Sometimes, the crazy old man in the town you were raised in… wasn’t.
That very sentence hooked me and reeled me in to one of the better non-fiction books I have ever read.
“Smokey” is a book about a local character who plenty of locals seemed to have been aware of but who no one really knew. Herbert Glen Irwin lived 32 years of his unique and what could easily be called incredible 84 years of life in the tiny community of Noble, Louisiana, located in northern Sabine Parish.
While Herbert lived in Noble, he kept completely to himself. Those who read this book learn that this was how he lived the vast majority of his life… introverted, secluded, sheltered, and void of family and friends… all of which was by his own choosing.
I knew nothing whatseover of Herbert Glen Irwin until about two months ago when a gentleman who follows All Things Sabine’s Facebook page messaged us and pointed towards this unique character.
…”There was a man who lived in Noble by the train tracks in a barn for many years, and everyone thought was a Russian or Nazi spy,” the message read. “Turned out he was a brilliant inventor with autism who just wasn’t a people person…very interesting life story in that book…”
This piqued my curiosity, and therefore necessitated a trip to the Sabine Parish Library for me. I am pretty much a regular there, since I love the library and it is just half a block from my office. I asked one of the reference librarians about “the man from Noble” and this book about him. With that little to go on, the librarian, much to my excitement, returned within moments with the very book to which the gentleman had referred. It was very simply titled, “Smokey,” with a basic dull textured background as a cover and the subtitle, “The Remarkable Life of the Reclusive Inventor Herbert Glen Irwin.” The author, Jackie Knott, had given this copy to the library and signed it.
The title, subtitle and book cover did little to enthuse me, but I went ahead and checked out the book. “Smokey,” the book, sat on my desk at the office for three days before I opened it. It took me just reading the first sentence, then the remainder of the preface… then the prologue… to remind me of the old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover.” Literally. I shall never make that mistake again 🙂
When I walked out of the library toting this book three days earlier, I hardly expected the journey through which this most modest appearing book would take me. I found myself sneaking breaks to read the book, reading it before bed (something I usually steer clear of because I find reading at night keeps me up later) and even taking it to the gym and reading it while exercising. Basically, “Smokey” hooked me.
Author Jackie Knott takes the reader through the entire life of Herbert Glen Irwin. Don’t get me wrong, though, I say this with great interest for there was pretty much never a dull moment in the book. Knott brilliantly sets the stage for each era and each locale of Irwin’s life.
The main character was born in 1893 in North Texas and lived most of his young life in the Texas Panhandle. He achieved very little formal education, but nonetheless was a gifted genius who became a master of machinery as just a young man. He particularly took a liking to the automobile, which was a new introduction to society during his childhood. He learned every inner working of the automobile and took special interest in the intricacies of the internal combustion engine and batteries.
By the time he was a young adult he had developed a reputation as an expert mechanic, and was able to repair any type of farming and agricultural equipment as well as autos. He began experimentation on ideas to improve farm-related equipment and to advance mechanical farming in general.
“He was compelled to invent and solutions spilled from his consciousness with almost visionary clarity,” Knott wrote of Irwin. “So many designs flooded his mind there seemed not enough hours in the day to prove them.”
By the time he was around 20, Herbert had invented three improved spark plugs, a method to remove acid sludge from batteries, a vacuum distributor, a vaporizing attachment for an internal combustion engine, a method of repairing aluminum castings, a rotary cultivator, a receptacle for dispensing insecticide, an insecticide holder, and a garden powder sprayer.
He patented his own inventions, thinking ahead and outside the box by hiring attorneys out of Washington DC to expedite his patent processes. He came up with several inventions relating to the cotton industry… a cotton bur separator, a cotton bur breaker, and other things to make cotton harvesting easier.
