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Nellie’s ‘man-sized job’

If you wanted to find Nellie McGarvey, the best place to look was up — to the top of a ladder. She’d be the woman dipping her brush into a bucket of house paint and rubbing at a few paint stains dripping down her cheek.

Finding a woman housepainter in 1928 was an extremely rare event. It was just too tempting for a Mail Tribune reporter to pass up.

Nellie preferred her high perch, so the local scribe, at ground level, had to shout out his questions. She sat on the top step of her tall ladder and began to eat a sandwich, her wet paintbrush rested on one knee of her white overalls.

“She earns her food at the top of the ladder,” said the reporter, “and for both sentimental and business reasons she would rather eat her share right there.”

Named Cornelia Brady, she was born in Iowa to Civil War veteran William Brady, and his wife, Hanna. In October 1907, Nellie married Arthur McGarvey, a one-armed housepainter. The couple had two sons.

It was Arthur’s popularity as a painter and woodworker that eventually drove Nellie to take up painting professionally. Arthur was swamped with orders, and with only one arm he couldn’t keep up. He had to turn over the big-paying jobs to others and be content with a percentage of the fee. Eventually, he wasn’t making enough to support the growing family.

Sitting alone and mending socks one afternoon, the phone rang and Nellie answered. “Could Mr. McGarvey handle a rush paperhanging job?” the caller asked.

Nellie had watched her husband work and had even helped a few times. It only took a second. “Yes, sir,” she said. “We shall be able to fill the order in three days.”

That evening, she informed her husband that from now on she would “furnish the other arm on the McGarvey payroll.” Within weeks she was advertising for her own painting and woodworking jobs.

By 1920, Manchester Iowa’s only woman painter had divorced her husband and was supporting herself and her two boys.

Nellie told the local reporter a story that so far can’t be confirmed and, although, it may be true, at best, it leaves one wondering.

She said a friend convinced her to come to Southern California, and there she bought an aviation field and two surplus WWI Curtiss “Jenny” airplanes. She said she ran the airport and took flying lessons and eventually flew passengers on excursion rides. She also claimed she sold both airplanes to western movie star Tom Mix.

The move to Oregon came in about 1925 when friends convinced her to invest in timber near the town of Trail. After 10 months of hard work, she came to Medford, picked up her paint bucket, and for the next few years made a splash in the house-painting business.

“She is a familiar sight around Medford,” the reporter said, “and has more than elicited the admiration of men in her own line of work for her efficiency and speed. … Having worn out the top rung of several ladders, she intends to keep on climbing.”

Shortly after her interview, Nellie’s first climb was to Klamath Falls, where she opened a painting and interior decorating business. In her spare time she competed for the women’s All-Stars bowling team.

Her youngest son was working for the COPCO power company, and her oldest had just begun a career in the U.S. Army.

Everything seemed to be going her way until November 1931. Suffering for at least six weeks after an emergency operation in Portland, Cornelia “Nellie” McGarvey died at age 42.

Even in death, she brought a smile to those who knew her.

“Dressed in white overalls, a bucket in one hand, and a black brush in the other,” said the reporter, “she is genuinely fond of her “man-sized job.”

Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at newsmiller@live.com.