1900s man mourned by a modern world

— Photo from Marijo Dougherty

Joe Merli loved his work and also loved his fun. He was an accomplished drummer and member of a local band for many years.

DUANESBURG — Joseph J. Merli made history tangible through objects. He fixed things no one else could, and he sought to preserve the industrial heritage that built America.

Mr. Merli worked on displays at the Altamont Fair and at the village’s archives and museum; he helped with the restoration of the historic train station for the Altamont Free Library. But, most central to his mission in life was assembling the Canal Street Station Railroad Village with a locomotive, a diner, a general store — all to illustrate the values of a bygone way of life.

“Today’s generation is dominated by Wal-Mart and a computerized lifestyle and most of our last two generations of parents and their children may never be aware of the lifestyle of our heritage,” he wrote last year in one of many letters he penned to the Altamont Enterprise editor over the years. “Maybe on TV if they’re not too busy texting someone,” he added.

In other letters, he urged saving a smokestack at the old Army depot as a mounument to  American history — “a symbol of freedom, helping us to win a world war” — or a steel bridge that crossed the Normanskill, likening it to the Eiffel Tower. “We need to stop thinking about our own little selves and start thinking about preserving these symbols of how our nation was built for our future generations,” he wrote.

A lifelong resident of Duanesburg, Mr. Merli died on Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York.  He was 65.

He was born on Jan. 26, 1951 to the late Julius Merli and Jean Dodici Merli. His father was a mechanic who, in 1946, built an Esso service station on Route 20 in Duanesburg.  His mother ran a luncheonette on the five-acre plot, where the couple also rented cabins to travelers. Kathy’s Luncheonette and Cabins was named for Mr. Merli’s sister. Vacationing families would stay for a week, at $5 a night, visiting local tourist venues like Howe’s Caverns, returning to eat meals at the luncheonette.

Mr. Merli graduated from Duanesbug High School and had the honor of being placed on the Duanesburg Hall of Fame at the school for his generous donations.

“As an infant in my crib, I could listen to the cars ring the bell as they drove over the air hose. Ding! Ding!” Mr. Merli had recalled several years ago of the place where he grew up and later built his business. “My parents put a crib in here,” he said, referring to the shop he has expanded and taken back in time to look like a late-1800s factory.

“This has been a crib to me since I was a child,” he said.

He loved bodywork since he was 8. “I was blown away with the smell of paint and watching people take fenders off,” he said.

At the same young age, he could also plow snow around the shop in his father’s Jeep, although he wasn’t yet tall enough to see over the dashboard. “You could open the doors and see around you,” he said. “You just had to be able to see out and reach the clutch.”

In 1967, at the age of 16, he opened his own shop — Joe’s Bodyworks.

By 1976, the year of the nation’s Bicentennial, he changed his company’s name to Horseless Carriage Restorations and its focus to restoring antique automobiles. He famously restored a curved-dash Oldsmobile and, in 1985 when he was 35, re-enacted the epic 1903 Olds overland traversal of the country, wetting its wheels first in the Pacific Ocean and then, 40 days and 3,800 miles later, in the Atlantic Ocean.

In 1990, Mr. Merli started building pushcarts and wagons, just as they were made over a century ago. “I wanted to do my own fabrication and design,” he said. Some of the carts he made are in Disney World in Florida, Disneyland in California, and Euro Disney in Paris along with a Steamboat Willie salad bar he made, complete with paddle wheels and smokestacks — based on the 1928 cartoon where Mickey and Minnie Mouse debuted.

“I love the industrial life of America from 1880 to 1930,” said Mr. Merli. “I like factories, I like trains, I like shipyards — anything that’s automated, anything with belts and shafts and pulleys. These are the things that actually built our country.”

People who visit the Altamont Fair and see a train cab he restored “will look at a piece of American history,” he said.

Many of the visitors to the tri-county fair a century ago, Mr. Merli said, worked for Alco, American Locomotive, or for General Electric. “Schenectady was the city that hauled and lit the world,” he said, naming such G.E. greats as Charles Steinmetz, Thomas Edison, and George Westinghouse. “And Alco built locomotives for every state in America,” he said.

