Jersey Jon and Michigan Christine: Grease, Gears, Blood, Sweat and Tears

By MONIQUE M. DEMOPOULOS | Jan 08, 2020
Photo by: Supplied Photo Jon Szalay and Christine Grove with ‘Shop Dog’ Otto.

Barnegat — Many of New Jersey’s ancestral roots are nestled in quaint Barnegat, where some locals make historical preservation their business. Among those artisans is Jon Szalay of First National Antique Restoration, who, since the early ’80s, has perfected the craft of restoring heirloom antique furniture and early American motorcycles.

Szalay became a local celebrity after being regularly featured on the History Channel reality show “American Pickers,” about two men who drive around the country rummaging through people’s junk to turn a profit on rare finds. According to Szalay, he and “American Pickers” star Mike Wolf met 25 years ago at a swap meet and became fast friends. “That was long before his fame. He was just a picker then,” said Szalay. “Mike’s been a good friend of mine.” Szalay’s role on the show is to offer his expertise on early motorcycles. However, his true identity belongs to his craft, and far transcends his extracurricular affair in show business.

Szalay grew up in Lanoka Harbor and began woodworking at the age of 12 with the support of his father, who was a small engine mechanic. “My dad was a true Hungarian gypsy,” laughed Szalay, who has evidently embraced his heritage. Settling into the cozy loft above what was originally Barnegat’s First National Bank in 1914, as Szalay’s fiancé, Christine Grove, prepared tea in an old brass kettle, one might have mistaken the scene for an old world cafe in the Budapest market.

The people of Hungary are devoted to their history and their craft. The same devotion was nurtured in Szalay’s family. Szalay recalled accompanying his father to swap meets and flea markets all over. “My dad was not a woodworker, but he was very supportive. I learned a lot from him, which I was grateful for later in life.” Szalay’s father allowed him to do his woodworking in their home. Szalay shared, “My dad even bought me a bandsaw for my bedroom!” When his business quickly outgrew his childhood bedroom, his father gave him the small loft above his shop, Star Mower, in Waretown.

“The first restoration job I ever had was restoring an old wooden sailboat,” said Szalay, whose dream was to build either boats or furniture. Szalay said his earliest inspiration came from Eric Sloane, who was an author and illustrator of books on American folklore and cultural history. “Those books were my bibles, and I read them cover to cover,” he said. “That’s where I really gained an appreciation and respect for old tools and how to use them,” Szalay continued, “and I grew those skills into a business at a young age.” Szalay said his business really began in cabinetry and countertops. “Not as romantic as furniture or sailboats, but it was a good starting point,” he explained, smiling.

Another passion in the Szalay family was, obviously, motorcycles. “We were self-taught machinists. We gravitated towards early furniture and early tools,” he explained. “My dad sold and worked on motors, so we always had something to ride.” Szalay described a whimsical childhood memory of riding around on antique bikes. “I started on this little Italian bike when I was 8.” Motorcycles allowed Szalay to express a love for history and an inherited sense for antique machinery and tools.

Szalay faced a tremendous obstacle at just 15 years old, when he was struck on his motorcycle and run over by an 80,000-pound gravel truck. A craftsman who takes pride in a dignified life, he was reluctant to share the traumatic story. “It’s not something I like to talk about. I was just determined it wouldn’t slow me down. I’ve earned an honest, self sufficient living.” Though Szalay nearly lost his life, he was back to work as soon as he could walk again, and on principle, has never accepted any government assistance. In fact, Szalay would sooner reject any credit for his perseverance than to be perceived a victim.

Every morning, Szalay and his father would have coffee and read the newspaper. “One Saturday morning in ’79, we saw this old, derelict bank building up for auction. They were selling everything with no reserve, and I asked my dad to come look at it with me. He thought I was nuts, but he signed the papers for me, because I was only 17.”

Although the bank was in bad shape, Szalay knew he could restore it with hard work. “This building was a big part of the community when it opened in 1914. Local workers like oyster farmers kept their money here,” he explained, “so they built this bank like a fortress. It was important for people to trust their money would be safe here. That’s how I knew it was worthy. It had good bones. Lots of sturdy oak.”

Szalay immediately moved his cabinet shop into the basement of the bank building and got to work. After six months of labor, working with modest means, he achieved a certificate of occupancy and took residency in the loft above his shop. By 1983, he opened  an antique shop in the lobby, and began to take restoration work. “My cabinetry background struck a chord in the antique community,” he said. “In the early ’80s, Barnegat had a great downtown and lots of walk-around traffic. Oak was huge. I would buy furniture, bring it down to my workshop to restore, and sell it.”

According to Szalay, the emergence of eBay in the mid-’90s was “the death of the antique shop.” He explained, “People began to use eBay as an appraisal tool. There was total confusion in the market.” This ultimately caused Szalay to close the antique shop in 2005, and focus solely on restoration, by appointment only. In addition to restoring heirloom furniture, Szalay restores several motorcycles a year, which is labor-intensive, time-consuming work.

