Missouri man hunts for gold, builds from iron

Saturday, November 4, 2006

Warsaw man's life shaped by working with metals.

By SARAH DANIEL

The Sedalia Democrat

WARSAW, Mo. -- The smell of hot metal hangs in the air as sparks fly.

Roger Rice, 61, of Warsaw, uses a blowtorch to trace a pattern of a hummingbird on a flower that he has drawn on a metal plate. The hummingbird and flower fall from the plate and onto the floor of the metal shop scattered with tools, projects to complete and long iron rods of all diameters.

Rice uses a hammer to drive a pick into the hummingbird, creating an eye. Then he uses a tool to buff the rough edges of the shape. He pulls a mask over his face, fires up a welder and affixes the hummingbird to the top of a shepherd's hook he made by bending a rod around a round gig. The finished product can hold a hanging plant.

Rice opened the Fab Shop 12 years ago. Most of his life has been shaped by working with iron or searching for a precious metal -- gold.

His abilities range from fabricating an intricate iron bed to repairing farm equipment.

"Once in a while, we get to do some fun stuff," he said.

People take Rice ideas that he makes a reality. A banister post becomes a candelabra and an iron gate becomes a table. They bring pictures or sketches of what they want crafted from iron.

"Most generally, people have their own ideas of what they want, and I'm able to take it and make it happen for them," Rice said.

Two iron beds crafted by Rice have appeared in home decorating sections of two publications, The Kansas City Star and Peak magazine. A stack of photos in his desk drawer shows examples of his work -- baker's racks, barbecue smokers, wine racks, topiary, stereo cabinets, gates, signs and garden accessories.

"It's just kind of a feel of where to start and how to proceed," he said. "It's just kind of a knack, I guess, to know how to build things."

Rice recalls when he spent some time building gas plants in the western United States. He would use a piece of soap stone to sketch the plant on the floor. J.D. Findley, who works with Rice in the Fab Shop, said blueprints and computer programs would be used now to do the same job.

"Used to you'd just start building stuff until you make it work," Findley said.

"You might not be the greatest welder in the world; you just need to be able to build things," Rice added. "You can teach a person to weld, but the knack of building things comes naturally."

Welding is a dirty job. It also has elements of danger.

"If you start to smell cotton, you should start looking around," Findley said. "You'll recognize the odor of burning cotton real quick."

Dusty plastic pans sit on shelf in the shop -- a reminder of a time Rice searched for gold.

Rice took up panning gold as a hobby. His wife enjoyed fishing while he hunted gold. Soon his hobby turned into a job. Mr. Rice's boss asked him to work in a gold mining business.

"My job was to go out and find out if it was a good property," he said. "Once you get in the gold mining business, your phone rings off the hook."

Rice looked at more than 100 properties before hitting the jackpot in Montana.

"We took a lot of gold out of there," he said.

When the mine dried up, and Rice set out to find another property. But his boss died of a heart attack, ending Rice's gold hunting career. He returned to Warsaw, where he had graduated high school, to open the shop.

But these days, he looks forward to the time when he can head west and pan again.

"It's more elusive than wild turkeys," he said.

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