Piedmont Profile: Navy vet, craftsman Jack Trafton reigns as mayor of Barter Town

  • Posted: Monday, May 6, 2013 12:25 a.m.
    UPDATED: Monday, May 6, 2013 1:15 a.m.
Jack Trafton stands tall in his Barter Town workshop in Salisbury.  He calls it Barter Town after a small building he lived at in California.
Jack Trafton stands tall in his Barter Town workshop in Salisbury. He calls it Barter Town after a small building he lived at in California.

SALISBURY — Barter Town is a state of mind.

Give it a blue deck. Fill it with neon beer signs. Organize the tools, welding torches and goggles and give them their appropriate places. Plant two poles — one for Old Glory; the other, for a POW-MIA flag.

Provide space for a couple of refrigerators, making sure one has an outside tap on the door for beer. The pint glasses have to be chilling in the freezer on top.

And make sure visitors know the rules.

“Scratch where it itches,” would be one.

“No chick flicks” would be another.

A sign offers a warning to burglars: “Please carry identification,” it says, “so we can notify your next of kin.”

This is Jack Trafton’s place. Welcome.

“Everybody’s got a man cave,” says Trafton, a proud Navy veteran. “I’ve got Barter Town.”

Trafton, who notes that his last name spelled backward is “Not fart,” has had a “Barter Town” ever since he retired from the Navy. That’s what everyone actually called one of his first places to live in California — a shack in a friend’s back yard.

It relied on a drop cord from the bigger house for electricity.

But Trafton liked roughing it. And through the years, wherever he lived, he usually set up a “Barter Town” man cave or workshop from which to follow his many woodworking, metal-working and glass-engraving pursuits, with some beer drinking mixed in.

Barter Town moved to South Shaver Street in Salisbury last September. The outbuilding and its blue porch in back also have an “annex,” where Trafton keeps his Yamaha motorcycle and the one belonging to his wife, Victoria.

There was a day when Trafton, now 66, rode a less cushy Harley-Davidson chopper — the photographs on the walls of Barter Town prove it.

“My mother said, ‘He’s never been known to fly in the middle of the flock,” Trafton says.

Another photograph seems to support this observation.

It shows a much younger, thinner Trafton holding a beer and looking directly into the eyes of a bull during a running of the bulls in Spain, his last naval port of call.

You can almost feel the heat off the bull’s nostrils, as Trafton is poised to high-tail it out of there.

“He damn near hooked me in the butt,” Trafton recalls. “... Didn’t spill a drop.”

Jack Trafton isn’t the salt of the earth. He’s the salt of the sea.

• • •

A native of Miles City, Mont., Trafton seemed to live everywhere and with everyone — his mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents.

But it wasn’t until he quit high school and joined the U.S. Navy that he found his home on the ocean, and more specifically, running the flight decks on aircraft carriers such as the Lexington, Independence and Midway.

Trafton likes to say he knew he was going to be a Navy man the day he first saw his father, who was wearing dress blues. Trafton was only 4 or 5 at the time.

“I said, ‘I’m going to be just like him,’” he says.

Trafton spent 21 years, two months, 15 days, 16 minutes and 37 seconds in the Navy. He laughs, knowing how many times he has recited those numbers since he retired in 1986.

Out of 21 years, 16 were spent on the decks of aircraft carriers. He was a chief petty officer.

“The chiefs run the Navy,” he says, leaving no doubt. “... I almost cried when they sent me to shore duty.”

Trafton stayed a extra year on a couple of the carriers. The air boss on the Independence wanted him to stay on his carrier an extra year. Trafton said he would, if he were allowed to attend a shipyard welding school for six weeks.

Then it happened again. The air boss on the Midway wanted him to stay an extra year, so Trafton negotiated six weeks of specialized training in a Japanese welding school in return.

• • •

After he retired, Trafton lived a few months in Florida, then California, Oregon and New Mexico. He found time to run a liquid oxygen plant, work in a gold mine, tend bar, make decoys for bow hunters and, when he felt like it, he did nothing.

“I was retired,” he explains. “I could do anything I wanted to do.”