“It’s all done through robotics and computer chips now,” said Mr. Merli. “That’s replaced all the handmade jobs…People came home greasy and proud. Today, they can’t find work because we’ve given it all away…. That’s why restoring the engine is important.”

Recalling how he learned his trade from his father and how, for fun as a kid, he’d build with an Erector Set or, in the winter, build an igloo, Mr. Merli went on, “Kids are playing video games. They don’t know how this country was put together.”

Mr. Merli, who did many projects as a volunteer, said, “Life is about what you give back.”

“Time was insignificant”

“Joe was a very unique, friendly, and compassionate individual,” wrote Marilyn Miles, his companion and soulmate of 32 years, in a tribute. “The element of time was insignificant in Joe’s life, most evidenced by his common practice of dropping what he was doing, regardless of its importance, to help a friend with a problem no matter how long it took and ask for nothing in return.  It has been said he was one of the most human of human beings.”

“He would spend hours fixing something for somebody and not keep a tally,” said his lifelong friend, Daniel Stewart. “There was no ‘time is money’ with him.”

Several friends brought clocks to his shop. One friend made him a clock with months where the 12 numbers would normally be. “And the months weren’t in order,” said Mr. Stewart. Another friend brought him a clock with all the numbers fallen to the bottom. Across the face of the clock it says, “Whatever.”

And yet, Mr. Merli could fix a clock that had been smashed to smithereens.

“He was a talented designer and engineer,” his tribute said. “If he could draw it on paper, he could build it from scratch.  He could fix anything, his motto being, ‘If it was built once, it can be built again.’ It didn’t matter how broken it was.  He rebuilt the VanHeusen Charles clock owned by and displayed at the Altamont Fair after it crashed into nothing but pieces.  He loved the challenge of figuring it out and reconstructing it.”

“Heart of gold”

Mr. Merli met Mr. Stewart when both of them were 17. “My brother and I had a Model T, “ Mr. Stewart recalled. “Joe was tootling by our place on Gun Club Road when he saw that Model T and wheeled right in. My father had a machine shop, and Joe was awestruck. He spotted a hit-and-miss engine and said, ‘I thought I had the only one left in the world.’”

The elder Mr. Stewart assured him there were others and invited Mr. Merli to go to a Gas-Up club meeting that very afternoon where he met men who knew a lot about old engines and would become long-time friends.

“Joe could fix the impossible,” said Daniel Stewart. “The average guy would throw it out and get a new one.”

Mr. Merli’s character was as timeless as the engines he loved. “Joe was very compassionate,” said Mr. Stewart. “He would give you a dollar if you needed a dollar. If it was his very last dollar, he wouldn’t tell you that. If you came to him with a problem, to fix something…he would drop what he was doing to help you.”

What’s more, Mr. Merli kept no count. “A lot of times people say, ‘I need a favor,’ and then, when it’s done, the person says, ‘I owe you.’ Joe believed a favor is a favor — you do it because your friend or even a stranger needs it. When you get done, he owes you nothing.”

Tuesday night, Mr. Stewart and his son were in the apartment over Mr. Merli’s shop because the water pump had broken and a friend of Mr. Merli was coming to stay there. “I told my son, ‘Joe thinks he’s funny, giving us this to fix.’ We got the pump running so his friend can take a shower.”

“He was a guy that was always willing to hear you out and always thinking about how he could be of help,” said James E. Gardner, owner of the Enterprise Print and Photo Shop and former publisher of The Enterprise. “When I first met Joe, I needed something welded and I was told, ‘Go see Joe Merli.’ It immediately blossomed into a friendship.”

Describing their enduring relationship, Mr. Gardner said, “One of the unique things about it was money never changed hands. It was an honest-to-goodness barter system. I did printing for him and he solved mechanical problems for me. He amazed me with his ability to analyze and come up with a solution to solve a problem. He could track back the sequence of the parts that make a machine function and fix the right part.”

