When Jim Fischer returned to Kokomo in 1947 after serving in Japan during World War II, he had two options: start working in a factory or help out his uncle as a mason laying brick, granite and stone.
He could have made a lot more money hiring on at Delco after the war, but he decided to begin an apprenticeship to become a mason. His starting wage was 98 cents an hour.
“I had a chance to go to the factory, but I didn’t want to sit at a desk or work inside,” Fischer said. “I’d rather have the fresh air and be outside.”
Over 60 years later, Fischer said he doesn’t regret that decision. In fact, the 86-year-old mason is still working and his craftsmanship is still sought by foremen and construction companies all over the state.
On Monday, Fischer was putting his six decades of experience to use at the Howard County Historical Society repairing the stone steps leading up to the Seiberling Mansion on Walnut Street.
Wearing a loose sweater and jeans, he meticulously replaced the historic pieces of stone along the stairs originally laid down in 1891.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “We’re just trying to put it all back together. When we’re all done, it will be back to its original form.”
Take a drive around Kokomo, and it would be tough not to see a building or house that Fischer built or helped build over the last 60 years. After he founded Fischer Masonry in 1962, his company built a slew of commercial properties on the south side of the city, like the one that houses Key Bank on Southway Boulevard.
But, he said, a lot of the buildings he constructed don’t exist anymore, like King’s Crown Motel that stood along U.S. 31 or the old Leath Furniture building.
“They’re tearing down everything we built,” he said with a laugh. “But I guess that’s what they call progress.”
Although Fischer founded what became one of the largest masonry contracting businesses in the area, he said it was a struggle to get on his feet after returning from the war.
Fischer said he started a four-year apprenticeship in 1947 making less than a dollar an hour, and that’s the same year he married his wife. They moved into a one-room apartment with a fold-up bed.
“We thought we were in heaven when we had that,” he said.
Money was so scarce Fischer ended up taking on a second job working at Chrysler. From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., he laid brick with his uncle and worked odd jobs for other companies for his apprenticeship. From 4 p.m. to midnight, he worked on the line at the factory.
Fischer did that for 16 months. The payoff? The newlyweds had their first car — a used 1938 Oldsmobile.
“There ain’t no better car in the world than that,” he said.
After his apprenticeship was over, Fischer decided to start doing masonry on his own. In 1952, he began working freelance jobs on residential properties. That went well, so a decade later, he started his own company.
That’s when business started booming.
Commercial contracts started rolling in, and by the 1970s, Fischer had hired over 30 masons to keep up with demand.
“I know in 1974 people were talking about a recession, but we were so darn busy that we didn’t even know it was going on,” he said. “We were fortunate for that and thankful for the work.”
At one point, Fischer said the company had two furniture store projects going, two shopping stores, one supermarket and a hotel all at the same time. Near the same time, the company also built South Side Christian Church on East Markland Avenue.
Fischer Masonry had become the only company in the area doing large projects.
Fischer credited the company’s success to two simple things: Keeping a clean worksite and doing quality work.
“We weren’t sacrificing good work in order to get done faster and make a big profit,” he said. “We just wanted to do good work and clean up the sites when we were done, and people really appreciated that.”
During the company’s heyday, Fischer said he still tried as often as he could to go out and work on construction sites laying brick and stone.
“I was on the wall with my workers, because I felt like I had to,” he said. “I felt guilty not doing it, and I wanted to be doing it. But we got so big with so many jobs that I couldn’t. I had to stop and manage the company and I didn’t like that very well.”
Fischer Masonry boomed until the 1980s, but by that time many of his workers had passed away or started retiring.
But not Fischer. Although he kept doing large projects, Fischer let business gradually taper off as he grew older.
Now at 86, he said likes to stay busy doing small jobs here and there, like working on the stairs at the Seiberling Mansion, but he stays away from the big gigs.
“I’m well satisfied with what I’m doing now,” Fischer said. “I don’t want any big work or to manage any big crews … When you get up to over 80 years old, you don’t feel like going out there and busting it.”
But Fischer said he also doesn’t feel like quitting anytime soon. He still loves the work.
Larry Hayes, owner of Hayes Brothers Carpentry, said his company still works with Fischer on odd jobs, and he’s an outstanding mason.
“I think it’s very impressive,” he said. “But what I think is even more impressive is his determination — his determination to get out of bed and take on the day. A lot of people say they’re too old to do things, and they miss out on what they could have been. Jim doesn’t do that. He’s still out there working.”
Fischer said he could be working more, too, if he wanted. He still gets four or five calls a week from contractors wanting him to lay brick or stone on a project. Fischer said he tells them he doesn’t do it much anymore.
“I don’t have to do this, but I love to do it,” he said. “I don’t want to sit at home and do nothing, but I don’t want to go out and bust it either. If I can work two or three weeks and take a few weeks off, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
And as long as Fischer is physically able to do the work, he said, he will.
“I’ll keep working as long as I can,” he said. “I tell people that when they bury me, I want to be buried with a trowel in my hand. Masonry is my life. I love it.”
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, or at email@example.com.