By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Today, David David Smalley would likely be branded obsessive-compulsive and given medication. And no, that name is not a misprint. Davis has no idea how his grandpa ended up with the same first and middle names, but he sees it as apt. "It certainly gave him a license for excess," he says. "And then there's that old joke, 'He was so busy they had to name him twice.' "
Smalley was born in Indiana in 1893, and in his youth, America was seized with a mania for all things Wild West. Davis speculates it was a longing for adventure that led his grandfather to Texas, where he married the daughter of the Waller County sheriff. They lived in Hempstead, a place that had been called Six-Shooter Junction until just a decade before his arrival.
Smalley reveled in what was still a raw state. "He liked this place because he could drive 30 minutes outside of Houston and find a damn dinosaur," says Davis. "Free! It was there and he figured it out, and he loved to find it, and he just did it. He went through piles and piles of gravel there on the river bottom and found it."
Smalley never attended college. "There wasn't anything in college that was half as exciting as what he was doing in his everyday life," Davis says. But perhaps Smalley wished he had gotten his degree. He was always looking for validations of his skills. "He must have had some guilt about his lack of education," Davis says. "He would teach himself how to do something and then take a correspondence course so he could get a certificate in it."
Smalley found his calling when Southern Pacific hired him as a mapmaker/draftsman in 1918. The job allowed him to put his artistic skills to use and, when he surveyed terrain, to travel. But in 1924, Smalley took ill. Influenza invaded his spinal column, and as a contemporary newspaper account had it, his backbone grew "crooked and more crooked." He was put in a body cast and spent a year in the Southern Pacific Hospital literally getting bent back into shape. If his hobbies didn't already have him in their clutches when he went in, they did by the time he came out; at any rate, it was about this time that the Southern Pacific employee magazine and the Houston Chronicle discovered the man they came to call The King of Hobbies.
Fortunately for Smalley, his arms and hands were not immobilized. He asked the nurses for a knife, some wood scraps, some wire and an empty flask. Ten days later he unveiled the first of many creations: a pastoral barnyard scene in a bottle, now exhibited in the museum. The figures are a little crude, but the detail is marvelous; the tiny farmhouse has furnishings inside and a farmer on the front porch strumming a banjo.
Then Smalley turned to more traditional carving-in-a-bottle fare, with a succession of Spanish galleons, which he sold to fund another project: a radio set for his ward with speakers at each bed. Smalley also fined the slovenly patients who neglected to shave and earmarked the proceeds for the radio fund.
After the body cast had ironed him out, Smalley went home and built a radio shack in his backyard. In it went a ham radio set, on which he would talk to people in different parts of the world, enlisting them as abettors in his hobbies. "Radio is a pair of legs for you," he told a reporter at the time. "You can get all over the country with it." (Smalley's daughter Laura was to prove him right a few years later. In a low-tech precursor to You've Got Mail, she wooed her future husband, a Pennsylvanian, over the ham radio set.)
In the shack, Smalley's imagination had free rein. He built a robot that moved its arms, feet and mouth when its inventor manipulated the appropriate pedals and levers with his feet. He rigged up the walls to make all kinds of mysterious sound effects. He devised ways of harmlessly shocking himself with a voltage many times over the lethal limit. When children came to visit, he terrified them with his gadgets and taught them about geology, paleontology, geography, painting, astronomy, mechanics and magnetism. He even showed a young Davis how to defuse the live Civil War cannonballs he'd fished out of the mud at the bottom of Buffalo Bayou near the Milam Street Bridge in 1947.
From the articles about The King of Hobbies, we have two quotes left from the man. One was the one about radio. The other was on his convalescence, of which Smalley said: "A person who stays in the hospital a long time learns a lot of philosophy. He sees a great many amusing things too. Some day I'm going to write a book about it."
He never did. But he did the next best thing.
Instead, they've had to shepherd a couple of truckloads of delicate material through the sale of its home, a move across Texas, eight years of dormancy in a San Marcos barn and now a move back to its old neighborhood in Houston.