Among the many machines Mr. Merli repaired for Mr. Gardner over the years were offset presses, a paper folder, and a paper cutter. “He was a mechanical whiz,” said Mr. Gardner.

Mr. Gardner went on, “If anybody ever taught me patience, it was him. I would be anxious to have something fixed and he’d just say, ‘You’ve got to figure it out; you can’t rush it.’ He taught me to be patient because he could figure it out and did. He helped all kinds of people fix things. A lot of things were a labor of love for Joe. He was a unique individual that is not going to be replaced in the community.”

Ed Frank was one of the many people who was grateful to Mr. Merli for his skill in fixing things as well as for his generous personality. “I needed a part for my son’s racecar,” he recalled. “My son had tried taking it all over and couldn’t get it fixed. I sat in his shop for 15 or 20 minutes and he made a brand new part….He was one of the most unassuming men. He was a giving person with a heart of gold and never asked for anything in return….He was as close to a genius as anybody could be.”

Mr. Frank described a visitor he’d observed one day in Mr. Merli’s shop. “A young woman came in and told him, ‘My dad said you could help me. I need a guard for my fireplace.’” As the woman described in detail what she imagined, Mr. Frank recalled, “Joe was doodling away at his desk.” When she stopped talking, he held up his sketch. “She said, ‘My father was in here, wasn’t he?’ He hadn’t been. Joe had sketched exactly what she had imagined.”


— Photo from Marilyn Miles
Recreating history: In 1985, when Joe Merli was 35, he re-enacted the epic 1903 Olds overland traversal of the country in a curved-dash Oldsmobile he had restored, wetting its wheels first in the Pacific Ocean and then, 40 days and 3,800 miles later, in the Atlantic Ocean.



“The real thing that sticks out with me is Joe was a dreamer and he had so many dreams and completed a lot of them,” said Mr. Gardner. “He kept pursuing his dreams.”

Mr. Merli reproduced railroad baggage wagons and Victorian pushcarts for retail marketing displays with breathtaking precision and detail.

He restored his beloved 1904 Curved Dash Oldsmobile in the early 1980s, and, after recieving the Antique Automobile Club of America’s highest award for it, joined two curved-dash-Olds friends to re-enact the San Francisco to New York trip originally completed in 1903.

“Joe’s passion for R.E. Olds and everything Oldsmobile is well known among his friends,” his tribute said. “He embarked on a project to build one of each prototype vehicle that R.E. Olds built prior to 1900.  Two of these vehicles are now at the R.E. Olds Transportation Museum in Lansing, Michigan.  His early Oldsmobile knowledge was legendary.  His life was rich in friends and customers worldwide.

“He was a much respected member of many organizations:  Curved Dash Oldsmobile Club, Antique Automobile Club of America, National Antique Oldsmobile Club, Oldsmobile Club of America, Antique Electric Vehicle Club, Hudson Mohawk Chapter Pioneer Gas Engine Association, the Bridge Line Historic Society, Duanesburg Historical Society, and the Altamont Fair where he was superintendent of the 1890 Carriage Museum building.

“His passion for preserving the industrial history of Schenectady resulted in the creation of Canal Street Station Railroad Village, a multi-building re-creation of the architecture and style of early 1900s industry. Within the village he placed and restored a 1950s-era diesel locomotive, a railroad maintenance tool building relocated from the village of Delanson, constructed a general store with furnishings from the contents of the former Wallace Armer hardware store in Schenectady, and a 1941 Silk City diner — the former 9 & 20 diner from Schodack.

“He organized an annual Fall Festival held at this site which showcased antique cars, antique gas engines, early American crafts and re-enactments of American industrial trades for the education of public of forgotten times.  He organized an annual ‘Christmas Train Express’ event that was held in conjunction with the CP Rail Holiday Train that stopped in Delanson to gather donations for the local food pantry and Toys for Tots campaign.”

