Volunteer alumni of KSD help restore original flooring in Jacobs Hall

Published 7:25 pm Friday, March 22, 2019

The old saying, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” is evident in the hard work that five volunteers at Kentucky School for the Deaf are doing for their alma mater.

Billy Cannon, left and Kerry Helton Sr. discuss the project ad Kerry Helton Jr. finishes sanding under a radiator. Photo by Robin Hart.

Billy Cannon, KSD class of 1968; Roger McCowan, ’72; Kerry Helton Sr. ’80; and Kerry Helton Jr., ’04, all of Boyle County, and Thomas Smith, class of ’65, of Tompkinsville, are calling themselves “The Dirty Five” because of the dusty work they’ve been doing at Jacobs Hall Museum this month, McCowan said through an interpreter.

When Jacobs Hall supporters decided it was time to remove the stained and worn out carpet — which had about 51 years of use — from the nearly 2,800-square-foot grand hallway in order to expose the original hardwood floors, they weren’t sure what condition it would be in, McCowan said.

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But when volunteers removed yards of carpeting and crumbled foam padding, what they were surprised to find was linoleum glued to the antique pine floors. That presented a whole different problem.

So, volunteers rolled up their sleeves again and began scraping up the old tiles, which left a coating of black tar stuck on the wood. “It was awful,” McCowan said.

The museum staff contacted several professionals who gave estimates ranging between $2,000 and $5,000 — a cost that the museum couldn’t afford, according to McCowan. So “The Dirty Five” took on the floor refinishing project themselves, even though most of them didn’t know how to do it.

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Once the 2,800 square feet of 50-year-old carpenting was removed from Jacobs Hall foyer, a layer of linolieum tile and tar had to be removed.

Four of the men didn’t have any experience in woodworking, McCowan said. So they made Cannon leader of the volunteer crew because of his furniture making skills and experience, McCowan said. “He is a craftsman. We’ve learned a lot from him.”

Cannon learned how to build furniture in the vocational program under the direction of Alfred Marshall while he was attending KSD as a young student, Cannon said. There’s a photo of him as part of a large display on the third floor where he’s standing beside a large, four-poster bed he crafted.

Cannon told the group of men the only way to get the tar off was to use large floor buffers without the pads. The buffer’s metal disk scrapped off all the tar just as Cannon had explained. And the dust it caused was thick in the air and covered everything and everybody, hence the nickname “The Dirty Five,” McCowan said. The dust even floated up to the second and third floors.

Sanding and cleaning were the next two chores and a coat of polyurethane was applied Friday and Saturday. Jacobs Hall should be ready to reopen on April 8, McCowan said.

McCowan said they feel it’s important to preserve KSD’s history because it’s also a part of deaf history. Getting down to the original 161-year-old flooring is just another way to show visitors what it was like in the early days of KSD. McCowan said groups of hearing and deaf visitors are usually amazed at the size of and artifacts in Jacobs Hall.

McCowan said they’re proud of the work they’ve been able to do for their school, and it saved the museum a lot of money. Volunteers choose a different project every year, McCowan said. Maybe next year they’ll tackle a staircase or the hallway on the second floor.

While taking a short break from sanding along the edges and in corners, the men gathered for a group photo. Cannon pointed to Kerry Helton Jr. and said he was his apprentice and was learning how to refinish floors. As he was laughing, Cannon said Helton Jr. was going to be the future boss.

Kerry Helton Jr.  replied, “Future boss? I’ll just work.”