Family ties run deep for Felton rope seller

Jim Torbert, 73, of Felton, travels to about 20 shows a year, including the Southeast Old Threshers Reunion in Denton, North Carolina. (Special to The Delaware State News/K.I. White Bowen)

DENTON, N.C. — From a perch aboard the “Land Yacht,” Jim Torbert, of Felton, threw up a hand and flashed a bright smile at passers-by pausing to take a look at the engine quietly working in front of him.

If the rare right-angle drive engine didn’t catch people’s eyes, the school bus surely did. After all, one hardly could walk around the nearly 170 acres of Denton FarmPark, without tripping over an engine of some kind. The full-size yellow bus, however, stood out among the campers, tents, canopies and trailers.

Instead of hauling students to school, the bus has carried Mr. Torbert, 73, and his wife Kathleen, also 73, from

Jim Torbert honors his father with every splice he makes. (Special to The Delaware State News/K.I. White Bowen)

Florida to the Canadian border and inland to Indiana.

Mr. Torbert sells rope at antique farm equipment and nautical shows. He dropped anchor in Denton, North Carolina on June 28 for the 47th annual Southeast Old Threshers’ Reunion that opened June 30. The show, billed as the largest of its kind in the Southeast, has been a regular stop in Mr. Torbert’s loop of events for a dozen years.

The show features steam, gas and antique farm machinery and generally sees 50,000 visitors over the course of its five-day run, according to staff at Denton FarmPark. For a dozen years, it’s been an ideal venue for Mr. Torbert’s farm and marine rope.

Although the North Carolina show ran through Independence Day, the Torberts headed north Monday so they could set up for the Tuckahoe Steam and Gas Assoc. Annual Show in Easton, Maryland, which concludes today. They do about 20 shows a year.

Mr. Torbert is quick to tell potential customers his rope is not ordinary rope. He guarantees his splices — end loops that make knots superfluous — won’t come undone.

His tie to ropes began with a fascination with the boats he saw when visiting his grandparents and other relatives around Ocean City, New Jersey.

“Forget the relatives. I always wanted to get down to where the boats were,” he said.

When he was in the sixth grade, his father bought him a 16-foot boat.

A butcher who worked six days a week in his grocery store in Felton, Russell Torbert often would take off Wednesday afternoons. Father and son would hit the Delaware Bay.

“We went fishing any time the weather was decent. Dad and I loved it,” Mr. Torbert said.

One day as they were coming in to Broadkill Beach after a day of fishing, they had to wait in line to get to the ramp.

“Dad spotted a rope and saw the splice. He said, ‘Jimmy, that guy really knows what he’s doing.’ ”

Jim Torbert acquired the school bus in 2004 and had it modified to haul and display his ropes. Inside, it has been converted to camper. (Special to The Delaware State News/K.I. White Bowen)

Seeing his father’s excitement over the workmanship resonated within the sixth-grader.

“I thought if I could do that, Dad would think I was worthy,” Mr. Torbert said. “He was a good dad. I thought if I could do good splices then he would have something to brag about to his friends.

“I made up my mind I would learn to splice.

Jim Torbert explains how his engine with its right angle drive would be used on production lines. (Special to The Delaware State News/K.I. White Bowen)

“It was 58 or 59 years ago that I spliced my first rope.”

That was in shop class in school, which required students to do a splice, but once he learned the technique, he didn’t touch a piece of rope for 15 years.

That changed once he finished his service in the U.S. Army. By then his father had passed away, and in the 1970s, Mr. Torbert became a life insurance agent. He felt the tug to return to his childhood ambition as something to do in the evenings after work.

He also missed his father.

“If I wanted to honor my dad’s respect for splicing then I decided I was going to be a good splicer,” Mr. Torbert said, emphasizing the word “good”.

But he needed rope. He found a supply when friends brought a brother to dinner. It so happened the brother sold rope to flea market vendors from the back of a box truck. He gave Mr. Torbert a large bag of rope, nearly a wheelbarrow full, he said.

“I knew the basics but needed to practice,” he said. “I went to the barn and locked the door. I told the family ‘don’t be looking for me … I’m not coming out until I can splice rope.’

“And I didn’t.”

He missed lunch, but not supper. He’s been splicing ever since.

“I’m very jealous of my work,” he said. “I’m proud of it.”

Mr. Torbert started asking insurance clients if they wanted rope. He would sell 10- to 15-foot long ropes with splices for a quarter or 50 cents.

Jim and Kathleen Torbert, of Felton, say they enjoy the people they meet at the shows. (Special to The Delaware State News/K.I. White Bowen)

Now, instead of selling his ropes from a small cardboard box, he sells them from the bus he acquired in 2004. The modified camper bus has bins along one side that hold his ropes. A table parallel to the bus holds more.

Mr. Torbert is quick to demonstrate his technique to people.

Most splices are three weaves, he said. His are seven, with a reverse two-tuck.

“The Lord made the world in six days and rested on the seventh so I do seven tucks, then reverse two. So five are undisturbed,” said Mr. Torbert, who also is an ordained minister.

He is confident his splices will never come lose.

That is important.

“My dad is looking down,” Mr. Torbert said. “And he’s saying ‘that’s my boy down there. He’s a good splicer.’”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Now living in High Point, North Carolina, K.I. White Bowen is a former news editor at The Delaware State News. Email her at

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