The Iron Man
article by Barbara Leader | photography by Brad Arender
Eighty-eight year old Albert Kelly’s hands are wrinkled, cracked and calloused from more than 65 years of holding, cutting, twisting and bending red-hot metal into some of the most beautiful custom wrought ironwork in the country.
“You know that song, ‘Daddy’s Hands’?” Misty Howse of Monroe asked. “That’s what I think of when I look at my daddy’s hands. They’re calloused with dark stains deep in the creases and always dirt under his nails. He’s blue collar and proud of it.”
Kelly is the owner of Kelly’s Ironworks, founded in the back yard of his home on Vernon Street in Monroe following a stint with the U.S. Army during World War II.
Today, his work can been seen from Louisiana and Mississippi to Washington D.C. and Canada, adorning some of the area’s most affluent properties and sitting among historic pieces in The Smithsonian Institution.
An ironworker from an early age
The seeds of Kelly’s life’s career were planted eight decades ago in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop in Collinston.
“I remember working out there with him; I was a little fellow pumping those bellows and keeping that fire going while he made horseshoes,” Kelly said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was getting in my blood. I had to do it.”
Kelly’s grandfather, William Lucas, and his sons made horseshoes and shoed horses for a living in the early 1900s.
“I was having the time of my life,” Kelly recalls. “I thought I was in hog heaven.”
Doing whatever it takes
Kelly is the oldest of eight children and he’s never shied away from hard work. He started his first paying job at 14 working at the railroad to help his family make ends meet. “I helped to raise my mother’s children, my brothers and sisters,“ he said. “I really did.”
Kelly worked the railroad job until he decided to join the U.S. Navy when he was 15.
Pre-existing medical conditions quashed his hopes of joining and he returned home to continue working at the railroad. But the experience of being in New Orleans at the Cabildo for military processing rekindled a love that began deep in his soul as a young boy.
“Really and truly what got me going was when I was down there in New Orleans,” he said “I saw all this ironwork and watched them make it. That combined with that blacksmith job, it got in my blood. While other people were doing something else, I was walking around looking at every building I came to and the ironwork they had on them. ”
Kelly returned home and continued working at the railroad to help his family, but he wasn’t quite satisfied.
Courtesy of the military draft, Kelly got a second opportunity at service during World War II. And for the second time, he almost didn’t make it in. “I didn’t really weigh enough,” Kelly said. “The man asked me if I really wanted to go, and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he gave me a weight to put into my back pocket and I was in.”
He traveled around the United States during military training and then deployed for service in the heat of the battle.
“We went straight to Pearl Harbor and then to Iwo Jima, where we picked up 1,800 Marines to go with us, and then we headed toward Japan,” he recalls. “We got halfway to Japan and got orders to turn around and go back out to sea, which we did. Nobody knew why. We didn’t realize they were fixing to drop atomic bombs. So we got back out to sea and they blew Japan away.”
Kelly said the decision to turn the troops around saved about a million troops’ lives. “If they hadn’t have turned us around… Japan was ready for us,” he said. “They were sitting at the shores all around that place; they were fixing to tear us up, and they would have.”
He eventually landed in Japan after the bombing and stayed there for more than a year. After the war, he returned to his job at the railroad, but he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get formal training in welding.
Realizing his dream
“When I got back, the first thing I did was to buy me a welding machine, a Craftsman from Sears and Roebuck,” he said. “Wait a minute, no, I got married first. I was 20, and my wife, Faye, was 15.”
Kelly said his desire to do ironwork full time got strong and stronger, so he split his time between the railroad and trade school to learn to weld.
“In fact, I worked six days a week, one day off for the railroad. I’d get off at the railroad; well, I’d work all night long lots of times. I’d go home and sleep a couple of hours then I’d jump out of bed and go again,” he said. “I was just about working 24 hours a day, but I enjoyed it. It’s just something I had to do.”
Kelly completed his training and went to work with a partner in welding, quit his job at the railroad and soon began his own welding business on the side.
His first projects were barbeque barrels made from recycled 55-gallon drums. He also made thousands of clothesline poles using hand saws to cut the metal. “They said I couldn’t do it,” he said. “I said, ‘OK,’ and I kept right on going. Me, I’m hard headed enough that if you tell me I can’t do something, I’ll do it or die, and I ain’t gonna die.”
His first big custom order came from Standard Enterprises, a Monroe company that builds apartment complexes.
Standard Enterprises wanted columns for its apartment buildings. “He asked me if I could make ‘em and I said, ‘Hell yeah,’” he recalls. “I had to bend them all by hand, every cotton pickin’ one…I made them from scratch.”
