1939 Joe’s Curtain Call

January 6

The Shop is full of work to begin this year. Several distillery repairs and brewery jobs are scheduled and there are copper jacket kettles to make and some boiler parts. The first week has been very cold but quite busy. On this Friday, Joe reads the newspaper and sees a story about the missing pilot, Amelia Earhart. She’s been missing for several years and little hope was held out for her. Yesterday, she was officially declared dead and Joe considers this another air flight tragedy. He never has put much stock in flying of any kind and, in his mind, this is why. He also reads about the newly elected governor of Maryland, Herbert O’Conor being sworn in next week. O’Conor gained local fame for prosecuting Jack Hart and his gang seventeen years ago. Joe shakes his head to think of all that happened after the Norris murder, the manhunt for Hart, the searches of the Shop, the trial and the escapes. To think that O’Conor is now the governor carries a strange irony for Joe. He sighs and thinks of his niece Kitty, Jack Hart’s wife. He misses her and recalls the public fiasco that was her funeral with police, reporters and three hundred curious citizens showing up. What a mess it was for all of them. Fortunately, they made it through all that and better times are here. Joe has been giving some thought to the date of his retirement. He hasn’t decided on when but it will be this year probably in the Spring.

February 13

The E. J. Codd Company has received a very large boiler repair job with emergency status. It’s cold and heat is needed in a municipal building downtown. The Shop’s part of this job includes several copper liners to fabricate, many fittings and valves and a few steel flanges to make. The order is a rush and extra money is charged to cover the hours. Joe loves this kind of thing and the excitement of such a rush job is one of those things he knows he will miss.

March 16

The radio and newspapers are full of the news that Germany has invaded Czechoslovakia. Despite Hitler’s assurances that he would not do so, his troops and tanks roll into Czechoslovakia and take control of the country. Joe and his sons discuss this news and all agree that England and France will soon take a stand against Germany. They wonder what will happen next but it seems eerily similar to what happened in Europe in 1914.

March 25

At a Saturday night Coppersmiths Local #80 Union meeting, the news is good as more work is available and thus more jobs. Eddie is told by one of his union brothers that he has heard of some trouble for James Kavanagh at Baltimore Pure Rye Distilling. The still James designed and made is not working properly. They are unable to achieve the desired proof whiskey. Baltimore Pure Rye is not happy and James and the crew of the J. D. Kavanagh Company are doing their best to fix it with no luck so far. Eddie takes note of it and calls his father, Joe, to tell him about it. Joe is surprised as James was always a good engineer and understood the distilling process well. He thanks his son and they agree to keep track of the situation and see what happens.

April 18

A Mr. William Kricker, the General Manager of Baltimore Pure Rye, calls the Shop and speaks to Joe. James’ still is not working properly and they are unable to achieve a high enough proof whiskey. Joe sends Eddie out to take a look and evaluate the situation. Eddie realizes right away that there are mistakes in the still’s design. He lets them know that the Shop can fix it and guarantee the proof they desire. He passes on that the Shop will quote them a price to make the necessary repairs and changes.

May 2

Yankee great Lou Gehrig retires due to illness. He has developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. It is a disorder of the muscles and very little is known about it in 1939. Gehrig delivers an address to the public at Yankee Stadium announcing his retirement. Fans are shocked and saddened, rallying support for the “Iron Horse” as Gehrig was called. The Kavanagh’s are as upset as most baseball fans are. Gehrig was a true gentleman of the game by all accounts. Joe and his boys agree this is a tragedy and they pray that he will recover. Gehrig was second on the career home run list to Babe Ruth at this time and he held the incredible consecutive games played record of 2130. Joe, Leo and Eddie along with most fans feel that this record of durability will never be broken. The record will hold for over fifty years until a Fall night right here in Baltimore.

Lou Gehrig. Yankee Stadium. May 2, 1939. Photo courtesy of LouGehrig.com.

May 4

The Joseph Kavanagh Company was awarded the job to repair the still at Baltimore Pure Rye last week and took care of it immediately. Mr. Kricker and the owners are pleased with the work and agree to send all repair and replacement work for Baltimore Pure Rye to the Shop in the future. Joe and his sons eat ham sandwiches and drink coffee in the small Shop office on a rainy Spring day. They’re talking about the Baltimore Pure Rye job, the still and how Eddie got the thing to work.

“Nice job on that, Eddie,” says Leo, “This may add up to a lot of work over the next couple of years. They have to get the whole facility up and running. This is gonna be good for us.”

“You bet, brother, this could be a real good customer. It’s too bad about James. I mean I feel a little bad knowing that he has lost this job. He was probably counting on it to get his shop going.” Eddie replies as he tosses the crusts of his sandwich into the trash.

