Birney Imes: The man who can sharpen anything (almost)

August 31, 2013 8:33:27 PM

Birney Imes - [email protected]


On a Saturday morning this past winter Elbert Ellis, Casey Griffin and I were planting pine seedlings along the edge of a muddy field in Noxubee County. As we were slogging along -- there's nothing quite like Prairie mud -- Scott Boyd, publisher of the Macon Beacon pulled up. The newspaperman was on his way to have some tools sharpened by a Mennonite man on Buggs Ferry Road; I didn't catch the name.  


"He can sharpen anything," Boyd said. 


One afternoon a month ago I set out to find the man who can sharpen anything on Buggs Ferry Road (so named, reportedly, because years ago at the end of the road, where it meets the Noxubee River, a Mr. Buggs operated a ferry). I had two pairs of pruning shears and a lopper, all overdue for a sharpening. I figured he wouldn't have a sign, but surely anyone living on that road would know. After knocking on the doors of four houses with no luck, I flagged down a passing minivan. 


"Oh you want T.J. Boehs," the driver said. "He lives a couple houses past us. Follow us, we'll take you there." 


People are like that in this part of the country. 


The farther you go on Buggs Ferry, the narrower it gets, and by the time we got to T.J. and Orpah Boehs' (pronounced BAYS) farmhouse, it is hardly more than a one-lane path. My guide, Chastity (Mrs. Travis) Smith stopped to chat with Orpah and I wandered toward a cement-block building behind the house. 


Like many farms in the area, the Boehs' place has a reinforced concrete silo. Too massive to demolish, these odd structures -- their form dictated by function -- sit unused and unloved, a quiet reminder of an earlier time. Once while traveling a back road in Arkansas I happened upon one with some sort of observation deck built on top of it. In Noxubee the buzzards use them for roosts, but otherwise they seem to attract little notice in these parts. 


For more than 30 of his 75 years T.J. Boehs has been sharpening saw blades, router heads, chainsaw loops and even sewing scissors. He does this work -- work executed with care and precision -- in a 12-foot by 38-foot room, part of a larger building from which he sold farm supplies until April. 


Boehs' shop is neat and orderly. Well-used and carefully maintained sharpening machines, each with its own vacuum exhaust connection, line the two long walls. The floor is covered with industrial carpet; a window unit aided by two fans keeps him cool. 


It's solitary work and Boehs says he can sharpen anything that needs an edge. With one exception. 


"I can sharpen anything except your wits," he says. 


Boehs is understated, almost reticent about promoting his work. It takes some probing: 


"A sharp tool more than pays for itself," he says. "A dull tool costs you production." 


For a chainsaw loop, he gets between $3.50 and $6. He charged me $5 for each tool. With the advent of carbide steel the need for sharpening has diminished. Carbide cuts 10 to 15 times longer, he says. 


But first he was a farmer. Boehs' introduction to agriculture came as a child in Oklahoma helping his grandfather plant watermelons and then shooing the crows away from their crop. Later as a teenager he and his father did custom harvesting. In the 60s they moved to the Delta to build catfish ponds and then to Noxubee County where they farmed soybeans on 800 acres rented from John Roland of the Sandyland community. 


With soybean farming comes long periods of idleness, and Boehs was restless. He bought a filing machine from a man in Ulysses, Kan., and in the winter of 1981 he signed up for a week-long course in Minneapolis to learn how to use it. He still remembers the admonition of one of his teachers: "Perfect practice and only perfect practice makes perfect." Advice he seems to have taken to heart. 


He got out of farming the next year. 


"Farming is in my blood, but I think I got carbide dust in it now," says Boehs. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at [email protected] 






Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.