The Steeplejack

Americana, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on January 7, 2001

Jay Southgate dedicates his life to godly work, and the heavens have shined on himand rained and snowed on him, and blown him around. That happens when you make your living as a steeplejack, restoring the towering spires that top the Northeasts landmark white clapboard or stone churches, the very symbol of many country villages and towns.

The regions harsh weather has taken its toll on these historic steeples. Built more than a century ago, or replaced after major weather events such as the great hurricane of 1938, many have deteriorated, and some are in such bad shape theyre in danger of toppling over. Thats when their congregations call Southgate Steeple Jacks for help.

Only a handful of steeplejacksderived from jack of all tradesremain in all of New England, and Southgate thinks he may be the only one whose sole occupation is preserving these classic spires. An accomplished carpenter and woodworker from the central Vermont town of Marshfield (pop. 263), Southgate always has had an interest in historic preservation, but it took a bolt of lightning to make him see the light. This particular bolt hit a historic church steeple in the village of East Montpelier five years ago.

Intrigued by the challenges of steeple work and the satisfaction of saving a landmark, Southgate volunteered to repair it. Hes never looked back (though he does look down a lot). Today, his reputation for hard work and ingenuity has him booked a year in advance.

Many days I get up and I cant believe how much I enjoy my work, says the 41-year-old steeple expert, who is married and has two children.

On a recent fall day his work pants and hands were covered with white caulking, and he was hanging about 100 feet off the ground on the 1875 United Church of Christ in Waitsfield, Vt.

Looking out from the belfry, standing amidst more than a century of dust and debris as he took snapshots of the restoration project, Pastor Jonathan New says Southgate is wonderful to work with. Hes really known as the best in the state.

Churches like the one in Waitsfield are village icons, and the $65,000 steeple restoration has been supported not just by News 200-member congregation but by area residents and out-of-state visitors whove fallen in love with Waitsfield over the years, New says.

Working on steeples and belfries demands many skills and talents: the knowledge of a master carpenter and framer; expertise in painting and historic preservation; the use of diverse materials from copper flashing to slate shingles for roofing and siding. Along with that, you need a willingness to cope with difficult conditions. Southgate and his crew spend much of their time in a bosuns chair swaying as high as 200 feet above the ground from elaborate safety rigging often drilled through the steeple topwhich itself can be swaying in the wind.

Southgate taught himself how to set up the safety rigging and has had only one close call. The safety brake on the line worked like it was supposed to, stopping his plunge, though he ended up slanting backward with his feet up on a ledge.

When you think about it, its probably more dangerous driving roads, he says.

Southgate counts his blessings for his line of work, always aware hes keeping the faith with long ago craftspeople and the congregations of the churches whose steeples he works on.

I feel close to the people who built them, he says.