Joe sips his coffee, then speaks up, “The fact that James couldn’t handle this job and it got screwed up has nothing to do with us. We have to take the work whenever we can. We can’t worry about someone else. Even my brother.” Joe glances from one son to the other.

“We know that, Joe,” Leo answers his father, “Eddie means he doesn’t wish anything bad on James and hopes he does well.”

“I do too, but if it conflicts with us doing well then I pick us over him. Every day.” Joe says as he strikes a match to light his pipe.

Eddie looks closely at his father then asks, “So no hard feelings with your brother? Really? You sure this isn’t some kind of parting shot?”

Joe glares at Eddie for just a second, his eyes opening wide, then he calmly puffs his pipe and says, “No, Not at all. No hard feelings. This is no parting shot.” he looks from Eddie to Leo, then continues, “If anything, this is my curtain call. Okay? My final bow. I’m done boys.” He rises from his chair and places his hands on his hips. He begins breaking into the little jig he would do around the Shop occasionally when things were particularly good or a job was going very well, “My last day is two weeks from Friday. No party. That’s that and you two can take care of it from now on.” He does several stomp steps then a quick slide for a finish, his boys smiling broadly.

Leo and Eddie are shocked at this sudden announcement of Joe’s departure, delivered in his unique style, but knowing their father, he probably had it planned this way. “Okay. That’s great, Joe. You deserve it. Don’t worry about a thing.” says his eldest son, Leo.

“Yes, yes, Joe. It will all be fine at the Shop. We’ll take care of it. We promise.” Eddie joins in with Leo then quickly inquires, “Does Mother know?”

“She does. You should know by now. Your mother knows all.” Joe says, his wide grin covering his face. The room grows silent for a moment, then they each get back to their duties. Joe picks up the phone to order some copper sheet, Leo resumes working on a sketch for a beer vat and Eddie heads into the Shop to get the crew back to work.

May 19

Joseph Anthony Kavanagh retires. He cleans out his desk; Leo will use this one now and the drafting table will be just that from now on. It is a very typical Friday at Joe’s Shop; the banging of hammers and the voices of workers fill the day. A few drip pans and brewery fittings are made while a fountain is fabricated. Joe stands in the Shop watching as copper tubes are curved into rings and drilled to allow the water to pass through. He has seen this done so many times, his Uncle Joe did this. It’s some of the oldest coppersmith work the Shop does. There is no party but Joe does joke and kid a bit with the crew during their afternoon break. He is soon humming a tune, then clapping his hands, then dancing his dance as the boys cheer and chuckle. After getting his crew back to work, he steps out into the Spring afternoon, standing on the corner of Pratt and Central. Joe looks up and down both streets, smoking his pipe and thinking, remembering all he can. He nods to the driver of a truck paused at the corner, then looks up at 201 S. Central, the building he has worked in for thirty-eight years. He recalls it all: the construction, moving, the starting, the struggling and the succeeding. He taps his pipe on the lamppost, dumping his ashes onto the sidewalk. He grinds them out with his shoe then returns to the Shop. The day finishes like any other but for the first time in its history, there is no Joseph Kavanagh working at the Joseph Kavanagh Company.

June 9

Ed Jr. finishes his first year of college and returns to the Shop full time for the summer. He has learned a good deal about business practices and theories but is ready to get back to smithing. The crew are happy to see the next generation Kavanagh. He is not hazed or teased any more; a full coppersmith now and over the last three summers, he has earned his spot. Joe stops in to see them and welcome his grandson back to work. Joe wanders through the Shop greeting the workers, then stops in for a smoke with his sons in the office. He sits at Leo’s desk and Leo hovers between Joe and the drafting table as the three speak. The phone rings and Joe moves to answer it, but Eddie is faster, greeting the caller with the standard, “Hello. Joseph Kavanagh Company,” that Joe himself would say every day in the past. Joe stands up and departs, bidding his sons farewell. Eddie, in mid phone conversation makes eye contact with his brother as Leo returns to his desk.

June 12

The Baseball Hall of Fame officially opens in Cooperstown, New York. The first Induction Ceremony is held and all eleven surviving Hall of Famers are honored. Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Christy Matthewson, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner were the first players ever elected to the hall. Two of the old National League Baltimore Orioles were inducted as well, John McGraw and Wee Willie Keeler. Also, Joe’s old acquaintance, Connie Mack, the great manager of the Philadelphia Athletics enters the Hall of Fame. The Kavanagh’s are excited for these gentlemen who were their heroes, especially Cobb and Ruth. Through the careers of both, there was always Joe’s strident support of “the Georgia Peach,” Ty Cobb, and his son Eddie’s equally unwavering admiration for Baltimore’s own Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth. They speak of the Hall and how wonderful it might be to visit some day and see the monuments. Eddie’s son Jack is amazed to hear that his grandfather knew Connie Mack. Joe, of course, is thrilled to tell him the story of their meeting in a hotel bar so many years ago when Joe was touring with his musical troupe. Neither Joe nor Eddie will ever make it to the Hall. Jack does, but not for a very long time.

