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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Frank Gilbert, Summer 1977. Interview H-0121. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Counting lumber and workplace injuries at a lumber mill

Gilbert describes counting lumber in this excerpt. The process is complex, but Gilbert claims that "it's not a bit complicated after you learn it." Learning how to estimate the number of feet in a board of lumber in elementary school gave him a good skill base. Once Gilbert had counted the lumber, he helped unload it and sometimes ran a saw to trim the pieces of lumber to the right size. He lost a bit of his finger on the saw. He recalls that the company paid medical bills for injured workers.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Frank Gilbert, Summer 1977. Interview H-0121. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

PATTY DILLEY:
Yes, I understand. You got the job there at Conover Furniture, and how many years did you stay there?
FRANK GILBERT:
Eleven years, from '22 till '33.
PATTY DILLEY:
You said that you checked lumber, or you had counted it.
FRANK GILBERT:
Uh-huh.
PATTY DILLEY:
Is there any way that you go about learning how to do that? Was it something you had to learn, or was it just an ability?
FRANK GILBERT:
I knew how to count lumber all my life, ever since I was big enough, because we had learned that in the public schools.
PATTY DILLEY:
Oh, really?
FRANK GILBERT:
And then a lot of that stuff was just practical, you know, something you'd learn in later years, so I knew quite a bit about lumber. Mr. Brady's lumber man was leaving; he was going to the railroad. He asked me if I wanted the job, and I told him I'd try. I didn't know too much about grading it, but I guess we got along pretty good at that. Lumber was shipped there in cars then; it wouldn't come on trucks like it does now. I never did hit a carload exactly, but I missed several [by] just one foot, what the other man was checking on.
PATTY DILLEY:
Save him money that way then?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes. See, a lot of these people would hoo-doo you if you didn't watch them. Just like there are people who would now.
PATTY DILLEY:
Was there any shortcut way of doing that? Exactly how do you go about counting lumber?
FRANK GILBERT:
You had a lumber rule. The rule was thirty-six inches long, and it was real limber; it was made out of bamboo wood. And it had a hook on the end of it and a handle on the other end. You just laid that across a board, and if you knew how long the board was, it'd give you the actual feet in that plank just where you measured it, if it was eight, ten, twelve, or sixteen, whatever it was. The eight, ten, and sixteen was on one side of the rule; then you had to turn it over for the twelve, fourteen, and eighteen on the other side. You had to know the length of that wood just by looking at it. Say this was twelve feet long here. The bottom side of that bar rule you read on a lower line. And you'd just hook your rule on there, and say it was six inches wide and twelve foot of lumber. Well, that'd be six feet in it. And all like that.
PATTY DILLEY:
So it gets complicated. I can see why you had to get …
FRANK GILBERT:
No, it's not a bit complicated after you learn it.
PATTY DILLEY:
[Laughter]
FRANK GILBERT:
Of course, you'd have to know the length of that board just by looking at it. It didn't take long to learn that. Of course, I knew that anyhow.
PATTY DILLEY:
So they taught you how to do this in grade school?
FRANK GILBERT:
No, they would teach us how to count lumber. How many feet was in a board and all like that. Didn't have rules. You learned that just by… All twelve-foot-long lumber had the same… If it's eight inches wide, there'll be eight feet in it, and if it's ten inches wide, there'll be ten feet in it. Then if you ever run across that little short lumber, six feet, you just have to divide that by two.
PATTY DILLEY:
Oh, I see. So you kind of learned the arithmetic part in grade school and the practical application doing the work. So you never had to work with any kind of machinery or anything like that, or did you?
FRANK GILBERT:
The only machine I worked with at Mr. Brady's was before I got this lumber-checking job. I run a skewer lathe, they called it, a lathe that turned out spindles like they used in cotton mills to put the spools on. I made a good many, but I didn't work too much in that.
PATTY DILLEY:
That was just a machine like you pop in a piece of lumber, and it turns it?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes.
PATTY DILLEY:
Did anyone have to teach you that job when you first went in, or did you just kind of watch and learn how to do it?
