job for me, but I learned to do each of the primary tasks in a “hot” crew. The “kettle” man was the person on the ground who fired up the huge kettle which melted the tar, keeping it at just the right temperature for application. The “carrier” I’ve already mentioned, kept the “mopper” in hot tar by calling down to the kettle man, who would draw a couple of buckets (5 gallon per), haul them over to a pulley and wench them up to the carrier. The carrier would carry (!) the buckets to the mopper where he poured the two buckets into the mopper’s bigger 15 gallon bucket on wheels. The mopper would then lay out a stretch of hot tar and the final crew member, the “felt” man, would lay a roll of felt down and roll it out over the hot tar. Two layers of felt would be applied, then a new layer of tar applied and while hot, the “felt” man became the “gravel” man as he spread gravel over the tar as a final finish. Of course, to get the gravel on top of the roof for application required all hands since this was before power machines or lifts, so we either backed up the gravel-laden truck to the edge of the roof and threw the gravel up on the roof a shovel at a time, or we wenched it up a bucket at a time. All these jobs were hot and exhausting. We didn’t know what air conditioning was and ate salt tablets like they were candy. Our clothing would be white with salt by the time we got back to the office from a day’s work. But I was young, strong, and impervious to pain.
The men I worked with were an interesting lot. You have to remember, this was the fifties and early sixties, and there were distinct boundaries between the ethnicities. The crews which installed the composition shingles were mostly white crews…not to mention usually family, but the “hot” crews would be described in today’s terms as being very diverse. Most, but not all, of the members of our “hot” crews were African-American, with an occasional Hispanic thrown in, not to mention an intermittent Locklear (a branch of the Downing clan still in Oklahoma.) The Locklears maintained the roofing tradition in Oklahoma, but if things got a little slow there, they would come down to Baytown to work for awhile, then go back home. “Slim” (Anderson Willis) was a quiet black man who was probably the best roofer I have ever seen. For around 35 years he served the company faithfully. Around 1960 or so, long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, someone decided to build a new subdivision of homes just for blacks. That sounds scandalous now, but at that time even the idea of homes for minorities was unheard of….black people did not live in new houses. Slim happened to mention to Dad one day how he would like to have a nice home for his family. Many African-Americans were restricted to poorly kept areas of Baytown and had no access to decent living areas. Dad drove Slim out to the new subdivision and to the sales office and in a matter of days, Slim was a homeowner. I think that’s the reason Dad and Orville had several minority workers who stayed with them for many years. There was the racial separation prevalent during the times, but the workers were treated with respect and they were paid well. In fact, Downing Roofing Company was a union shop, the employees were paid union wages, and in 40 years there was not a single grievance against the company.
I worked with Slim often, but I never took his job because he could do it better. There were other guys, though, Harvey Smith, Ephraim Jones, Quincy Seastruck, “Old Folks,” and others whose names have slipped my mind, whom I think about from time to time and wonder where they are and if they’re still alive. Harvey was an older guy who suffered from arthritis and rarely missed a day of work, though he would be so exhausted at the end of the day he could hardly move. Ephraim was a fast-talking ball of energy. Someone dropped a heavy pulley on Quincy’s head one day and I got to see the dent in his skull. “Old Folks” was a guy who wasn’t that old, just talked and acted like it. We lived in a strange time back then. Many times when it was time for lunch, we would all pile into the company truck and head to some eatery. After parking, I would go inside and have a sit down lunch, and the blacks would go around to the outside back of the restaurant, and, through an open door, order lunch. The proprietor would fix their orders, deliver them to the back door, and they would eat their lunches while sitting on the back steps. No one complained, and when I picked them up they would be laughing and joking because that was just the way it was.
In about 1959, Downing Roofing Company enlarged with a new metal building with brick offices. It was just next door at 1416 North Main. Then in 1960, after driving bare-bones half-ton six cylinder, three-speed Chevy trucks for years, the company bought a fancy Chevy El Camino for the “on the road” person to drive. The Baytown Sun even came by and took a picture of it (see poor quality photo from the newspaper). It was in the new metal building that I managed to fold the forks of a motorcycle back about 35 degrees when I was horsing around and ran into a stack of roofing. I myself hit the roofing but somehow bounced off unhurt, but my bike drove funny after that. It was also in this new building where I was one day loading sixty pound rolls of roofing felt onto a truck. I would place the rolls on the truck bed and a helper would roll them to the front of the bed and stack them. I decided to show my brilliance and amazing strength by picking up the rolls of felt, throwing them the 22 foot length of the truck bed, and neatly stacking them in a row. I did that for about 15 rolls when I felt something pop in my back and I went down. Three hospital days later and piles of x-rays confirmed I had collapsed a couple of vertebras. The problem still shows up in x-rays today. Well, I was impressive for fifteen rolls anyway!
1961 was a momentous year as Shirley and I married, and I started college with the idea of becoming an architect. Dad had always been on good terms with the main architects in Baytown at the time, Lowell Lammers and James (Bitsy) Davis, and Bitsy had encouraged me to get into architecture. I attended Lee College for a year, but in the course of events the architecture dream fizzled. I dropped out of Lee, and went to work for Downing Roofing Company full time. Somehow, it never fit, though, and I made the mistake one day of visiting an Air Force recruiter on a whim. It was a life changing event, and in August, 1963, I entered the U.S. Air Force. But that’s another story. When I told my crew members at Downing Roofing Company what I did, they proceeded to tell me every horror story they had ever experienced, heard, or, I suspect, imagine about the service. The told me never to volunteer for anything, keep my head down, and mouth shut (which, by the way, turned out to be good advice.) The last job I worked on was roofing Jimmy Carpenter’s home. He was a well-known fairly affluent barber in Baytown who was a world-traveling big game hunter whose barber shop looked like a animal museum. As we rolled that evening into the Downing Roofing Company storage lot and begin to disperse, each of my friends shook my hand and wished me well. I came home a few months later, and visited them again, but then the separation became years and I lost track of them. In the 70s and early 80s I visited occasionally, but by then many had moved on. In 1982, Dad had a debilitating heart attack and in a few months retired from the company, selling his share to Uncle Orville and his son, O.E. Jr. Some time thereafter, when Orville went into a rest home, O.E. Jr. closed Downing Roofing Company and moved to Austin. It was the end of an era.