The Chain Man

Posted on Wednesday, September 4, 2013 at 10:14 am

One of our most enjoyable visits recently was to the home of Marvin and Betty Nolan on Rock Avenue in Palmer. They live in the “other end” part of Palmer where the late Lycurgus “Curg” Creighton had a home ad store in the early days of the town.

We were thinking to just write a story about Marvin’s hobby of making wood chains but soon our visit turned into much more.

How many times have we heard of people working all their lives, finally getting to retire, then start to sit around and do nothing. It seems in many cases that before long you hear of their death.

The Nolan’s are active both mentally and physically. Each has their own computer and they get a good physical workout through mowing, flower and vegetable beds, painting and remodeling and just about anything you can think of to keep their home and property up.

“I first started making these chains when I was 13 years old and saw Ray King over in Barker’s Cove doing it,” he said. “No two are exactly alike. The longest one I’ve done is 15 feet and 9 inches. Cedar is my favorite wood, but I also use Birch and have a 20 foot piece of that to use in my next project.”

A very special wood chain he made was in memory of his coalmining friend Henry Lawson of Tracy City who died on the job. On one end of the links is a carving of Mr. Lawson’s face and on the other end is a carving of a miners boot. We were honored by Marvin presenting us with a “friendship” chain, which has carvings that look like bedposts on each end.

Betty and Marvin both come from working class families. She’s from the coalmining region of eastern Kentucky, spent 32 years as a floral designer, with 10 of those at Elaine’s Flowers in Coalmont.

Marvin has worked in jobs varying from a coffee salesman for Standard Coffee Company of Chattanooga to coalmining, and, of all things, salt mining.

From 1974 to 1995, Marvin was an electrician and head electrician in local coalmines. The demon of addiction called cigarette smoking has destroyed countless lives. Despite the outrageous prices of today (Mr. Raymond Hargis, 85, is a non-smoker, but remembers when they were 20 cents a pack) and the known health hazards smoking is still going strong in Grundy County. Hopefully, the following story will make young people pause and reconsider before they become totally addicted.

“I quit in 1974. I was on my knees at the mines looking at an electrical panel but could hardly see it for coughing,” said Marvin. “When I looked down I had a cigarette in each hand. I was so disgusted with myself that I threw them away and gave two packs of Winston’s I had with me to a co-worker. I told him he would never live to see the day when I smoked another cigarette. The only way to quit is to make up your mind and quit. You can’t ease into it.”

Like so many from Grundy County in those days, Marvin headed to Cleveland, Ohio to find work and landed a job at International Salt Company shoveling salt at the mine on Whiskey Island.

The shaft was 2,150 feet from top to bottom and the workers got off at 1,850 feet. He says the salt vein was 1,300 feet thick and that they were into it 500 feet before it started under Lake Erie. The Mineral down there was described as looking like light colored limestone.

Heavy machinery was brought down the shaft and the giant underground complex produced salt at an amazing rate. Salt for water softeners, road salt to melt ice, and Morton Salt Company even had a refinery to make table salt in the area.

Years and years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to work for 50 cents an hour or a dollar an hour. “Daddy (he’s a son of the late Claude and Ruby Haynes Nolan) once told me that if you work for 50 cents an hour, you work just as hard as you would if you make $4.50 an hour. On any job I’ve always tried to go home after work with the feeling that I had done my best.”

With such a strong work ethic, he soon moved up as an oiler and started doing maintenance on the machines. With a storage bin in the mine holding 35,000 tons of salt and a machine that could bag 1200 pounds a minute, there was plenty to do.

The superintendent of the plant was a kindly German man who made a deep impression on Marvin’s life. “One day I was sitting on top of a work bench and he asked me why. When I told him I was trying to figure out the machine he told me to sit there as long as I wanted and said, “When you learn something, you can fix something.” I worked there eight years with several different nationalities and found the Germans to be very smart and very caring people.”

Most people have to “overcome” a lot in life to reach old age. Marvin has had two heart attacks plus prostate cancer. Betty has had six surgeries on both feet and probably other sickness as well.

People of strong faith who believe in a personal relationship with God, at the end of the interview Marvin said to us that, “I’m not telling you all of this to boast about myself. I hope this story will encourage the senior citizens of Palmer and Grundy County to get moving and find something meaningful to do. We all have aches and pains but stay active and you’ll live a longer and happier life.”

Many times the Golden Years can really be that, if we keep moving and doing and learning. And, as the late bandleader Lawrence Welk used to say, “Keep a song in your heart.”

This story may soon be viewed on the Grundy County Historical Society website at

 Marvin Nolan with Wood Chain

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