Even though he had no intimate knowledge of airplanes (this “grandest invention of all time” was still in its infancy), Irwin was recruited by the U.S. Army Air Corps because of his mechanical genius. He was asked to serve his country on the homefront during World War I. Herbert was in such high demand that he was able to name his own terms under which he would enlist… and due to his mental/emotional inability to cope with being physically touched by another human, he was even able to get out of having a full physical performed on him. He was assigned to the Repair Depot in Speedway, Indiana, where he repaired aircraft and trained other mechanics to work on these new “aeroplanes.” He was eventually assigned to write maintenance manuals on the aircraft, primarily the Curtiss JN “Jenny” and later the Packard-le Pere Lusac and Standard E-1. At the end of the war, Herbert was granted his own request for an honorable discharge so that he could continue work on his inventions. And that, he did.
He developed what may have amounted to the first ever truly mechanical cotton picker, as well as a mechanical harvester for maize and a push bar attachment for the front of tractors (which were still very new in this day) to eliminate the need for modifying farm equipment to be pulled by them.
Perhaps his most prized invention was an acetylene welder which enabled a cleaner, more intense flame and a safer process. This, he named the Welderz Frend (he was a poor speller but refused to allow his created name of his invention to be changed to accommodate any “mainstream” spelling rules, and so Welderz Frend it was).
Herbert completely shunned his family as a young man when his father betrayed his trust by capitalizing monetarily and secretly on Herbert’s own inventions, stealing profits from them. Already not inclined to trust others, the actions of his father completely and forever quashed any possibility of Herbert ever trusting anyone again. He was emotionally scarred in ways he could never recover from.
Herbert moved off on his own and quickly took advantage of an oil and gas explosion in Texas. Hbuilt boring drills, grindings, piston rings, and fittings for the industry. He created an assembly line production for his Welderz Frend and built his own company which he named Irwin Improvements.
In the 1930s, he created a wind power machine like no other… big, powerful, and able to adjust for wind velocity. His wind machine was able to produce power for his shop and his productions. People in his neck of the woods took notice and being that electricity had not made it into rural America, Irwin was able to collect plenty of orders for his wind power machine.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, elected President by a country in the depths of Depression, got in Herbert’s way so to speak. Roosevelt’s New Deal included two introductions which Irwin considered detrimental to his plans. First, FDR’s REA (Rural Electricity Administration) sought to bring electricity to rural America, which caused Irwin’s prospective customers to pull their orders for his wind machine. As far as Herbert Irwin was concerned, Roosevelt and his own country had attacked him personally and he vowed he would never ever subscribe to electricity. He did not. Ever. Furthermore, he refused to pay into Roosevelt’s new Social Security Administration. As far as he was concerned, the Social Security Administration Roosevelt created was as ridiculous as was the REA. Men needed to keep their own money and no man should expect nor rely on the government to collect and “store” a percentage of his earnings for later use. Men were capable of planning for their own retirements and did not need nor should not trust or rely on the government to do this for them.
At some point, while living in Amarillo, Texas, Herbert Irwin had developed Irwin Improvements to a 100-man manufacturing facility where huge amounts of profits were collected. The employees were paid in cash. No social security was withheld. One day, one of Herbert’s workers turned him in and so he was paid a visit by the Feds. Herbert ultimately offered a stipend for a settlement to the government, and somehow maneuvered the Feds the feds into accepting his offer under his threat of shutting his shop down permanently.
Once the agent sent by the US Treasury Department delivered papers to Herbert committing to agree to Herbert’s terms, and Herbert had signed off on these papers and paid the fines, the agent advised him that he must now start collecting Social Security from his employees. Herbert said he would not do that… not now, not ever. Herbert took the federal agent by surprise when he immediately called over a bull horn to all his employees busy at work on the floor beneath his office, advising them to all go home, that he was closing shop. And he did.
That one action gives such an insight to the character Knott so vividly illustrates. That is pure Herbert G. Irwin.
