The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

W. M. Dalton - Master Watch Repairman

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1984-2012

Issue: June, 1984

W.M. Dalton was born in Wythe County, Virginia, April 27, 1905, at a small community called Bertha. His father was a foreman in the iron mines. In 1918 the mine shut down and his father was out of a job.

His father got a job as a section hand on the railroad. It ran beside of their home near Sylvatus, Virginia and went from Reed Junction to the Betty Baker Mines. From that time on, the railroad has played a large part in his life.

Mr. Dalton is quick to point out that he is mostly a self educated man. He said his mother taught him to read and he didn't enter school until he was 13. He was placed in the third grade at first and moved to the fourth grade shortly after. The school he attended was near Route 100 and called Patterson School.

By the time he was 14, Mr. Dalton was working summers on the railroad. He put in spikes, carried cross ties and did maintenance work in general. He said he worked til his hands were solid blisters and kept on going.

When he was 16, he developed a friendship with a college professor, Rufus Gardner. Mr. Gardner wanted W.M. to get his high school diploma but W.M. just didn't have time. As he visited with the professor from time to time, the professor would loan him books and ask him questions about what he learned. One day, W.M. came for a visit and Professor Gardner had a present for him. He handed W.M. a piece of paper. It was a high school diploma.

Years went by and W.M. Dalton married and started raising a family. The depression in the early 30's hit hard. He was out of work and there were no jobs to be found. His family got down to a low point of having only dried corn for food. W.M. would take it to a mill and have it ground. Then, his wife would heat grease, sprinkle in some cornmeal and make cornmeal gravy. This would be served with cornbread.

The day came when even the cornmeal ran out. One morning the only thing left was the bran husks. They ate them for breakfast. His wife said, "I hate to tell you this, but there's not a bite to eat in this house." They had already sold everything they had that they could get money for. You couldn't get credit in those days because the stores knew you couldn't pay it back. Men were walking the road hunting for work. There was none to be found.

"My oldest son was eight years old and I had several younger. I was desperate. I couldn't see my children starve. I knew something had to be done that day."

Mr. Dalton searched his mind trying to think of something he could do for money. He said, "I had a few old tools around the house, like anybody - pliers, screwdrivers and such. I got all of them together and took my eight year old son with me and started door to door. Somehow, I hit upon the idea of repairing sewing machines. I had always been good at fixing things."

The first house he stopped at, the woman said she had an old sewing machine but she had been told it couldn't be repaired and planned to buy a new one. In those days a new treadle sewing machine cost a considerable amount of money. He ask if he could just try to fix it. If he couldn't, she wouldn't have to pay him. She agreed. He said that the machine was old, but in those days, they were made to last. He cleaned it thoroughly, shortened the belt and adjusted the stitch until a black thread on top and a white thread in the shuttle made a perfect stitch. The woman was amazed. She asked him how much she owed him and he told her to pay what she thought it was worth. She gave him the unbelievable sum of $7.50. It was a small fortune in those days. As if that were not enough, she called a friend nearby who was also going to buy a new machine and told her about this man who fixed her old machine. This lady also wanted him to look at her machine. He and his son went straight there and after fixing her machine also, was paid another $7.50.

It was getting late in the day by now and he headed straight for the grocery store. He bought about a hundred pounds of food - things like flour and side meat as well as a few candy treats for his children. It came to a $2.00 total. He still had the balance of his money left. First he fed his eight year old son. Then he put all the food in a cloth sack, swung it over his shoulder and started home.

W.M. Dalton said, "From that day on, we were never without food. To him and his family, it was nothing short of a miracle.

At that time, there were no watch repairmen in the area. One day a neighbor brought him a "dollar watch" to repair. W.M. had never worked on a watch before, but he was willing to try. He was able to fix the watch to the man's satisfaction. One day shortly after that W.M. was going to the mill. A retired lawyer, Sam Hearst (possibly spelled Hurst) from Poplar Camp came up to him and said, "I hear you can fix watches. I have a watch to fix. No one's been able to fix it. Well, this man had a 21 or 23 jewel 16 size Waltham railroad watch with a winding indicator on the dial. It was a fine watch. "I told him I would try. I took it home. When I opened it, the last person who had worked on it had done a perfect job of repairing it except he didn't check the in shake. I loosened the cock three one thousands of an inch and it was all that it needed. I put a piece of cigarette paper under the head of the cock. The balance wheel was perfect. I set it by a railroad conductor's watch. One week later, it wasn't off more than five seconds. I went back to the mill and the Lawyer was waiting.

He was so pleased with it that he told everybody around what a fine watch repairman I was.

I didn't know anything about watches but I figured if I was going to work on them, I had better learn. I ordered a book and a repair kit from a catalog and started studying.

I remember the first time I tightened a cannon pinion. I had nothing to tighten it with. I pulled a hair out of my arm and pushed it through the cannon pinion and replaced it on the center staff where it belonged. It worked!"

Along about this time his first marriage was in trouble. He divorced and later married his present wife in 1941. He had seven children by his first marriage and she did too. Together, they have three of their own.

He was asked by a man in Clifton Forge to come there to repair watches. This man had a shop and wanted the business of the railroads but would have to have a certified repairman for that. At the time, Mr. Dalton wasn't certified but said he would come anyway. The Watch Inspector General for the Eastern General Division of American Railways was there to test him. He asked a lot of questions and Mr. Dalton demonstrated his work. A railroad watch had to be set for five functions. It had to be perfectly on time.

The Watch Inspector gave him the certification. Mr. Dalton worked through the war years there at Clifton Forge, repairing C and O Railroad watches.

Mr. and Mrs. Dalton came back to the Galax area and Mr. Dalton began work at the Jewel Box Jewelry Store. He retired from that job 13 years ago and still has a shop in his home. Through the years he became not only a certified but a master watch repairman. He is a member of the American Watchmakers Association and the American Horilogical Association.

The railroad still wasn't out of his blood. He had a 43 acre farm on Coal Creek but he had his eye on a small piece of land beside the railroad tracks, in Galax. It was a level spot with a hill and woods going up behind it. A man called John Lampkin owned it and he didn't want to sell.

The Dalton's sold off all their cows but one, their favorite. This one cow was not only gentle and tame, but her milk would make a pound of butter a day.

John Lampkin was interested in the cow, but swallowed hard at the high price Mr. Dalton was asking for her. Mr. Dalton told him to go ahead and take the cow home with him for a few days and just see how they liked her, knowing Mr. Lampkin's wife would fall in love with her. Sure enough, Mrs. Lampkin wanted that cow. A bargain was struck and that cow was traded for the piece of land beside the railroad tracks. In 1952 the Daltons built a house there. They have lived there ever since.

There aren't many trains that come by any more. Mr. Dalton says there is usually only about one a week. But, occasionally, he will hear a whistle blowing two longs and a short - the "meet" signal. He goes out of his house and the train will slow to a stop. A conductor will get out and hand him a watch to repair.

Mr. Dalton continues to work on watches. He specializes in railroad watches and old mantle clocks. He has kept a record of all the watches he has repaired. He has one book with 100,000 entries in it and a new book started that already contains 1,500.

He is a generous man who says, "If there's anything I can do or say for my fellow man, I'll do it." He summed it all up with a verse he remembers from his childhood called, "If Only".


You and your folks
loved me and my folks
Like me and my folks
loves you and your folks
There never was folks
loved folks since folks were folks
Like me and my folks
loves you and your folks.