Mary Ann (Parrish) Davis is the daughter of Art Parrish (b. 1921-d. 2012), who was a superintendent for Mayer-Osborn Construction Co. The family–Art, Flo, Alice, Mary, and their dog, Tuffy–went from job to job, living for weeks or months at a time in places ranging from Wyoming to New York. They had many marvelous, dramatic, and even tragic experiences. Mary was married 44 years to James Davis until he passed away in 2007. They had three children. Today she is known as Mary Mentel from a subsequent remarriage in 2011. We spoke to Mary by phone from her home in Oklahoma City on May 11, 2021.
Mary: When he [Art] started working on elevators, he was only 18 and had just married my mom and worked as a laborer. In fact, his first day of work, he worked for his father-in-law, John Berle Fowler [Mary’s grandfather], he climbed into a big storm drain and fell asleep, so he [Fowler] fired him. After he forgave him and gave him another chance, he taught him to read blueprints. He [Art] worked real hard, and after a certain time he became a carpenter. When he was working as a carpenter, he was called to the Army in November of 1944. So from 1940 to 1944 he worked as a laborer and carpenter. Called into the army during the war, he was injured and sent home. He went back, and the war was over: they dropped the bomb. After the war he went back to work on an elevator because he already had experience and could read blueprints. He always thanked his father-in-law for that. It was in 1945 when he got out of the Army and started working on this big job that was in Enid, Oklahoma. (That was his hometown.) He worked as a carpenter. His superintendent was Bill Grammar. So my dad was a carpenter for a year. Bill came to him and asked, “When this job is done, I have a small job in Oakland, Kansas. Do you think you can handle a foreman’s job?” The company from Hutchinson, Kansas, sent Bill up there. My dad said he didn’t know if he could do it, but sure would like to give it a try. Bill said it would pay $1.50 an hour. Now this was in 1946. The laborers got $1 an hour, the carpenters got $1.25, and a carpenter foreman got $1.50. Bill had been a superintendent for many years and–he was as old as his [Art’s] dad–and he only made $150 a week as a superintendent. He was on a steady salary. That’s how things were in those days. But you could buy a new car every other year, which my dad always did that. He said with that kind of money, things were cheap then.
There was an old man that worked with my dad. His name was Roy Snodgrass. He kind of treated him like a son. My dad was still limping. He’d been shot in the leg a couple of places with a machine gun in the war. This old man said, “Are you getting your pension?” My dad said no. Well, he forced him to go downtown and sign up for that. My dad was always thankful. He said one day it was raining, and when that happened they would go into the toolshed and play poker. And Roy told my dad, “Come on, we’re going to go get you signed up for your pension.” So they did, and about a year later he started getting his pension in 1946. This doesn’t have anything to do with elevators, but his pension was $42 a month. By 2006 it was $800 a month. But then in 2007 the government cut it in half for any vets over 80 years old, which I thought was really sad.
He said he never did see Roy again after that job. Then from 1946 to 1952, Art worked for six years as a carpenter foreman. He was all over the Midwest on different jobs, all grain elevators. There was just one time he worked on a cement plant. Then he was hired in 1952 as a superintendent when I was eight years old.
My grandfather, J.D. Fowler, worked construction on the elevators. My father-in-law, Myrl Davis, he worked for Mayer-Osborn. In 1952 we were in Rudd, Iowa. It was population 400–you probably never heard of it. The elevator was the only tall building in town. It was really a big deal. There were about 10 kids in my third-grade class, and my dad invited the teacher and the children to come up on top after it was finished. So that was a big deal for me and my class. There was a small elevator on the outside of the [grain] elevator. That’s what we got in to go up. I think he called it a manlift. I don’t know if they used ropes or it was electric. On that job his foreman was Ray Rogers. There were like three families of us that traveled, and we would see each like every other year. We kind of grew up together. Myrl Davis, Ray Rogers, and Art Parrish–those three families. And I ended up marrying Myrl Davis’s son and was married for 44 years before he died. He had one sister and 10 brothers, and all the boys were named with girls’ names. One of the brothers worked on one of my dad’s elevators, I’m not sure which one, but he had a heart attack on top. They all died before they were 65 of heart attacks; they were all kind of heavy drinkers. The one that died on top, he had a heart attack on top of the elevator. My dad carried him down. By the time he got he down, he was gone. My dad never told me these things till I was old.
We went to Rochester, New York, and that was where my dad worked on the cement plant.
[Mary raises the question whether it could have been a Mayer-Osborn Co. job, and we discuss the range of their work throughout the Plains, down to Texas, points in Iowa, and even Tempe, Ariz.]