June 27

Joe has spent a few hours again at the Shop for the third time this week. He has made a habit of coming in several days every week and it’s getting a bit much for his sons. They’re busy, either in the Shop or on the phone or making drawings. They don’t mind a brief occasional chat but Joe seems to be planning on stopping by frequently. They can’t forbid him from coming; he and their mother own the building and it wouldn’t be worth the fight. Leo thinks of a solution. They should clean out the upstairs of the Shop’s office. It is used for storage now but they could turn it into a crude office. They can put a desk in there and let Joe have his own office. Eddie loves the idea; it appeals to Joe’s vanity and will keep him from being underfoot. They will buy two desks and put Joe’s old one in the upstairs office. Each brother will get a new desk and the small one closest to the Shop door will be moved next to the safe. It can be used as needed and then eventually used by Ed Jr.

July 9

Eddie and fifteen year old Jack drive up Edison Highway and spend the day at Bugle Field for a couple of ballgames. The Baltimore E-lite Giants are hosting the Newark Eagles for two games. The first will count in the Negro National League standings as an official game. The second is purely an exhibition as both teams want some younger players to get a chance to play in a game situation. Jack and his father share a large bag of peanuts and a soda, taking in a beautiful Sunday for baseball. On the ride home, Eddie informs his younger son that next year he’ll be expected to start at the Shop, to start his trade, his apprenticeship. Jack nods and is silent, thinking of what it will be like to work at the Shop with his father, his brother and his uncle. So many Kavanagh’s have followed this path; Jack knew it would eventually be his.

August 15

Eddie, Annie, Ed Jr. and Jack spend a week vacationing in Ocean City, Maryland. They visited four years ago and they love the beach, the amusements, the rides and the fishing. Jack and the younger Ed are thrilled for a return trip. They spend the whole week exploring the city, lounging on the beach or fishing and crabbing. The boys have a blast but the week flies by. On Friday, they will make the long drive back to Baltimore with the summer nearly over. Eddie and Annie have decided to take the boys to the movies on Saturday; a new color film has been released called the Wizard of Oz. Annie thinks the kids will love it.

September 1

Leo and Eddie sit in the Shop office today talking about the latest from Europe. Germany has invaded Poland. The brothers feel sure this will be the tipping point and war is more and more likely. They know it’s very far away but once before, the US was pulled into War in Europe. The Kavanagh’s hope this doesn’t happen again. Many young men were lost in the First World War and the thought of a repeat is frightening.

September 3

By this Sunday, England and France have declared war on Germany. They had pledged support and arms to Poland earlier this year. With the German invasion underway, the two nations have little choice but to get involved. After Mass, Joe reads the story to Johanna, riddled with his own commentary and disdain for US involvement. Johanna tells her husband they should pray for all the poor souls in Europe and pray that this conflict ends quickly. Perhaps this time it will and Americans will not be a part of it.

September 5

The Kavanagh’s and all Americans receive their answer on how the US will respond to the fight in Europe. President Roosevelt declares that America will remain neutral as far as any War in Europe goes. Most citizens, including the Kavanagh’s, are very relieved. Still, there are those who think the US should be proactive and join with their Western European allies to fight off the German aggression. They are in the minority though and FDR’s announcement is welcomed by most.

September 11

Ed Jr. returns to the College of Commerce for a second year to continue his business education. He will do what he did last year, work three days and go to school for three days. Joe pays another visit and spends three hours in his office calling his old cronies in the alcohol trade to chat.

September 17

Things in Europe get worse when the Soviet Union invades Poland. The Soviets had been fighting the Japanese in Mongolia but after reaching a ceasefire, they are able to focus on Poland and the West. At the same time, the Japanese are able to turn to the Pacific for expansion.

September 27

Poland is divided between Germany and the Soviet Union per a secret non-aggression pact signed between the two countries. The Soviets also gain control of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Poland never surrenders but the government goes into exile as their two rivals divvy up the country. Both Germany and the Soviet Union are able to increase their sphere of influence and look West. With an agreement in place with Russia, Germany can prepare for France and England. The USSR will move against Finland soon in an effort to gain better access to the North Atlantic. Most Americans aren’t aware of this and their daily lives go on but there is a growing concern for this war. At the Shop, Eddie dispatches Mr. Funke and two helpers for a repair at Gunther’s Brewery while the rest of the crew labor on several kettles and brewery fittings for their stock. The “Kavanagh” valves and fittings that they produce are very much in demand. They make custom parts but these are standard fittings and attachments for brewing and distilling systems. Customers buy them for their own “quick fixes” and replacements. It’s a steady source of income that they make a point of staying ahead of, always sure to keep their stock high.