After this, Herbert was determined to leave Texas and all of the scarring that it had for him. He moved to the sunny state of Florida, in Okeechobee County. He didn’t know anyone in Florida… he had no ties there… he had no real reason to choose Florida… other than it was in the South (he favored Southern climate) and well, because basically, he choose it. Maybe because he didn’t know anyone there and he had no ties there.
He paid cash for a few hundred acres of land on which he built a metal shop and metal home (metal was simply easy to maintain) and he created lush gardens and grew fruit trees and raised cattle and sheep and pretty much everything he needed. He was determined to live out the rest of his life in this newfound paradise.
This was before America’s involvement in World War II. He had had all of the metal he had amassed while in Texas, along with much of his machinery and equipment, shipped from Texas to Florida in multiple train cars. As American involvement in World War II began to look more and more imminent, Herbert hid all of his metal… burying it about his property… so that the government he now hated could not get it.
He was entirely self-sufficient. He was alone. He was happy. Florida was indeed paradise for him.
Until, that is, he experienced his first hurricane. Herbert became completely anxious in any type of inclement weather. Storms for him were a sort of Hell. He had learned to grow poppy seeds and make heroin from them to help him cope with storms. A hurricane, he learned, was more storm than he could bear, even loaded down with heroin. He nearly lost his mind… or perhaps he did, when the first hurricane came.
Author Knott describes Herbert’s experiences with a series of hurricanes which struck Florida one year with such vivid and animated detail that I myself felt anxious… as though I was panicking right there with Herbert Irwin… I can not commend her writing enough on making the reader feel part of the story in an odd and yet unique sort of way.
Once the flood waters cleared, Herbert couldn’t get out of his hellacious non-paradise quickly enough.
Enter Sabine Parish, Louisiana.
This is the part of the book I couldn’t wait for. During the first chapters and as the book progressed, I increasingly wondered, how the heck did this man end up in Sabine Parish? With the passing of each chapter… and as I as a reader became more involved with this main character… my interest in how he came here grew. So when Herbert resolved to get out of Florida and I turned the page to read the title of Chapter 11: “Refuge in No Man’s Land,” I was thoroughly excited (in case you haven’t noticed, I LOVE a good book!)
Possibly, Herbert was subconsciously attracted to the history of Sabine Parish as “No Man’s Land.” He had traveled through Sabine Parish on one of his two trips between Texas and Florida before he finalized his move to the Sunshine State. He knew it was very rural and seemed very quiet. Once he resolved to vacate Florida, he knew first and foremost he wanted to stay in the South and secondly he wanted to go where no hurricane would reach. He also wanted a location which would offer him the freedom to again engage in manufacturing again if he so chose… He communicated with International Paper at their corporate level and arranged to purchase land in Noble, along the Kansas City Southern Railroad tracks.
“Sabine Parish possessed a climate Herbert could easily adapt to,” Knott wrote. “There was an abundance of good water, unpolluted air, and sufficiently isolated. Louisiana’s tax system was desirable with their liberal Homestead Exemption law.”
“Herbert sought a place that would afford him a comparable level of privacy as he had enjoyed in Florida,” Knott wrote. “(He) knew his reclusive lifestyle was peculiar from how most people lived but he was helpless to change. This was how he wanted to live and this was how he was comfortable.”
Herbert liked the idea of most of the acreage in Sabine Parish being forestland. It gave him the opportunity to “hide” from the general public. He had carefully picked land to buy which was surrounded by IP-owned land, to ensure him the privacy he craved.
By this time, Herbert Irwin was well set financially. Even though new technology had phased out his inventions, he had already made plenty of money off royalties from several of his inventions and outright sales of other inventions. He managed to never pay taxes. He dealt only in cash. He made lots of money from selling his property and shop in Texas and was about to make a whole lot more selling his Florida property. He spent very little money… only buying what he absolutely needed.