What Kelly didn’t say was when he accepted that first order, he had no clue how to make the columns.
“Can’t hasn’t ever been in my mind all these years,” he said. “If anyone wanted to know if I could do something, I could do it. My theory has always been that if you want to do something, you can do it. You just have to set your mind to it. And if you love what you’re doing, it’s no problem. But if you dread it, get out of it. It ain’t gonna work.”
“You dream it, We’ll build it.”
Through the years, Kelly said there have been up and down times for his business, but his adaptability and creativity kept the business going.
“It’s like everything. Suddenly everybody wants it, and then it will die out,” he said. “What I’ve always done is that when something begins to play out, I jump over and go to something else.”
Kelly’s business eventually moved from his home on Vernon Street to Jackson Street and finally to two locations on DeSiard Street. His newest location at 812 DeSiard St. is his largest.
“When you’re doing ironwork like this, you’ve got to love it; you can’t just like it,” he said. “You’ve got to love it like a man loves a woman or a woman loves a man. Because, what I’ve done, if I didn’t truly love it, I’d have never made it.”
Over the years Kelly has constructed gates, fences, columns and many spiral staircases – his first and largest one, a three-story staircase for a home in Ruston.
Today, homebuilders like Kovak Construction, Holyfield Construction, Don Barron Construction and Riddle Builders routinely use Kelly’s work in their builds.
“I give his name to my customers, they meet with him and he designs it,” Gretchen Kovak said. “He has a reputation over many years of producing a quality product and that’s the key.” Kovak said many of Kelly’s gates and rails can be seen on the homes her company has constructed in Louisianne subdivision in Monroe.
From his grandfather to his grandchildren
Kelly passed his work ethic and his love for ironwork down to his six children Karen Spruell, Al, Dianne Samoff, Kenny, Lisa Dixon and Misty Howse, all of whom have worked in their daddy’s shop over the years. Kelly’s wife, Faye, also worked in the business.
“We’ve had people come in the shop and say, ‘Your daddy built me a swing 40 years ago’,” Karen said recently. “And I’d say, ‘Do you need another one?’ And they would say, ‘No, it’s still going strong.’ I often tell him that he should have gone into a business where we could have had a repeat business. These things seem to last.”
“I don’t guess I ever had anything that didn’t last,” Kelly said, pausing to think. “Well, I had some columns that I put around a fellow’s house and there was this dog that would come by there every day and pee on it and it rusted out. That’s the only one that I ever knew that went that way. That was the dangdest thing I ever seen.”
Albert’s son Kenny is part of the design process in the business today. The company still hand-draws designs and much of its custom work is still heated, twisted and bent by hand.
Misty recalls spending time with her daddy in their shops. “He’s always had a strong faith in God; I guess that’s why he wasn’t scared,” she said. “He was tough on us, but that’s how he made it. He never had a safety net like most people. He wanted us to make it and hard work was the only way he knew.”
Today, all of Kelly’s welders are self-taught, learning many of their skills from Kelly. He still employs many family members, including grandsons and a son-in-law. But regardless of their connection to the family, Kelly expects dedication and top-notch work.
“If you love what you’re doing, you’re going to make a good man,” he said “If you don’t love it, get out of it right now, because I don’t want anyone around me who don’t love what they are doing. If you love the work that you do, it’s not labor. It’s not work when you get right down to it. It’s just a way of life, you know?”
Nearly 90 and still going strong
Kelly was invited to travel to Washington D.C. to be a part of a Folklife Festival taking place on the Mall. He built products there and even left a barbecue pit that is displayed in one of the Smithsonian museums, a source of great pride for Kelly.
“It’s really quite an honor,” he said. “When you get right down to the dad-gum honest truth it’s in there with people like Benjamin Franklin and all them people that started this country to begin with, they’ve got stuff in there.”
Soon, Kelly will travel back to Washington as part of the Brookshire’s World War II Heroes flight to tour the World War II memorial and other points of interest.
“I’m living out my fantasies,” Kelly said. “I tell everybody else, if you stay busy and stay working, you’ll live to be an old age,” he said. “But when you quit and slow down, you ain’t gonna last long.”
Kelly’s definition of old age may be a little more liberal than most. “Til you get to be about a hundred and something,” he said. “Well, I’ve got to live until at least 120 to pay off my bills.”
Regardless of whether he lives to be 100 or 120, it’s clear that his vision and his creativity will long outlast him.
“I would say that you couldn’t throw a rock far enough to get past what we’ve done, right around here,” Kelly said. “It’s just about everywhere you look, to tell you the truth. I made up my mind I was going to make Monroe look like New Orleans. And if you look around, I think you’ll find I’ve done a pretty good job of it.”