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Roger Shelton recalls 40 years of work

Roger Shelton recently retired as manager of the Washington Farmers CoOperative Tire Center in Jonesborough, after working for the organization for 40 years.
His hire date still stands out clearly in his mind as an extremely lucky day.
“I was working in a car wash in Johnson City, and the guy I worked for owned a farm. Him and the manager of the Co-Op came through to get their car washed and asked me what I was doing,” Shelton recalled. “I said, ‘I’m looking for a job.’”
Both men encouraged Shelton to fill out an application to work for the Co-Op, which he promptly did.
“And on February 26, 1970, I went to work for the Co-Op. That’s when I got a good job,” he said smiling.
And he feels very strongly that he had an excellent career there, because of all the good help he received along the way. “What really got me started were my mentors, James Wright and Wade Ramsey,” Shelton said. “I’ve got to thank Wade for getting me the job, and James Wright for mentoring me all those years, and giving me chances I probably wouldn’t have had anywhere else. And (all) the guys at the Tennessee Farmer’s Co-op were a big (positive) influence on my career.”
Shelton began working on the loading dock loading feed and fertilizer. Then his peer stepped in and helped him move up in the organization. “Since I had (previously) worked for Wade farming dairy cattle, and he was kind of managing the tire shop, he got me a transfer down there,” he explained.
Shelton’s father relocated his family to Washington county from Flag Pond in 1957- when Shelton was ten years old- in order to get work farming. So Shelton knew a thing or two about hard work and farming, but farm tires were a whole new job skill he had to learn.
“It’s just a learning process,” he said. “And when we first started out everything was manual, when you’d break a tire down you had a machine you could put it on, but you still had to have tire irons and a bar to put them back on. In other words, you didn’t have anything electrical or air operated like we do today.”
And invoices weren’t stored on a hard drive or even a floppy disc, all purchases and business procedures were documented using plain old pen and paper. “When I first started you went from manual (tire changing) to tire changers, and you went from handwriting tickets to using computers,” Shelton said.
And the computers that were first installed at the Co-op in the 80s bore little resemblance to the compact and speedy machinery of today. “The lady that came by and set them up, and showed us how to use them said ‘You’ll definitely need to find something to do between the time you press print for that ticket until it starts coming out,’” Shelton explained laughing. “So you would shuffle papers or something until that ticket come out, they (computers) were just that slow.
“Now you just barely twist a button and the ticket starts printing, it’s come a long way.”
The local farming industry has also changed over the last four decades in Shelton’s opinion. “Back in the 70s there were a lot more farms (than today), and they would have smaller equipment,” he explained. “You might have somebody that didn’t milk but 15 cows, and over the years they just progressively went out (of business) because it wasn’t profitable anymore.”
And despite the fact that farming equipment has advanced to such a huge degree that farming isn’t often as labor intensive as it was 40 years ago, Shelton believes the pressure to make a profit has also grown, making a notoriously tough job even more challenging.
“I hate to say gambler, but farmers are the biggest gamblers in the country,” he said.
Shelton used to drive the Co-op’s tire service truck around the county to service farm equipment, and he explained how farms aren’t the only cherished institution that has disappeared from the rural landscape.
“Used to be when you rode around through the community you had little stores everywhere. On any of these country roads you could stop and get a baloney and cheese sandwich for lunch, you can’t do that anymore, you’d better take it (lunch) with you,” he said laughing.
He has also watched the woman’s role in taking care of her car change dramatically over the years. “Used to be the man (who) always brought the car in for an oil change or a battery,” Shelton explained. “Nowadays you have about as many women coming in to the shop to buy tires as you do men. And (it’s) the same for alignments and brakes, nine times out of ten it will be the lady bringing in the vehicle.
“Used to everything was done for them, now they take more of an interest in it.”
And progress marched on at the Co-op’s tire store in terms of the services they became equipped to supply. “We used to just more or less change tires, maybe sold batteries and changed oil,” Shelton said. “Now you do alignments and brakes and minor tune-ups, things years ago you wouldn’t have touched. You take a machine and you hook (a car) up to it, and it will tell you what is wrong with it.”
Shelton initially worked at the Jonesborough Co-op for about ten years, then opportunity knocked once again. “James Wright offered me the opportunity to go to Erwin and manage a branch store,” he explained. “They handled feed, seed, fertilizer, hardware, tires; the whole works. I worked there for about 17 years, until they decided to close it.”
So, in 1997 he returned to the Jonesborough location, and he became manager of the Tire Center. “Instead of being back in the shop doing manual labor – which I still did as time permitted – I was taking care of the business, selling tires up front with the customers, and writing tickets,” Shelton said.
And though he was busy working, Shelton definitely noticed Jonesborough’s enormous growth. “What amazes me is to go up Boone Street, where White’s Auto Parts is,” he said. “The entrance used to be facing Boone, and on the other end where the Shell station is now used to be Archer Brothers Gulf, where they done mechanical work (on cars.) Now it mostly just sells gas. And you still had 11E going through, but it was just a two-lane highway.”
And Shelton said that stopping to fill up his car with gas has also changed dramatically over the years. “Used to be when you went to a service station they filled your gas up for you, they checked your oil for you, they washed your windshield,” he explained. “Now you do it (all) yourself.”
He is also struck by all the new neighborhoods that seem to have sprung up almost overnight, especially right outside his back door. Looking out his kitchen window at the large, new tract housing development nestled along the hills behind him he explained, “This right here used to be a farm, and it’s not been but five or six years ago.”
Shelton said he loves living in Jonesborough. He traveled extensively when he served in the Army from 1966 until 1968, answering the call of duty all the way to Vietnam. And he has enjoyed numerous incentive trips around the country provided by the Co-op over the years. “I’ve been a lot of places in the world and there’s no place like Northeast Tennessee; there’s no place like home.
He admitted that it was a little tough to leave a job he loved, and to say goodbye to all his co-workers. “But it was time, you get to a certain point in your career (when) it’s time for you to go, and let the younger generation have their shot at it,” he explained.
And as he rounds the corner on his second full month of retirement, Shelton says he is still working on getting used to it. But it’s an adjustment he is enjoying.
“I get up when I want to, and I go to bed when I want to,” he said smiling. “We’ve got the kids and the grandkids, I don’t have any hobbies, and I don’t plan on going back to work. Eventually I’m going to have to find something to do, but I can find that later.”