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Cooper rolls out barrels for fun Marilla man continues to demonstrate craft

Jake Argauer demonstrates the near-lost craft of barrel making for a new generation of eager listeners.

"It's a trade handed down and handed down," the third-generation cooper said. "Some people know how to do it because they were born and raised with it."

Argauer, 76, of Marilla learned the trade from his father, Jacob, who emigrated from Waidhaus, Germany, in 1923.

Jacob, who worked for Iroquois Brewery and Simon Brewery in Buffalo, learned it from his father, Johann, who never left Germany.

"We lived in Buffalo's old Sherman and High neighborhood," Argauer recalled, "but we moved to Marilla during World War II because they were picking on Germans in the city. No one knew what to expect."

He remembers how his father, uncles and other family members stuck together in Buffalo through the Great Depression and how their coopering skills were in great demand once Prohibition was over.

"They all belonged to a German young men's club; everybody knew everybody else's trade," he said. "And as soon as Prohibition was over, the first thing they looked for were coopers. The ones that were coopers here were in short supply."

Argauer also remembers, as a boy, accompanying his father to his job at the Iroquois Brewery at Broadway and Peckham.

"I was all eyes," he said. "In those days, you could go into those places with your dad. You can't do that anymore."

Today, he has vivid memories of his father "branding" the Iroquois name on the wooden lids and bottoms of beer barrels.

"The branding machine was just outside the cooper shop door, where you branded the barrels, both heads, with red-hot rollers that were gas fired," he says. "It all had a smell of its own."

And he remembers watching his father restore old barrels and wooden vats
at the brewery.

"He used to show me where he used to pitch the insides of the tanks," he said. "First, they'd go on a fire nozzle that went right up in the bung; then burn all the old pitch out on the insides. And then they'd go over onto another nozzle, and it sprayed fresh pitch in it. And then it went on a set of rollers that rolled it until the keg got cool. They kept them rotating until they cooled."

The old song "Roll Out the Barrel," Argauer says, comes to mind when he recalls stories of children back "in the old country" turning their barrel-rolling duties into a form of recreation.

"My dad used to say, when his father did the barrels in Germany, they'd build a fire in them and put pitch down in there," he said. "And then he'd hurry up and put the head in -- and he says the kids would roll them around until they cooled down. They thought that was great business -- to get a chance to roll a barrel."

But a cooper also makes casks, kegs, butter churns, washtubs, water buckets, pails and scoops. Argauer has a pail he made of pine with what looks like a baseball bat handle protruding from it. This was for quick dips of the bucket into sugar or grain.

Argauer picked up coopering after his father retired from the breweries. Together, they once made wooden canteens, with leather carrying straps.

"We made 18 of these little suckers for Civil War re-enactors," he said, holding in his hands the one canteen he kept. "We made them with ash hoops. You leave them in cold water for 18 days to curve the wood."

When Birge Wallpaper Co. was closing its plant at Niagara and Maryland streets, where a McDonald's now stands, Argauer bought a 45,000-gallon redwood vat and dismantled it. From some of the staves, he made the redwood lye barrel in his collection of coopering memorabilia.

The Argauer family's rare coopering tools and artifacts will go on display Wednesday in Marilla Community Center, 1810 Two Rod Road, said Mary Beth Serafin, president of the Marilla Historical Society.

The exhibit will be open from 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays and from 2 to 4 p.m. every third Sunday, until April 1. The hours may be extended.


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