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Texas | Architecture / Images | Water Towers

The Art of Water Tower Maintenance

by Johnny Stucco

Water Tower Crew Painting
Men Working
TE photo, December 2006

What to Do When Your Water Tower Freezes

T 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 hoped for.

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.

Waelder Texas water tower
Waelder's Water Tower
TE photo, November 2006

A Brief History of WTMS

Frank 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 the helm.

On Site

If 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.
TE Photo December 5th, 2006.

Russell learns the ropes - the hard way.

After 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.

Water tower rivets and braces
Rivets and Braces
TE photo, December 2006

Finishing Touches in Fayetteville

Forward 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 final coat
TE photo, December 2006

water tower crew and water level gauge

Truth in Advertising.
Square to the right of "to" is actually a movable water level gauge.

TE photo, December 2006

On 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.

Fayetteville Texas town square  1929
Fayetteville from the newly installed Water Tower c. 1929
Square in upper left corner

Photo courtesy Joe Babin, Fayette Realty

I 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.

Fayetteville  Texas Town Square view from the water tower
Fayetteville Town Square from the water tower today
Photo courtesy Joe Babin, Fayette Realty, June 2006
Photographer Russell Gaspard

Just 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.

Fayetteville Texas Water Tower 1927 Plate
Fayetteville Water Tower 1927 Plate
TE photo, December 2006

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 Services.

Water Tank Maintenance Services
6321 Apache, Pasadena, Texas

John Troesser
January 1, 2007

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