The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Inventor

By Jack Lowe © 1995

Issue: Winter, 1995

In June 1876, Alfred Jackson Lowe, age 21 and Jane Arrowwood, age 19, were married in Greeneville, Tennessee.

Jackson, or as most of his friends called him "Jack," were neighbors to the Arrowwoods. Their youngest son and Jack were the same age. As they grew up they were playmates. The Arrowwood family were Cherokee Indians. Their oldest daughter's name was Jane.

Jack's father was a Baptist minister. It was natural that he follow in his father's footsteps. When Jack finished school at the age of eighteen, his father paid his tuition to a Baptist Seminary in Nashville, Tennessee. After he finished seminary, he came home as an ordained Baptist minister. They assigned him a small church on the outskirts of Greeneville, Tennessee. He held services there every Sunday. Preachers in those days didn't get paid high salaries. All they got for their service was a free-will offering at the end of the service when they passed the collection plate. This small offering wasn't enough to pay for his upkeep. After three or four months, he got a job with the Southern Railway System as a section foreman. His job was to oversee six men in keeping the right-of-way in first class condition such as replacing old worn out cross-ties, repairing or replacing rails, when needed and keeping the road-bed clean.

One of the requirements of the job was that he had to live in Bristol, as this was the starting point of the Southern Railway System. They ran from Bristol to Knoxville, Tennessee.

When Jack moved to Bristol he had to quit his preaching in Greeneville. Every Saturday he would ride the train to Greeneville to see his parents. On Sunday night he would ride train No. 42 back to Bristol. It didn't cost him anything to ride as he had a pass.

After working for the railroad for about six months, he started dating Jane Arrowwood. They dated for about a year and he fell madly in love with her. He proposed and she accepted and they were married. Jane was a beautiful young Indian maid with long black hair and black eyes.

Their first home was a five room house on the outskirts of Bristol. It consisted of five acres of pasture land, a barn and a chicken house. It also had a small spring branch that flowed through the land. The rent was very reasonable. When they got settled in, he bought two pigs, a cow and some chickens.

Their first child was a boy. He was born in 1877 and they named him William. When William reached his manhood, he started working for the Salvation Army in Bristol. When they opened a branch in Kingsport he was sent there to head-up that operation as Captain. He held this job until he died in 1929 at the age of 52.

In 1879, their second son, Luke was born. When he was growing up, he had an inventive mind. He liked to know how things worked. When he was ten years old, he got an old alarm clock out of the trash can that his father had thrown away because it had quit running. Luke tore the clock apart, removing all the gears and wheels and cleaned them in kerosene. He re-assembled the clock, oiled it with 3-in-1 machine oil and believe it or not, it ran and kept good time.

Luke started his next project when he was eleven years old. One day he was walking down beside the small stream when he saw a red shiny rock in a sandbar. He picked it up and looked at it and wondered how it had gotten its bright shine. He figured that it had been in the stream for centuries, rolling against other rocks and sand and that's what gave it a mirror like polish. All at once, a light bulb flashed in his brain and he got an idea about making a polishing machine for rocks.

The next day he walked to Bristol and went by Fred Hayes' Plumbing and Heating shop on Cumberland Street. He got permission from Mr. Hayes to look at his scrap pile. He found a piece of 4" cast iron soil pipe about two feet long. He gave Mr. Hayes ten cents for it and went back home. When he got there, he looked for some old lumber to build a dam. He found enough behind the barn and he started building it. After finishing the dam, he made a sluice box about six feet long out of three pieces of lumber. He next placed the pipe upright about five feet below the dam and packed large rocks around it to hold it on end.

Before he started his tumbling machine he had to find some stones to polish. Luke was a rock hound and he searched his rock collections and picked out a variety of colored stones that he broke into smaller pieces. He then loaded the pipe with them. He also poured in about a gallon of sand. After loading it, he placed the sluice so the water would drop into the pipe on one side. This would create a motion so that the rocks would bounce up and down, rubbing against each other.

After about two weeks he dumped another gallon of sand into the pipe. He let the tumbler operate for another two weeks before emptying it. He had a gallon of assorted colored stones polished to a mirror-like finish. He took them to Bristol the next day and sold them to a merchant for fifty cents.

His next project was to install lights in the barn. He went to a junk yard in Bristol and bought all the necessary items that he needed to complete this project. He worked three days before he was ready to try out his lighting system. When he turned it on, everything worked like it should. His Dad reimbursed him for the material as he was glad to have the lights.

Luke quit school after finishing the fourth grade and went to work for Kingsolver Construction Company. There wasn't any law in those days about hiring youths under the age of eighteen. He only did light work as Mr. Kingsolver wouldn't let him lift anything too heavy. After he had been working for Kingsolver for two years, he taught him to read blue prints, take off material and to estimate jobs. He learned a lot by watching the different trades do their jobs.

