Bill Lytch ’62 remembers very little of his grandfather, William McNeill Lytch. He remembers a dusting of white hair accompanying the bald head of the man known in the family as “Pop.” But most of what Bill can recall is relegated to the few local myths that have survived around Laurinburg, N.C., about the tinkerer who began a business there that still operates today.
“One of the stories that circulated was that he built a muffler for a gasoline engine lawnmower. It blew perfect rings,” says Bill Lytch, who today runs the Laurinburg Machine Company. The company was started in 1909 by his grandfather, who worked there until he died in 1946 of a heart attack.
“He lived about three blocks from the shop,” says Bill Lytch. “Everyone said you could set your watch by seeing him open up at 7:15 a.m.”
“Pop’s” love affair with machines can be traced back to 1889, when he came to the North Carolina College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts as a member of its first freshman class. He studied engineering at A&M and completed a thesis on the design of a 24-horsepower horizontal engine.
After he graduated as one of the first 19 young men to ever receive a degree from the college, he left North Carolina behind and moved to Florida to work in the railroad business. It was there that he met his wife, Ollie, and the couple moved back to Laurinburg, where Lytch and his brother, Ed, started the machine shop.
The Laurinburg Machine company stands today on Fairley Street on the very spot where “Pop” and his brother built it in 1909. Back then, it was a wooden building that was torn down and replaced by a brick one in 1918. “Pop” handed it down to his son, Dike, prior to World War II. Dike brought his son, Bill, and another son in as partners in 1969, and they ran it until 2005, when Bill became sole owner. The shop has grown from being a building that was just a simple blacksmith’s shop with an anvil to include another building and an arm of the business dedicated to building truck bodies.
But Bill says he still employs the same basic methods that guided his grandfather as a young machinist in 1909. “We work on anything that no one else will touch,” he says. “We work by blueprint, by sketch or by word of mouth. We work on anything that has metal in it.
“There used to be a saying: ‘If you can’t find it, go to a machine shop. They’ll have it.'”
Bill says his time operating the shop is drawing to a close. He’s preparing for his son, Keith, to take the reins, keeping the business in the Lytch family for four generations. And that would make “Pop” very proud, especially given what was said about him in a 1946 obituary in the Laurinburg Exchange after his death.
“Things are so arranged in this world that men must work and toil,” the obit reads. “The machine makes that work and toil lighter, and greatly more productive. Mr. Lytch was a machine man. He knew and loved machinery. His keen ear could detect the slightest irregularity, the most unlikely defect, in a machine. And whether that machine was a simple farm implement, or some complicated and sensitive mechanism, if it was ailing or limping, he could set it aright and make it sing. “