My dad worked an elevator in Tempe, Arizona, when I was in first grade. If I was in first grade it would have been probably 1948 or 1949. I remember Tempe. When we drove into town everybody was wearing coats. It was like 65 degrees and raining. Everybody was shivering. We were laughing at them. I learned to ride a bike in Tempe. I liked it there.
After Rochester–that’s the first place I ate pizza; it was wonderful–we went to Iron Mountain, Michigan. It was way out in the country and really cold. We went ice fishing. We saw the biggest ski jump in the whole world. And then when I went to school there, I went in and the teacher told them I was from New York, and they all applauded. This was a little bitty country school and I guess they thought I was from New York City or maybe they thought everybody from New York was a celebrity.
In 1955 we lived in North Canton, Ohio, and built an elevator there.
In 1958, when I was 14, the elevator we built in Limon, Colorado, was right across the field from where we lived in a trailer court. So I saw it go up, and that was really interesting. It seemed like it took most of the summer for the foundation. When they poured that, my dad always worked–even when he was superintendent–he worked 48 hours straight when they poured that concrete. The other guys would be on a shift, eight or 10 hours, but a lot of times he had to call people in to help because they wouldn’t show up. He started getting ulcers because he was worried a lot about different things. I’d walk outside at night, after dark, and you could see across the field from our trailer court, it was bright out there. They’d string lights above and have floodlights shining down so they could keep working constantly for 48 hours. Then they’d get to go home and sleep for maybe a day so it would dry real good. Dad was superintendent, Myrl Davis was foreman. A lot of times on different jobs, either Myrl or Ray Rogers would be foreman. Some jobs he had both of them working, one as carpenter, one as foreman. I was surprised after they did that foundation. It shocked me how fast that elevator went up, like one day it wasn’t there and the next day it was. Of course then they had all the inside and everything else to do. But it just went up so fast. I always knew he was on a time limit because they were on a contract, and if they didn’t finish within a certain time, they didn’t get as much money and they got in big trouble. My dad was real good about getting it done and doing it well. He said as far as he knew, in his whole life, he never had problems with his elevators. A lot of different companies, it crumbled or they had problems. His were always really well built.
I’m not sure where we were going in 1954, but our trailer turned over when we were pulling it on a wet two-lane road in Wyoming. These two big semi-trucks passed us real fast, and from the air pressure the trailer started weaving and my dad lost control and it turned over. It was the only one we had. It was brand-new, extra wide and long and like a split-level. That was a scary time, real traumatic for my parents. We had to live in apartments for a while until we bought a used trailer. I think back on my favorite Christmas. It was when that happened. Because we had no money, we were in a motel room. So they got these big Christmas stockings full of toys and candy. And the next year we made our own Christmas decorations.
The last job that my dad worked on was in Commerce City, Colorado. That’s near Denver. It’s like a suburb. That was in the 1960s. He quit building the elevators. He painted the old ones, put the names of the towns on them. They stayed in Denver because my sister and I had gone to over 30 schools when we were growing up. [Art and Flo were divorced during this period in Denver.] Even after he retired my dad never quit working. He built his own house. He poured patios and driveways for people all around Denver, and he painted houses with his stepson and his family. He loved getting together with Ray Rogers and Myrl Davis and laughing and talking about old times.
After we kids got married and moved out, he married my stepmother. They moved back to Commerce City. She had a house there.
My dad died in 2012. He was 91 years old. He was told he had cancer in 2007 and had six weeks to six months to live. My mother died, my husband died, my stepsister died. My dad was still alive. I was grieving everybody, and I said, “I’m not going to grieve him any more.” He lived until 2012–that much longer. The doctor said, “What do you want to do with the time you’ve got left?” He said, “I want to make a liar out of you.” And he did.
What a wonderful story of yesteryear. It’s like reading a small novel. Of course I can relate to Mary’s experience as in my younger years I went through similar experiences of moving around from elevator job to elevator job.
Also, my hat’s off to you Ronald for documenting Mary’s experiences so well!
Charles J. Tillotson
Mary was ready for our call, had made notes about these episodes, and has an incredibly good memory!
Thank you, Mary Ann, for your story. I have wondered for a long time why the Limon elevator looked so much like its predecessors, even after my grandfather, William Osborn sold his portion of the Mayer Osborn company. Now I understand. The same team built it!
Nice to read these recollections from the slip forming elevator construction business. The elevator builder from Hutchinson mentioned near the first of your comments would have been Chalmers & Borton.
Great story here!