“He didn’t want the past to just disappear,” said Mr. Gardner. “He wanted people to visit and experience things that were no longer functioning in the world. He believed in it and lived it.”

Friends with Jay Leno

Mr. Merli had an unlikely relationship with a celebrity.

“Joe had a deep respect and love for Jay Leno, faithfully watching his ‘Tonight Show’ program for many years,” wrote Ms. Miles. “He began communication with Jay via email and embarked a few years ago on the creation of a very unique gift for Jay: an approximate-scale steam traction engine with integrated gas grill.  His illness hindered the completion of the project but with the help of many friends it will be completed and delivered to Jay at his Burbank, California garage.

“Joe finally met Jay last year while attending Jay’s comedy show held at Proctor’s Theater and as a result Jay has become a true friend, calling Joe frequently to encourage him and see how he was doing.”


— Photo by James E. Gardner
The voice of Jay Leno emanated from the phone Joe Merli held aloft at his annual Christmas party last December. Mr. Merli was friends with the comedian and was in the process of building him a gas grill shaped like a steam traction engine when he died. His friends say they will finish the project for him.



In 1984, Mr. Merli met Ms. Miles. “We met through the Altamont Fair,” Ms. Miles recalled. She was involved running horseshows there and he was in charge of the Carriage Museum. A talk over coffee led to their first trip together; many more adventures followed.

“He was compassionate, always thinking of the other person and trying to do good things for other people,” she said. “We had fun together. We went on lots of trips although he didn’t appreciate my navigation,” she said with a chuckle.

“He made me more aware of preservation of things,” she said. “He couldn’t throw anything out.” She wonders where people will go now to get their unfixable things fixed.

Ms. Miles tended to Mr. Merli throughout his years of illness. He was diagnosed with a precursor of leukemia in the summer of 2013, she recalled.

He underwent treatment at the Strong Memorial Cancer Center in Rochester and then was a patient in the Guilderland Center nursing home for rehabilitation from the chemotherapy. “When I arrived,” he wrote in a letter to the Enterprise editor, “I could not walk or use my hands due to neuropathy. The nurses and rehab staff worked with me for four weeks, teaching me to use a walker along with hand exercises to recover my strength.”

“He was in four clinical trials; none of them worked,” said Ms. Miles. “He tried his best every time he tried something new. He kept things positive,” she said. In the end, Ms. Miles said, “He had no immune system” left to fight the fungal pneumonia that plagued his lungs.

“She is a living angel in her devotion to Joe, holding him together and supporting him through this,” said Mr. Gardner of Ms. Miles.

The tribute Ms. Miles wrote for Mr. Merli ended with these words: “In 1905, Gus Edwards penned the lyrics that Billy Murray sang in the song ‘In My Merry Oldsmobile,’ and, while the premise of the song is two lovers riding in a curved-dash Oldsmobile, a portion of the chorus is appropriate to mention: ‘…In my merry Oldsmobile, down the road of life we’ll fly….’ Joe, it was so much more than an honor to experience life with you, from your early 1900s perspective. This modern world will miss you incredibly. Enjoy the infinite trip ahead of you, guided by your tiller and listening to the sweet music of the perpetual ‘chuff chuff chuff’ from the tailpipe.”


Joseph J. Merli is survived by his companion and soulmate of 32 years, Marilyn Miles; her daughter, Brenda Dwyer, and her husband, Sean, and her son, Jerry Miles, and his wife, LoriAnn; his sister, Kathleen Paul, of Sunrise, Florida; his sister-in-law, Margaret Merli, of Pittsford, New York; his nephews, Robert Merli, of St. Louis, Missouri and David Merli of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; and his niece, Kimberly Paul, of Ramsey, New Jersey as well as many cousins and dear close friends.

His brother, Frank Merli, died before him.

Calling hours will be from 2 to 6 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20, at White-Van Buren Funeral Home, in Delanson.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Schenectady Cancer Foundation, 1509 Union St., Schenectady, NY 12309 or to The Buffalo Hope Lodge, 197 Summer Street, Buffalo, NY 14222.

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