What to Do
When Your Water Tower Freezes
he people of Waelder,
Texas faced just such an uncomfortable and unthinkable calamity
back in the Winter of 1981. It was just before Christmas and residents
of tiny Waelder, Texas (population 947) were watching their propane
yule logs burn, baking Pecan pies or festooning their trees with faux-icicles.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the merrymaking townsfolk, the cast iron
pipe of the town's water tank was forming icicles of its own - real
ones - from a rapidly splitting crack. It wasn't long before the combination
of temperature and metal fatigue opened the tower's main pipe completely
and the town was suddenly without water. It must've seemed to some
Waelderites that the pipe had held on all year - just biding it's
time until it could break at the most inconvenient moment.
Fortunately, the town had a friend in the form of Frank Gaspard, a
man who owned a ranch in nearby Harwood (10 miles west on old Highway
90). Here the word 'friend' is a major understatement. Considering
the circumstances, Frank Gaspard was the best friend Waelder could've
Frank Gaspard just happened to be the owner of Water Tank Maintenance
Services. (A utilitarian company name if ever there was one.)
Someone in Waelder remembered that Frank lived down the road and before
you could say "Remember the Alamo!" someone was knocking at Mr. Gaspard's
door with the urgent request that couldn't be ignored. The Gaspard
family and the Waelder Volunteer Fire Department spent Christmas Eve,
Christmas Day and the day after Christmas getting water service restored
to the grateful community.
Brief History of WTMS
Gaspard, originally from Louisiana, had bought the company in 1972
from a Mr. Fink who had started the company in 1958. Mr. Gaspard ran
WTMS up until two years ago when he retired and his son Russell took
you were to drive up to a WTMS jobsite (just look for the water tower),
Russell Gaspard could easily be mistaken for a member of the crew
since he's usually the one at the end of the rope, suspended from
the scaffolding or wielding the paint brush. Wearing a cotton welder's
cap with the squinted gaze of a man who needs to notice details, Russell
has spent nearly 30 of his 43 years on earth in the water tower game.
Services offered by WTMS include all phases of maintenance, inspection,
sandblasting, painting, and even dismantling. If you want your high
school team's mascot painted on the side of the tower, that too, can
be arranged. WTMS is one of only two companies left in Texas capable
of offering small towns turnkey operations.
WTMS is also certified by the National Association of Corrosive Engineers.
(A fun bunch despite their name. If they have a convention in your
town, try your best to attend.)
| The WTMS crew.
Left to Right: Livio Hernandez originally from Dominica, Robert Gonzalez,
and Albert Munoz of Rio Grande City, Texas (Nephew and Uncle), and
Owner Russell Gaspard.
December 5th, 2006.
learns the ropes - the hard way.
watching his father Frank working aloft on one particular job, thirteen
year-old Russell grew bored with goings on at ground level and decided
to get an up-close first hand look at what his father was doing. Although
he had been warned against it, Russell climbed the tower. But his
accent didn't go unnoticed. Halfway up he was spotted by his father
and rather than lose time taking Russell all the way down - Frank
took his son the rest of the way up. Russell spent the afternoon in
the rarefied atmosphere of the tank's scaffolding enjoying the view,
but worried about the price he's have to pay for his disobedience.
At the end of the day when everyone was safely back on the ground,
Russell was willing to forget the incident. But his father reminded
him with a vigorous application of a 5/8 inch Manilla rope. Both father
and son learned something that day. Russell learned the durability
of sisal hemp and Frank learned his son wasn't afraid of heights.
Soon Russell was regularly aloft, learning the (rest of the) ropes
of the tank business.
|Rivets and Braces
Touches in Fayetteville
to December of 2006: Inclement November weather had prevented the
application of the final coat of silver paint on the 1929 "tin man"
water of tiny Fayetteville,
Texas, population 261. The tower stood incognito in a coat of
primer for nearly a week, but in just two days, the final coat was
applied - and nothing was left to do but letter "Welcome to Fayetteville"
on opposing sides of the tank. (If you've ever been curious about
the cost of silver paint for water towers - it's a mere $72 per gallon.)
|Primed for the
Truth in Advertising.
Square to the right of "to" is actually a movable water
the day I visited the WTMS jobsite, the four man crew was applying
the last letters to the 'Welcome' sign. On the ground, anxious Internet
subscribers were pelting their server's representative with brickbats
and groceries long past their expiration date; demanding to know when
high speed service would be available. The rep was there to oversee
the installation of an antenna (antenna installation is yet another
service provided by WTMS) for a high-speed connection. After the mob
was dispersed by the promise of a January connection date, an irate
woman appeared to complain that the tower's "integrity" had been destroyed
by the antenna placement. Progress, it seems, comes at a heavy price.
from the newly installed Water Tower c. 1929
Square in upper left corner
courtesy Joe Babin, Fayette Realty
looked around for a welder's cap and found Russell Gaspard engaged
in conversation with Fayetteville realtor Joe Babin. Mr. Babin had
a vintage photo of the town square taken from the tower back in 1929
when it was spanking new. At Mr. Babin's request, Russell had taken
a contemporary photo from the exact same vantage point the day before.
The shot wasn't as clear as it could've been, so Russell took the
time for a second shot.
Town Square from the water tower today
courtesy Joe Babin, Fayette Realty, June 2006
Photographer Russell Gaspard
before Fayetteville's noon whistle didn't blow (it did up until a
few years ago) the local Internet server representative and the entire
WTMS crew repaired to Keiler's restaurant for perhaps the heartiest
plate lunch in Fayette County. It was over lunch that I got to know
the crew and heard stories about water towers from Clute
to Jasper and from
Bastrop to Humble.
(WTMS operates within a 200 mile radius of Houston.)
In the same unhurried, matter-of-fact tone that he employs on the
job site, Russell did not gloat about his ironclad job security, but
related that their success in the business was not luck but "old school
ways" of safety first and attention to detail a close second.
I asked for a finger count of the crew - the best testimonial for
safety - and they came up with a full forty between them. The constant
work with cables, torches, sharp edges and rough surfaces have produced
sandpaper palms. Russell allowed that when his wife scratches his
back - she uses her fingernails - while he merely has to rub his flat
palm over her back.
But keeping track of one's digits can be the least of problems in
such a hazardous occupation. Russell told of a bad fall he once had
in Montgomery County when they were working on an aircraft hanger.
The wind shifted unexpectedly and some loose sheet plastic pulled
the scaffolding down. The working height was four-stories up. Russell
landed flat on his back, but it wasn't a freefall. His descent was
slowed somewhat by being pinched between the scaffolding and a large
plate glass window. Arriving at ground-level with no broken bones
but without any air in his lungs, he was disheartened when the scaffolding
came to rest on his chest. The six-man crew strained to remove the
weight, but it didn't budge until Russell's brother came running up.
With mythical strength, his brother lifted the scaffolding from Russell's
chest. The incident was written up by the local newspaper - and Russell
said that while he had boxed with his brother while growing up, he
wouldn't consider even sparing with him today.
|If you're within
a two-hundred mile radius of Houston and have a water tank that needs
cleaning, sandblasting, purging, dismantling or painting, you'd be
doing yourself a favor by contacting Russell Gaspard and the safe,
jovial, hardworking, hearty-eating crew of Water Tank Maintenance
Water Tank Maintenance Services
6321 Apache, Pasadena, Texas
© John Troesser
January 1, 2007