Szalay began to nurture his love for motorcycles early in his career. A natural restorer, he was intrigued with the idea of restoring the earliest motorcycle he could find a motor for. “I’ve been to every swap meet in the country. I’ve probably got 35 to 40 years worth of inventory,” Szalay said. He explained that motors are viable, and are usually never scrapped. “So the first thing I find are these rare, early motors, and then re-create the chassis for it,” he said. “We want to ride these things and be safe! To do that, we have to create a lot of parts by hand, using original methods and machinery. It brings soul to the work. It’s the same with furniture.” He expressed gratitude for his many teachers. “I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great machinist mentors throughout the years. Still do!”

Szalay is credited with being the only person in the world who casts his own brass carburetors. He specializes in 1910 to 1915 Indian Racing motorcycles. “Indian was No. 1 in the racing circuit during that era. The motto was, ‘you raced on Sunday, you sold on Monday.’ There’s only so many of these left in the world, and I’ve made a carburetor for every one that’s needed one so far,” explained Szalay.

Twice in the last decade, Szalay has driven cross-country on two separate early bikes in what’s known as the Motorcycle Cannonball. His first run was featured in Brian Darwas’ documentary “White Knuckle.” According to Szalay, the Cannonball is named after Cannon Ball Baker, the first man to drive an Indian motorcycle from coast to coast in 1914. Baker set 143 driving records between 1914 and 1930.

“My friend Lonnie Isam started the Motorcycle Cannonball. He’s another antique bike restorer, and a good friend,” Szalay shared. “We wanted to take 1915 and earlier motorcycles across the country like they would have done a century ago. For our generation, that’d never been done before.” Szalay continued, “It was a very expensive process of mapping it out. You have to take all backroads to do it on these bikes.”

In 2010, 45 participants gathered at the starting point in Kitty Hawk, N.C. “We had no idea how we were going to do it,” said Szalay, “and 18 days later, we were in Santa Monica.” Szalay explained the Cannonball Run is not for the faint of heart. “This is an event for skilled craftspeople. It’s breaking down all the way. I even brought a lathe with me to make parts on the road. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever accomplished, but it makes us better restorers. It’s a baptism of fire.”

Beyond the obvious skill and labor involved, Szalay’s work “takes a willingness to do painstaking research, and a passion about the integrity of the work.” He said, “I take a lot of pride in my work. I want it to be pristine.” Fortunately for Szalay, he found Grove, the perfect partner both in the workshop and in life. Grove shared, “Let’s face it, this business is not a necessity. Anyone can buy junk from Ikea. Our reputation is everything, because we provide a luxury service handling people’s precious heirlooms.”

Grove grew up on a farm in Midland, Mich., which, she explained, helped her develop a strong work ethic as well as an appreciation for well-made furniture and sturdy tools. “I learned how to find value in second hand, and how to take care of quality out of necessity,” she said. “I raised animals and worked with horses. My work saddle was my show saddle. I had to take care of it so it would last.” At age 19, Grove worked doing estate liquidations. During that time, she seized upon the opportunity to liquidate a lifetime accumulation of tools from a diesel mechanic shop. She used that to open her own retail shop, The Holly Tool Chest, which was so well received, it was featured on the very first episode of “Cash and Carrie,” on the Home and Garden Channel.

As a young woman operating in a male-dominated industry, Grove persevered through obstacles such as exploitation and misconduct. After she was accosted by a married business partner, Grove sold her half of the business and independently pursued full-time restoration work with antique machinery. During that time, Grove accompanied a restoration mentor to an antique tool auction in Avoka, N.Y., where she met Szalay. The two fell in love, and after attending some swap meets together, Grove relocated from the historic railroad town of Holly, Mich., to the historic railroad town of Barnegat, N.J. In 2019, Szalay proposed to Grove in Colonial Williamsburg on a schooner called The Alliance.

The first project Grove assisted Szalay with was the restoration of a 1901 E.R. Thomas motorcycle. “E.R. Thomas was the first production motorcycle in the U.S.,” said Szalay. “There are only seven in the world. I was fortunate enough to restore four.” Szalay recalled being awestruck by Grove’s dedication. “I’ve had shop partners before. But I’ve never had anyone, man or woman, with the interest, passion and skill Christine has,” Szalay said. “It’s odd to find a companion who is willing and able to do this alongside me.” Grove shared, “I started in wood and metal finishing. My skill has evolved tenfold since working with Jon.”

Grove explained her passion for early transportation runs deep into her roots. Having grown up halfway between “Vehicle City” (Flint) and “Motor City” (Detroit), her fascination began with horses, then grew to include bicycles, motorcycles and automobiles. “Grease and gears!” she affirmed.

In September, Grove will join Szalay for the 10th year anniversary of the Cannonball run. They will ride together as a team, switching off between riding their own respective motorcycles and driving the support van. “It’s a Michigan route, and I’m going to ride a Michigan bike, a 1912 Excelsior,” said Grove. The run will begin in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., stop in Kitty Hawk, N.C., and conclude in South Padre Island, Texas.

In the meantime, the pair continue to revitalize the antique market restoring antique furniture and reducing waste. “Modern furniture is made to be disposable, and that’s not what we’re about,” Szalay said. “We want to keep furniture out of landfills.” Good furniture, he explained, will last forever once restored properly. “Most importantly, we are entrusted with our clients’ memories. Our main focus and goal here is to preserve those memories through their heirlooms,” he summed up. “We’re part of this community. I’d like to think we’re adding to the community.”

 

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