March 9, 1927 – March 21, 2018
Norman R. Witte was a man of few words who was most content when tinkering in his shop at his Boston home, creating some of his best treasures, including boats, furniture, a hot rod with a rumble seat, and all sorts of woodworking projects.
Mr. Witte, a self-taught contractor, built nearly 20 homes in the Boston and Orchard Park area, building his first one on Chestnut Ridge Road when he was in his early 20s. He was a mechanic for the Maurice Emerling car dealership in Boston and worked on the house evenings and weekends. When it was done, he sold it himself.
That passion for building stayed with him his entire life. He had a simple philosophy: if he could not make it, he did not need it.
"He did not write anything down. It was all in his head," said a daughter, Joyce E. Schmitt. "How he did it, I'll never know. There was no internet, so he would figure it out as he went."
Mr. Witte died March 21 at The Pines Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center in Machias, where he recently celebrated his 91st birthday with his family.
Born across from his family's homestead in the section of Orchard Park then known as East Hamburg, Mr. Witte grew up on a potato farm. He attended a one-room schoolhouse, but had such a disdain for school that when he was about 10 years old, he purposely got sprayed by a skunk so the teacher would send him home. By the time he reached 10th grade, he dropped out to help his family with the farm and do odd jobs.
At 18, he was drafted into the U.S Army, where he became a sergeant. He was stationed in Berlin from June 1945 to July 1947.
He went to work for Emerling as a mechanic after his discharge and later built their car dealership in Boston.
He was married to the former Mildred Eckhardt of Eden for 59 years. He built her a Mississippi-styled paddleboat from scratch, named it "Little Millie" and launched it at Kinzua reservoir in 1995.
Mr. Witte made a portable sawmill to saw logs into board lumber and crafted much of the furniture in his home.
He also built Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at the end of his street, the first church edifice to be built in Boston Valley in 90 years. On the other end of his street, he built three apartment buildings.
In the early 1970s, he was hired to put up ski lifts at the former Poverty Hill Ski Area in Ellicottville.
Mr. Witte also loved the challenge of tearing apart his many bulldozers, as well. He built five flatbeds, one of them being completely custom "Witte Built." His penchant for driving back country roads with his flatbed trucks searching for someone else's junk, or swinging by flea markets, engine shows and looking at old farm equipment would have him driving home with his latest "find" for his next project. He puttered in his shop up until seven months before he died.
"He loved junkyards, and would stop in and mosey around," Schmitt said. One time he hauled an old tractor home; on another outing, he drove one of his flatbeds to Nebraska to pick up a 1957 Chevy. In the late 1970s, he built a small tugboat from the shell of an old steel lifeboat that was full of bullet holes.
"If he could use his grinding wheel, he was in his glory," she said. "His projects were anything from casting solid brass buckles (Civil War union buckles) to machining things on his lathe."
In 1978, he and wife began working for Shaklee, a distributor of home and nutrition products, and he continued doing so until he turned 90.
Aside from his wife, he is survived by his son, Karl N.; two daughters, Jane L. Macchioni and Joyce E. Schmitt; a brother, Raymond; a sister, Joyce Agle; six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is planned for 7 p.m. Thursday at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Colden, 8740 Supervisor Ave.