Woodworker, Salem retiree, does wonderful work

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Raymond Barton is also moved by personal tragedy

By Tom Gasparoli

Raymond Barton taking a break in the doorway of his woodworking shop in South Salem. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.
Raymond Barton taking a break in the doorway of his woodworking shop in South Salem. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.

“Just a sawin on wood.”

That’s how Raymond Barton describes what he does out in his makeshift shop hour after hour, day after day. The shop behind the South Salem house he’s lived in with his wife, Betty, since 1961.

A little bit of this and a little bit of that, and the retiree who worked in the Salem Water Department for nearly 49 years is done with his latest creation. They are not overnight sensations, though, and neither is Raymond.

He uses no fancy diagrams; does no work for hire. “It’s just a hobby,” Raymond says.  “What I do. Ain’t nothing special.”`

A visitor says, “Hold up, Raymond. Hold up and show that us that truck again.”

The cement truck, a 1955 Mack model, that won a first prize up in the State Fair exhibit halls a couple weeks ago. The one with the words, “Town of Salem” on it.

That truck, with all its curves and wheels and axles and a mixer and pretty much everything else a real cement truck would have, is made out of wood. Except for springs underneath (which he labors to find), it is all wood.

Even the tiny steering wheel. The headlights. Wood.

Raymond Barton, age 76 and originally from Ironto, is and for a long time has been a master woodworker.

An idea, a pencil, some tools and saws and a lathe, a bit of inherited talent from his dad he didn’t know he possessed, and a fierce sense of both concentration and pride: that mix makes Barton a whole lot better than he thinks.

“I’ve won a bunch of awards in Richmond, too,” Barton said. “Matter of fact, I was standing behind a guy recently when he told another fella: ‘No way that’s made out of wood. Can’t be.’”

Barton kindly stepped in. “Hey there, friend,” he said. “I made that cement truck right there. It’s wood, all wood. You can bet on that.”

There were no bets.

Raymond specializes in trucks now, mostly because his two brothers, Wallace and Ward, each drove one for work for a good while.

One, a huge Pepsi delivery truck. The other, a tanker that transported gasoline.

Barton has different angles to him. He has a manner of speaking that’ll make you laugh one minute, be a little afraid of his aw, shucks intensity the next, cause you to think hard on something a moment later.

There was the moment he said both of his brothers died in the last year.

“Crushed me,” Raymond said. “They died in bad ways. One had ALS. It was terrible to see. The other, well…I don’t want to say.  But I can’t stop thinking about ‘em. They encouraged me to saw on wood as much as anyone did.”

A few tears formed in the eyes then for Raymond Barton, amid the dust and the organized mess and the quiet solitude of that shop where he spends so much of his time.

He’s a man who reached assistant director of the Water Department in the mid-1970s (after starting in 1957, on an

A cement truck by Raymond Barton exhibited at state fair. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.
A cement truck by Raymond Barton exhibited at state fair. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.

entry-level job much easier, he says, than the job he had on a dairy farm) and stayed in that position until he retired in 2005.

He’s a guy who claims–if you mention a Salem road and which part of that road–to know what kind of pipe is laid there and precisely where it begins and ends.

He’s got an encyclopedic mind, and he’s imaginative, too. He can see the trucks he builds all their pieces.  Just sees it all laid out, like a puzzle.

The only planning Raymond really does before he starts is take a few pictures of a truck that interests him. Then, he scratches out a design for a given work of art (always start with the frame, he says, always.), on a segment of stray wood.

Then, Raymond Barton gets to it.  When he proceeded to give a reporter a quick look at his hands on the lathe, the woodworker almost stumbled over a vintage, unvarnished pickup on the floor.

“I just can’t seem to finish that one up,” he said. “But I will.”

If Raymond Barton says he’s going do something, he darn well does it. Long ago, he took lunch breaks at the Salem sand greens golf course. He saw men playing golf. Thought it looked like a dumb game. Said so.

Oh, really, they said back.

Raymond tried golf one day, all on his own.

Some time later, he was playing in tournaments, says he had a one handicap at Blue Hills and once won the Roanoke Valley Senior championship.

He’s got a set of clubs right there in the wood shop. Especially saw-dusty, they are.

“Yeah,” he said. “I became pretty good at that darn game.”

Before he got into trucks, with the many months it can take to craft one, Raymond was doing lamps from what he calls “junkyard wood,” just pieces laying around on the floor.

“I reckon a couple three dozen people in Salem or beyond have one of my lamps,”

he said.

 

Woodworker Raymond Barton in his shop behind his South Salem home. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.
Woodworker Raymond Barton in his shop behind his South Salem home. Photo by Tom Gasparoli.

