Saturday, March 27, 2021

Mary Barkdoll Cleaver: Making Fairchild airplanes 'was more fun than work'

Toting her purse, 102-year-old Mary Cleaver walked around the Hagerstown Aviation Museum for more than 45 minutes Saturday, talking about the collection of historic airplanes.

She knew some of the machines pretty well. She helped build them.

"I like the way they're painted," she said. "They're so beautiful."

Cleaver was born on May 29, 1918, to Herman and Katherine Barkdoll. She was No. 5 of 17 children. In her 20s, she started working for Hagerstown's Fairchild Aircraft. 

"I worked on the rudders, the ailerons (the hinged part of the wing) and a lot of small parts. We assembled a lot of small parts," she said.

At times she was literally a Rosie the Riveter, a moniker for the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II. Part of Cleaver's job was riveting joints on for the PT-19 trainers and the C-82 cargo airplane.

She came to the museum with the World War II-era trainers in mind.

And she brought a souvenir, a chunk of metal she called a "bucking block." One person would hold the block on one side of a joint, while another worker used a machine to hammer a rivet that joined pieces of metal. The block flattened the rivet and cinched the joint.

"You'd better be ready" when the rivet came through, she said.

Cleaver's grandson, Nick Mollo, and his wife, Katie, of Hagerstown, said Cleaver still lives on her own near Hagerstown. With her 103rd birthday approaching, they thought she would enjoy a tour of the museum. The museum is housed in a former Fairchild hangar at Hagerstown Regional Airport.

The facility is not open to the public yet. So a family member called Washington County Commissioner Randy Wagner, and he, along with museum board President John Seburn, the museum's board and a few county staff members, made the tour happen, complete with a birthday cake.

Cleaver said she started working at Fairchild on Sept. 4, 1941. She was the sixth woman hired on the production line.

Three months later, the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Cleaver worked at Fairchild until October 1958.

"It was more fun than work a lot of the time," she said. "We had good bosses."

She also had a lot of company. According to a history of the business, employment at Fairchild increased from just more than 1,000 in 1939 to more than 9,000 in 1944.

"I had a lot of family who worked here, also," she said, citing brothers and sisters.

She spotted a photo of one of those sisters, the late Jane Grove, in a collage that honored Fairchild's "Rosie the Riveters."

"She worked the night shift," Cleaver said.

Seburn led Cleaver from airplane to airplane, stopping for brief chats about her work and the company, which once occupied several buildings in and near Hagerstown.

Later, Seburn said he also learned a bit while listening to Cleaver on the tour.

"It's the little things, the daily life things. Things you don't read in a book," he said.

One of the museum's PT-19 trainers is undergoing some mechanical work, and a toolbox sat beside the aircraft. Seburn and Cleaver stopped there  to check out the tools and the airplane.

Fairchild built more than 5,000 of the PT-19 trainers, Seburn said. The aircraft has two seats, one for an instructor and one for the pilot in training.

"It would have been the first plane the cadets would have flown," he said.

The museum owns three trainers, two of which are air-worthy.

"They were all built in ’43, so that was the time period she was here," Seburn said.

The museum also has one of the C-82 cargo planes parked outside with other large aircraft.

"She was here through the heyday of Fairchild. ... This is quite an honor (for the museum) for her to come visit," Seburn said. "There are very few 'Rosies' left, like World War II veterans."

1 comment:

  1. She no better defines the Greatest Generation of which my WWII vet grandfather was one. Still standing and walking and talking and has memories of exactly what she built and how. Amazing. She's a national treasure as there are fewer and fewer of them left who can still tell their stories!