This book had been thoroughly interesting up to this point… moreso than I could have imagined of a biographical account of a man who I had never heard of until just a couple of months ago. But here is where the story truly begins to take a life of its own for me and I imagine will do the same for any local readers familiar with this area. It becomes a true can’t-put-it-down page-turner as Knott develops the new setting in Noble, Louisiana.
We learn of a unique relationship… almost even a friendship… that develops between Irwin and Noble Mayor O.B. Knott, who later becomes the father-in-law of the author (Knott’s twin sons, Roland and Ronald, were just 10 years old when Herbert Irwin moved to Noble. Jackie Knott later married Roland, or “Roe.”)
I read with interest and a bit of amazement as Herbert hired two brothers in Florida to help him load all of his metal and accumulated equipment and machinery into five rail cars, and then paid the brothers to load their own cattle trucks with his fruit trees and berry bushes and haul them all to Noble, Louisiana.
I could just picture the interest as five fully loaded train cars arrive in Noble… Cargo for a man who until this point had no ties whatsoever to anywhere in or around Sabine Parish.
“There were plenty of observers that morning in September (1948) when five well loaded rail cars rolled into the East spur that separated the Noble Depot and the Post Office, ” Knott wrote. “This was a real event!”
I could imagine! Very rarely did anything even a small fraction of this size arrive in Noble. Most rail cargo shipments in Noble were outgoing wood products, which left on the west spur.
“Lots of people asked questions about Herbert Irwin, but no one had any answers,” Knott wrote. “Captivated by the sheer volume of the shipment, townspeople watched and speculated.”
I could imagine the gossip and scuttlebutt that traveled through this community and beyond on this day and in coming weeks.
The reader gets a full picture of the almost hysterical task of unloading all of Herbert’s freight and then over the next weeks as Herbert hired a couple of locals to build the strangest home, made completely of metal and reinforced better than a storm shelter. It was described as a pre-fab building before there were pre-fab buildings, with every single piece fitting like a puzzle until the entire structure was complete. Knott mentions that the only comparable building in the region was a sprawling factory some 30 miles away, Nabor’s Trailers in Mansfield. We get an idea of the massive fence Herbert builds to surround his property. It was of such proportions that it ended up being an insult to locals. Locals called his place a “compound” and some noted it resembled a prison camp or detention center, only with the barbed wire facing outwards.
Herbert had initially indicated to Mayor Knott that he would be opening a factory in Noble where he would hire people to put together a new type of meat smoker he had invented, hence earning him the nickname “Smokey.” Whether he actually ever intended to open a factory or he just used the promise of it to explain away his moving to Noble may never be known… But after townspeople began coming down from their excitement high over of the possibility of this so-called factory and realizing that as time passed there were no signs of a factory becoming a reality… their suspicions of Herbert grew. When one of the men he hired to help him put together his shop/house asked him about the factory, he answered, “I’m going to get every Mexican I can inside this building and electrocute them.”
This statement, of course, spread like wildfire through Noble and set the stage for most locals to steer far clear of Herbert. Just exactly as he wanted…
The rest of the book further develops Herbert’s character and his odd interactions as he lived out the remainder of his life in the tiny community of Noble. He continues his life here just as we wishes… with his privacy and solitude and working on machinery throughout the nights and occasional trips to the store and his occasional or perhaps frequent use of heroin to help him cope with anxiety. The reader gets a closer look at so many of Herbert’s idiosyncrasies that I imagine it would be difficult for anyone reading the book not to be intrigued by this man.
We read about his trips to town, about how he one day appears with a mouth full of metal (he had “built” dentures for himself out of scrap metal), him driving his panel truck through town with an airplane propeller sticking out of the hood (it was to keep the battery charged), the day he went to Many to buy a car…
So many hilarious events but perhaps none more than when he walked into Sabine State Bank after driving to Florida to collect cash for the sale of his land… As brilliant as he was, he was unable to count well and so had to rely on others to count his money. He became suspicious that he had been cheated of some of his money so he goes to the bank with a sack full of money, demands to see the bank president (who was related to Mayor Knott) and asks him to count his money for him. He needed to have an account to do this so he opened one, Mr. Knott counted the money, and satisfied, Herbert withdraw the money and closed the account. The banker told Mayor Knott that this was the largest single deposit ever made at Sabine State Bank.
