Courtesy of Smith Equipment
|Karen Hermiller, Smith Equipment Customer Service, and Ross Buckley, General Manager, holding a 1920's Smith "Pistol Grip" torch.
The same year Allen Verch was born in a small town in the Ottawa Valley in Canada, a new welding company called Smith Inventions was born in the Minnesota garage of Elmer Smith.
During those first years of business, Elmer Smith made one particular oxy-acetylene torch. It looked and functioned, it must be assumed, just like every other torch he churned out of that Midwestern garage. But it turns out that this torch had a distinctly different fate than its counterparts and, in 1925, its path began to converge with Verch's.
Verch was 9 years old at the time and had just seen his very first light bulb—an experience that two weeks later, led him to try wiring one up for his mother.
"I got up on the chair and started connecting wires," he recalls. "All of a sudden the sparks flew, the light went out and it knocked me to the ground."
Maybe the shock rewired something in his brain. Maybe it was the challenge and danger of the flowing electrons. Or maybe he just found something he really enjoyed. Whatever the case, a few weeks later, and completely undeterred by his mishap, Verch got back on that chair and illuminated his family's home with their very first light bulb.
It was a watershed moment for Verch, now 90, who went on to make electricity his career and passion as a welder and salesman for Carter Brothers, a Canadian Oxygen distributorship, and later as a technical supervisor for Canadian Oxygen, from which he retired in 1981.
"It was pretty tough to get a job when I started in 1935," he recalls, "but the high school principal recommended me to the company and I took to welding like a duck to water. We used bare stick electrodes, about 14 inches long, and they stuck out about four inches from the holder. You would burn a couple inches off before you'd have to stop and adjust it."
Verch started his welding career at 15 cents per hour, with a 25-cent raise every six months. After saving up enough money, he became one of the first six Canadian members of the American Welding Society and then received his very first copy of The Welding Journal in the mail.
Over the next twenty-five years, Verch learned virtually every type of welding-stick, TIG, inner arc, brazing, oxy-acetylene welding—and even dreamed of some that didn't exist. Yet.
"I used to dream of a machine that would keep feeding the wire so that we wouldn't have to stop and adjust the stick every few seconds," he said.
When the Carter Brothers sold their distributorship to Canadian Oxygen in the early 1960's, there was an old (35 years old, to be exact) oxy-acetylene torch lying around the shop that the new owners were going to throw in the trash.
The torch was still brand new, so Verch brought it home and put it on a shelf. And there it sat. For the next 45 years the torch remained with Verch—through the Vietnam War, the American Civil Rights Movement, the Canadian Quiet Revolution and October Crisis, along with Verch's own retirement from Canadian Oxygen in 1981 and the death of his wife one day later. In that time, Smith Inventions also evolved into Smith Equipment.
The torch continued sitting until earlier this year when, just before his 90th birthday, Verch decided to send it home to an unsuspecting group of Smith employees.
It was just another average spring day at the office for Ross Buckley, general manager at Smith Equipment, when the package arrived. Inside was an ancient torch, in pristine condition, and a note reading, "This relic has finally returned home—I wish I knew more of its history. It is probably older than I am and I'm 90 years old. Give it a good home. I sold a lot of Smith Equipment while working for Canadian Oxygen Company—now called BOC Compressed Gases. It was a very ethical company."
"We were just floored," Buckley recalls. "We had a hard time even finding any record of this torch in our archives. That it has remained in such good condition this long and that Mr. Verch would take the time out of his day to send it to us is just amazing."
For his part, Verch just felt that giving the torch back was the right thing to do. "I'm living in a condominium now and I realize I'm not going to live forever," he said. "I wanted to do something about that torch. I've had a very interesting life, a very good life, and I haven't got a complaint in the world ..." Well, maybe one: "...I have no cartilage in my knee joints."
That said, it's hard to tell which has stood the test of time better, but the folks at Smith Equipment are grateful for Verch's token of kindness.
"We'll be sure to give this torch as good of a home as Mr. Verch has for the last 45 years," says Buckley.