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By The Sweat of Their Brows: A Brief History / Memoir of the Reed Body Shop in El Dorado

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By Bart Reed

It was the summer of 1960. I had completed my fifth-grade studies under Miss Millie Cooksey at the new Hugh Goodwin Elementary School in El Dorado, Arkansas. Miss Ellis was our principal. That school year I had learned about fractions and how to play the trombone, played the part of George Washington in a school play, was taught to play chess by Bill Cook, and read two of my favorite books for the first time -- Rifles for Watie and Huckleberry Finn. My academic studies were fine, but my father, Ray Reed, decided it might be time to introduce me to the fifty-hour week at Reed's Body Shop. So I put down my books and picked up a floor push broom. My first days of gainful employment began with earning $15 per week at 1401 North Quaker Street. The work hours were from 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM Mondays through Fridays and from 7:30 until 12:00 on Saturday mornings.
It was through sweeping and washing the front floor of the shop, near the ice water fountain and mirrored cigarette machine positioned directly under the Grapette clock, that I made the wondrous and pleasant discovery that the concrete floor was as green as an algae-laden farm pond. Chips in the concrete itself proved the concrete had been dyed green in its original mixing. The green concrete seemed to match the green porcelain light fixtures above, which shone brightly with their 200-watt bulbs.

Frank Lacy Reed, Sr., and his wife, Ray Murphy, had six sons: Frank, Jr., John, Louis, James, Ray and Walter. All were born between 1919 and 1934; and all, at one time or another, were involved in the automotive repair business. In the 1940s, the oldest son, Frank, had a body shop in Wichita Falls, Texas, where brothers John and Louis also worked. Later, John was employed at Laney's Body Shop in El Dorado, Arkansas. By the late 1940s and early 1950s, the other three brothers -- James, Ray (my father), and Walter -- were also in automotive repair.
From late 1946 to 1996, Reed's Body Shop was a prominent automotive body repair business in El Dorado, Arkansas. It began as a family business after the Second World War by brothers (my uncles) John and Louis Reed when both returned home after active combat service in the United States Navy. John served as a Seabee in the Pacific, and Louis was a radarman on the newly commissioned destroyer USS Moore (DE240). The body shop was begun in a tin and wood building built by them and their other brothers on a property lot owned by John Reed at North Quaker Street and Wagner. The streets at that time were unpaved. It was 1946; and within a short time, two other brothers, James and Ray, began working at the body shop and eventually became co-owners. A cousin, Clifford Harrell, also worked from time to time.
Frank Reed, Sr., donated the lumber from an old barn on his farm that enabled the brothers to construct the "first" Reed's Body Shop in September1946. Photographs show obvious pride and a sense of accomplishment in building the "shop." The old barn had to be first torn down and then rebuilt as a body shop.

The "Shop," as it was called by the family, was built in stages over a period of time. The original wood/tin structure was "covered" by a new concrete block and pipes truss building in the 1950s. Upon completion of the "new" structure, the old original building was disassembled and removed. During this time, a night watchman from Fordville was hired to guard the place at night. Later in the 1950s, the "back" portion of the shop was constructed. It, too, was of concrete blocks and contained a frame-straightening "pit," a wet-sanding and wash/detail area, a corner for radiator repair (the red metal tank was filled with anti-freeze to check for leaks), and an area for window glass cutting/sanding from paper templates. There were shelves for cans of automotive paint and a separate sandpaper table/rack. Two paint booths with fluorescent lights and exhaust fan completed this section.

Reed's was always known and praised for its fine better-than-factory paint jobs. Good body work and paint finishing go hand-in-hand, and each can complement the other. Louis Reed was the first painter at the body shop. He tells the story of the first paint job done at Reed's. It was for Willard Chaney of Chaney's Grocery on Cedar Street. In order to get paint and materials for his 1940 blue-green Oldsmobile, Chaney advanced $70 so that the materials could be purchased before work could begin.

Body work in the summer can be hot and dusty. It was all right to have dust in the front of the shop, but in the back where painting and refinishing took place, dust was the enemy. It could ruin an enamel paint job. For that reason, it was always necessary to wet down the paint rooms, taking care not to get water on the ceiling and making sure the door filters, walls, and floor were good and damp.
Daddy (Ray) had the most steady, even, and precise spray painting style and technique I ever observed. With each passing of the paint gun across the surface being painted, he would "fan out" the overspray and for a split-second let go of the trigger. It was magical to see the unpainted car be transformed into a work of highly skilled art. When he, or Benny Davis, or my cousin Clark Reed carefully emerged from the paint room, their heads would be covered with masking paper and tape, their eyes red from the paint fumes. Even so, there would be a gleam in their eyes or a smile on their faces when the job turned out right. That was always expected.

I recall seeing a photograph of a repaired red 1965 American Rambler in front of the shop in about 1967. The car was owned by an insurance adjustor/agent Ed Cook. Cook was so impressed with the high quality of repair that he wanted a group picture of all the employees that had a part in it. The photo shows all of the people of the shop at that time, and one cannot help but notice the immense pride of craftsmanship depicted in each face -- from front office to body man to painter to detail man. All realized their effort was but one part of the overall success story.

