Occupational Records and Family History: Belt's Garage

Over the Labor Day weekend, I visited my family in Chattanooga, and also had the opportunity to climb a few more branches of my family tree. Lately, I've been interested in the work and careers of my ancestors, and Labor Day gave me the perfect excuse to delve deeper into my family's work history. This blog post begins a three-part series on the subject of occupations and genealogy, focusing on my own family's past, beginning with my paternal grandfather, Henry Belt.

My grandfather worked an auto mechanic -- it was his professional identity -- and he had a reputation as one of the best mechanics in the city. I have many fond childhood memories of hanging out in his garage, watching him repair cars, and tinkering on new tools he had invented for specific tasks. He was a natural at working with his hands, and enjoyed working on cars immensely.

"Paw Paw" forged his skills as a mechanic while on duty in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). He grew up poor in South Carolina during the Great Depression, and as one of eleven children, the devastating economy hit young Henry's family especially hard. As a means to support his family, my grandfather enlisted in the CCC. He was transported from his home in Easley, South Carolina to Company 420 near Chattanooga, Tennessee. While there he worked on the trucks and transport vehicles in the camp, making sure they were in good working order for the steep and treacherous roads of Lookout Mountain. The memories shared by my family, together with the archival records found at the National Archives and the Tennessee State Library and Archives helped me to stitch together this thread of my family history.

By 1937, my grandfather left the CCC after finding work as an auto mechanic. Researching the Chattanooga City Directories held at the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I discovered that he found his first job as a mechanic at the B. L. Talley Co., Inc., in Guild, Tennessee. Guild was the same town where my grandmother lived. It was there that they met, and started their lives together.

By 1940, my grandfather began work as a mechanic and later as a superintendent at the Central Garage in Chattanooga, Tennessee. He later teamed up with his friend and business partner, Clyde McDaniel, to establish the B & M Garage in 1946 at 59 East Main Street in Chattanooga. Four years later, in 1950, he set out on his own, establishing Belt's Garage at that same location, and later relocated his garage to East 39th Street. The business card seen here is from my family's collection of papers, and is a treasured reminder of the work that my grandfather accomplished during his lifetime.

Throughout the remainder of his life, Henry Belt remained a mechanic. It was his professional calling and passion. I believe no one knew as much about the internal combustion engine as my grandfather. I might be biased in saying this, but as a young man who admired his grandfather, I have a profound sense of pride in his work, and I am grateful for the memories that I have, and for the documentary evidence of his life's work found in the archives and my own personal papers.

Column 28 of the 1940 Census also lists my grandfather's occupation as "Auto Mechanic"

In the next installment of this series, I plan to delve into my great-grandfather's work as an employee of TVA's Hale's Bar Lock and Dam, near Guild, Tennessee, and will later explore my great-great-grandfather's ferry business on the Tennessee River. I hope you'll stay tuned for the rest of this story, and I hope that it inspires you to consider your own family's work as a source for information in your own journey to "document the links to our past."

That little fellow standing front and center in the striped shirt and brown shorts is me, hanging out with my cousins at my grandfather's garage. In the mind of this young boy, there was not a cooler job in the world.


Gordon Belt is an information professional, archives advocate, public historian, and author of The History Press book, John Sevier: Tennessee's First Hero, which examines the life of Tennessee's first governor, John Sevier, through the lens of history and memory. On The Posterity Project, Gordon offers reflections on archives, public history, and memory from his home state of Tennessee.