By Mary Neacy
Above, Tom Haywood demonstrates his kicking machine, circa 1953. Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.
How often have you yelled out, “I could kick myself!” when you’ve done something stupid? No need to be embarrassed; it’s a universal experience. We know for certain the term was around in 1937 when Tom Haywood, of Croatan, North Carolina, created his Kicking Machine. One can only assume Tom got fed-up with making mistakes and yelling “I could kick myself!” because he resorted to designing and building, along with local handyman Wilber Herring, a device that could, indeed, deliver a kick to the seat of his pants.
Tom’s design was simplicity itself. It consisted of a hand-operated crank, a belt, pulleys, and a wheel; the wheel held four spokes which held four old shoes. All you had to do was bend over, turn the crank, and those four shoes landed smartly on your derriere. It makes sense to think that the faster you turned the crank, the harder the kicks. Although he made it for his own use and kept it out of sight in his back yard, it wasn’t long before Tom’s invention came to the attention of his neighbors. Probably due to their interest and influence, he moved it to a sheltered area in the front of his general store where it was available for use by all who felt in the need of a kick or two.
Evidently lots of folks did stupid things, for the Kicking Machine became quite an attraction for locals and travelers alike. Newspapers, magazines, and even Universal Studio newsreels eventually spread the word about how people were rallying to this new form of self-flagellation. A picture of Tom and his machine appeared in Life Magazine, September 19, 1938 in the “Pictures to the Editor” section, page 68. It was accompanied by a short letter from Glenn Brooks of Greenville, N.C. who wrote: “This is a photo of Tom Haywood and his famous ‘Kicking Machine’ at Croat (an) N.C. People come to use it every day.”
A number of important personages of the time are said to have used Tom’s invention, which became a “national curiosity.” According to several reliable accounts, President Harry S. Truman, on a visit to the Marine Corps Base at Cherry Point, N.C., took time to stop at the store for an up-close and personal view of the invention that had caught the interest of the nation. Local lore also cites Lucille Ball as a visitor to the Kicking Machine. No note is made of whether or not she actually used it, however, with her comedic reputation, it would have been right up her alley.
After his death in 1955, Tom’s Kicking Machine and store remained in the public eye until the 1980s, through the efforts of his niece and her husband who kept the store open. The area gradually changed as the busy four-lane highway became a thoroughfare and left Croatan in its wake. The original Kicking Machine was donated to the North Carolina Museum of History in 1993. A replica can be found at Martha’s Favorite Things — Antiques, Collectables and Primitives, in the same place as the original store, about 10 miles out from New Bern, N.C. on Highway 70. Martha Davis, the present owner, says the replica is still available, “but isn’t always in working order.” It seems that some users are so anxious to get that kick in the seat of the pants that they are rough on the equipment.
The next time you hear your voice yelling out that familiar expression: “I could kick myself,” remember the name of the man who made it possible to do just that – Tom Haywood and his Kicking Machine.
Learn more about the North Carolina Museum of History online here.