Tools and body shop accessories were of the highest quality; Brinks spray paint guns and 3-M sand paper were in constant use. Body men generally possessed their own tools and tool boxes; however, weekly stops by the Mac or Snap-On tool salesmen in their well-stocked and lighted vans were always a welcome sight. Some tools bought by Ray Reed remained usable for forty years. There were many other necessary tools for body men, including acetylene torches. The shop made its own acetylene.

In the hard-scrabble early days of welding at the shop, ordinary wire coat hangers were used for steel welding rods. In later years, Reed's would be the first body shop in town to have MIG and TIG welders. Acetylene cutting and heating torches were used a daily basis to cut and stretch sheet metal and to melt the sticks of lead used in early body repair. By the mid-1960s, lead began to be replaced by plastic bondo filler. By the late 1950s and early 1960s, sheet metal was getting thinner; but new body men were still being trained to repair dents with the old tried peck file and lead filler system. At first Reed's preferred lead over bondo. The body man had to "file" whether he used lead or bondo, but the bondo shavings always made a bigger pile.

Hard work and a dedication to quality in labor and materials was a long-term earned reputation acquired by Reed's. This commitment to hard work was also evident in the work/labor and service of Reed's Wrecking Yard, now Reed's Auto Salvage, founded by Jean and Louis Reed and John Reed in the early 1950s. Walter Reed, the youngest of the Reed brothers, joined Louis at the wrecking yard to help establish a respected and successful business. Walter's wife Kay and Louis's wife, Jean, proved to be invaluable assets, not only by taking care of the office, but also by occasionally picking up and towing vehicles. Honesty and a commitment to excellence were traits perhaps instilled by Jim Reed, the founding brothers' paternal grandfather, who ran a successful dairy for many years. Jim Reed's customers were happy to pay more than one cent per quart for the milk he sold because they felt it was consistently of better quality than that of his competitors. The customers at Reed's were always assured that the job would be done right.

At Reed's Body Shop, almost any type of car-truck body repair was done -- from bent and twisted sheet metal, broken windshields and glass to upholstery and completed paint jobs. Nothing was too large either; 18-wheelers and the KTVE Channel 10 trailer received faultless paint jobs.

Jackie Phillips, the shop's long-time bookkeeper, was crucial to the success and well-being of the shop. Her outstanding financial management skills were particularly beneficial, especially during times of economic recession and hardship. She could budget for the shop during the lean times. This was a defining factor. Her passing from cancer in 1980 was a definite turning point and a great loss. Her business personality and customer relation skills could not be replaced.

The sights, sounds, and smells of the body shop served as an inspiration for a poem, "Reed's Body Shop," written in 1983 by Jimmy Hatchett, a nephew of Ruby Floyd. Mrs. Floyd was the mother of seven children and the next-door neighbor to Reed's Body Shop:

Playing cards with Acey Dale
With Jake and Arky near
Body shop is crashing smashing (It's all them Reed boys)
You can hear the Reed boys
Then fender-mending, motor-mending
Reed boys
Body hammers turned to the fifth harmonic
Multi-colored mist is drifting
Toxic fumes nobody mentions
Fresh paint baking in their ovens
(Them Reed boys and their hot lacquer)
You can even smell the Reed boys
Them high-falutin, air-pollutin
Reed boys
(There must be half-dozen of 'em)
Aunt Ruby's cooking turnip greens
The scent is braking through
When it gets with the smell of her cornbread
It's gonna chase that paint
All the way back
(To them Reed boys)

It is said that a sense of "place" is particularly important for people of the South. Southern writers from the colonial period to modern times have often described place as being central to understanding themselves and what it means to be of the South. Identity and place are closely intertwined. Such is the case with the story of my family's business -- Reed's Body Shop. Its history was and is part of what it means to be a member of the Reed family of southern Arkansas.

A list of workers at Reed's Body Shop is extensive. Without their dedicated labor, the shop's reputation for good, honest work would have been impossible. Listing all of the people who worked at Reed's Body Shop from 1946 to 1996 is not possible. From my own memories and from talking to my mother and surviving uncles, I compiled the following list of members of the labor force from 1946 to 1996:
John Reed, Louis Reed, Ray Reed, James Reed, Walter Reed, Frank Reed, Jr., Clark Reed, Bart Reed, Mike Reed, Andy Reed, Douglas Reed, John Reed, Jr., Mary Reed, Kay Reed, Laquieta Reed, Jamie Reed, Clifford Harrell, Rufus Woods, Jr., and his son, Rufus Woods III, Dub Woods, Fannie Woods, Clayborn Reed, Bud Campbell, Benny Davis, Frankie "Sonny" Williams, Jim Nelson, J. W. Cutshall, Ed Whatley, Leonard Lougans, Herbie Pepper, Al King, and his sons, Sammy and Alvin, Clarence and Mark Hansen, Rudy Pugh, Ricky Sorrells, Willie Jackson, Aubrey Barbaree, Jackie Phillips, and Roger Humphries -- a body man form Perth, Australia.

For all their dedicated labor and accomplishments, the customers and the body shop were blessed. They are all remembered with the greatest honor and respect. They were Reed's Body Shop.