Fred Oakes in his shop at Kings
By CHARLIE FAULK
Vicksburg Evening Post
When he was 13 years old, Fred Oakes walked 12 miles down a country road to see an old fisherman take his one-lung inboard motor apart, repair and reassemble it. Since then, he’s been inside just about every kind of engine ever built.
Oakes was a pioneer in the automobile salvage business, and on Dec. 28, he’ll celebrate his 50th anniversary in Oakes Auto Parts Co., on Old Highway 61 North.
“I’m getting to the end of the string,” he said philosophically in recalling a career that has included piloting a boat on the Sunflower and Yazoo Rivers; work in the railroad shops at Vicksburg; and finally for half a century, salvaging the usable parts of wrecked or abandoned automobiles.
Oakes was born at Harworth, MS, a once-thriving sawmill town on the Yazoo River, two miles from the mouth of the Little Sunflower. It was a bustling little town when he came on the scene in 1903.
“There were hundreds of people, and the town issued its own money,” he recalled. Oakes lived on a plantation, and when the crops were in, he ran a small boat hauling scrap iron and other products. He attended the one-room Leist School for several years, but didn’t reach the 8th grade to graduate.
“Later I went to Mr. Trimble’s school in Vicksburg, (Southern Business College, located then on the third floor of the building on Washington Street at the southwest corner of Crawford.) Robert Trimble taught business courses, and Oakes had a good exposure of bookkeeping and math. He later took mechanical drawing in a course that was offered before World War II at the YMCA.
But his mainstay was mechanics. There was high water in 1922, and he moved to Vicksburg, arriving in the "big city" on August 13. The next day, he landed a job with the Illinois Central Railroad (note: It would have been a subsidiary: Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad, the shop was on Levee Street), and started work on the 15th. He was an air brake specialist. He worked for the railroad until 1927.
"I was a shop man. They kept trying to get me out in the yard on inspections, and I told them I wouldn’t fill in for some drunk employee. I got sick one day, and decided to open the salvage business,” he recalled.
Oakes first place was on Openwood Street. He had room for about six cars. Later, he moved to a larger location on Mulberry Street, and then a still larger spot near the National Cemetery. He’s been at his present location for more than 20 years. (He moved to Kings in 1939).
“The banks helped me a lot,” he chuckled about his early days in the business. “They’d close on Saturdays and Sundays, I would go out Friday afternoon and buy a few wrecks, give a check and work all the weekend stripping them. By Monday, I’d have enough money to cover the check. “ I stayed right up against the wall.”
Oakes has a special gripe for present laws which he said made it impossible to hire good help. “ There are more laws about hiring a man to work for you than there are on robbing a bank,” he declared. Naming a few, he listed the minimum wage, occupational safety, social security and the volumes of records required. “They’ve cut out everything that would let you teach a young person a trade, and keep him busy off the streets. I used to have boys working, many them school dropouts who learned a trade.” He cited several who made good in life.
“The labor unions have torn up the country,” he declared. “They’ve put on so many regulations, a little man can’t operate. The government has devalued the dollar so inflation has taken the country.” Oakes is a staunch believer in gold and silver standards and says eventually the country will go back to them.
In addition to teaching young employees a trade, Oakes raised four sons and a daughter, and they too were part of the operation. He was married to the former Marjorie Hartley of Clinton.
“We had our own ball club,” he chuckled. The children went to Redwood where they participated in athletics and other events, and where they had many friends. “I never knew how many to cook breakfast for until I looked in the bedroom and counted heads," he said, speaking of his children’s habit of bringing company home to spend the night.
(Correction: Dad never cooked a meal for any of the kids, mother did it all.)
Mrs. Oakes died several years ago. The children have made good in varied careers. Fredrick Charles, the oldest, has 26 years in the Air Force ( note: and Navy). He is now retired and works as a civilian at Wichita Falls Air Base. Melvin has a Ph.D. degree in plasma physics, and is now professor of nuclear physics and director of research at the University of Texas.
Floyd is a shift supervisor for the Agrico Chemical Co., in Gonzales, LA., and Donald is principal of Grove Street School. The Oakes' only daughter, Eleanor, has a master's in education and teaches in Baltimore.
