Finding work and witnessing workplace accidents
Illutrating the face-to-face workings of the early twentieth-century job market and some workplace dangers, Burt describes how he got his first steady job. A friend brought him to what he calls the Bull Factory and presented him to his boss, who immediately put Burt to work packaging cigarettes. Burt soon moved up to loading and unloading an elevator, which became the site of a catastrophic accident he narrowly avoided. Frightened, he left to become a bricklayer, but managed to witness a second accident, which he describes here.
Citing this Excerpt
Oral History Interview with Thomas Burt, February 6, 1979. Interview H-0194-2. 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
- GLENN HINSON:
How did you end up doin' any work at the Bull factory? Is
there any reason you worked at that factory?
- THOMAS BURT:
There was an openin' there. You got to get on a job where
there's an openin' for you. A man quit or lay out
or somethin' and they let him go, if they see you and you be
lucky enough, you could get that man's job. So
that's just the way I got on. Paul Horton got me on down
there. He'd been workin' there for several years.
I knowed him.
[END OF TAPE 1, SIDE A]
[TAPE 1, SIDE B]
[START OF TAPE 1, SIDE B]
- THOMAS BURT:
Me and him run together a whole lot out here in the country before I went
to Durham. I got with him one Saturday night over there in North Durham.
He asked me where I been workin'. I told him I'd
just been pickin' up three or four hours work a day around
there helpin' somebody with a yard or somethin'
like that. I said, "I ain't got no regular
job." He said, "Boy, I'll tell you
somethin'. I believe I can get you on down there where I
work." I said, "All right, if you can, get me
on." He said, "I'll let you know
somethin' in a day or two. I'll see what I can
do." A few days after that, he come by the house one night. The
factory weren't far from where I was roomin'. He
said, "Boy, I believe I got you a job. The man said to come in
and he'd try you out. You ever worked in a factory?"
"No, man, I ain't never worked in no
factory." He said, "The man said to tell you to come
in. He believed he could use you if you could catch on to the
work." I went on down there to the gate when he come in. The
gate didn't open till exactly 7:00. The whistle blow, and
that gate was opened. It stayed open exactly ten
minutes. If you weren't in when that ten minutes wore out,
that gate closed automatically. I was standin' there when
Paul walked up. Me and him stood there when the whistle blowed five
minutes before seven. That gives folks time to get in there by 7:00. It
blowed five minutes before seven and it blowed again exactly seven. It
blowed the next time—five more minutes, if you
weren't in there, you didn't get in. So I went on
in there. Paul went and found the bossman. He come up and ask me,
"Boy, are you the man lookin' a job?" I
told him, "Yes sir. If you have one open, I'd love
to get the job." He say, "Come on. I believe I can put
you to work." Me and him went over yonder the factory, went on
down the steps, and down in another room. He told the man down there,
"Here's a man I brought you. You been
sayin' you want another man." He said,
"Boy, have you ever worked in factory." I told him,
"No. It's the first time I even been in."
He said, "Well, maybe you can catch on to it."
They put me down in the shippin' room. That's where
I started off at packin' up cigarettes. Them cigarettes come
down, some of them long as that chair. They had a machine. Them
cigarettes go up there and that knife cut them. That thing raised up and
clip them. They'd go on down and some folks
puttin' them in the packs. They'd go up yonder,
turn and come back, and men was puttin' labels on them. My
job was to have a place long as across this house—little
shelves—I had to put them cigarettes where they belonged,
different packs. They'd pack them up, and a man
standin' there cartonin' them up, so many to a
carton. I caught onto that right quick; that was
They put me to sweepin'. I told the man I'd have to
quit that cause I had a cold. This Paul, he run the elevator for three
stories, four with the basement. He put me up there with Paul. He say,
"You work here with Paul." We had to carry different
stuff from the first floor to the second one on up. Sometimes we had to
go up to the top floor. One Friday morning, I felt funny. I felt curious
all night that night. I couldn't half sleep. I told Miss
Kizzie, "I ain't half slept last night.
I'm feelin' kind of funny. I
coughin'." She said, "Yes, I noticed you
coughed all night. You better do something for that cough." I
said, "I'll tell you what I'm
goin' do, I'm goin' to quit that
factory." She said, "Are you still
sweepin'?" I said, "No. They put me on the
elevator." She said, "That's dangerous
ain't it?" I said, "I don't
know. Paul been runnin' it for four or five years.