It is humorous how Irwin interacted with locals and how they interacted with him… above all regarding him with a high degree of suspicion during the first months and perhaps even years of his residency in Noble. Later, as time passed, it seems Herbert Irwin was more regarded as a useless fixture in Noble… something that was just there and they just had to deal with it being there because it wasn’t going anywhere. He became regarded as the poor old guy, of little financial means and of little mental faculties… a bit of an out-of-his head whacky guy. The locals tolerated him, laughed at him, avoided him, and talked about him. He pretty much just avoided them. Except for O.B. Knott and his son, Roe. And the intricacies of those relationships take the reader into a new light where Herbert is concerned.
Throughout the book, I found myself amazed at Herbert Irwin’s abilities, shrewdness, and mindset. One thing I haven’t mentioned yet which Knott addresses early in the book and again at the end of the book. Irwin is autistic… he most likely had a condition known as Asperger’s Syndrome and this diagnosis explains a lot of his personality. Knott delves into this a bit and it helps the reader flesh out who Herbert was to at least some degree and why he was the way he was, did the things he did, and thought the way he thought.
Herbert is a character I found myself admiring, loving, hating, questioning… I found myself feeling sorry for him, bewildered by him, angry with him (furious even), impressed with him, adoring him, becoming disgusted with him, shocked at his actions… such a gamut of emotions. It’s not often I find a character that generates this many real and raw emotions just by my reading a book! Herbert is a character you may love to love or love to hate and hate to love or hate to hate or even a little of each. Well, you get the gist, right? Overall, he is a character of gigantic proportions. And his story is one I’m thrilled was told.
When he passed away in 1981 in his metal home which had no electricity and a dirt floor with a prairie bed being the only furnishings, it took days for anyone to realize he was dead. He came into Noble with such fanfare and in the end, he departed with little fanfare.
Most locals just thought he was a poor, whacky old man and most pretty much disregarded him. Some knew otherwise, and for years after his death, his property was combed over with shovels and metal detectors and mechanical equipment in all sorts of attempts by all sorts of people to find his loot. Those who knew anything about Herbert Irwin knew he had to have amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and had to have stashed this cash somewhere on his property… most likely well hidden, most likely buried.
Knott is not sure if anyone has found Herbert’s money. If so, they aren’t saying anything. Herbert Irwin’s estranged family came to Noble collect his belongings which had any value after he passed away; and the remainder of his belongings were ransacked and pilfered through over the years.
Sadly, no one knows what came of the works of his life… such as his brilliant notes on a vast number of projects he was working on including growing produce which was able to thrive and survive in extreme weather and without use of any pesticides. But maybe that’s just the way he wanted it, for Herbert was indeed selfish. This is a fact of his character Knott pointed out to me, noting that she does not mean that in a negative way. It was who he was. “His world was in his machines, his research, and his inventions. They served him and that was all he was interested in.” I would venture to say we all know someone like this… who lives inside himself or herself and is able to function in a such a manner that others barely affect them and they barely affect others.
It bothers me some, to think about this life. A good book can do that…. make you think about things you might not otherwise think about… And I think about Smokey and about how much he had to give to this world… how much his brilliant mind was capable of giving to this world… And yet, in the end and very much by his own choosing, we have nothing from him.
Except his story.
And that will have to suffice.
“Smokey” can be ordered through Amazon by clicking this link: http://www.amazon.com/Smokey-Remarkable-Reclusive-Inventor-Herbert/dp/1449993575
or by going to Jackie’s Create Space Amazon store: https://www.createspace.com/3421314
or by going to Jackie’s Create Space Amazon store: https://www.createspace.com/3421314