FRANK GILBERT:
I just had to look at the man who was already there and helping (help him?). There was two who done that. There was one man on a different lathe. He turned out the heads. If you ever saw one of them spindles, it had a head about that big around. Well, the bigger the spindle, the bigger the head on it. That head fit down and… I never did see them work myself in the cotton mill. I never was in but one, and it wasn't that kind. But it had to fit down in a certain way; it had to be a certain size. And then this part I made, you had to cut a little groove on there about half an inch long around that smaller rim; it had to be the right size to fit in that edge. Then it was glued on there.
PATTY DILLEY:
Was your lumber-checking job fulltime?
FRANK GILBERT:
Oh, it was fulltime, yes. This other job, that was before I had that opportunity. I didn't do that long.
PATTY DILLEY:
I was wondering, if you had the lumber-checking job, could you get the lumber checked in for a shipment and then be able to do something else around the plant until the next shipment came in, or was it just continuous?
FRANK GILBERT:
The only time I ever had any time to do anything else was when it was rainy, and the trucks didn't come in, and the cars. We didn't work in the rain.
PATTY DILLEY:
You had to work outside.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, I had to work outside. Them carloads of lumber, I just checked a layer across and then threw it out to the boys outside.
PATTY DILLEY:
Oh, I see.
FRANK GILBERT:
There wasn't too much lumber come in on trucks like it does now, but there were a few coming in. You couldn't do that if it rained. All this other, I could do when it rained. I'd have just threw it all out there on a pile and then hacked it after it quit raining. I could work fast and throw a lot of it out. People wouldn't work in the rain outside.
PATTY DILLEY:
So you not only had to check the lumber, you had to hand it down to people? You had to help unload if after you had checked it?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, I had to check a whole layer across the car, and then threw it out to the people.
PATTY DILLEY:
Were you ever assisted in your work by other employees? Did you have people helping you?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, there was employees helping the whole time.
PATTY DILLEY:
Were there any times when you just didn't have anything to do, like if there weren't any shipments in and it may have been raining?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, a rainy day, or any other time I didn't have a thing to do, I run a cutoff saw, and it cut off the lumber the length they wanted it.
PATTY DILLEY:
Are those machines dangerous in any way?
FRANK GILBERT:
Any machine is dangerous if you don't watch it.
PATTY DILLEY:
So you never lost a finger or anything.
FRANK GILBERT:
I lost that much of it.
PATTY DILLEY:
That's pretty much.
FRANK GILBERT:
I never done any of that. It was seventeen years before I ever got cut at all. I didn't do any of that over at Conover Chair.
PATTY DILLEY:
So how did you do this?
FRANK GILBERT:
Well, I can tell you how, but you probably won't understand.
PATTY DILLEY:
Well, go ahead anyway.
FRANK GILBERT:
Anyhow, I got that nail cut off in what they call a joiner. The blades run right up here real fast.
PATTY DILLEY:
Yes, I know what you mean.
FRANK GILBERT:
I was making a little pattern. I was marking out some stuff for the bandsaw, and I was making a little pattern about that long, marking it, and I couldn't get it to lie still. So I always took them and then set it over that joiner, and the heart blew out of the middle of it. So I done that, and it didn't get quite enough; it still didn't suit me. I went back again and… I learned one thing: you ought to look however time that somebody else was running that head up. It was cutting a whole lot more. I laid it down to hollow it out more in the middle, and it jerked out of my hand and my finger right back in it.
PATTY DILLEY:
Ooh, yes.
FRANK GILBERT:
It took that nail plumb off.
PATTY DILLEY:
It took off the top part of your finger?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, it just hit my hail and and hollowed it out till it was… Dr. Tim Twiner() said, "We might as well take this thing off." And said, "No, I ain't going to take it off, but it ain't going to hang by the nail." Said, "I'd rather take it off."
PATTY DILLEY:
So he kind of just patched it up?
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes, he patched it up. And then I cut it two more times. You can see the marks there.
PATTY DILLEY:
Yes.
FRANK GILBERT:
The last one was out at Mr. Rhonie's place.
PATTY DILLEY:
When any of the workers hurt themselves like that, did the company pay for the doctor?
FRANK GILBERT:
The company paid for it, yes.
PATTY DILLEY:
They paid the doctor bills.
FRANK GILBERT:
Yes.