Ain't nothin' ever happened to him." Went
on down there that mornin', went up to the third floor three
times that mornin' carryin' stuff up there. The
next time I had to go up, I had somethin' for the second
floor and the third floor. Got up there to the second floor and took
that off, packed it on the truck. He said, "Thomas, tell you
what you do. You truck this on back yonder and put it where it belongs
and I'll go on up to the third floor and unload this and put
it where it belong. We'll kill two birds with one
shot." So I took the truck and went all round there to where it
supposed to go. After a while, I heard that thing
break a-loose, and I heard him hollerin', "Help me!
Help me!" That thing come down right on down in the basement. I
had to go down them winding steps to go down. Everybody were
runnin' down there. I got down there and they had him wrapped
up. I don't believe there was a bone in the boy that
weren't broken. The elevator broke a-loose and fell. I
didn't think about myself for an hour or more. I said,
"Ain't that somethin'. I could have been
on there with him, and we both would have been dead." It just
come to me like that. I sit there and got so scared, I didn't
know what to do. I made it to that Saturday. I walked up there that
Saturday. I punched that clock Friday night and punched it Saturday
morning and worked through dinner. I got my little pay and I walked out
there and I ain't been back no more since, cause
that's when I went to the brickyard and started
workin'. It tore him all to pieces. He just broke all to
pieces. He's just as limp, just like jelly. Went to pick the
boy up and they had to roll him over in a oil cloth to pick him up. Tore
that elevator all to pieces. Me and him had been a-ridin'
that thing, laughin' and goin' on,
talkin' like we was out on the grounds. I don't
know what in the world happened to that thing that mornin'
comin' apart. Nobody did never know what happened. He
couldn't tell what happened, cause he was tore all to pieces.
I ain't never did figure it out why it could fall. It was
just time for it to do that, I guess.
- GLENN HINSON:
You were right smart lucky.
- THOMAS BURT:
Yes sir. If I hadn't got off at the second floor,
I'd been on there. I'd gone on up to the top with
him like I been doin'. I don't know why he speak.
He said, "Thomas, you carry this on yonder and unload it while
I go up and take this off up yonder up on the second floor." I
said, "All right." I went on round there, and just
about time I got about half of that stuff off of that truck, I heard
that thing when it started. Whoom! It scared me so bad. I run down the
step; I seed it. It wasn't closed in like the elevators is
now. It was just a open place. I seed that thing pass and it was just
like a bullet goin' down. He was hollerin',
"Help me! Help me!" I heard him say it twice before it
hit down there. "Help me!" he said, "Help
me!" He couldn't get off it the way it was
goin'. Lordy, Lord, I hate that thing so bad, I
didn't know what in the world to do.
I went on out there to the brickyard and seed another man get killed. We
had a scaffold where we load these things and push them. The scaffold
didn't go right straight up; it went kind of curved until you
got up there where you dump that mud over in that hopper. I was
goin' on up there, three boys in front of me.
Goin' along up there, the front boy pushin' that
thing. I don't know what happened. When I looked, all I seed
was his heels. He turned that thing up sideways—they had a
lever on the side—pulled that lever up, take one hand and
turn the body over. I don't know what happened to the boy. I
looked and seed his heels fly up in the air, and he went over in that
hopper with all that mud. It tore him all to
pieces. That was somethin' in this world. Up there
switchin' and goin' on, if he'd been
knowin' his business like he ought to done, he
wouldn't have went over in there. That thing like a steam
shovel; it reached over there and dig in the mud—had to dig
it up. That thing had a little scoop on it half full, then
it'd dump it over in them trucks where we had to push. It
wasn't hard to push that cause of the slant goin'
up there; it rode easy. I don't know what in the world
happened to the boy. Carelessness! That's all it was. Time
they could get round there and cut the engine down, that boy was tore
all to pieces. His brother come runnin' up. It was Jim Jones.
His brother come runnin' up there like a fool, had to catch
him. He gonna jump over there to get him and couldn't even
see him. The thing went over and over just like that. He
couldn't even see him; he was all tangled up and messed up in
that mud, and he gonna jump in there to get him. They had to hold him;
he just had a fit. You could hear him, I reckon, a half a mile,
hollerin' and cryin'. That wasn't worth
five cents; the boy was gone. How was he goin' jump in over
there and get him?