We asked steeplejack Jay Southgate…What’s the Point?
All photos/art by Corey Hendrickson
Jay Southgate is the owner of Southgate Steeplejacks, headquartered on the grounds of a former granite-processing facility in Websterville, Vermont. A steeplejack is … wait … we’ll let Jay tell you himself. Suffice it to say that he and his four “awesome employees” make their living by climbing into an earlier century’s peak locations and mending them, all the while getting a fine view of the world. We caught up with the Gloucester, Massachusetts, native while on the job in Shelburne, Vermont.
“I moved to Vermont in 1988, and I was working in general construction, but I became increasingly frustrated with residential work. One day I was working for a particularly irksome homeowner and happened to look over and see two guys working on a nearby steeple, exchanging a piece of copper flashing. The sunlight reflected off the copper as it passed between their hands, and I thought, ‘I want to be doing that!'”
“There’s a rush that comes when we have to take down and truck a steeple–which was never designed to be moved on modern roads–to our workshop. Just the act of breaking a steeple into legally shippable waterproof units, and repairing it and then bringing it back, and with a crane on site reassembling the parts that weigh six tons–it’s like putting on a show, it’s like dance choreography.”
“I do this because it’s my dream job. I get to create beauty. My two favorite jobs were Trinity United Methodist Church in Montpelier and First Presbyterian Church in Barre. Each place gave me full artistic license. Most of the time I have to make the steeple look exactly like the original, using the most long-lived materials, but in these circumstances I didn’t have to replicate what was there. When I’m working on a steeple, I either come to admire those who worked there before me, or not.”
“We often find patent-medicine bottles hidden all throughout the steeple, squirreled away in little nooks, left over from Prohibition. You can just picture men sneaking off to drink without their wives knowing–in that sense not much has changed. Or maybe it’s the women who went up there, who knows? Back when I was just learning the trade, we found a big sign left behind in a building dating from the 1800s, explaining something about the engineering of the structure. I remember it had a sketch and stated something like, “You think it works like this … but it works like this …” They left it there as a guide for whoever came along to renovate the building. Another time, when I was just learning my carpentry skills, I was working in Lexington [Massachusetts] doing a restoration project, and I noticed this loop of wood that served no obvious purpose. I pulled it out, and it revealed a panel that read: Who are You? What year is This? My Name is William. I built this in 1802. I put this loop in as a joke. Good Luck.”
“We sometimes leave something behind for the future–a present-day coin–[or] sometimes the guys will sign their names.”
“When I’m up there, I don’t spend too much time admiring the view–I’m usually focused on the steeple five inches in front of my face–but when I do look around, I’m usually wondering about my public protection system. From where I am up there, it looks as if everyone’s walking around with target circles on their head. People on the ground don’t think they’re in danger, but if I drop something … It never ceases to amaze me when people down below think the ‘Do Not Cross’ safety tape we’ve set up around the perimeter of the building doesn’t apply to them.”
“The rigging equipment we use up there is more commonly used in the emergency-rescue industry, but it’s also what they used on Mount Rushmore. The drive to work each day is probably the most dangerous thing I do. All it takes is one person crossing the double line into my lane—I mean really–that’s when we’re most at risk.”