Salted with Sharks

Elberta Odd Jobs: The Saw Filing-Man

In Agriculture, Historic Elberta, On and off the Apron, Post Office, You Mist It the First Time on June 11, 2013 at 12:39 am

If you have an idea for a story in this series on the amazing careers of your fellow Elbertians past and present, let us know at

By Pat Moyna

My father, Earl Moyna, the Elberta rural-route mail carrier from 1920 to 1953, being a civil-service employee, was subject to legal restrictions on other work or positions he could occupy. For example, he could not run for elected office, local or otherwise, but could accept an appointed office—he was a school board member and president for some years. He also could not accept part-time employment with any business that might reflect on or interfere with his federal service.

However, he was free to be self-employed with virtually no restriction. Since he had some spare time and was always looking to improve the quality of life of his large family, he continually sought ways to bring in a few more dollars to that end. He owned three city blocks in Elberta,* all undeveloped except for the one lot on which the house sat, at 826 Frankfort Avenue (now home to Margaret Davidhizar and Sylvester Lee). So he built a barn and a garage with a shop and farmed, using part for a large vegetable garden and the rest for pasture for the cows, pigs, chickens and horses he kept for meat, milk, eggs, and to work the land.

Pa was used to working hard from the time his father died when he was not yet four years old. In Elberta his day began at 4 AM with tending the livestock and milking, helped by the boys and even by the girls. At 7:30 he was off to the post office to sort and “put up” the mail for the route in Gilmore, Blaine, and Joyfield townships. By 9 he was on his way around the route. In the early days, it would take 8 hours, but as time went on, improved roads and vehicles trimmed his time to about 4 hours; he would finish his route, process outgoing mail, and be home by 1 PM. I made that trip with him every work day that I wasn’t in school from the time I was 3 years old (Ma’s idea of day care).

Most every family in Elberta struggled during the Great Depression and sought ways to help feed their families. We were no exception, though we had it a bit better than more than a few neighbors. Thanks to his tireless effort to improve his lot, Pa provided us with most essentials of life. Both he and Ma had hard childhoods and agreed that it was important to help their neighbor any way they could. Pa being busy about 18 hours a day, Ma took up the humanitarian tasks, assisted by the girls, while the boys helped Pa farm.

Ma had her own version of a soup kitchen, making a canning cooker full of soup every week or as needed and feeding a number of neighborhood children who my oldest brother (“St.” Michael, who was called Floyd, his middle name, in his youth) would bring home with him from school. Ma’s kindness was remembered by those kids long after they were grown, and was repaid a hundredfold in later years when Ma was widowed and Mike was confined to a wheelchair.

With all Pa had on his plate, you’d think he’d be content to spend what free time he had relaxing. But it wasn’t in his nature. When he wasn’t at a stock auction or an estate sale, he was pursuing other enterprises. In 1939, he started “Moyna Resort” on Heron Lake, also commonly called “Upper Herring Lake,” so the growing kids would have employment to start making college money (all seven of them attended college). He and the older boys and girls built the boathouse, the cottages, and the boats. Once open, Ma and the girls ran the business while the boys got jobs in the community. This allowed Pa more time to pursue another of his vast array of talents.

From early on, Earl had possessed a knack for sharpening tools, something that to this day is a hard skill to master. He learned many such skills from his grandfather and namesake, Michael Earl Conboy, and brother, “Uncle Pete” Conboy, both Irish carpenters and tinkers.

Earl set up his shop to sharpen all his edged tools (saws, axes, chisels, knives, scythes, sickles and sicklebar teeth, the triangular cutters used in cutting hay). He did every type of saw from handsaw to one- and two-man crosscuts, to circular-saw blades. He dressed, set and sharpened or filed every conceivable cutting device right down to sewing scissors. This was the substance of the Irish tinker’s art!

One reason Pa sharpened his own tools was that he couldn’t find a reliable person to do it anywhere in the surrounding area of Benzie, Manistee, Wexford, Grand Traverse or Leelanau Counties. As word got out, Earl became increasingly busy at his craft. He charged a reasonable fee for this indispensable service and soon had customers from as far away as 50 miles bringing him their implements. I spent many a pleasant afternoon in the garage with Pa, holding the big saw blades steady while he hand-set them with a special hammer and handheld saw set. Handsaws he set with a pliers-like device that had a pre-set rake. Filing of the teeth was accomplished freehand on the big saws and with a mechanical filing device in a filing vice for the small-toothed saws.

Much of his early work was correcting poor work done by others, but as time went on that disappeared as almost his entire business was repeat customers who wouldn’t take their work to anyone else. To accommodate the farmers who were his principal customers, he had them bring in their jobs in the off season to be ready for the next harvest. So winter was a busy time for “the saw filing man.” Ψ

*The house was in block 26, lying between Charles and Fifth Street and facing M-22 (Frankfort Avenue), directly across the street from the Weksler and Doc La Rue homes. Block 27, a riparian block, was directly behind (east of) block 26. A riparian block was one which bordered an uncontained waterway, so how much land you owned depended upon where the water line was today. The third block, 36, was also riparian and used as summer pasture. It was between Third and Fourth Street. Some of those streets were renamed after WWII.

Pat Moyna, the youngest of the nine children of Michael “Earl” and Margaret “Fern” (O’Leary) Moyna was born around 4:00 in the morning, during a late winter blizzard on Friday, the 10th of March 1939, under the supervision of the legendary town doctor, Frank J. La Rue and and his wonderful helpmate and wife, University of Michigan graduate nurse Ellen Baver La Rue. He was delivered by Ellen in the house that still stands at 826 Frankfort Avenue, directly across the street from the Crane-built Victorian which served as the La Rue family home as well as doctor’s office and clinic. Pat grew up in Elberta and as the youngest, became the memory of all his family, incorporating their adventures and memories into his own. Pat left Elberta after college and eventually had a career of over 28 years in the US Army Security Agency, where he was a signal intelligence and electronic warfare technician. With all the school teachers and English majors in the family, and being Irish, he was bound to gravitate toward storytelling and writing. Now retired finally at 74, he finds more time to focus on the prose and poetry he loves so much. The romantic past of what will always be his home town is a frequent subject of his efforts. 

  1. These are sooo excellent!!! LOVE th

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