Nick America, the 71-year-old owner of Steeplejacks of America, took over his family's business in 1968.
December 2013 Issue
Work of Faith
Nick America has spent his life repairing church steeples and bell towers. Along the way, he's gained a better understanding of people and the places where we gather to worship.
Nick America looks up at the steeple that reaches skyward from the Church of Christ in rural Holmes County. The Holmesville church was built in 1865 to replace an older structure that was destroyed in a fire two years earlier. It has a belfry with gingerbread trim and its original bronze bell is still rung by pulling a rope.
“It’s a pretty church,” says America, owner of Steeplejacks of America in Strongsville. He calls it one of “his” churches. “Old country churches are always special. But this one has more architectural detail than many.”
As a steeplejack, America has repaired, replaced and installed steeples, bell towers, cupolas, crosses, domes, lighting, gold leaf elements and even stained glass windows in churches, synagogues and mosques throughout the United States. He became head of the family company in 1968 when his uncle, Everett Hemingway, retired. He oversaw the business for 50 years. America, 71, is approaching his 46th year and still occasionally climbs ladders, scaffolding and towers.
“My family goes back to Ireland and I know some ancestors came to this country in the 1700s, but they all weren’t steeplejacks,” says America, noting the business snaked its way through in-laws and marriages. “Some family members became too old or were too injured to take over or they were afraid of heights.”
When America began working for the business, he, too, wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a steeplejack. He recalls one day early in his career being high up in a belfry, fighting cold, wind and loneliness. The idea of just quitting and walking away was tempting.
“But then I noticed some letters that were carved into a wooden board,” recalls America. “I knew right away that they were my uncle’s initials and that no one had probably been up there for decades after he was. It looked like he had just carved them the day before. I started to think about it and realized my responsibility.”
A steeplejack’s life can be devilishly difficult at times. It is no place for someone who won’t climb several hundred feet into the air or who is intimidated by winds that may be only five miles an hour on ground level but 125 miles an hour at spire height. America and his crew travel to the West and South during Ohio’s winters. That eliminates exposure to ice and snow here, but not the blistering 140-degree heat of a Texas church bell tower.
Sometimes America finds things stored in bell towers that have been long forgotten. He discovered old ledgers that no one knew existed in the Medina County Courthouse tower. He has rescued church records, religious statues and relics that were thought to be long lost. Behind a crumbling plaster dome that loomed over one congregation, he found magnificent hidden stained glass windows, covered because of someone’s idea of modernization.
Then there are pests and critters of biblical proportions. Bees, hornets and wasps make themselves at home in cupolas that have louvers without screen backing. Steeples and belfries often must be cleaned of pigeon nests and droppings. Raccoons, squirrels and bats must be relocated or eliminated. But the worst, says America, are the spiders. “I was recently on a job in Paducah, Kentucky,” he says. “I was having a good time, watching the barges on the Mississippi River. A little spider crawled up my leg and bit me six times.”
Not all historians agree about the origin of the church steeple. According to some theories, the steeple can be traced back to ancient traditions that tell of early Israelites placing loaves of bread under long erect poles representing fertility for blessing. Some say the steeple as we know it was created in the 12th century. Others say that steeples in the Middle Ages were built as tall as possible to point the way to heaven and to ward off evil spirits.
But despite the visibility of steeples and their place of honor high atop our houses of worship, America says most church officials and congregations don’t give much thought to maintenance.
“The only time they realize they have a problem is when rain is dripping on their heads when they are sitting in the pews,” he says. “Some churches think they need an entire new roof and will put one on. But in reality, it was a steeple problem. For $15 worth of caulking they could have saved themselves a quarter-of-a-million-dollar repair job.”
Occasionally congregations and historical societies battle over architectural matters. Questions of restorations, renovations and which materials are the most accurate, safe and long lasting often put the steeplejack in the middle.
But for the most part, America says he enjoys working with church trustees, and he tries to use the best materials available so a steeple will last another 50 to 150 years or more. Sometimes if he knows a church doesn’t have a lot of money and the job is small, he encourages a few handy parishioners to tackle the job themselves under his guidance.
After spending so much time in such holy sanctuaries, the question naturally comes up about America’s own spiritual beliefs and whether his life’s work has influenced him in any way.
“I’m not all that religious,” confesses America. “But I believe totally in the Ten Commandments. If everyone followed those, we’d be OK. Even if you stray a bit from some of them — and you don’t murder anyone or anything like that — you’ll be fine.”
America says no one asks his religious affiliation when calling for his assistance, but he and his crew are frequently welcomed to Sunday dinners by congregations who have hired them. “I have come to learn more about myself and human nature because of this work,” says America.
The steeplejack says his vocation has given him a deep respect for immigrants who came to this country, bringing their faith with them and building churches to reflect their ancestry. He admires the hand-hewn beams of churches built centuries ago and old wooden crosses formed by hatchets.
“It gives me chills to think about the history of some churches and how they were made,” says America. “Those churches will last forever if maintained.”
Of course, lightning and severe wind inevitably take their toll on the structures. America calls himself a reluctant storm chaser after hurricanes and tornadoes ravaged the East Coast during his years as a steeplejack.
“I can tell you the exact line the storms took based on the calls I got,” he says. “I followed a path of destruction. It was devastating to see all the blue tarps and plywood.”
Still, America doesn’t give up. From time to time, he’ll take long rides through Ohio’s rural areas, looking at old churches whose steeples may be tilting slightly or whose brick bell towers are chipping.
“Sometimes it can be five or 10 years before trustees of a church I examined get back to me because it takes that long to raise the money for repairs,” says America. “But I understand. You keep the faith.”