No slowing down

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With his 90th birthday next week, Bob Arbuckle still works six days a week and dances every night

(Photo by Robert Herrington)

Many know Bob Arbuckle as a street dancer, but the longtime Noblesville resident is a military veteran, businessman and entrepreneur.

Touring the four acres at his Arbuckle’s Railroad Place business at 1151 Vine St., Noblesville, is an entertaining lesson in life, business and history of Arbuckle’s business enterprises, which include a machine shop, sewing machine repair and sales operation, sewing and quilting sales, bicycle shop, upholstery shop and remnants of other past enterprises.

In his boyhood years, Arbuckle lived in Metz, Lebanon, Brownsburg, Mount Pelieur, Noblesville and Fairmont as his father, a Purdue graduate, served in various occupations of farming, county extension agent and high school teacher.

On his 20th birthday, Arbuckle entered the Navy at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago on Navy Day, 1942. He served as a diesel mechanist mate in Cuba observing German U-boat activity before advancing to 2nd Class machinists mate and selected for officer training. Following graduation and commissioning he picked up the USS South Dakota, BB57, in October 1945 off San Diego and sailed through the Panama Canal to decommission the ship in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards. He then was assigned the pre-decommissioning detail for the USS Toledo and sailed from Philly to Newport, R.I., where he was released from active duty.

Arbuckle returned home to Noblesville and in 1948 started a sewing machine sales and service shop from scratch at the location of the current Gentleman Soldier shop on the Courthouse Square in Noblesville.

“After WWII there was a need for sewing machines and a shortage of new machines,” he explained.

Arbuckle’s store helped convert treadle sewing machines into electronic ones during the 1940s – a trend that customers now seek to reverse.

“They want us to restore it back to its original condition. There was some beautiful cabinet work in some of those,” he said, adding he wished he had the foresight to retain those parts they discarded. “It’s interesting to see the style changes from one generation to another.”

Arbuckle said customers don’t sew for the same reasons today as they used to. When he first began the business, sewing saved money as people created their own garments. Nowadays, Arbuckle said readymade garments are cheaper and faster than sewing.

“People that sew are creative and individualistic people. They’re doing creative work. That’s one thing I love about the business – working with creative and positive people,” he said.

While sewing machines have always been his store’s foundation, Arbuckle has had many departments added to his store.

“To stay in business for 65 years you’ve really got to make some changes,” he said. “We were the first to introduce something new and different.”

Changes and products included wringer washers (which included rolls manufactured by Firestone in Noblesville), automatic washers, dryers, microwave ovens (which were a $750 novelty item when they first came out) and a division of the store offered business machines like mechanical adding machines and manual typewriters.

“I don’t say I’m successful, but tenacious,” he said. “I’ve been steady in what I do. . . I’ve been here every day for six days a week for 65 years.”

Twelve years later he moved to his current location to improve parking, loading and expansion. As he has expanded, Arbuckle chose to honor the railroad heritage of the Midland rail line bordering his property on Vine Street by following the architecture of the 1890/1900 rail stations. Many think his establishment is a restored rail station when they see it. He has even purchased, relocated and restored an old Midland caboose on his property – one he actually rode in when the line still operated. Both he and his youngest daughter, Sara Carter, have nostalgic stories of interacting with the train crews until the line ended in the mid-70s.

As he prepares for his 90th birthday, Arbuckle still has the energy of a teenager. In addition to his daily job, Arbuckle and Shirley Sullivan take social dance lessons twice a week, dance every Sunday at the Continental Dance Club, attend other street and honky-tonk dances and balls, and ride their various restored vintage bicycles for exercise and in various local festival parades.

“Seven days a week we’re dancing about every night,” Arbuckle said.

The two met at a dancing club and are both widowed after more than 50 years of marriage to their spouses. Arbuckle said Sullivan is a tap dancer and clogger but the duo enjoys ballroom and West Coast swing.

“We’re always practicing – never perfect. Neither one of us is what we’d call a natural dancer, we have to work on it,” he said.

Arbuckle started dancing at the age of 55 after a trip to Vienna, Austria he won as a result of sales. He was hooked after seeing the balls in the world’s musical city, Vienna. When he and his fellow travelers arrived in Vienna they were fitted for tuxedos and were treated to a grand ball at the end of their week – he was then hooked.

“I never danced in my youth,” he explained. “I started taking lessons when I got back. It’s a wonderful physical activity. No matter where you are in the world, whether you know the language or not, you can go up to the most beautiful woman in the room and you get to hug her for two to three minutes and then take her back and she thanks you. It’s great to have that kind of skill.”

*Dave Damin assisted in writing this article.

A crowd gathers around Robert Arbuckle and Shirley Ann Sullivan as the couple dances on Ninth Street during the Noblesville Street Dance on July 14. (Submitted photo)

Meet Robert “Bob” Arbuckle

Age: 89

Residence: Noblesville

Birthplace: Lebanon

Education: 1941 graduate of Fairmont High School; he was commissioned a naval officer after attending Depauw and then receiving his B.S. in nautical engineering from the University of Texas.

Favorite dance: Quickstep, because it’s very fast.

Favorite songs to dance to: Waltzes

Personal quote: “Surround yourself with positive people. Plant flower seeds that grow in your mind; don’t plan weeks in that wonderful garden.”

Navy Day Celebration

Bob Arbuckle is planning a grand day-long gala for Oct. 13 to close out the 2012 season of free monthly community events at his Arbuckle’s Railroad Place business at 1151 Vine St., Noblesville.

Noblesville Mayor John Ditsler has declared Oct. 13 as “Noblesville Navy Day” in observance of the formation of the U. S. Navy in 1775. On that day, Arbuckle will be celebrating his 90th birthday and 70 years of active and reserve service in the Navy (he entered the Navy at the Palmer House Hotel in Chicago on his 20th birthday in 1942).

Navy Day at Arbuckle’s begins at 9 a.m. and will include a Navy cake cutting with Arbuckle’s ceremonial Navy sword at 8 bells of the forenoon watch (noon), military stories told by veterans, line dance music provided by the Blue Notes from 12:30 – 4:30 p.m., performances by the Continettes and Continentals dance groups, line dancing favorites (Hokey Pokey and Chicken Dance) with lessons, and a 200-person Greek Dance at 4 p.m. Kokomo radio personality Bill Tandy will play piano bar style songs for indoor dancing from 6 to 8 p.m., and the finale will be a presentation of the 1959 classic movie “Operation Petticoat” at dusk (approximately 8 p.m.).

The Navy Club of USA, Hamilton County Ship No. 29 and The Hamilton County Veterans 501C/NFP is co sponsoring this free community event and are providing some memorabilia and stories.


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