Oakes plans to continue his dabbling with the business, selling a little here and a little there. He's through with buying cars and dismantling them, however. From now on, he'll sell it if he has it. If not, he'll keep it.
(Comment: Working on the yard was very dangerous; we were lucky never to have serious injuries. Occupational safety regulations were badly needed.)
By Gordon A. Cotton
Vicksburg Evening Post, February 24, 1972
BY GORDON A. COTTON
Fred Oakes knows about 6,000 auto parts by heart. And since he opened his used auto parts company here almost 45 years ago, he has wrecked some of the best autos ever built - Rolls Royces, Will St. Clairs, Hispanio-Swayzes, Dusenbergs - and just about any other make of car and truck ever built. Oakes sells the spare parts and what ever is left goes for scrap iron.
During those years, Oakes has acquired some real collector’s items. Currently, he is working on a Miller Marine Engine “which was old when I was young.” He also has a 1914 Detroit engine which came off the “Toodlelump", a boat owned by Sid Leist. Oakes said that his uncle got the engine after World War I, gave it to him, and currently he’s reworking it.
A variety of other marine engines are scattered nearby –a Caille Perfection, a Gray, a Gibbons and Stream, and a Pierce-Budd, formerly a three-cylinder which threw a rod and was converted to a two-cylinder.
Here and there among the auto parts and engines are a number other oddities a 1911 electric washing machine with a cast-iron housing, an early grist mill, and other items. One of the most interesting objects is a 1923 Fordson tractor, a four-cylinder contraption with iron wheels, no springs and no water pump. The engine was started from a magneto in the fly wheel and was hand-cranked.
During his lifetime, Oakes has had a number of interesting experiences, and he is currently tape recording his story to preserve it for future generations of the family. He tells a fascinating account of life on the Yazoo near Harworth back in 1921-1922. Oakes and his brother cut cordwood for boats and then bought a drove of registered hogs in Vicksburg which they turned loose on the Yazoo farm. His account of floating out honey-combed Choctaw logs to build rafts to transport the livestock to higher ground during the flood season is a bit of interesting Americana.
Oakes stories are not without humor– he tells of buying two apples and a fancy knife, floating down the river daydreaming, and finally putting the apple core in his pocket and absentmindedly throwing his new blade into the river.
It was during this time that Oakes contracted smallpox. He was staying in a barn 16 feet off the ground. High water was lapping into his living quarters, and he said he had his boat tied to his bed. When the Negro who was staying with him got word back to Satartia about Oakes’s condition, a local doctor said that if they brought him out it would probably cause an epidemic - the best thing to do, the physician said, was to wait until he died and bring him out in a sealed, tin casket. Oakes said he survived the smallpox because of Harry Barton, his Negro friend, who made squirrel broth for him, to go with the assorted medicines he had.
Once the water was down and Oakes was well, another catastrophe hit when his hogs and goats died from alkali poisoning left when the high water receded.
Determined to try once more to make a living on the farm, Oakes and his brother planted the place in cotton. That experience is what brought Oakes to Vicksburg permanently. “We were late getting it planted, but it was up and pretty,” he said. “My brother and I were leaving the field one morning. I’ll never forget it- it was August 13, 1922 at 11 o’clock. I stopped and opened up a cotton bloom. That one bloom had 13 boll weevils in it. I left the field and came straight to Vicksburg."
Once here, Oakes went to work for the railroad and stayed with them until 1928. On Dec. 28, 1928, he began his used parts business on Openwood Street, later moved opposite the National Cemetery, then to Mulberry and Clay, and finally to his present location at Kings.
Oakes says he couldn’t live long enough to tell you what he has learned about parts, and that no one else would live long enough to write it all down.
In the future, he hopes to build a museum and stock it with antique engines, parts and tools which he has been collecting for that purpose. “I’ve done just about everything except make money,” he says.
Below left, a 1923 Fordson tractor sits among the many vintage vehicle at Oakes Auto Parts. At right is Fred Oakes and his son, Melvin, under his vintage sign at Kings.