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Thomas Payne's Automotive Shop - Thomas Payne And His Journey Into The Restoration Of Automotive Soul

Restoring A '30s Shop Resulted In More Than Just New Brick And Mortar.

By , Photography by Thomas Payne

Thomas Payne is the gearhead version of the Renaissance man. It was his goal to restore a '30s auto repair and welding shop that had long ago fallen into disrepair. The original owner, Virgil Johnson, ran the welding and repair shop for more than 50 years before his death. The children had moved away, althought Mrs. Johnson remained, and the five-acre property containing the shop, original family home, and multiple outbuildings was seriously overgrown. As a young man, Thomas had spent many long hours studying the old man's multilayered skills, motivating him to take on small mechanical projects, including a go-kart built in the Johnson shop. Years later, Thomas purchased the property and elected himself curator of this neglected museum, while allowing Mrs. Johnson to remain in her home before she passed away at 97 and after much of the work had been completed. Admittedly, Virgil was, as Thomas says, "organizationally challenged," the result of surviving the Depression era that drilled into that generation the belief that even the smallest scrap held value. Thomas' photos tell the physical story, and he was prescient enough to record the entire process from the weed-infested beginnings. Once the shop and grounds were rebuilt, he elected to share his accomplishments with the world on the Garage website. That's where we stumbled across his forum post ("Restored 1930s Auto Shop" under the Garage Gallery heading), where a loyal following of garage-aholics has sustained the effort with 100-plus pages and more than half a million hits, attracting worldwide readers from more than 20 countries.

But this is far more than just a meandering thread documenting a cluttered shop that has undergone "an epic transformation." If that were all it was, the thread might have played out after a dozen pages. What is of far greater value is the undercurrent of a man's dedication to honoring and preserving the past combined with a Midwesterner's passion for sharing his good fortune with others. The sharing part might be simply small-town hospitality. Or perhaps this thread is just the digital summation of an undying faith in the tenet that hard work is its own reward. But all that still doesn't answer the question of what drives this full-time airline pilot to spend nearly every nonflying moment restoring some small part of his car guy Ponderosa. The payoff is how Thomas' adventure seems to motivate nearly everyone who falls into the trap of reading 100 pages of near perpetual motion.

We've attempted here to congeal a few of the most interesting portions of Thomas' archeological and restoration efforts into a cohesive story. But there are a couple of other gems you really should read on the website. If you don't come away from Thomas Payne's tribute to a '30s shop with the impetus to face-lift your own small workplace, consider hocking every tool you own in exchange for a renewed automotive soul. It will be worth it.

In the Beginning
Virgil originally built a two-car-garage shop near Philo, Illinois, sometime in the late '30s. Within a few years he added a Rotary center-post hydraulic lift alongside the original shop, which was later enclosed after the shop was lengthened. Virgil did a little of everything, including auto and radiator repair, welding, fabricating, go-karts, fixing auto radios, beekeeping, blacksmithing, and various other pursuits. After his death, and with no one maintaining the property, the cluttered five acres were soon overgrown. Thomas purchased the property in November 2005, complete with abandoned cars, tons of scrap metal, and a wilderness of jungle-like proportions.

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