04-02-2020 Tri-City Area History

The Paw Paw River Journal

Run for your life! This is an old Hartford story… back in the day there was one car in town that made everyone get off the streets. It was a 1928 Essex, and I remember it well from when I was a wee nipper. Faded blue with black fenders, a coupe, and its owner drove down the street at about 15 mph. His name was A.C. Olliney, and some people called him “Ace.” But you can figure that out from his initials. On both sides of the car he had hung signs of a rather garish color… they read: “EXPLOSIVES!” And the trunk of that car was usually full of boxes of dynamite, because A.C. was either on the way to or coming from a job… which could include anything that needed to be blown up or out! He wore plaid flannel shirts and held up his work pants with suspenders. He loved storytelling and visiting with the old-timers about town. When he stood on Main Street, his store teeth glistened in the sunlight as he talked with his cronies. I can’t imagine why my dad knew him so well… we never needed to have any dynamiting done. But I can remember standing with him and listening to A.C. as the old blaster told his stories. Once, an old man asked if he ever had any accidents while working. A.C. replied, “Listen, Dad, if I ever had just one, I couldn’t tell you about it!” Olliney got his start working on the railroad, and from there went into the stone quarry business. Back then blasting was done with kegs of black powder and a long fuse… one for each shot. And it was done during noon hour, when the workers were eating their lunch. Later he went into business for himself and found quite a bit of work helping farmers clear their fields of stumps. He said for years he had used dynamite sticks, which were easier to handle. And he always wore gloves… easy to become allergic to the nitroglycerin present in all high-grade dynamite. It would give the handler headaches. For the same reason, he always made sure the fumes did not blow back toward him. He would survey the situation, then insert an electric cap in a stick of explosive. This was the dangerous part, because he had to dig out a hole for the cap in the end of the stick. Not a good idea to go “kicking those sticks around” either, he claimed. One job over at Sister Lakes, he was asked to remove a four-foot stump from between two cottages. A further complication was the proximity of underground water pipes. First, he cut off each root with a charge. Then, with a final one placed directly beneath the stump, he lifted the whole mass right out of the hole. The property owner, amazed, asked A.C. if he could now break up the stump halves, which the blaster proceeded to do without damage to cottages or water pipes. Another job at a farmhouse out north of Hartford, Olliney was asked if he could blast out a basement without damaging the building. The farmer wanted a basement but had built the house on solid clay. With a series of small charges, the soil was loosened sufficiently for digging, and it didn’t even disturb a refrigerator or stove right above it in the kitchen. One time A.C. said his most dangerous job was at his own, now defunct, brickyard on Hartford’s southwest side. He had cases of dynamite and caps stored in one of the buildings. And a fire started in it. An old auto headlight lens lying on a shelf had started the fire from the sun’s rays coming in a window. He called the Hartford Fire Department, and they responded quickly. Then he remembered the cases of caps lying nearby. He didn’t want any of the firemen to get injured, so Olliney shouted to Chief Bill Smith to play a hose of water over him as he entered the burning structure. They did so, and the old blaster groped his way through thick smoke to the cupboard and brought out the boxes safely. One winter he was hired to blast open the ship’s channel at St. Joseph. They badly needed supplies, and lake freighters could neither get in or out. So Olliney started clear out by the lighthouse. Setting his charges carefully, he worked his way in, blasting the ice into manageable chunks. As he neared the railroad bridge, he heard someone yelling at him. He looked up and the bridge tender was shaking his fist out of the window. He shouted, “You old fool… you’d better not come any closer!” A.C. said he just smiled and went on with his work… carefully avoiding the bridge structure. Olliney the dynamiter has been gone now for years. He was one of Hartford’s real characters… a careful man, who knew he was working in life-and-death situations every job he took. And when that Essex coupe came down the street, cars got out of his way and women shooed little kids inside until he had gone past. Now that’s respect! (Reprint from the October 27, 2005 issue of the Record.)

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