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Print hidden in Air Brake wall rekindles memories for former employee

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WATERTOWN — Like many families, Paul L. Bisnett and his father were multigenerational workers at the old New York Air Brake on Starbuck Avenue for years.

In 1963, Mr. Bisnett, 71, started working as a laborer at the plant — now a small business incubator — at the age of 20. His father, Paul L. Sr., returned from World War II before beginning his career as an electrician until retiring in the late 1970s, when he was 62. And Mr. Bisnett’s boss, Cliff Cartin, was one of his father’s best friends.

Nearly 25 years after the dad’s death, the father and son now share more than just an employer.

Mr. Bisnett’s father and Mr. Cartin were two of five friends and coworkers whose names appear on an old print that was found in a wall of the railroad brake manufacturing plant.

The five best friends in Air Brake’s maintenance department hid the print inside a wall at the plant more than 60 years ago, where it sat forgotten until it was discovered two years ago.

“I knew nothing about it,” Mr. Bisnett said after finding about its existence a few weeks ago.

The print shows five men planning a fox hunt. His father’s name was written in pencil on the print. So were the names of the four friends — Benny Roberts, Andy DeBovis, Dick Outwater and Mr. Cartin.

Construction workers found the print two years ago when they demolished the office wall during construction at the former Air Brake plant, now the Watertown Center for Business and Industry at 800 Starbuck Ave.

The workers turned it over to William J. Soluri, the industrial center’s site manager. For nearly two years, the names on the print and exactly why it ended up in the wall posed a mystery.

But Mr. Soluri showed it last month to Pat Fields, a local plumber who knows a lot about the Air Brake plant’s history. Mr. Fields immediately recognized one of the names and contacted Dick Outwater’s son, Peter D., who provided some pieces of the puzzle.

Both Mr. Bisnett, now a Summerville, S.C., resident, and Mr. Outwater soon will be given the keepsake as their own.

Mr. Soluri plans to give Mr. Bisnett a copy of the print, while the original print will be framed and presented to Mr. Outwater.

“I’m very glad they saved that little piece of history,” Mr. Bisnett said.

Known for their mischievousness, the five friends worked together for decades and probably placed the print inside the wall — as a joke — in the executive offices on Aug. 15, 1951, the date that appears on the print. Above the date appear the words, “The Master Minds,” apparently a reference to the five coworkers, Peter Outwater said.

He has speculated that the five characters in the print symbolized his father and friends. He imagined the friends put the print inside the wall as a joke or an impromptu time capsule.

For his first few months at Air Brake, Mr. Bisnett, a 1961 graduate of Hounsfield Central School, Sackets Harbor, worked as a laborer, later operated heavy equipment and drove the company’s locomotive before ending up as the maintenance manager.

“This brings back a lot of memories,” he said.

In 1992, he moved to South Carolina, when Air Brake was sold to Knorr-Bremse Corp. and the German company moved its hydraulic division south. Mr. Bisnett, whose two daughters live in the area, remains a frequent north country visitor when he stays at his Sackets Harbor cottage.

Coincidently, he knew Mr. Soluri’s grandfather, Robert Soluri, another longtime Air Brake employee.

In the 1950s, it seemed as if everyone in Watertown had a family member or knew someone who worked at Air Brake, Mr. Soluri said. About 2,500 employees worked in a series of long buildings where the automatic train brakes were manufactured.

“Like I’ve said before, it was like family,” Mr. Soluri said.

Much of the sprawling 450,000-square-foot plant and its series of buildings have been torn down. The remaining structures have been transformed into a small-business incubator for fledgling companies. In 1995, Air Brake moved into a 237,000-square-foot building next door at 748 Starbuck Ave.

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