October 8

The New York Yankees sweep the Cincinnati Reds in the World Series winning four in a row. This is the fourth consecutive Series win for the Yanks and their eighth overall. Both teams managed 27 hits in the four games but New York homered seven times while Cincinnati failed to hit one. It is one of the shortest World Series in real time; totaling seven hours and five minutes of real time combined. Game two which the Yankees won 4- 0 was played at a brisk pace, finishing at 1 hour and 27 minutes. The Kavanagh’s follow along closely, rooting for the American League Champion Yankees, they check all the box scores and listen on the radio when they can. Each game is analyzed and discussed by Joe, his sons and grandsons, especially Jack who is such a huge baseball fan.

November 6

Joe arrives at the Shop again about mid-morning and sits in his upstairs office. He is going over paper work and old jobs. Leo and Eddie have been at their wits’ ends finding things for Joe to do. He doesn’t work here anymore but seems determined to come in several times a week and “help out.” Unfortunately, the helping out often means getting in his sons’ way and distracting them from their work. Leo comes up with an idea that Eddie thinks is brilliant. Leo suggests to Joe that he write letters to some of the distilleries who were customers before Prohibition, the ones who they have not heard from since to see if they are in need of our services. He can assure them that the Shop is still open and seeking work. Joe loves this idea and sets right to it. He slowly taps away on the typewriter upstairs and his sons are thrilled that he is occupied and busy.

Letter from Joseph A. Kavanagh to Piedmont Apple Products, an apple brandy distiller. November 6, 1939.

December 21

The Shop is finishing this year as strongly as it began. Brewery repairs and distillery work is attended to while a fountain is made today. Leo and Eddie sit in the office of the Joseph Kavanagh Company as the year winds down. They discuss the news in the paper that Lou Gehrig has been voted into the Hall of Fame. Despite only being retired for months, he is an easy pick for the Hall. Leo and Eddie are happy as it is richly deserved. Gehrig was a great player and a gentleman. Very little is known about ALS at this time but the Kavanagh’s know it is bad. The brothers chat more about baseball; then Eddie mentions that he and Annie are going to the movies Friday night. They will see “Gone With the Wind,” a new film based on the Margaret Mitchell novel. It is said to be four hours long so Eddie was hesitant to go but his wife very much wants to see it so that decided that.

December 23

The annual Shop Christmas Eve Party is held on this Saturday. The crew works a half-day then sets to cleaning and decorating the place. The usual mix of customers, vendors and employees fills Pratt and Central with celebration. It has been a good year business wise for the Shop, plentiful work and more scheduled for the New Year. They are happy with their crew and next summer it will be augmented. Ed Jr. will be full time and Jack will begin his apprenticeship. Leo and Eddie have made it through their first year on their own. At this point, the brothers know they can do it; they can run this place and be successful. It always comes down to whether or not the work is out there, and it certainly is. Leo and Eddie are close and this helps to limit any disputes so far and they have a great balance of skills. They compliment each other, which is one of the biggest reasons Joe trusted them and was able to step down. Though he has retired, his continued appearances at the Shop complicate his sons’ lives but they are dealing with it. Joe is back at the party today, holding court surrounded by his old distilling and brewing friends. He is truly in his element and his sons are happy to see it, but both hope Joe takes his retirement a little more seriously next year. They wouldn’t mind the occasional visit from him but weekly is too much. It is difficult for Joe to not be involved in some way as he has worked at the Shop for most of his life and his sons know that. It is strange for them too, not having Joe there each day, and they will give him some time to adjust. Finally, the time arrives for a song and Joe steps into the middle of the crowd of guests and leads them in “O Holy Night” as he does every year. The Little Man With the Big Voice fills the Shop with music once again and the warmth of the holiday fills them all. They are happy but brace for what could happen to their world. World War Two has begun and though little happens over the winter, all signs point to a bloody 1940. They hope for the best. Again.



Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the President of the United States. The Manhattan Project begins. The Hewlett Packard Company is formed. Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” and John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” are published. Batman makes his first appearance in Detective Comics. Superman’s own self-titled comic premieres. The First World Science Fiction Convention is held in New York City. The cornerstone of the Jefferson Memorial is laid. The automatic transmission is invented. Marvin Gaye, Lou Brock, Carl Yastrzemski, Tina Turner and Francis Ford Coppola are born. Chick Webb, Zane Grey and Douglas Fairbanks die.

There are 48 states in the Union.

Joseph A. “Crazy Joe” Kavanagh. 1930s. In front of 1629 Thirty-third Street.

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