Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 8

Below: Alaina chooses from 300 templates for propellers to come up with just the right one
to match the motor, RPM speed, use and aesthetics required by her customers. Her goal is
to make one from all 300 patterns. Right: The family business includes Alaina's grandmother,
who ships finished props and often her two daughters. Shown here is Paige, who helps spread
glue. Bottom: Alaina's skill at cutting and sanding the airfoil makes the difference between a
propeller that is airworthy or just a wallhanger.

by Jim McCarty | jmccarty@ruralmissouri.coop

T

here's a lot of activity going on in a nondescript metal building between Doolittle and Rolla. No sign hints at what is made here. Few customers of the unusual business show up to purchase its services. Yet business is good, so good that
there is little downtime for Alaina Lewis, who loves the
work she does inside.
"It's a very tiny niche, but I got it," Alaina says. "We
are internationally famous and locally obscure."
The business, which is served by Intercounty Electric Cooperative, is Culver Props, and here Alaina carries on the work of her grandfather, Gene Smith, and
father, Larry: making wooden propellers for experimental airplane builders, restorers and a few manufacturers of ultralight aircraft.
The Smiths ran a business called Valley Engineering that, among other things, made ultralight airplanes and a gear reduction unit that lets experimental aircraft builders use Volkswagen engines in their
planes.
The family brought the propeller business to Missouri after losing its supplier. "Dad and Grandpa
called to order a propeller and they said, 'We are out
of business,' " Alaina says. "So Grandpa told Dad he
wanted to buy it. They got whatever money they had
in the bank and said, 'Will you take it?' And they said,
'Sure.' "
A business making wooden propellers was a natural for Gene, who before his 2016 death in a farming accident was a crop duster, experimental airplane
builder, mechanical engineer and farmer. The father
and son entrepreneurs moved Culver Props from
Pennsylvania and started making propellers for their
own line of ultralights and for others.
"We were very fortunate that Dad was a mechanical engineer," says Larry, pointing out the carving
machine that rough cuts the propeller blanks. "When
we got this machine it did not cut very close. They had
sanders and just sanded and sanded and sanded. It
was a time-consuming process and you couldn't make
any money like that."
Gene modified the machine to make it more precise. As a result, it can carve a propeller that is within
1/16th of an inch of the finished piece.
Alaina, who is 33, learned the business directly
from her grandfather and continues to get advice on
tricky designs from her father. "Grandpa was a great
teacher," she says. "He would inspect everything I did,
even if I had been doing it for a long time. He had a
way he wanted it done."
She estimates that over the 10 years she's been
working in the family business - which also includes
her grandmother, Juanita, who handles the shipping,
her husband, James, who bores the hub holes, friend

8

RURAL MISSOURI | JULY 2019



Rural Missouri - July 2019

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - July 2019

Contents
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover1
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover2
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Contents
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 4
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 5
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 6
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Rural Missouri - July 2019 - 8
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Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover3
Rural Missouri - July 2019 - Cover4
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