He’s done a slew of tables, a church pulpit, even. And get this: people used to leave notes and maybe a rough drawing outside the Barton front door, asking if he’d build some kind of object for them.

Raymond usually didn’t oblige the anonymous requesters, but got a kick out of the request.

He’s got a scrapbook of pictures of items he’s made. It looks older than the ‘49 Chevy toy truck he built for Betty. Oh, and his wife is the one who challenged him to do a cement truck.

“She said, ‘Raymond, I bet you can’t do that.’”

“Probably not,” he replied.

The couple has two grown grandchildren, Christina and Andrew. Andrew has done several tours in Iraq. Christina, Raymond says, just got promoted to a Roanoke Sheriff’s Office sergeant’s position.

“Granddaddy, I did it!” she told him.

“So proud of ‘em both,” Raymond says. “They’re great people, and we’re so lucky to have them.”

After the long and fascinating talk with Raymond, after surveying the entire floor and doing the full 360 around the lower half of his wood shop, it was time to look up on the walls.

Not much to see, really, except in one corner, sort of hidden. Seems to be part of the wall.

It’s the wood front of a car, and what looks like a real fender built into it. No wood for that fender.  Part of a real fender.

There are real headlights, too; they turn on when he Raymond plugs them in.

Ask about that partial vehicle, and that’s when the loving, devout, devoted and deep Raymond Barton emerges.

When he tells you the origin, that’s when you truly come to understand this woodworker, this retiree, this man who spends countless hours alone hovering over designs in his head. Out in the shop.

It’s therapy. You see, Raymond is motivated by the heart, too. By hurt.

When asked who the four people are, three of them children, in the picture underneath the hood of that car on the wall, Raymond’s eyes dim, and glisten. He looks away.

“I can’t, um, say much,” he said.

Ten or so seconds later: “Well then, let me just go on and tell you,” the 76- year old announces.

“That woman in the picture is Cindy, my daughter. And those are three of her children. They’re my other grandchildren. Kallie, Cody, McKenna.”

He went on. “They all died in a house fire one night. Burned ‘em up. In Franklin County, where they lived.”

More silence. Nothing to say.

Christina hurled herself through a window, jumped and survived. She had critical burns, which took years to recover from. Andrew wasn’t home that night.

“The front of that car,” Raymond explains, “is a Chevy Nova. Cindy’s car. She loved that thing.”

Raymond stared at the front of that car on the wall. A breeze blew up through that warm woodworking shop. Some flowers outside fluttered in the light wind. A dog barked pretty far away.

Raymond Barton’s eyes got red.

“Cindy was our only child,” he said. “My wife, she’s never recovered, really. I mean, who does?”

The fire was about midnight, slightly more than 20 years ago.  On December 21, 1994.

Cindy, who was 34, could have gotten out from the first floor, witnesses said…but she went upstairs after the children. As a mother would. Toward rampaging flames.

Nobody else got out. Callie was 11. Cody was 9. McKenna was just 2 years old

Raymond and his wife had seen Cindy and the kids at about 10 p.m. in their South Salem home that Saturday night before. The childrens’ Christmas gifts were displayed under the tree upstairs.

“Don’t be late in the morning, honey,” he said to Cindy Barton. She and the kids were coming back Sunday so they could all go to church.

The phone call woke Raymond up. The worst moment he’d ever had or ever will.

The Christmas toys are still upstairs, still wrapped.

It wasn’t long after the fire that Raymond Barton started building complex trucks made out of wood. It can take months.

It was, it seems, a form of therapy, a form of healing, and a form of dedication. Dedication to his daughter and his three grandchildren gone.

Transferred to the wood.

“I don’t know,” Raymond said. “Maybe.”

More than a hobby, this woodworking.

For the next 12 years or so, after the fire, Raymond went to the gravesites every day at Sherwood Memorial Park when he took his lunch break from the Water Department. Just sat in the shade up on a hill overlooking the land, chewing a sandwich.

Raymond still goes over to Sherwood about every day. Takes a break from the wood. When at the cemetery, he’s praying a lot. He always prays a lot.

“God got me through this,” he said. “No other way. I didn’t want to live.”

About a year ago, Raymond thought it might be time to stop the woodworking, at least the highly detailed, time-consuming projects. The trucks.

Before long, he thought better of that idea. Raymond likes being out in the shop, with that photo of his loved ones on the wall, along with parts of that Chevy Nova his daughter, Cindy Barton, so adored.

Raymond needs that time in the makeshift shop out back. He always will. There, by himself, just a sawin’ on wood.