When the wrought-iron gates to Conley's Chapel were stolen, Fred Noll saw an opportunity to help his church and make good use of his love of working with metal.
"The people at Conley's are really attached to that old chapel. That's where the roots are," he said. "I'd always been interested in metal work, since I was a kid."
Now a retiree, Noll said metal work is something he does to occupy his mind. A religious man with a background in the military, Noll and his wife, Lynne, left their home in Hornell, N.Y., near Ithaca, and moved to Lewes. They looked for a church to attend, searching for 18 months before deciding on Conley's United Methodist Church, which had moved from its chapel on Robinsonville Road to a new church off Route 24. Noll said about five years ago, the church renovated the chapel, which is still used for occasional services. During the renovation, Noll said, the gates were taken off and set aside - and then stolen.
Noll is a native of Canton, Mass., a small town south of Boston. His Boston accent and love of the New England Patriots are givens. Noll began volunteering at Fort Miles. He was working with metal, repairing gates at one of the bunkers, among other work. When the Conley's Chapel gates went missing, Noll saw an opportunity to help.
"I thought, I got the skills, I got the equipment to build a gate and repair a gate. I said, 'I'll build and donate a new set of gates for the chapel. Basically, they said, 'OK.' Slowly over the past two or three months, I bought the steel, I got the tools. So I've been slowly putting the thing together," Noll said.
The gates are about a month away from installation; welding is nearly complete. At first, he thought he was just going to do a rather basic project, but when someone produced a photograph of the old wrought-iron gates, Noll decided to build as close a replica as he could.
"They'll never be the same. There's a lot of beautiful work done in here with these arrowed tips. But I thought I'm at a point now where I could include some of those features. What I did is I turned the tips down with my lathe," he said.
Noll drew his own schematic drawing to get the right dimensions.
"You sort of have to rough out what it is you want to do to estimate the steel. And then I ordered the steel. Then I spent a lot of time at the chapel because next to the stone pillars are these wrought-iron pieces that are part of the hinge. So I had to see if they are in line and level, which they're not. I had to make sure the width was right, and I had some space so they open and close properly. Together, they weigh 150 pounds, about 75 pounds each," he said. "I'm getting close. I told the church I'll have them done by Easter, but if I get good weather I'll have them done before then."
Noll's tools of the trade include a lathe that he's had since he was 15, used to shape metal.
"I got this lathe when my dad thought we needed a lathe. I've carried that lathe around through various moves. I've never trusted anyone to move it. I take it apart and bring it up here myself and reassemble it," he said.
For the scrollwork, which requires bending the metal into a scroll shape, Noll bought a tool from Harbor Freight. Metal is fed into the tool, a lever is cranked and the metal is bent into shape. To learn how to do scroll shapes, Noll consulted that most modern of instruction guides: YouTube.
"I'd never done scrollwork before, but how hard can it be?" he said. "It's fun working with new tools. The hardest part is these Harbor Freight tools are made in China so usually the directions are not very good. So you go on YouTube, and the guys will say, 'Well, the instructions are not that great, but here's how you do it. YouTube's a great thing."
Noll started out working as a carpenter, and he recalled the first time he broke one of his father's tools.
"I remember the first drill I broke. I was very upset because I broke one of my dad's tools. He was very stringent, but he said, 'Eh, we break them all.' I was like, 'Whoa, this is a side of my dad I never saw,'" he said.
One of Noll's first projects when he began metal work was assembling a rocket for a science project, shaped in part by the lathe that is still in his shop. He still has that rocket in his home today. Noll actually made two versions of the rocket; the first was basic and didn't fly, but the second has a transmitter in it, hooked to a sensor that could read altitude and temperature.
"I didn't get any kind of award from my high school science fair, but there was a gentleman who came by who ran a machine shop in Boston and asked, 'How would you like a summer job?' That summer of my junior year I had a job working in a machine shop. It was a lot of fun," Noll said.
Noll is mostly self-taught, but he's supplemented his skills throughout the years: drawing classes in high school, welding classes when he was in the Army and electrical wiring courses at technical school.
A graduate of West Point, Noll spent seven years in the Army in the artillery branch where he worked with ballistic missiles.
"The two missile systems at the time, this was the mid-70s, were the Pershing, which was a continental ballistic missile. I worked with the Sargent missile, which was a shorter-range missile. I was stationed in Korea, and at that time, the North Koreans and the South Koreans didn't get along then either. A lot of our targets were north of the border. We did a lot of drill assembly and test firing. There was a lot to attention to detail. After a while, I was like, no, I want to try something else," Noll said.
He left the Army to work in the private sector for Corning in New York, where he spent 30 years as an engineer and engineering manager. The Nolls, who have been married for 46 years, have two children, both grown with kids of their own. His daughter, Faith, is a Spanish teacher in New York City, while his son, Andrew, works for the U.S. Department of Defense.
Noll retired in 2008 and moved to Delaware for what he says were tax- and weather-related reasons. He views the project for Conley's as a way to use his God-given skills for the Cosmic General himself.
"I figure maybe it's a little bit of payback. You gave me the skills, now I'll fix your gate," Noll said.