Chester Martin Remembers Security Then And Now

Saturday, April 9, 2016
Henry Ford, center, with a friend of the father of Chester Martin and another man
Henry Ford, center, with a friend of the father of Chester Martin and another man

I would wager that even the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans employed "Security" people to guard their warehouses, work-yards, shipping docks, etc. It need not be stated that  the natural human urge to "lift" something of value is always present, all your morality lessons and parental admonitions notwithstanding.

In my day all the "open-air" businesses where building supplies, farm produce, and even cattle were kept, were protected by a man - usually older, and retired - called a "night watchman", who might or might not be able to frighten intruders away. He kept a kerosene lantern handy, and his trusty dog's bark  probably helped the poor man come alive when duty called.

He had no way to quickly text a message or call on his smart phone.

But it was rare for any paid individual to stand (or more likely, sit) at an entrance to deny you admittance to the premises. There is only one building downtown where I remember an elderly gentleman who came to work at dusk and sat in an ancient wooden reclining desk chairs near the elevators of the former Hamilton National Bank Building. No one entering the building carried any sort of card or badge for ID, and I never saw him deny anyone entry. He seemed to recognize everyone.

My dad worked for the U.S. Post Office downtown in the same building that is now the Joel Solomon Federal Office Building. There was no one "guarding the gate". Although admission to the work areas was blocked from the lobby, anyone could go around to the back of the building and get in without anyone batting an eye! My mom and I did it a lot - and even distant relatives of my dad's simply walked in when they wanted to see Mr. Martin.

Yes, the two department stores, Millers and Lovemans, had "floor-walkers" who kept a keen eye out for anyone trying to lift a necktie or handkerchief from a display. Millers had a floor-walker so obvious that no one could miss him - and I knew exactly who he was, as he attended our church. He would slowly amble about the aisles of the store, hand under chin and forefinger over mouth, quizzically looking about. I never once heard any report of any problem which might have arisen.

Then there were "trip-wires", which may still exist in downtown stores, to catch the overnight thievery people and used by stores that could not afford to pay a regular night watchman. I think these were pretty effective, as no one could see the dark wires stretched across the store aisles after closing hours. These wires set off an alarm in another building and a red car came rushing to the scene of the break-in. My uncle's store on East Main Street had a variation on the trip-wire theme: an attractive silver band which bordered his display windows. He apparently expected HIS thieves to only break the window-glass, and not the door, then grab the goods, and away! But that pretty silver window-border was in reality an electrical circuit, which, when broken, set off a loud alarm.

The above methods of catching thieves were the methods of my day. There was not yet anything that could classify as "high tech". Nowadays we can expect to be on someone-or-other's camera system from the moment we leave our homes until we return. Or we are confronted with an armed guard at an entrance, or we must be "buzzed" into many a building - things that did not exist in my time. My first experience with being "buzzed" into any building was one evening when I paid a visit to the Nashville Control Tower at Berry Field. They were expecting me - and we passed a few words over a crystal clear intercom, and I was buzzed in. THAT was a REAL innovation, I thought, and it was years before I ever had a similar experience. (That happened while I was an Air Traffic Controller at nearby Sewart Air Force Base, about 1959).

And, to prove in some vague manner that what I have said so far about Security is true, I offer the picture above. It shows a friend of my dad's, with an unidentified man, having a friendly chat with THE Henry Ford himself! Mr. Ford does not look in any way "cornered", intimidated, or having been maneuvered into chatting with two total strangers (plus one photographer). It is just the way the world was at one time. Someone will say that the background building looks like a rich man's resort, or "gated community"; that is true. I have no idea where it was, but the entire atmosphere of the picture does not indicate anything but calm. Once, while doing research for a commemorative coin at the U.S. Mint, I read how Vice President Harry S. Truman, when suddenly thrust into the Presidency by FDR's sudden death, had driven his own car from Independence, MO, to DC to be sworn in! (In another incident, but while researching the same coin project, I read that once some tourists needed help fixing a tire outside the White House, and a number of the White House staff came out under that huge front portico to help! UNBELIEVABLE in today's world).

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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