Before the Stair-climbing Dolly

I was thinking about tools this morning. If you go into one of the large warehouse stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s you can be overwhelmed by the number of tools you see. There is a tool for every job you can imagine. As you go up and down the aisles and you see these wonderful objects, most of them shiny, your imagination takes hold and you begin to drool. “If I only had one of these”, you say to yourself, “I could do the job so much better and faster.” You reach for that sleek ergonomically perfect beauty and your fate is sealed. You are going to buy that beautiful tool because it makes so much sense to do so and take it home to do that one job and then put it in the drawer where it will stay for the next forty years. That’s what tools do to us.

The Industrial Revolution has been a tribute to the resourcefulness of man. Machines were invented to make work easier and to multiply the amount of work that a person can do. Naturally, new tools had to be invented to manufacture these machines and maintain them. It was an exponential explosion that created more gadgets and tools than any of the pioneering inventors could have ever dreamed. If you are a real “handyman” type, we might go out into your garage and find a roll-away toolbox full of hand tools, an air compressor, an arc welder, a paint spray booth, an electronic stud finder, and enough gadgets and tools to fill a catalog.

While thinking of these tools, I was letting my mind roam the aisles of Home Depot. The high turn-over stuff and the big-money items are located closer to the entrance or the center of the store. As you get farther away from the action, you get to the more mundane items like brooms and shovels and hand trucks and dollies. As I look at the dollies in my minds-eye I am reminded of the unit I have in my garage. It looks like a regular dolly but if you pull a pin and remove the handle, you can then insert the handle in a position that makes the dolly into a 4-wheel hand truck. I love it! As I get older and less well-balanced when carrying heavy stuff, I appreciate this feature more.

Thinking about dollies, leads me off on another tangent. Have you ever seen a stair-climbing dolly? I was introduced to this marvel of the material handling world back in the 1970’s or 80’s. I was Manufacturing Manager of a company that was moving to a new building. One morning, I was at the new place checking our progress as the equipment was brought in and set up. I was standing on the loading dock when the truck from the vending machine company drove up. The vending machines were scheduled to be installed in the lunch room that day so I was happy to see a number of machines on the truck. I was concerned to see only one man on the truck because the lunch room was on the second floor and I didn’t want anyone to get hurt trying to wrestle those machines up the stairs. Also, my men were all busy and I didn’t want to use my manpower to move the vending company’s machines.

I finished what I was doing and headed for the main staircase to see what was going on. As I got there, I saw a Coke Machine going up the stairs with one man climbing the stairs with it. There was a ½ horse motor and a 50 amp battery doing all the work. It really was amazing.

stair climber

I was fascinated and fortunately had the time to watch the guy take several pieces of equipment up the stairs. There was a Coke machine, 2 sandwich and dessert machines, a hot canned soup machine, a cigarette machine, and a refrigerator. The machines were different sizes, configurations, and weights, but everything went as smooth as silk. The guy told me that the dolly could take things down the stairs just as easy. Amazing!

All this talk about machines that climb stairs brings us to the question, “What did we do before stair-climbing dollies?” Well, I’ve got one answer for that. This story concerns my Dad, Al Thomas, so let me tell you a little about him. Dad was always tall and slim. As a grown man he was about 6 foot tall and for years weighed 168 pounds. He prided himself in being perfectly honest so if anyone ever asked how tall he was, he never said “6 foot”. It was always “five eleven and three quarters.”

When Dad was a freshman in high school, he preferred individual sports so he played tennis and lettered on the track team. The following year, he was diagnosed with mastoiditis and later with rheumatic fever. Fear of heart damage caused the doctor to prescribe bed rest for several months. This pretty much finished his high school athletic career. Re-gaining his strength after high school, Dad began playing softball in an inter-city league and pitched for several years. Jobs were hard to find during the depression and Dad took a lot of hard jobs like digging ditches and scooping wheat. Another hard job was shoveling coal. A gondola full of coal would be delivered to the siding near the downtown area and Dad and a couple other guys would shovel the coal out with scoop shovels and toss it into a bin beside the tracks. Scooping wheat and coal made for strong backs and legs.

Based on what I can remember about my size and the looks of things around me, I must have been 10 or 11 at the time I’m thinking of. That would make it about 1946 or 1947. Dad said he had a little job to do and that I should come with him. That was surprising enough because back in those days kids did “kid stuff” and Dads did “Dad stuff.” We got in Dad’s 1940 Chevrolet and he drove us downtown. He parked there on the west side of the 500 block of State Street, near Cooper Drugs. The buildings were mostly 2 stories although a corner did have a 3rd story. The first floor of every building was a business of some kind and the upper floors were mostly apartments with a couple of offices sprinkled here and there. On the sidewalk, right in front of where we had parked, and up against the building, was a refrigerator. Between the stores were stairways going to the upper floors and giving access to the apartments. Dad said that the lady that lived upstairs from where the fridge was setting was a friend of him and Mom and that she had to buy a new refrigerator. She said she bought a second-hand unit from a family that was moving out of town and they said they would leave it on the sidewalk in front of Cooper Drug but she would have to arrange to get it upstairs. She asked Dad if he could get it up the stairs for her and he agreed to do it.

Dad and I were standing there and looking up those stairs that were scarcely wider than the fridge. There wasn’t room for anyone on the stairs beside the fridge. Being a dumb kid, I had no idea how this was going to work but Dad had a plan. He went to the trunk of the car and came back with a web belt. The belt was yellow, about 2” wide and maybe 15 feet long. He pushed the refrigerator over directly in front of the stairs and tipped it a little and told me to slide the belt under it. I positioned the belt and then we tugged on the ends of it and evened it up. Then, while I held the ends, Dad went around and faced the stairs with his back to the fridge. He crossed the straps and pulled them over his shoulders. Then, he bent his knees, pulled straight down on the ends of the straps to remove the slack, and then straightened his legs. All of a sudden, there he was, standing up straight with a refrigerator on his back! He said “Stay here on the sidewalk and don’t get behind me on the stairs.” He took a couple of steps forward and started climbing. He took one step at a time and didn’t waver a bit. I was worried about him but knew that if he got into trouble he would simply let go of the straps and let the fridge come crashing down the stairs. I still kind of held my breath until I heard him yell that he was at the top and I could come on up. I went racing up the stairs and there he was at the top, safe and sound. As for me, I was in awe of the whole operation. I learned a number of things that day but the main one was that a man with a plan (and a little muscle) could do remarkable things before we even heard of a stair-climbing dolly.

Dave Thomas
October 15, 2015

2 thoughts on “Before the Stair-climbing Dolly

  1. Now that was a marvelous story and good thinking on your dad’s part

    On Tue, Mar 29, 2016 at 3:26 PM, crittersandcatsdotcom wrote:

    > crittersandcats posted: “I was thinking about tools this morning. If you > go into one of the large warehouse stores like Home Depot or Lowe’s you can > be overwhelmed by the number of tools you see. There is a tool for every > job you can imagine. As you go up and down the aisles and ” >


  2. A great tribute to your father. And, my husband could use one of those motorized dollies! Thank you for posting this 🙂


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