Trafton traveled a lot of places on his Harley. He also let his hair grow long until someone tricked him once and gave him a French braid. He took so much grief at the next veterans’ bar he stopped in that he told a guy to cut off all the hair showing from under his ball cap.

Trafton says the best thing that happened to him was meeting Victoria, his fourth wife, in 2004 and marrying her six years ago in Albuquerque, N.M.

Trafton spent his last three years in the Navy in Rota, Spain., where he met Garth Birdsey. The two became buddies and enjoyed riding motorcycles together.

Through the years, they kept in infrequent touch through emails, Facebook and a regular biannual reunion of people they knew in Rota — mostly a bunch of motorcycle riders.

One of the reasons the Traftons moved to Salisbury, or had even heard of the city, was because Birdsey lived here.

“He is, and always has been, quite a character,” Birdsey says. “... I always warn my friends about Jack ahead of time.”

Birdsey lets them know that Trafton is pretty crusty, “with absolutely no filters for political correctness.”

“He says what he means and never holds back,” Birdsey says.

• • •

Trafton has always had an artistic side to him. At first he became known as “Outhouse Jack,” although friends used a harsher substitute for “Outhouse.”

He made miniature, built-to-scale, outhouses out of wood and gave them away to people. “I love outhouses,” he says, shrugging.

Barter Town has one of his Louisiana bayou outhouses on display.

When he tired of making outhouses, Trafton began making other miniatures out of wood. For a barn, he meticulously cut and placed 13,140 shingles on its roof.

Out of 13 state fair competitions in which he entered his best miniatures, Trafton says he brought home ribbons 12 times, many for first place.

Trafton went through another period when he was etching and sandblasting logos and scenes onto beer mugs. He later was using his welding skills and making metal coffee tables, book shelves, wine racks and picture frames.

To put it plainly, Trafton might try to make anything in Barter Town. “The metal work is more recent and pretty awesome,” Birdsey says.

“I’ve been known to weld for beer,” Trafton adds.

• • •

Trafton lately has turned much of his attention to what he calls plasma art.

He cuts silhouetted scenes and items ranging from welcome signs to fire pits out of sheets of 16-gauge steel. His scenes might touch on mountains, fishing, hunting, sports or even custom designs such as Grimes Mill.

The preparation takes much more time than the actual cutting of the steel, given the making of a pattern and all the marking and tracing with a knife.

His plasma cutter then follows the lines on the metal.

“This thing is so cool, man,” Trafton says, making cuts that light up the piece like a Fourth of July sparkler. “It’s just like coloring.”

After the precise cutting, Trafton grinds slag off the back, burnishes the front, uses a torch for some heat treatment and maybe some chemical treatment for a different type of finish.

He made a welcome sign for his dentist, “so he wouldn’t hurt me,” he explains.

But Trafton sells most of his plasma art at the Salisbury Farmers Market on Saturdays and gives out cards for “Jack’s Barter Town,” which also offers wrought-iron tables, wine racks and custom glass etching and sandblasting.

“I like what I make,” Trafton says, explaining how he doesn’t like to dicker on price. “You’re not going to lowball me. It will just p... me off, and I’ll raise the price.”

• • •

Trafton says he and Victoria love that they relocated to Salisbury and their small cottage on South Shaver Street. He thinks the Hefner VA Medical Center here is one of the best in the country, and he enjoys taking on all the country roads made for motorcycle riders in this region.

Trafton never hides his patriotism and love for fellow veterans. He tries to donate a percentage of what he makes with his plasma art to helping veterans, and he also supports the Wounded Warrior Project.

“That’s my honor to do that,” he says.

At present, Trafton is using his plasma cutter to punch out the Navy insignia worn by the men who used to work for him. He and his Navy buddies are having a reunion later this year in Ocean, City, Md.

So Trafton will be spending a lot of time in Barter Town where, if you look up to the ceiling, you’ll see the humongous skin of an anaconda nailed flat to the wood.

It came from a friend, who brought it back from South America.

“The only good snake is a flat one,” Trafton says.

Another rule for Barter Town.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

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