John Jennings is retiring after decades of tractor
work in Corsicana. Daily Sun photo/KIRK SIDES
6/8/2003 Time to Retool: Jennings put 50 years into tractor business
By KEN HALL/Special to the Daily Sun
It is extremely rare, especially these days, for a person to remain at one place of business for their entire working lives, and rarer still when that person has been able to take advantage of certain opportunities to better his or her lot in life by eventually owning that self-same business.
John Jennings is one of those fortunate few.
He's worked his magic on tractors and other pieces of farm equipment for 50 years from the building located in the 1400 block of South Seventh Street and has the distinction of being the first African-American believed to have worked on such machinery in this area.
"I've been here since 1953 when the place was called Stroube Implement Company," Jennings said. "I first started working there around October of 1953 when I got out of the Army. I was a janitor, then became a pick-up and delivery man for tractors. I then set up new equipment and worked on hay balers and other farm machinery."
Back when he began it was believed blacks were only capable of doing menial work, but J.D. Ingram saw something in Jennings.
"He took me under his wing, so to speak, and taught me about working on farm machinery," Jennings said. "Mr. Ingram was the service manager and had me help him on whatever he was working on. He told the manager, Frank Marx, that he needed another tractor mechanic and Mr. Marx asked him who he wanted. Mr.
Ingram wanted me, so we started going to the John Deere Tractor School in Dallas two weeks out of the year. We went for 10 years, driving every day. Dealers from all across the United States sent their mechanics, usually in the winter because business was slow. Some would stay there the whole time but Mr. J.D. was about 60 back then and didn't want to do that.
"In the school we would learn about changes made in the tractors, and sometimes it seemed just when you'd learn one change they would make another."
Over the next five years Jennings began to establish his own reputation for good service, but not without difficulty. On occasion a white customer would discover that Jennings was black and had reservations about how well the job had been done, he said. It didn't take long for that customer to
realize, however, he was dealing with someone who knew what he was doing. As a perfectionist nothing left Jennings' sight before being completely ready to go. It rapidly became known that this black man produced quality work, and his clientele extended throughout neighboring counties.
"Once they understood that I was capable of doing the work I didn't have any more major problems," he said as he smiled. "They were really concerned about whether their machine would work or not, rather than skin color. And they were more than satisfied after I finished with it."
The steps to ownership came in a surprising way.
"Steve Stroube Jr. bought the business from the family around 1979 or 1980," Jennings said. "When he got ready to sell it in 1986 they were in the process of going out of business. He was nice enough to wait until the Christmas holidays were over before he told everybody what he was going to do, but I
was devastated because that was the only place I'd ever worked. My wife (Mildred) suggested that since I was doing all the work anyway and the shop was under Steve's name I should buy it and continue to run things."
Plans were made soon after, and in early 1987 Jennings took complete control; the former janitor became the owner of his own shop. For the next 16 years he and his employees cranked out quality work under his supervision, until now.
"I really hate to give this up, but my health is forcing me to choose this route."
There's no doubt Jennings wouldn't have been able to make do through the hard times if not for the support of his wife, who passed away recently after nearly 50 years of marriage.
"You know, after being in the same place for so long I believe I've been able to satisfy at least 95 percent of my customers. I'd like to thank them for their support over the years. I couldn't have been able to do what I did without them.
"While I'm going to stop doing the big jobs
I think I'll be able to do a few little ones, just to keep me busy."