29 April 2014
Jim Coombs: Civil War Slave Shines Shoes in Billings, Montana
Former Negro Slave Reaches Age of Seventy-Five; Prefers to Shine Shoes Awhile Rather than Retire.
Most folks are ready to lay aside their tasks three-quarters of a century, but Jim Coombs spent his 75th birthday recently shining shoes at the Northern hotel stand in Billings, where his dusky smile and agile memory have welcomed friends and strangers for 18 years.
He could retire and live in comfort. “I saved my money,: he confided on the eve of his anniversary. “But I don’t know what to do with myself.”
His appearance belies his age. He looks to be no more than 50, does this jovial colored man. But he was born a slave, the property of Harrison Priest of the “Hannibal, Mo., Priests, shu!”
The date of his advent was April ?, 1859. “Uncle Jim” is a great hand for giving dates and days. Off-hand, he can recollect dates that to the average mortal would be obscured by time.
He was only six years old when the Civil war ended, but he recalls folks on the Priest plantation telling of how his uncle and Wash Winters ran away and got across the Mississippi ahead of the “patrollers.” These gentry were employed to detect and capture runaway slaves.
After the war the uncle living in Chicago sent for his mother, his sister, who was “Uncle Jim’s” mother, and the boy.
As a boy he used to go to church with his mother on Sunday nights and with his uncanny memory for dates, he recalls that they were attending a service when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked over a lantern and started the great Chicago fire.
“We had to cross the old Twelfth street bridge to get home,” he recollects. “Before we could get there the fire was hot enough to almost scorch our clothes.
He has a wealth of memories from his years as a Pullman porter. There was the time, for instance, that he met a party of railroad officials at Chicago after the Northern Pacific’s “golden spike” ceremony. On the next track was the special car of President Arthur with Postmaster General James and Secretary of War Robert Lincoln aboard.
And the time he came downtown to take his car out of Washington and heard newsboys shouting the news of President Garfield’s assassination. That was July, 1881. The reporter later verified Uncle Jims memory by referring to a history.
“I walked over to the railroad station and there I saw the spot where Garfield was shot,” he adds. “They’s a star set in the tile floor now, so everybody can see where the president died.”
A great lover of travel, was Uncle Jim in his younger days. “Going to ??? wild,” he explains. He finally got tired of being a porter and found a job in a Seattle hotel. That was 34 years and 4 months ago. He worked at the coast hostelry until he came to Billings 18 years and 4 months ago, almost to the day.
Not counting polishes he applied while aboard Pullmans, Uncle Jim estimates he has shined119,000 pairs of shoes. He’s practically an expert at the profession.
And he’s on the job every morning unless his miseries get him down. Until he was 63 he didn’t miss a day’s work. Then he was sick and lost five month’s time.
“But when I’m well they don’t have to wonder whether ol’ Jim’s on the job,” he declares. “They know I’m there. If I don’t show up I’m generally gone a spell because I’m sick.”
He has two “kids,” both girls, 52 and 50. The younger one’s birthday helps his memory.
“They’s just 35 days between her birthday and mines and its 35 days from then to my wedding anniversary. That’s be 53 years agone this May.”
Shining shoes has given him a definite philosophy and he goes about his tasks “happy because I’ve always had plenty to ear and wear and always had a job.
[p. 6] [Wolf Point Herald 20 Apr 1934]