Craftsman restores history, remembers past

Friday, January 4, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

ST. JOSEPH — Larry Christy never met Harold Ulmer, but his name pops into his head every now and then. Christy always looks for that name and the names of other long dead craftsmen scribbled behind the walls of the mansions he helps restore.

The mansions are named Geiger and Schuster because those are names of the folks who paid to have them built. But Christy also wants to remember the forgotten men whose craftsmanship made those places grand.

"I think often time what happens is you forget the people with the skill that made it possible," he said.

Christy said he, too, sometimes signs his work before plastering over a wall. Sometimes he even places one of his short stories or a poem behind a wall before dry walling it.

"Maybe some of that stuff will never be seen," he said. But the hope is that someday someone like him will want to know who Larry Christy was just like he wonders about Harold Ulmer.

Knowing Larry Christy today might not be any easier than it will be 100 years from now. The 43-year-old St. Joseph man is one with many gifts and passions.

Some days he's a musician. You'll find him playing out the songs in his head on the guitar or the old piano in his living room or at Cafe Acoustic.

As a gifted poet and a story teller, he creates detailed stories from his tales from his childhood and life observations. His soft baritone delivers these tales with the ebb and flow cadence of a rolling river.

And Christy knows rivers. He's shared his thoughts with the Missouri and Snake rivers that he's traveled by canoe many times.

Helping restore older homes is how Christy makes his money. But it's not how he makes his living. He lives by experiencing and celebrating the subtleties of life around him.

It never has taken much for him to live, he said. He can get by without a lot of things but not his freedom to create.

"I'm following what I want to do instead of trying to make a bunch of cash," he said.

Christy said part of his introspective nature comes from the fact that his young mother left him with her parents when he was 5 years old. He never knew his father.

"By the age of 4 or 5 you've already bonded pretty seriously with your biological mom. When she's out of the picture, you suffer this great loss as a young person. You got this sense that things are pretty screwed up in the world, you're feeling this pain and you become real observational as far as how the world works. You become really introspective just trying to understand," he said.

But he wasn't without love. His grandparents, especially his grandmother, also provided him with a can-do-anything sense of confidence.

"She was really very confident. She was always saying stuff like 'I can do anything, I can do anything' and she would," Christy said. "We got photos of her inside the engine compartment of her car taking the carburetor out or being out there with power saws, whatever, building things."

This spirit fueled Christy's nature to try different things.

He once sold his house so he and a friend could open up a bookstore. He was fine living in a tent out on a farm near the edge of town.

"We didn't really make any money at that bookshop. We just broke even every month. It was like a glorified clubhouse, and we just kept the door open to give poets in town some place to go read their work. That was it," he said.

After the bookstore closed, Christy spent a few seasons working with the forest service and guiding raft trips down the Snake River in Wyoming. In the winters, he came home to St. Joseph.

That's when he became acquainted with the house restoration community and began doing work returning old architectural structures to their original splendor.

"I looked at it as survival work until I could go back out West and do some work out there," Christy said. "You do anything long enough and repetitively enough, you start getting good at it."

He got good enough to be in demand. The restoration community began requesting his services.

Christy does lot of work for Olin Cox, who owns the Whiskey Mansion and a few other similar restoration projects in the city.

Cox said he appreciates Christy's skills. Skills and craftsmanship he can appreciate without having to look for a name behind a wall.

"He's very talented," Cox said. "He's a gem."

Christy has plans to launch a business on the river next summer. Missouri River Rafting Outfitting and Canoe Rental will offer people the chance to take advantage of the beauty of the Missouri River. He plans to offer raft tours, canoe rental and shuttle services.

"This is another project — kind of like the bookshop — so who knows if it's going to make any money or not. It will be interesting in the very least," he said.

From there, who knows where Christy's passion will take him. His passion for freedom and exploring has not been easy on some of the relationships in his life. This lifestyle is not for everyone, he said.

"Do not try this at home," he said with a laugh. "It's caused a great many women in my life a lot of grief, and I feel bad about that."



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