My projects always seem to start with a story from North Adams native Carl Robare, one of my best friends since I started visiting the city 11 years ago. It’s the one about the guy with the hairy chest.
“Back in the early 1950s,” Carl says, “I used to work at the Strong-Hewat woolen mill in Clarksburg. There was this guy who worked in the carding room. He had a very hairy chest. The wool dust would always be flying around. When it was hot in there, this guy would take his shirt off. You could tell what color they were dying the wool that day, because he would be that color. If they were using blue, he had a blue chest.”
I thought of that story this summer while in a planning meeting for the annual Neighborhood EXPO. I had dreamed up this idea to facilitate a discussion about memories of North Berkshire, as triggered by the senses (sight, smell, etc.). Someone said, “Give me an example,” and that’s when Carl’s story popped into my mind. Everyone liked it.
So I decided to use the story to publicize the EXPO. A couple of brainstorming sessions led to “Hairy Chest Art,” a proposed MCLA Gallery 51 exhibition of works inspired by the story. I told Carl, and he was very amused. Then it hit him – the man’s name. For the first time, he remembered who he was and where he was living at the time (Rand Street, North Adams). So I put on my detective’s hat and booted up my computer.
I pulled up Ancestry.com, a popular genealogy website I subscribe to. Trouble is, the man’s name was too commonplace to find anything definitive I could use; so one morning after meeting Carl for breakfast, I headed to the North Adams Public Library and combed through the city directories. There he was, in 1954, living on Rand Street, and listed as working at Strong-Hewat. But starting with the next directory available (1957), he disappeared forever. Did he move out of town, or could he have died?
I hurried down to the city clerk’s office, and they found a man with the same name. He died in 2003 in Albany, but was in their records because he had been on their voter rolls. The clerk pulled the card out of the file and brought it over. It was the right guy for sure. He had registered to vote in 1954, while living on Rand Street.
I tore out of City Hall and hurried back to the library. In the Transcript microfilm archives, I found the man’s obituary. One of the survivors mentioned was a sister, living in North Adams. I looked up the sister’s phone number, and ran to my car and called her on my cell phone. I told her I was doing some research about her brother, and she said it would be okay for me to drop by after lunch.
When I told her the hairy chest story, she said, “We always said he had a very hairy chest.” We chatted for an hour, and she reminisced fondly about her brother. She said he moved to Albany in the middle ‘50s and got a job as the produce manager at a supermarket, retiring in 1979. He never married.
As soon as I left, I pulled out my cell phone again and called Carl. “Hey, Carl. Guess what. I’m sitting in my car outside the house of the sister of the man with the hairy chest. I just talked to her for an hour. I’ll call you when I get home and tell you all about it.”