Thursday, January 9, 2014

Gig Harbor Machine Works and Howard William Cox

Gig Harbor has been very lucky throughout their history to have so many talented, accomplished and innovative people living in our midst.  We made acquaintance with Alfred Erickson back ion August 2, 2012.  As a blacksmith he came up with the design and manufactured boring bit and tools that were used by ship builders during the 1940 war years up and down the west coast of the United States.

Howard Cox is another Gig Harbor resident that used his skills as a machinist to benefit not only the fishing and boat building industry but also small farmers and berry growers from 1942 forward. These two men are a reminder of how important formal or informal vocational arts and apprenticeships are in any fields. 
Howard W. Cox, June 1988

Howard was born during turbulent time - the rumors, conflicts and hostilities had erupted into World War I by the time of his birth in April 1916.  The conflicts continued until 1918 and then were followed by the forgotten depression of 1920-21
which became the Great Depression during the remainder of the 1920s into the early 1930s.  
Howard was fortunate through because his father worked for the Northern Pacific Railroad and was able to get him a four-year Machinist Apprenticeship in 1936 of 298 hours.  However the Depression only allowed him to work 2 weeks each month; as a result it took 5 1/2 years to finish the program.  During his last 3 months of apprenticeship he worked on the Round House in Lewsitown, Montana. 

Finishing his apprenticeship Howard returned to Tacoma and was able to get a job at the Coast Iron Machine Works where he worked for 3 years.  While working there he met an older man, John McConaghy,  from Gig Harbor and they had worked together.  John told him there was a machine shop in Gig Harbor for sale and asked Howard if he would like to partner and buy it.  Howard decided to check it out and after looking at the shop decided that between the two of them they could take over the Galbraith lease on the Gig Harbor Machine Works which had about 6 months remaining.  It was August, the war still on-going, and the fishing boats were back for the winter.  There wasn’t enough work for the two of them, so by year-end, Howard bought John out.  In March when the lease was up, Howard purchased the property from  Mrs. Fleuss.  Daddy O’s Skateboard shop is currently located in the  machine shop building and the small house is a rental.  

Howard had been classified 4A and deferred from military service because of his work on the fishing boats.  But all this changed when he bought the business and the fishing boats left for the season.  He had to report to Seattle to take the test for the military; he had a baby on the way, had been reclassified One A.  He passed the Army test.  As he walked down Second Avenue in Seattle he noticed the Marine Maritime Service had posted a sign “Engineers Wanted”.  Howard had had railroad experience on steam locomotives as well as a course in steam engineering at Washington State College.  He decided to stop, took their test and passed that too.  Marine Maritime Service superseded the Army.  The Commander told him a group of men were leaving on the following Saturday and wanted to know if he would be available to go then.  Howard said no, he had to close the machine shop, take his wife to Tacoma to her parents and wouldn’t have enough time for such a speedy departure.  He agreed to make the next trip 2 weeks later.  But before those 2 weeks were up, the atom bomb was dropped in Japan and that ended his military career.

Suddenly it was spring and he got very busy with the fishing boats, and worked on them until the very end of his life.  He also started designing and building small tractors to be used on farms 10 to 15 acres in size.  He built about 25 or 26 of the tractors.  Since both fishing and farming started in the spring, he was really pressed and so for a while he had about 6 men working for him.  He also designed and built many anchor and deck winches, masts, booms and davits - machinery on the boats necessary to catch fish.
The Peninsula Gateway August 8, 1979

The Fisherman's News, February 1, 1962
In around 1950 he started fishing in the summer months; the rest of the year he was just too busy.  The first year he went with Walt Crosby, skipper of “Mirian”; the “Mirian” sunk that year after fall fishing off the San Juan Islands.  It hid a log or other submerged object too close the the shore.  They were unable to salvage it.

Next, he fished with Johnny Ross on “Home II” and one time when they were out they hit some rocks in the heavy pea-soup fog.  Unfortunately the guys in Anacortes shipyard couldn’t help them.  Johnny’s crew had to work on the keel and Howard brought the propeller shaft home to Gig Harbor and straightened it.  He got a new propeller made in Seattle and “Home II” was back fishing in 3 days.  Howard fished on and off for 25 years with different skippers - Don Gilich one year and several years with Frank Ivanovich on the “Equator”.  He also fished with Nick Tarabochia on the “Shenandoah” when Nick ran the boat for Tony Janovich.

In the machine shop Howard made and installed small engines, made masts, booms and winches (anchor winches, tow bit winches) and basically anything that made the boat go.  In the late 60s he even did all the refrigeration work on a boat for John Brescovich.  When it was finished, John asked Howard why didn’t he go to Alaska with them.  He went and they worked the boat as a tender and crab boat.  He did that twice.

In 1979, he and his wife sold Gig Harbor Machine Shop and the property to Mrs. Luella McGraw.  Mrs. McGraw didn’t want any of the contents so Howard built a new shop building on property he owned at 118th.  After getting it set up and a trip to California, he started operating again. But one day while working he suddenly went blind in his right eye.  Howard decided that was a clear sign he should sell the business.  He sold the shop to Lee Thrall, a California transplant, and worked with Lee for a month showing him all the equipment, how to operate and basically how to run the business.  Lee didn’t work very long, only until January. Howard could see the it wasn’t working out; the fishermen were so dissatisfied that they told Howard they wouldn’t give him any more work unless Lee left.  Howard searched again for someone to take over the business and Mike and Karen Killian purchased the business in 1988.  Mike and Karen continue to own and operate the business today.
The Peninsula State Bank - Peninsula Industry at Work
There is so much more to Howard Cox’s story, but let’s end it for now knowing that he contributed much to our community.  Howard was a member of the International Machinist & Aerospace Workers, District Lodge 160; the Gig Harbor Fishermen’s Civic Club; and a 35 year member of Gig Harbor Grange #445.  He also served on Pierce County’s Noxious Weed Control Board for 9 years.  These are just a few of Howard’s involvement in the community around him.
© 2012 Harbor History Museum. All rights reserved.

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