He worked at the construction business for ten years before Mr. Kingsolver died of a heart attack. After his death, Luke and a carpenter finished the job. The carpenter went to work for another contractor and he started to take little jobs. He finally increased his business to be one of the largest construction companies in Bristol and the surrounding areas.

At age 27, he married Fannie Demon and over the years, they had eight children, four boys and four girls. When Luke was about twenty-five years old, he got an idea on how to make a concrete block machine. He worked on this invention for about six months before he submitted his application for a patent. While the patent was pending, he made up six of the machines and sold two of them for two hundred dollars each. The new machine would produce about five times as many blocks as the old method of making one block at a time. Finally, he was granted the patent and he sold it to a local investor for five hundred dollars. About a month later, the man came back and said that the new machine wouldn't sell. so, the next day he took the rear seat out of his touring car and loaded four of the machines in the back seat. They then started down the road towards Johnson City. Their first stop was at a building supply store in Bluff city. Luke demonstrated it and gave a good sales pitch and sold it. They continued on to Johnson City. He sold one to a building supply company and one to a hardware store. That left them with one machine and he sold it to a builder's supply in Greeneville. He told the investor that all it took to sell them was a demonstration and a good sales pitch.

He hired supervisors to run his construction business and started to invent all kinds of new things. His next invention was a brick machine that produced four times as many bricks as the old method. He sold this patent to a brick manufacturer in Johnson City. His next invention was a shower that fit inside of a bath tub on feet. It had six shower heads that curved around and sprayed the body. It connected to the tub faucet by a rubber hose and had a circular shower curtain that dropped inside the tub.

He made a new style self-closing faucet that worked with the water pressure. When you turned it on, the pressure would slowly close it off tight. He invented a new type closet valve, several new valves and other brass products.

About this time, Luke built a new brass foundry and installed a chrome plating department. This way he could produce his brass goods at a competitive price.

He got an idea for a new carburetor that would save twenty-five percent on gasoline mileage. He sold this patent to an oil company in Texas. They bought the patent to keep it off the market as it wouldn't cut their gas production.

Another one of his inventions was a self-supporting foundation that eliminated the piles that had to be driven down to bed-rock. He used this system when he built the Reynolds Arcade Building on Cumberland Street in Bristol, Virginia. This site was a former creek bed for Beaver Creek. At that time, the Arcade building was the tallest building in town. During World War One, the government asked Luke to go to the Newport News Ship Building and Dry Dock company to design and build a cargo boat out of concrete. The war ended before they finished this project and they scrapped it.

Over the years, Luke was granted forty-two different patents on new inventions.

In 1945 he was building a new home on Taylor Street when he had a fever blister to appear on his lower lip. He treated it with home remedies for about a week before he went to a doctor.

He went to see Dr. W.R. Rogers, a prominent Bristol surgeon. The doctor surgically removed the fever blister and treated it off and on for approximately three weeks. In spite of all the doctors could do, it developed into cancer. The doctor treated it with radium for awhile and when it didn't get any better, he sent him to John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. They operated on him and removed the glands in his neck and cut out the chin bone as the cancer had spread to these areas. They kept him in the hospital for four months, treating him with radium and other drugs. Finally, they told him that they had done all they could do and sent him home. They told him that he had only three months to live.

When they had operated on him and cut out the chin bone, they left the ends sticking out. When Luke ate, the ends would rub on his jaws creating an unbearable pain. After he had been home for about a week, he went to Dr. Rogers to see if he would cut the chin bones shorter so they wouldn't rub on his jaw. Dr. Rogers told him it would be impossible to cut them as they would cut the main arteries in his neck and he would bleed to death.

Luke suffered form the pain for about a week. Then, when he could no longer withstand the pain, he decided to operate on himself. He went to Bunting's Drug Store and bought some surgical tools, cotton, gauze, etc. He then went by Mitchell-Powers Hardware and bought a new hack-saw blade. He also went by a bootlegger's house on Goodson Street and bought a pint of moonshine.

The next morning he assembled all of the tools and other things that he would need and put them on a table in the kitchen. The sun was shining bright and plenty of light was coming through the windows. He broke off about four inches of the hack-saw blade. About fifteen minutes before he started, he drank half of the moonshine. He then slit the gum with the scalpel and sawed through the bone. He took the tweezers and pulled it out. He did the same on the other side. After finishing the operation he drank the rest of the moonshine and went to bed.

The next day, Luke went to Dr. Rogers' office and told him what he had done. The doctor didn't believe him, so Luke had to show him the bones that he had in a pint jar of alcohol. About a week after the incident, a big write up came out in the Bristol Herald Courier telling how he had operated on himself.

Luke lived twelve years after the operation. He died of a heart attack in 1958 at the age of 79.

Most of the buildings and homes that Luke built still stand as a monument to his skilled workmanship and integrity and not to sacrifice quality for added profits.