From Top Secret Parts To Piddling In His Own Shop

hughes3.jpgAllen Hughes, of Big Creek, along with three other Calhoun countians
played an important role in sending the first American into space.

Allen Hughes, of Big Creek, along with three other Calhoun countians played an important role in sending the first American into space.
January marked Hughes’ 50th year working with Harrelson Manufacturing in Calhoun City where thousands of parts were made for hundreds of companies. It was eight “top secret” parts that Hughes, Albert Shankles, Buddy Hollingsworth and Dale Bailey made at the plant that went into the nose of the “Freedom 7,” the Mercury space capsule, that carried Alan B. Shepard Jr. on America's first manned space mission on May 5, 1961.
“We joked that if that man knew who was making these parts he wouldn’t want to go into space,” Hughes said.
Harrelson Manufacturing was constantly churning out parts for all kinds of machines, but Hughes said their work on these eight parts was kept totally secret.
hughes4_words.jpg“It was hush hush until they made their shot,” Hughes said. “Not even the other people in the plant knew what we were working on.”
When the mission was a success, the foursome received a set of cufflinks from NASA that were tiny replicas of the “Freedom 7.”
Hughes’ expertise in working with metal was all learned at Harrelson’s under the tutelage of its founder – L. Ford Harrelson.
Hughes was born in 1934 in Hardintown, approximately six miles south of Calhoun City. His family farmed.
“That was all there was to do back then,” he said. “There weren’t any manufacturing jobs.”
They moved a lot – Webster County, Grenada, the Delta – but eventually returned to Calhoun City to stay. Times were tough, he said, and he only completed the seventh grade in school because he had to go to work to help support his family. He had worked in the fields since he was 8-years-old.
He had been working with various timber cutting operations when at age 23, on Jan. 18, 1959, he walked in the front door of the Harrelson Manufacturing building on the Calhoun City Square to ask for a job. He was met by bookkeeper Bill Young and receptionist Hattie Bell Swindoll who told him they weren’t hiring at the moment. Ford Harrelson heard the conversation from his office and stepped out and asked Hughes to come back.
“He asked me what I thought I could do, and I told him whatever needs doing,” Hughes said.
Harrelson hired him on the spot, and the apprenticeship immediately began.
“He was one of the best welders that’s ever come into Calhoun County,” Hughes said of Harrelson. “He took me under his wing and taught me everything.”
Hughes also credits Jessie Parker with teaching him a lot in his early years at the plant.
Hughes quickly became a “jack of all trades” and learned the ins and outs of every machine in the plant. He reached a point that when a machine started to break down, he could stand and stare at it a few minutes listening to it and soon after pinpoint the problem.
Turret lathes, drill presses, punch presses, milling machines and so many more were used to make a little bit of everything for a wide variety of companies.
Harrelson produced parts for Boeing and Hughes Aircraft; starter shafts for GM trucks; parts for Yazoo Mower Company; Rex Sanderson mowers; rods and cams for water pumps for wells; hardware for cabinets, RVs, and mobile homes. Prior to Hughes joining the company, the plant produced detonators for bombs and parts for B-17 bombers in the 1940s.
Hughes had a hand in everything, from the tool and die to the auto screw machine. There isn’t anything with metal he can’t do.
“I had a lot of good people working with me,” Hughes said. “It was quite a party.”
Hughes reflects back to those days on the ‘City Square with great fondness.
“We could make most anything,” Hughes said. “I was always very curious. I wanted to know how things worked. I enjoy figuring out things. That’s what was great about that job. It was a challenge every day and I really enjoyed that.”
Hughes was the first to arrive at work for years, usually coming in an hour before everyone else to turn on the boiler for heat. Hughes continued working for Lee Harrelson when he took over the company. He continues to visit the shop from time to time.
“The Harrelson family has been very good to me,” Hughes said. “They’re good people to work for. I guess I did something right to have been with them for 50 years.”
After retiring in January, Hughes has more time at home with his wife Dorothy. They’ve been married for more than 52 years. He likes to “piddle” in his machine shop at the house and hopes to get in a little more fishing.
“I always said a man too busy to go fishing is too busy,” Hughes said.