You wouldn’t find him on the golf course. You wouldn’t find him at the bowling alley, nor was he on the Internet. But if you stepped inside Paul Brong Machine Works (421 N.E. 12th Ave.), you would find him next to some big, heavy machines with levers, knobs, and lots of intricate tools, making precise cuts on metal parts. At 83, just prior to his death this past May, self-taught machinist Wilbert J. (Jim) Martin was probably the oldest man in Portland still machining with equipment predating the computerized era.
Martin grew up in the Laurelhurst neighborhood and went to Grant High School. He didn’t need to go to Benson, because most of his technical, hands-on training came from his dad.
It was in the days before child labor laws were strictly enforced that Martin scored his first job with machines. He was just nine years old when he started making parts for his father, who had a machine shop.
“My dad would pay me a quarter for each bushing that I could make for some logging equipment called a timber hog,” recalled Martin last fall. “So when I made one and got 25 cents, I would go to the movies. I’d go to the movies at the Hollywood Theater on Saturdays. A ticket was just ten cents. So I had plenty of plenty of money for candy and other things. I can remember when ticket prices went up to 11 cents.”
After graduating from Grant, Martin attended Lewis & Clark College and did a stint in the Army. It seemed only natural for him follow in the footsteps of his dad even though that was a tall order.
“My dad was an electrician, motor-winder, mechanic, tractor rebuilder, air compressor rebuilder, and home builder,” explained Martin. “He was famous for being able to adjust wheat harvesting machines so that they would put out the maximum amount of product. He did that when he was 17.”
Martin quickly realized that he couldn’t develop an expertise in all of the areas that his father had,so he settled on the machine shop business and never looked back. He worked for his dad and then Cascade Tool & Machinery before opening Martin Machine Shop in 1972.
After many successful years Martin “retired,” which still meant going to work every day but working fewer hours. About six years ago, he brought his shop to the Paul Brong building. He said that it cost a thousand dollars to hire a big truck and a sturdy forklift to move his machines.
When I visited Martin last year, he was busy working on pieces that are used by sand-casting foundries. He had one of them perfectly set up and locked in on his vertical mill. He gave me a tour of his impressive assortment of machinery, which included a radial drill press, a lathe with a zillion very sharp cutting tools, and a grinder with a diamond wheel and a roughing wheel.
Martin was an old-school kind of guy who worked from designs written on paper. But if you had a problem that involved metal work, you could bring it to him to see if he could fix it.
“I really enjoy fixing things that no one else will do,” said Martin. “I get a kick out of that.”
Barbara Slader, who lives in the Irvington neighborhood, found Martin to be just the right person to solve some problems.
“Jim Martin has done several wonderful things for us,” said Slader. “The best one involved the lid to the drain in our basement floor. Our house is 102 years old, and the basement floor has a floor drain – a cast iron lid with holes in it. Over the years it corroded and broke. I took it around to plumbing supply stores and they told me that no one made that sort of thing anymore. We would have to jackhammer out the basement floor and put in a new plastic substitute. I took the broken lid and a tracing of the pipe in the floor to Jim Martin, and he said no problem. He made me a brand-new floor drain that looks like the original and fits perfectly, and it will last another 100 years.”
Mr. Martin is survived by his wife Alverna, two daughters, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.