North Mississippi baker trades her apron for tool belt

Published 3:04 pm Sunday, July 1, 2018

PONTOTOC, Miss. (AP) — When Mary McGuire Smith graduated from Ole Miss in 2009 with a degree in hospitality management, she had a tough time finding a job.

“It was at the start of the recession,” said McGuire, 31. “My mom’s friends knew I baked cakes, so I started baking cakes out of my home in Tupelo. Then I opened Mary McGuire’s Cakes and Confections on Main Street and stayed there for two years. I moved to Industrial Road and was there for four more.”

But deep down, Smith knew she had another calling in life. So in 2017, she sold her business, took off her apron and strapped on her carpentry belt.

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“When I got my first apartment and my first house — having come of age in the recession — if I wanted my house to look like I envisioned, I had to do it myself,” she said.

Smith is fortunate her late grandfather, Bob Henson, was an engineer by trade and built custom homes for a time, eventually opening Rose Hill Furniture.

“My grandfather was really good about letting me hang out in his shop,” she said. “He didn’t question letting me participate with him. He was good about giving me just enough guidance to let me figure a lot of it out on my own.”

McGuire honed her carpentry skills by following different bloggers, checking out youtube videos and watching “This Old House,” a home improvement and remodeling show that airs on PBS. The show is in its 40th season.

“I heard about an apprenticeship on ‘This Old House’ from watching the show,” she said. “That was the point when I knew I wanted to move on from the bakery.”

The show had an open casting call and in February, Smith sent in an audition tape.

“Their mission is trying to get young people into the building trades,” she said. “For every four people retiring from the trades, only one is coming in.”

In early March, she learned she was one of two apprentices selected. Two weeks later, she found herself in Jamestown, Rhode Island. The other apprentice selected, Kevin Barker, is from Jamestown.

“I was like a deer in the headlights the first day I walked in there,” said Smith, who lives in Pontotoc with her husband, Ben; two dogs, Sammie and Shepard Smith; and two cats, Conway Kitty and Cat Benatar.

“Kevin already had six years of experience as a carpenter, so he quickly took me under his wing,” said the petite Smith. “A week after I got there, the guys on the crew confessed that after the first day, they said, ‘OK, who’s going to babysit the girl?’ But they came to realize I could pull my own weight and keep up.”

Customers clamoring

During the two-and-a-half months Smith was in Rhode Island, the “This Old House” crew worked on a 1920s Cape Cod-style home. Their job was to build an addition — a living room and a master suite. The show will air sometime in September.

“The first month I was on the framing crew,” Smith said. “That was helpful to understand the structure of a house and load-bearing points. Then we got around to installing windows and siding. And I got to help put up a timber-frame garage in the backyard.”

Before the apprenticeship, Smith and her husband, who teaches chemistry at Ole Miss, had attended two different classes at the Shelter Institute in Maine. One was on homebuilding, where they learned about foundations, framing, insulation, electricity and plumbing. The other was a timber-framing course.

“I knew carpentry was what I wanted to do full time,” said Smith, who returned to Pontotoc on May 27. “Who better to learn from than Tom Silva, Jeff Sweenor and the rest of the ‘This Old House’ crew?”

Smith had long been sought after to do home improvement projects after friends and acquaintances saw the work she had done on her own home.

“I’ve had so many calls for projects already,” she said. “I feel more confident about taking them on now. Martin Sparks, head of Gumtree Woodworkers Club, has let me help in his cabinet shop. I’m grateful for people who know so much more and take the time to teach.”

Smith said her strengths are organizing functional spaces, designing floor plans and reimagining spaces. Her woodworking skills are what she’s trying to concentrate on now.

“There are so many ways to do something and I’m continually learning,” Smith said. “I want to know everything. I’m an information junkie.”