by Priscilla Rall
Oscar Sykes was born in 1916 in Catoctin Furnace to William and Carrie Ann Stackhouse Sykes. His father was a lumberman from Canada whose own father was killed by a falling tree while working as a lumberjack. Oscar was one of three sons and two daughters. William died in 1919 when Oscar was just three, and he is buried in Lewistown. From then on, Oscar was raised mostly by his sister, Ida. He was very fortunate to be raised by his sister, as one of his brothers was put in an orphanage when their father passed. His mother later married Harry Sweeney, and they lived in Catoctin Furnace. Ida married Howard M. Kemp, who was a blacksmith and had a great impact on Oscar’s life.
Oscar moved to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a town then known for making wooden pipes for water systems. He was surprised to learn that Pennsylvania schools were not segregated like those in Maryland.
Moving once again, he lived in State College, Pennsylvania, with an aunt. Then, it was back to Catoctin Furnace, to live in a house across from the church.
Route 15 had not been widened at that time, and the boys swam in Locust Pond, located where the overpass walkway is now. The furnace was already in a state of disrepair, but the Dinky railroad was still in operation, and you could ride it up to Thurmont.
The trolley also went through Thurmont, and Oscar loved to hitch a ride on it to Braddock Heights to enjoy all the entertainment there. The main business in Catoctin Furnace at the time was making barrel staves from the thousands of dead chestnut trees covering Catoctin Mountain. Businesses also made telephone poles, crossties for the poles, and the wood screws that held the glass insulators on electric poles.
Oscar and his mother loved to ice skate on the upper and lower ponds there. They would place a log by the side of the pond and sit on it to lace up their skates and build a fire nearby to keep warm. Carrie was a gifted healer. She cared for pregnant women and delivered their babies. She would tap a pine tree and make a healing salve from the sap, just one of her many old-time recipes for medicine.
Oscar left school after eighth grade, and by age 13, he was working for Mr. Harding at his blacksmith shop in Mt. Pleasant, Maryland. The building is still there, at the end of the store.
An old buggy maker, Coleman Laddie, would sit by the fire and tell of his buggy shop in Frederick on All Saints Street. When Oscar mentioned he wanted a pincer to trim horses’ hooves, Mr. Laddie offered to show him how to make one. Eventually, Oscar made all of the tools he needed for blacksmithing and, most importantly, learned how to use an anvil correctly. Later, Oscar worked at Howard Kemp’s blacksmith shop in Frederick at the corner of South and Carroll Street.
Farmers brought their produce to Frederick, and it was especially busy when sweet corn was hauled in wagons, pulled by horses down East Street to the canneries. Many farmers took advantage of being in town to get their horses reshod or wooden wagon wheels repaired, so Oscar was especially busy at harvest time.
For wheels, they would buy the hubs and make the spokes and wooden wheels. Then they would have to place the metal rims on the wooden wheels, a complex process. On the weekends, Frederick was a bustling place, with cars and wagons parked along the main streets and benches up and down the sidewalks, filled with citizens sharing the latest news and gossip.
Then the Great Depression hit. There were no jobs to be had, and many people didn’t even have enough to eat. Hobos were a common sight. There was a CCC camp in Catoctin Furnace where Oscar’s Uncle Carl found work. Oscar did a lot of hunting, particularly in Canada, and would give the meat from rabbits, pheasants, deer, and even bear to his family and friends for food. Oscar remembered farmers who would come to his sister’s husband, Howard, crying as they had no money to pay him. Howard would take a dollar or two, and Oscar would later stop by to get another dollar as they tried to pay off their bill. Unemployed African Americans congregated on the corner of Patrick and Market streets, hoping that a farmer might need a hand for making hay or cutting corn.
Oscar fondly recalled that on nights with a full moon, he would join neighbors and shock corn for 20 cents a shock. Later, they would return to husk the dried corn. Oscar also worked on Guy and Will Water’s farms. He even shod horses at the Buckingham School. Oscar wasn’t afraid of hard work, but his fondest memories were of working with Tom Fox at his blacksmith shop on South Street, where he finished his journeyman’s training and became a full-fledged smithy.
In 1936, Oscar married Dorothy Brand from Brunswick. They had one son in 1944. He decided to join the Navy and, in March 1942, began work as a blacksmith at the David Taylor Model Basin in Carderock in Montgomery County. It was a top-secret facility for testing military vessels and equipment, so important that Marines guarded it. The complex consisted of a model shop, machine shop, blacksmith and welding shop, and a machine shop. Alongside the shops were two huge water basins, each approximately one-half-mile long. Oscar’s job was to test all of the metals to be used in ships and submarines. He tested the metals for compression and tensile strength. Along with an engineer, Oscar helped design what he called a “noise maker.”
This was at a time when Germans were using torpedoes that were attracted to the sounds made by a vessel’s engines. To create a kind of decoy, they made a metal device that created such noise that the enemy torpedoes honed in on it and exploded harmlessly behind the ship. Oscar also designed the point for a spear that was placed on lifeboats so that a shipwrecked sailor could use it to kill fish to eat, as well as a hook on the front of a lifeboat to hopefully use to be hauled to safety by a rescue boat. There was much more that Oscar felt he still did not have the authority to disclose.
He worked for 30 years at the David Taylor Model Basin as their top metallurgist, while also consulting at the National Bureau of Standards and at the Navy Yard. Pretty good for a boy who just finished eighth grade and was coached by a buggy-maker from the 1800s!
Although he enjoyed recalling the good times, there were plenty of bad times, which he preferred not to dwell upon. His most difficult memory was when he lost his beloved wife in 1954.
When the author interviewed Mr. Sykes for the Veterans History Project in 2007, Oscar was still driving everywhere, going out dancing in Martinsburg, and enjoying a healthy, full life, living with his doting grandson. He was extremely proud of his interview and went to all his friends to brag that his was the longest interview done to date. He even drove to see Mark Lewis, the friend who recommended that I talk to him.
It was heartbreaking to learn that he died of the flu just two weeks after his interview. Oscar Sykes exemplifies the American dream that anyone with determination can be anything through hard work.
Oscar and his wife, Dorothy, and son.
Oscar and his son.