@story Doug Kelley
@images Marcus Coker
Tom Newcity restores old desk fans, the kind with a wire cage around the blades and that oscillate back and forth. They are remnants from an earlier time, a time of black and white movies and men in hats, nearly a hundred years old now and narrowly saved from the trash heaps and landfills. Restoration has saved them, or as Tom likes to say, “resurrection.”
Before old fans, he spent a career working with some pretty high tech stuff. In the United States Air Force he worked with the on-board navigation equipment on the top secret (at the time) SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest true airplane ever built. “It was so fast,” he says, “we had to use astro-inertial navigation. It had a star catalog programmed into the navigation computers. Only thing at the time that could keep up with the airplane.” Later he was involved with maintaining the internal systems of Minuteman III program, ending up at a missile silo in South Dakota.
After his career with spy planes and rockets, Tom headed south with his family, ending up in Arkansas, buying a house near the Jenny Lind community, south of Fort Smith. There, an interest in antiques and a lifetime of working with electronics led him to a hobby of restoring old radios. “Desk sets, console models, all kinds.” He enjoyed working with them, with their old tubes and rotary dials, but after refurbishing about a hundred sets he quit doing radios. “Not much money in it,” he said.
After radios, Tom went to telephone handsets, again focusing on the old styles. Eventually, though, he developed an interest in electric fans, and it was with those machines that he has found a more satisfying avocation. He may have been attracted by the challenge of combining electricity with motors and movement, which radios and telephones did not have, and he began collecting old desk fans and restoring—or resurrecting—them to their former glory. “I like the utility,” he said. “I like old things we can still use.”
Old fans, like many things old, have a beauty of workmanship and materials that modern appliances rarely seem to have. Plastic is inexpensive and easy to mold, but blades and housings of such lightweight material cannot come close to the style and class of a fan with a gloss black cast iron base and polished brass blades. Once restored by Tom Newcity, a thing of utility becomes again a thing of beauty.
He likes fans manufactured by the Emerson Electric Company. “They were the most reliable and best built. And they were very innovative with their motor systems, especially with the oil bath lubrication.” Then he shrugged and said, as a sort of disclaimer, “Some people think General Electric is the best. But then there is the joke that G.E. stands for Good Enough.” Emerson started building fans in the 1880s, almost as soon as electricity became widely available, and reached the apex of their quality, in Tom’s opinion, in the years between World War I and the mid 1930s. It is fans of that period that he focuses upon, although he does have one fan of distinctive design from 1910 or 1911. It is not yet restored, but Tom seems proud to have it in his possession. “It’s not rare,” he said, in an interesting conjunction of words, “but it is scarce.”
Emerson fans were “Built To Last”, and in Tom’s hands they become proof of the slogan. His fans are carefully restored, as close to the original as possible, and he clearly takes pride in his workmanship. It is not just a matter of hitting the fan with a can of Krylon and sticking on a modern day power cord from Home Depot.
Tom starts with a relic, disused and discarded, and spends about three to four weeks on each fan. “The first thing I do is make sure it works. Turn it on and see that it runs. You don’t want to put a lot of work into a fan and then find that the motor is no good.” Once he determines the motor is all right, that the field windings are good and the bearings turn freely, he goes to work.
His backyard shop is a cozy little barn, the dark ceiling almost completely hidden by some two hundred old fans, black and dusty, hanging at crazy angles from the rafters, waiting their turn. The walls, too, are covered, with pegboards of tool and parts, test equipment, a couple old style pin-up girl calendars, and snapshots of family members taken when everyone was a good bit younger. Along one wall is a paint booth, large enough to accommodate a full-sized radio console, its back wall crusted with black globules of dried paint drawn there by a hidden ventilation system. There is a metal lathe, a drill press, sanders, and five bench grinders—each with a different buffer or wire brush wheel—and a coffee pot in the corner. There is a stroboscope, the flickering light of which can seem to “stop” the fan as it turns, to see how well the blades are aligned. After an hour spent looking around, new tools and items of interest still reveal themselves, even though they have been there all along. There is much to see.
In this compact but efficiently arranged shop, Tom works meticulously, using only original parts or only the most faithful of reproductions, not hesitating to repaint for the slightest flaw, not declaring a fan finished until it looks right, runs right, is right. “The people who buy these fans,” he said, “are not buying just the fan. They are buying the restoration.”
They are buying Tom Newcity’s art.